Last Updated on October 21, 2022 by JaimeSays
On a rainy October afternoon last week, I had the absolute pleasure to learn about and taste Argentinian wines from none other than winemaking legend, Jose “Pepe” Galante. Head Winemaker at Bodegas Salentein since 2010, he is also the father of modern Argentinian winemaking, and credited as the man who introduced South American Malbec to North America. He returned to the US last week for the first time post pandemic, and I was invited to greet him. This would be no small to-do in normal circumstances, but this was also the first wine event I participated in since becoming a mom.
I was grateful to see some familiar faces when I arrived at the luncheon for eight, recalling my awe a few years earlier when I found myself seated for dinner with celebrity sommelier, Alpana Singh. Even more impressive though, were the wines of Bodegas Salentein and the stories shared by Pepe Galante.
The History of Bodegas Salentein in the Uco Valley
Wine making in the Uco Valley is a fairly recent endeavor, with the first vineyards planted as recently as 1994-95-96. You can imagine the challenges of accessibility when you see the photo above. These vineyards are nestled high amongst the peaks of the Andes. In 1996, when winery founder Mijndert Pon came to the area, he saw the potential for world-class wine. With altitudes ranging from 2,900 to 5,580 feet above sea level, the Uco Valley is considered to have optimal growing conditions that surpass those of Bordeaux. The dry mountain air along with prolonged sun exposure result in a style that differs from even nearby Mendoza. Drip irrigation with pure meltwater from the Andes brings higher acidity and overall health to the grapes. According to Pepe, the result is a style reminiscent of Chablis.
La Bodega of Bodegas Salentein
Inspired by 16th century Jesuit missionaries from the region, the physical building of Bodegas Salentein is a sight to behold. Laid out in the shape of a cross, one can see the reference to a typical Catholic church. Its layout is reminiscent of a nave and transept providing a place of worship. In this instance, its design reduces the distance the wine must be transported in the winemaking process. With two levels, wine is transported from tank to barrel through a traditional gravity transfer system.
An Interview with Jose Galante of Bodegas Salentein
Knowing that I was going to meet the Godfather of Argentinian winemaking, I wanted to ask Pepe a few more questions than time would allow over lunch. He graciously answered, providing a little more insight into the winery and himself.
Pepe, after 30 years with Catena Zapata Group, how has your background with an intimate, family owned, and operated winery influenced your winemaking style at a larger producer like Bodegas Salentein?
It is important to mention that Bodegas Salentein is a family-owned business; interestingly, if you compare Grupo Catena Zapata and Bodegas Salentein in terms of production volumes, Salentein is significantly smaller. The founder of our company was Myndert Pon, a Dutch visionary who arrived in the Uco Valley in 1996 and began to develop his wine project with a clear objective: quality. Currently the company is led by his sons Frederike and Ben Pon, who continue the family’s legacy.
Salentein is also a relatively young company within Argentine viticulture. They are pioneers in the Uco Valley, since the upper area of the region only began to develop in the mid-90s and Salentein was in fact, the first winery to open in that area, in the year 2000 – it’s worth mentioning that 100% of Salentein’s vineyards are located in the region. The Uco Valley is precisely one of the reasons that prompted me to accept the position at Salentein; an area for which I feel a deep admiration for and I am convinced of its tremendous potential.
What are you most excited about or looking forward to at Bodegas Salentein?
At Salentein, we continue working and studying the region in order to deepen our knowledge of our incredible terroir. We have completed a study of our soils, and continue researching Malbec, our emblematic grape variety, as well as experimenting with new, non-traditional varietals in the Uco Valley, developing and improving our vinification. We are convinced that knowledge and research are vital to our work, allowing us to be at the forefront of innovation.
What sustainability initiatives are in the works at Bodegas Salentein?
Sustainability is a priority for us at Bodegas Salentein. In fact, we are currently working towards becoming fully organic, both at the vineyard and winery level.
Cultivating vineyards in a desert/continental climate presents a great challenge to maintain the balance of the ecosystem and ensure the sustainability of natural resources.
What can a visitor expect if he or she visits the winery at Bodegas Salentein?
Visiting Bodegas Salentein is truly an unforgettable experience. You will enjoy and appreciate the architectural style of the winery, the gastronomic experience that our restaurant offers, visiting the art gallery, and our beautiful hotel accommodations, while surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of the region. We have everything to ensure that our visitors have a unique experience!
What are some of your favorite wine and food pairings?
I must include one of our most treasured Argentinian specialties, which is a delicious barbecue (“asado”), paired with the exotic character and flavors that Malbec develops in the upper area of the Uco Valley. Additionally, because of my Italian heritage, I enjoy a good pasta with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
You’re at work in the winery and in the zone. What music are you listening to?
Usually Eric Clapton, Queen, or Tina Turner. Also, Argentina’s own Soda Stereo.
If you weren’t making wines in the Uco Valley, where would you be?
Burgundy! I feel a deep admiration for the region, as well as the elegance, finesse, and balance that these wines possess.
Tasting the Wines of Bodegas Salentein
Now the most delicious part of the afternoon was actually tasting the wines created by Pepe Galante at Bodegas Salentein. Guests at the luncheon tried six different wines from Salentein, and to say we were impressed would be an understatement. The 2020 Reserve Chardonnay displays all the finesse of a handpicked and harvested grape that one might see in Chablis. The minerality soil shines, as the wine is crisp with a medium body and delightful acid. Truthfully, this roughly $25/bottle wine was the most pleasant surprise of my week. Purchase a bottle for yourself here.
Next, a high elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. Both the red fruit and green pepper are at the forefront in this wine. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were also used in the beautiful red blend Numina Gran Corte. Predominantly Malbec, the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot round out the body and tannins. A delightfully savory element make it punch more than what one would expect from a roughly $40/bottle wine.
The Malbecs, of course, were what we were all eagerly anticipating to try. To my delight, the winery shared with us two single vineyard Malbecs and one premium, “winemakers selection” Malbec. The difference between these wines and those which are typically available at a bottle shop or restaurant, was astounding. The two single vineyard Malbecs came from vineyards that sit at ~4,250 vs 4,600 feet above sea level. In my opinion, the wine produced at the higher altitude displayed with lighter body and more length in the finish. Black fruit, earth, licorice, and a savory element were abundant in each. The Primum Winemaker’s Selection displayed these as well, with a bit of blueberry and stewed plums or balsamic vinegar.
Many Thanks to Jose Galante, Bodegas Salentein, and Taub Family Co. for Hosting Me for this Experience.
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