There, vineyards co-exist with native vegetation in a wild environment. An imposing picture postcard for Sanjuanina viniculture.
Locals describe it as a hidden valley and consumers have heard very little about it. It has, however, become a big gamble for the wineries of San Juan with its wines creating a real buzz with the most influential tasters.
An undiscovered origin. Ignacio Lopez, winemaker of Bodegas Graffigna, likes to present the Pedernal Valley as “a very young region where extreme conditions are the main differential”. And it’s true. The first vineyards were developed during the 1990s between 1,300m and 1,600m. A rarity for a province with two centuries of wine history and culture, whose average altitude was 600m.
The factor which seduces winemakers is its climate, much cooler than the rest of the wine-growing regions of San Juan. Gustavo Matocq, agronomist at Bodega Pyros, describes it as “continental and cold with some snow in winter. As in the rest of the region, the habitat is dry and sunny 365 days a year with an annual rainfall not exceeding 150mm. ” An ideal combo for producing quality grapes, along with a temperature range that can reach 20°C at harvest time.
Moreover, it is boxed in between hills and the foothills, and so the valley functions as a sort of tunnel through which winds circulate from south to north, which favor the health of the vineyards and help regulate the temperature. In conclusion, Ignacio Lopez adds: “It’s an extreme environment that allows harvesting with low pH levels and significant natural acidity, a first for the province.”
Its soils, which as we will see give the valley its name, are of alluvial origin and consist of angular and flat shaped gravel. Along with sand, silt and clay, there is an abundance of limestone outcrops and flint, also known as “Pedernal”. The soils are poor and permeable and ensure good water distribution where little compaction is observed.
Water irrigation, a key factor in this inhospitable mountainous zone, comes from underground aquifers that are nourished by the snowmelt of the high peaks of the Andes Cordillera.
Unique wines. With just a dozen labels on the market, the Pedernal Valley surprises with the quality and personality of its wines. The main challenge is Malbec, since “in these vineyards the strain achieves a fresher, juicier and more exotic style, different from the fruitiness and expressiveness that is produced in Tullum and Zonda, the main productive oasis of San Juan,” said Jose Morales, oenologist and creator of Pyros Barrel Selected Malbec 2013. The differences mentioned can be noticed in PAZ Malbec 2014 from Finca Las Moras and from Graffigna, Grande Reserve Malbec 2012, both with balsamic and mineral aromas and a powerful palate. A style that has earned them a very good international profile and excellent ratings.
As you would no doubt expect, there are also a few hectares of Syrah, San Juan’s icon strain. Among the wines where Syrah stands out for its freshness are Pyros Barrel Selected Syrah 2014, Fuego Blanco Syrah-Malbec 2013 – from the Millán family -, PAZ Syrah 2014 and Gran Syrah 2010 from Finca Las Moras, the latter being a blend from the valley where Pedernal brings liveliness and body.
Challenging whites. In this Cuyana province, the best wines have always been red. For whites, the production has focused on strains such as Pinot Grigio and Torrontés, everyday wines with an excellent relationship between price and quality. But Pedernal promises to change this. In the case of Fuego Blanco, it already has two varietals that are surprisingly sharp and vibrant: one is Chardonnay, the other, Sauvignon Blanc, both from a vineyard located at 1,700 m.a.s.l. Pyros Wines also have a Chardonnay, while Finca Las Moras have PAZ Sauvignon Blanc 2015, an exponent that writes its own story.
So, as we can see, there are many traditional wineries looking to update their wines and surprise the consumer in Argentina. In this case, with one extreme origin, we realise that there is still much to discover about Argentine terroir.