Staring down the dirt path between rows and rows of vines, Susana Balbo's winery seems the size of a snowflake beneath the sublime backdrop of the snow-covered Andes mountains of Argentina. And although it would be easy to become forgotten in the mountain's shadow, and amidst the sea of the other 1,200 Mendoza wineries, Balbo's diligence to making beautiful wines allows her to stand out above the rest.
Balbo received her enology degree in 1981 and worked her way around the wine industry, first in administration with Sucesión Michel Torino, then as a regional wine consultant, then as the General Manager of Bodegas Martins... Finally, after spearheading the creation of Argentina's most famous winemaking facility at the illustrious Bodega Catena Zapata, she decided to embark upon her own winemaking journey. In 1999, she collaborated with Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini to create wines for export and to build her winemaking chops. And in June of 2001, Balbo's dreams finally came to fruition.
Balbo designed and constructed the Dominio del Plata Winery with her husband Pedro Marchevsky in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, to house her winemaking venture. Mendoza is 1 of the 23 provinces in Argentina, and it accounts for 70% of the nation's wine production. It features a long growing season of warm summer days and cold nights, where the predominant predators are the fierce hail storms pummel the vines when the grapes are plump and nearly ready for picking. The sandy, alluvial soil allows great water drainage, making a near pefect bed for the vines that line the landscape. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Torrontès are widely grown here, but the its Bordeaux-originated Malbec that almost single-handedly lifted the region to a noble winemaking status.
The Dominio del Plata winery is smack-dab in the middle of a 21-hectare vineyard planted with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The vineyards are planted with a high trellising system that provides the vines with stability during the warm days and frigid nights through the long growing season. This allows the grapes to produce high levels of anthocyanins, which creates the vibrant colors found in Balbo's Malbecs, and enhances the aromatic essence of each of the varietals - just stick your nose in any glass of Balbo's Torrontès and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about!
Balbo created her brand using her full name, Susana Balbo, and has found great success in marketing her namesake wines in foreign markets. The Balbo lineup is intended to feature complex wines that are intended to be aged before being consumed. The label for each wine in the Balbo lineup features the figurines prominent in the culture of the Huarpes, one of the primary native tribes of the Mendoza region. The figurines represent the women's reproductive role in society, and cherishes the woman as being the sacred link between the past, present and future. Balbo connects with this idea, and as a winemaker finds this same connection to be represented in the vineyards (the past), the winemaking (the present) and the finished wines (the future).
Her role as a mother has also led her to create a "child" brand, titled "Crios de Susana Balbo". Literally translated as "offspring", the Crios brand features wines of a more lively profile that are fruit forward and designed to be consumed at a younger age than her namesake wines. The Crios label depicts a Mayan-inspired rendering of three connected and overlapping hands, designed to represent Balbo and her two children.
I've heard many a writer champion Balbo's wines, declaring that she makes great wines... for a woman. But I whole-heartedly disagree with the clarification found within that statement. Balbo makes great wines - period. Her wines are very much true expressions of the grapes and the terrain from which they are derived.
I can still remember the first time I encountered one of Balbo's wines... it was the Torrontès labeled under her Crios brand. It took only a moment to inhale the first scent when I placed my nose within the glass, but it took nearly a minute to comprehend and register the floral, honey and peach aromatics that when combined together smelled like... love.
No, I'm not going to turn this article into a silly little cheeseball romance about a winemaker's love for grapes. Instead, I want you, dear reader, to understand that Balbo's desire is to create something beautiful, an artistic expression that dances across the olfactory senses, across the palate, that brings people to the dinner table to commune together and to do so in a sustainable manner. And with each look, each sniff, and each sip of her wines, from the Torrontès to the Rosè, and from the Malbec to the Cabernet Sauvignon, you will undoubtedly know that each wine has been crafted diligently with her nurturing love.
Attesting to this fact are the following 3 principles to which she abides throughout the winemaking process:
1. Precision Viticulture - Attend to every detail of grape-growing, no matter how minute the detail, from the planting of the vineyard to varietal selections, to water and canopy management, and to harvesting decisions.
2. Sustainable Agriculture - Provide leadership in conserving natural resources and maintaining the long-term viability of agricultural lands, and at all times enhance and support the local community.
3. Love and Passion - While knowledge and passion provide the fundamental basics for making a good wine, it is takes love and nurturing to make a great wine.
As my old wine tasting buddy Doctor D would say as I rambled on and on about a particular winery, "That's great, but what about the wine?" Let me start by describing the Balbo Torrontes 2006, which is a feminine wine that delicately walks the line between being a dry wine and being a sweet wine. It shows notes of white peach, canned pear, and nectarine with a smattering of flowers that tickle the nose.
The Crios Rosè of Malbec 2007 smells like a full-blown Cabernet Sauvignon, and the first whiff will make you look at the glass once again, just to be sure your eyes weren't deceived by its cranberry color. On the palate, it displays a very forward flavor profile, meaning that it is much more flavorful than I had expected. Notes of stewed cherries, jammy raspberries and freshly rolled cigars make this a very rich rosè.
The Crios Syrah-Bonarda 2005 is a 50% blend of each grape. Dark and murky within the glass, it features deep earthy notes of potting soil, char and hummus, with prominent black cherry and stewed black raspberries that imbue the wine with a definite liveliness. This Syrah-Bonarda would love to be paired with a grilled pork tenderloin.
A youthful wine was on display when I tasted the Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, which displays a fruit-forward flavor profile of black cherry, black raspberry and blueberry with a bright acidity. Oak and barrel spices lead the finish, but give this a few years of time to mature in the bottle, perhaps 2010.
Finally, the Crios Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 shows amazing flavors of fresh blueberry, loganberry and pomegranate on the very front of the palate. All I needed was one sip to know this is a wine I would happily drink until the last drops are gone. Hints of chocolate and espresso on the smooth finish made this wine seem as much a dessert wine as a dinner wine.