Keeping it funky

An Argentine winery that revels in the old ways

On Drink

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Everything about Weinert in Argentina suggests that the company has been there for generations. There’s the winery itself, housed in a Romanesque nineteenth-century building in Mendoza, full of huge oak casks of slowly ageing wine. But most of all it’s in the glass.

In a country where the wines can be clean to the point of tedium, Weinert stands out. Its wines are full of heady fruit, like cooked strawberries or maraschino cherries; there’s old leather, nuts and hints of vinegar and farmyard. The nearest comparison would be something like Château Musar from Lebanon or Lopez de Heredia in Rioja.

Yet its first vintage was 1976. The founder, Bernardo Weinert, was born in Brazil of Austrian descent. He came from a small German-speaking community in the south of the country and owned a truck company moving goods from Brazil to Chile via Argentina at a time Brazil was importing plenty of wine from Chile and Europe but little from Argentina. Weinert spotted a gap in the market.

He bought a disused winery in 1975 and employed a winemaker called Don Rahul de La Mota. At the time wine-making technology was rapidly changing, yet Weinert built his new enterprise using old methods, including fermentation in concrete vats and maturation in huge oak casks.

I asked Bernardo’s daughter, Iduna, if the aim was to create a deliberately old-fashioned style, but she said long ageing in old casks to soften and clarify wines was then normal in Argentina, where little had changed since Michel Aimé Pouget introduced French techniques and grapes to the country in the nineteenth century.

The big difference was that Weinert was aiming for the quality export market, so barrels were kept clean and topped up to protect the wine from oxygen. The second vintage produced a wine that would become legendary, the 1977 Estrella (star) Malbec.

Unbelievably, Don Rahul took the decision to keep it for 19 years in cask before it was released in the 1990s to huge critical acclaim. By then, the sleeping giant of the Argentine wine industry was waking up. The country was awash with French and Italian consultants, and everyone was replacing their huge old casks and with stainless steel and new small oak barrels. there was no conscious decision to stay traditional, Iduna said. They had a strong export market which liked their distinctive wines, so why risk losing it? And to replace hundreds of 2000 litre casks with the equivalent in 225 litre barrels would have been prohibitively expensive.T

The second vintage produced a wine that would become legendary, the 1977 Estrella (star) Malbec

So Weinert carried on doing just as they had always done. Continuity came in the form of Hubert Weber, originally from Switzerland, who fell in love with Weinert’s wines, trained under Don Rahul and eventually took over. They’ve only had two winemakers in 50 years, and when Bernardo died in 2021, Iduna became commercial director. The reason most winemakers moved to small oak barrels, replaced every three years or so, is that huge casks designed to last for 30 years are hard to keep clean. They tend to develop bacterial and yeast infections which can ruin a wine. But in small quantities, these so-called “faults” can add complexity.

That farmyard note comes from brettanomyces, a yeast that gave London porter its distinctive flavour, while certain bacteria create vinegar, known as volatile acidity, that is verboten in modern winemaking but intrinsic to wines like Château Musar.

Using old casks is always something of a balancing act. I’ve had Weinert bottles that have perhaps leaned too heavily into the strange flavours, but these days the wines are cleaner because they are stricter both about cleanliness and retiring old casks.

Cask cleanliness isn’t the only challenge faced by the Weinert family. The country’s volatile political and economic environment means that “anyone who does business in Argentina is an expert in crisis management”, Iduna said.

She wished that the country was like its more business-friendly neighbours: “Sometimes I want to take all the bricks and casks and go to Uruguay.” The 2000s were a difficult time. It wasn’t just the economy; Weinert’s wines were distinctly out of fashion in North America.

Winemakers across the world are switching to fermenting in concrete rather than stainless steel

Now, however, by standing still, they are accidentally on-trend. Winemakers across the world are switching to fermenting in concrete rather than stainless steel and proudly show off their botti, huge Italian oak casks. So with a traditional winery making wines that the rest of the world is finally waking up to, you would expect prices to be high. But the Weinert magic starts at only £12 for the 2019 Tinto Corte Carrascal, an unmistakable malbec, cabernet and merlot blend which a friend refers to as “the funky Mendoza”.

The next step up is the varietal range: I’ve had cabernets from Weinert which if you stuck them in a decanter you’d think were something old and expensive from the Medoc. The pinnacle is called Cavas de Weinert. It is very special indeed, yet the latest 2011 vintage costs just £25. Prices are low, according to Iduna, because people don’t want to pay more for Argentina and it’s not as if her wines are made in small quantities.

This means that Weinert is that rarest of things, a cult wine which you can drink every day.

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