Travels in Argentine wine country: Bodegas Pascual Toso
By John Schreiner
July 4, 2008
There is hardly a meal in Argentina that does not begin with an empanada, a savoury pastry usually filled with spicy ground meat.
Because the weather in Mendoza is often fine enough for outdoor dining, some wineries have comfortable picnic areas flanked by barbecue pits and empanada ovens.
That is the set-up at the Pascual Toso winery. The cooking facilities are at one end of a field the size of a soccer pitch while there is a tasting and dining pavilion at the other end. A roof provides shade from the intense sun but the sides are open, with views across vineyards toward the Andes.
I was being led through a tasting by winery manager Enrique Toso before lunch one day, with my back to the cooking area. Just as I was nosing a red wine and writing “smoky” in my book, Enrique exploded with irritation: “Why does this always happen when I am doing a tasting?” He was glaring over my shoulder where the chef has just fired up the empanada oven, sending wood smoke billowing toward the tasting pavilion. That was the source of the smoky aroma. Once the breeze cleared the smoke, the wine, a 2007 Malbec, smelled correctly of berry fruits.
Later, we relaxed, enjoying an empanada or two (it is hard to stop at one) with a generous glass of Toso Brut, since this winery is one of Argentina’s oldest producers of sparkling wine.
“Sparkling is the king of wine,” Enrique said, passing another empanada. “You can drink it at any time, with any food.”
The Toso winery was established in 1890 by Pasquale Toso, who had migrated 10 years earlier from Piedmont in Italy, one of the numerous Italians who shaped the early wine industry in Mendoza.
The company was owned by the family until 1995, when the growing number of family members made it impractical to keep it in family control. The Toso family sold it to another Argentina wine group. However, various family members remain involved.
California consulting winemaker Paul Hobbs was retained in 2000, working with Toso winemaker Rolando Luppino to raise the quality of the wines (with evident success). Enrique likes to quote one of the observations made by Hobbs – that the major Toso vineyards are in the best area for Cabernet Sauvignon in Mendoza. That is hardly a surprise to Enrique, whose ancestors started making Cabernet Sauvignon in 1910.
“The longevity of these wines is wonderful,” Enrique said. In his personal cellar, he still has bottles of the winery’s 1953 Cabernet Sauvignon, the vintage of his birth year. He opens a bottle each year on his birthday.
Enrique is also a font of viticultural knowledge. As he poured the Toso Torrontès - Argentina’s flagship white variety – he asked if I knew the origin of the vine. There is the romantic story, he said, and the real one.
The romantic story (which another winery passed off as the truth a few days later) is that the Spanish brought Torrontès to Argentina. Alas, the real origin emerged from DNA research done at the University of California. The variety is believed to be a spontaneous cross of a Muscat variety with a table grape.
Currently, there are just two value-priced Toso wines in British Columbia’s government liquor stores. Others can be found in other Canadian liquor stores and in private wine stores.
Toso Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($13.99) is refreshing and crisp, with citrus flavours and with a good mineral backbone. Superb quality for the price. 88
Toso Malbec 2007 ($13.99) is a pleasant fruit-forward red with the classic spicy plums and cherry notes of the variety. About 40% of the wine was barrel-aged, the rest was matured in stainless steel. 87
Some markets have the more refined $20 Reserve Malbec and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, both made from grapes grown on vines that are 18 to 20 years old.
The jewel of the house is the $90 Magdalena 2005, a red blend (90% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Sauvgnon) from 100-year-old vines. This wine (92+ points in my notebook) an intense wine with a chewy texture and flavours of spice, currants, vanilla and liquorice. Made only in top vintages, the wine is named after the mother of the winery’s founder.
Enrique makes no apology for pricing it at the top range of Argentine reds. “It’s not business,” he said. “It’s culture.”
Winery Manager - Pascual Toso
John Schreiner recently visited leading wineries in Argentina.
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