Article By: Fred Bouchard
Master and apprentice, behemoth and beauty, yin and yang: two complementary personalities and temperaments make this newly formed team creating wine at Bodega Norton. The winery was founded by Edmund James Palmer Norton, an English engineer who'd come to Argentina to help in the gargantuan task of building the Transandean railway connecting Mendoza and Santiago, Chile. Settling in Mendoza with Juana Suarez, his Argentine wife, the entrepreneurial Norton adopted the bourgeoning wine trade, imported vines from France, devoted himself to viticulture, and founded, in 1895, the first winery south of the Mendoza River in Perdriel - today Norton's flagship vineyard. Bought in 1989 by Austrian optics and jewelry entrepreneur Gernot Langes Swarovski, this established, forward-looking biodynamic winery has splendid vineyard holdings, a tidy portfolio and a wide web of international distribution. Of particular interest are the Privada (reserve "Bordeaux" blend with Malbec prominent), a sumptuous Malbec DOC, a solid mid-priced Barrel Select line, and "Lo Tengo!" - cleverly packaged entry-level exemplars of Argentina's signature grapes (Torrontes white and Malbec red) that are, marketing-wise, as much hip-shake as hand-shake products. On many of the wine-related topics below, Jorge dictated, and Jimena translated.
JORGE RICCITELLI & MARIA 'JIMENA' LOPEZ • 55 & 29 • Winemakers • Bodega Norton • Mendoza, Argentina
FRESH BEGINNINGS JORGE My first job in a winery was when I was a teenager; it is a very traditional winery here in Mendoza called Gargantini. My father and grandfather worked there, too. Later I moved to Salta (northern white wine stronghold near Brazil) to work for the Etchart winery for about 15 years. I came back to Mendoza to begin at Norton around 1985. JIMENA There was no wine background in my family - my mother's a teacher and my father's an accountant - but my mother is an excellent cook. I started working in a wine lab when I was 16; my high school had a science program where we could work in laboratories during my junior and senior years and actually apprentice at a winery. I loved it: I was soon in University in enology. When I graduated from Facultad Don Bosco, Juan Maza University, I was the only girl in my class. Today there are many more. There were no mentorship programs, and it was difficult, but I could never imagine myself in any other career. I never stopped working and gaining opportunities for experience in different wineries in United States, Mexico and Australia. At Chandon Argentina, I worked from 1993 to 1999. I went to Stonehaven in Coonawarra to work in last year's harvest. Soon after I returned to Argentina, Jorge called me.
GETTING TOGETHER JORGE I needed to find a new assistant when my assistant winemaker Adrian Menton was hired by Clos de las Siete (prestigious winery owned by French entrepreneur Michel Roland). Jimena came very highly recommended. JIMENA At Bodega Norton the winemaking program is very clear, because Jorge works in a very particular way. It's a very simple process and based on taste. We have the vineyards classified in different quality levels, so we know for which range of wines we are going to use each grape. We separate the grapes in different tanks and make specific vinification according to the quality of each grape. Each day we go and taste every single tank, which are grouped into quality levels, and we make decisions based on our tasting. If the grapes are ripe and healthy, our job is easy. Of course, it's also important that the chemical analyses in the lab support our tasting decisions.
WINE OASIS JORGE Drip irrigation is the best method here in Mendoza. This system uses plastic hoses with little spigots that water each plant. This way you can manage exactly the amount of water that you want for each plant and of course it's an excellent method to conserve water. You must remember that water in Mendoza comes only from the mountains and is as precious as gold for us - here in our oasis in the middle of a big desert. The now antiquated flood irrigation system uses no hoses; you just send the water trough small channels right next to each row. This is not only wasteful, but it's quite difficult to control the amount of water that each vine receives.
ORGANIC CHALLENGE JIMENA This year Jorge has made me responsible for several research projects. One is the thermo-vinification testing. I am also working and studying a lot about micro-oxidation in red wines. The biggest physical task is to prepare all the wines to be ready for the bottling and for the bottling line. JORGE Organic winemaking is our greatest challenge today. For a biodynamic environment to be successful, the entire area must be in harmony - the houses, the winery, the vineyards. It sounds difficult, but we have already achieved that, with organically correct grapes and cellars, wild fermentation and the pure processes. We are making organic wine to which we don't add anything - no filtering, no chemicals, no nothing. The big task that faces us is to sufficiently improve the quality of these organic wines. Our goal is to make the best organic wines! Few have done it yet. Our organic wines are good, but we want to increase quality before we go outside with them, label and sell them abroad.
NEW DIRECTIONS JIMENA Our new popular line - "Lo Tengo!" Torrontes and Malbec - are wines with rich colors and good fruitiness. They have a certain complexity, but they're easy to drink at any time of the day and any time within the next year. I like the way the labels dance before your eyes! JORGE The 2OO5 has been an excellent harvest. I think the wines are going to be very good, with excellent color and intensity, and good flavors, both the reds and whites.