Alkina Wines: Fantastic Australian Terroir For Grenache
by Ken Gargett
A message reached me from a good friend in the industry: “Here’s something you might be interested in.”
Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing I hear regularly and it usually just happens to be about the latest offering on a list.
Often that is fine and useful, but for Quill & Pad I’m very aware of two things: what I write about here has to be either very much pointy end or different or unique – or at the very least seriously interesting.
Secondly, I’m acutely aware that this is an international site and my writing should reflect that. I’m as one-eyed as any Australian, but I am also always trying to make certain that this is not too Aussie-centric. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the severe restrictions we have on traveling have made that more difficult.
Back to my friend. He is very much involved in Italian wines, and his products have appeared here. But this was not about Italian wines and not even one of his. So definitely worth a look.
When people in the industry get excited about someone else’s products, you know it is time to take a look. Circumstances conspired to delay that, but I would very much argue it has made it even more worthwhile (okay, that last bit is an embarrassingly poor attempt to justify my appalling slackness on this one).
My friend was talking about a couple of wines from the Barossa, but it very quickly became apparent that this was the tip of the iceberg and that the project represented something much more formidable and international in scope.
It leads back to Argentina and one of that nation’s more successful businessmen, Alejandro Bulgheroni, an oil and gas billionaire. Back in 2006, Bulgheroni was standing on a hilltop in Uruguay, rather pleased with the site he had chosen for his latest windfarm, when one of his advisors intervened with the suggestion that perhaps it might work even better as a vineyard (Bulgheroni, by the way, does not drink).
Bulgheroni is not one to do things without a little research and he checked with a winemaking friend from Mendoza who advised him to consult Alberto Antonini.
Antonini has extensive experience in South America and immediately saw the potential in the site. He advised Bulgheroni accordingly and then told him that they would need to clear the land and plant the vineyard. After three or four years, they would finally be able to make wine, but then it would still be another three or four years after that before they would have any idea how it was progressing.
Bulgheroni’s response? “How old do you think I am?” He is currently 77.
Bodega Garzón turns into global expansion
But Bodega Garzón was up and running, all 4,300 hectares of it (only around 200 hectares of that is under vine). The fact that his team divided the vineyard into 1,150 individual parcels according to their geology and topography should have been a big clue to the approach that would follow as Bulgheroni’s wine empire spread around the world.
Operations in Argentina, California, Italy, France, and now Australia have followed. A total of 13 wineries on four continents, with almost 4,500 hectares under vine. Estimates have been made that his venture into the wine industry is worth around one billion dollars. Bulgheroni is not one to do things by half.
In addition to Antonini, Bulgheroni hired legendary French wine consultants Michel Rolland and Philippe Melka to work with his Bordeaux and California projects.
His venture into Argentina came in 2008 when he joined Carlos Pulenta as a 50/50 partner in Vistalba. Pulenta was the man who originally told him to talk to Antonini.
In 2011, he added Bodega Argento and then turned his attention to the United States with the purchase of Renwood Winery in California’s Sierra Foothills area, already one of the largest producers in that region. In 2016, he added what had been the Founders Room for Harlan Estate, renaming it the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate after himself (he is probably entitled to do that by this stage).
Bulgheroni was also keen to expand his olive oil interests from just Uruguay, and so in 2008 purchased Dievole, a Tuscan estate with a history dating back to 1090. In the Chianti Classico district, it boasts 80 hectares of vines, almost all Sangiovese, as well as just over 20 acres of olive trees.
So more wine, and this being Antonini’s home turf the synchronicity could hardly have been more perfect. This led to the Brunello estates of Poggio Landi and Podere Brizio, both in Montalcino.
And if you have Chianti and Brunello in your portfolio then you obviously need something from Bolgheri, so in 2015 he purchased Tenuta I Pianali. He has plans to greatly expand this estate. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that some of these estates also have had luxury resorts, first class restaurants, and even golf courses. But wine, especially “classic wines,” is the main game.
With a desire to get into China, believing it to be a key wine market for the future (cue the violins and the sound of Australian winemakers weeping into their barrels), Bulgheroni looked to Bordeaux. Apparently “not wanting to spend a lot of money” (which is not intended as a joke but was a genuine consideration), in 2013 he picked up two estates, Côtes de Bordeaux-Château Suau and Château Langalerie. The former focuses on Merlot, the latter on Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2015, Bulgheroni ventured down under, picking up the Alkina estate, which dates back to the 1850s, consisting of 40 hectares acres in the Barossa with six hectares of old vines and six of vines planted in 1998, to which he added another 16 hectares at an auction in 2017 and planted a further 18 hectares. And naturally he is also building a first-class winery. “Alkina” means moon in the local indigenous dialect.
The next project is at Chubut in Patagonia: Bodegas Sarmiento. Among other things, Bulgheroni is hoping that this estate will yield an ice wine.
Looking to the future, Bulgheroni has stated that his children – of which he has seven – have expressed an interest in the wine business.
In Australia, Amelia Nolan is running the show alongside Antonini (who is apparently focusing solely on this operation at the moment). For this project, Nolan has the support of the man who has been dubbed “the Indiana Jones of the wine industry” (or Dr. Terroir, if you prefer), Pedro Parra from Chile.
Parra holds a PhD in terroir (more correctly, a PhD in precision agriculture and terroir) from the Institut National Agronomique in Paris (who even knew that there was such a thing?). Parra and Antonini also have their own wine project in Chile, working with century-old, phylloxera-free vines. Parra has other projects on the go as well.
Parra consults to both winemakers and viticulturalists around the world. This is a man who needs to know just what soil has influenced the vines providing his wine. He has been quoted as saying that when it comes to wine, “rocks matter most” (he seems to have little interest in the topsoil).
I can think of a few winemakers who might want to, at the very least, discuss that. He’ll take it further, again having been quoted as suggesting that “granite-dominant wines hit the palate at the front of the mouth, while limestone-dominant wines are particularly long and show exceptional minerality.”
You can bet serious money that any vineyard where Parra is involved has had holes dug all over it – friends called them “Pedro Pits.” They have already dug more than 100 of them around the estate.
Parra has been quoted as saying that, “Music is like geology – some is heavy metal, some is jazz.” He is a keen jazz player, and one of the reasons he chose to work on this project was his perception of Australian wines being too heavy. He wanted to see if he could change that, put a different interpretation on them.
As well as an obsession with the ideal terroir, the team has taken a special interest in Grenache; Alkina works on an organic and biodynamic basis. The estate also works with Shiraz and Mataro (Mourvèdre) among other varieties. Half a century ago, legendary winemaker Peter Lehmann was a big fan of the Grenache from this property.
Nolan has been quoted as saying that, “Grenache has been the star so far.” Limestone has seen the variety give forth red fruit notes, while clay and schist offer darker fruits and black cherries. Grenache’s typical chalky tannins are present, though in varying degrees.
The technical work at Alkina
They have not stopped there, undertaking a research program on local insects and implementing a planting regime for some 650 new native trees along the banks of Greenock Creek. Wherever possible, they also involve the local community.
For fermentation, the estate has kvevri (Georgian fermentation vessels) and amphora, small concrete eggs imported from France, and a tulip-shaped concrete fermenter. There are also larger and older oak barrels used when necessary. They use between 30 and 100 percent whole bunches. No commercial yeasts are used at any stage.
The winemaking team works hard to avoid what they consider to be the six enemies of “terroir wine”: “overripening, overextraction, invasive oak, synthetic chemicals, the winemaker’s ego, and market-led winemaking.” They are determined to make “the most ‘Barossan’ wine that we can.” These aims have led to them choosing not to appoint a superstar winemaker but rather to work as a team.
Back in the vineyard, sites, no matter how small, identified as offering something special and/or unique, are called Polygons by the team. Micro terroirs might be another name. Some are as small as 0.3 hectares.
They are made discretely and then Antonini decides whether to bottle them individually or blend them. As an example of blending, the Old Quarter GSM has Grenache from Polygons 4 and 2; Shiraz from Polygons 7 and 8; and Mataro from Polygon 6. There are nine Polygons in total.
The team also uses technology known as ECM, Electro Conductivity Mapping, for this – basically, they send electromagnetic impulses into the ground to obtain readings from 75 cms and 150 cms. Changes assist in identifying where Parra needs to dig his pits. Parra has been assisted in his work by Paul Krug. Yes, from that famed French family responsible for some of the greatest champagnes ever made (Olivier’s son).
No doubt the team would be acutely aware that to fully understand the terroir of any estate will take many years and that there is a great deal more work to be done. That said, the early results are wonderfully exciting.
Alkina’s wines and tasting notes
So far, three Polygon wines and several others have been released: Polygon 1 Shiraz 2019 and two Grenache from 2018, Polygon 3 and Polygon 5. All retail at AUD$295, but quantities are tiny: 42 cases for Polygon 1; 36 cases and 90 magnums for Polygon 3; and 47 cases and 120 magnums for Polygon 5.
Whatever one thinks of this ever-expanding international wine empire, it has got to be a lot more fun than owning a windfarm.
Polygon 3 Grenache 2018 (AUD$295) – From just 200 vines in this 0.274-hectare micro terroir, the soil profile is described as “shallow red brown earth over deep chalky, sedimentary limestone which contains fractured schist and limited iron.” In a rare moment of “plain English,” Alkina admitted to it being “a superior patch of limestone.” Fifty percent whole bunch fermentation in a single concrete tulip followed by 15 months maturation in one 400-litre 10-year-old barrel.
Reds and purples. There is a complex and yet glorious aroma to this wine. Blueberries, spices, chocolate. Wonderfully fragrant. The texture is compellingly supple. Wonderfully balanced and with a pleasing flick of vibrant acidity. Cherries emerge on the palate and a tobacco leaf/cigar box note, reminiscent of a fine Cohiba Siglo VI.
Chalky the tannins might be, but they quickly dissolve into something wonderfully cushiony and gentle. Elegance personified. A superb Grenache and a wine that must give all those involved with this project enormous comfort – they are clearly on the right track. 98.
Polygon 5 Grenache 2018 (AUD$295) – This polygon divides into two sectors, 0.12 and 0.25 hectares respectively, with the soils described as “deeper soils and well fractured schist with ferric clay (within the fractures).”
Even darker in color than Polygon 3, the aroma here is a little more closed at this early stage, not quite as alluring. Warm earth, chocolate, black fruits, a hint of woodsmoke. This is more burly, more concentrated. Excellent complexity.
The tannins here not as cashmere-like – chalkier and firmer, more mouthcoating. Perhaps more like one expects from Grenache. Fuller in flavor, great structure, bright acidity, and a very long finish. Another superb wine and, again, a great future. Indeed, this would have an even longer-term focus than Polygon 3. 97.
For more information, please visit www.alkinawine.com.