by: The Tasting Panel Editorial Team
Photography by: SEAN MEYERS
“Argentina has fifteen hundred miles worth of wines, north to south,” exclaims Andrew Miller enthusiastically. As the founder and General Manager of Eco Valley, one of the most adventuresome U.S. importers of wines from this South American nation. Miller is in a unique position to know. Andrew Noble (left) and Andrew Miller, co-founders of adventuresome importer Eco Valley.
The North Carolina–born 32-year-oldspent a year in graduate school at the University of Buenos Aires on a coveted Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. During that time, he not only perfected his Spanish (spoken now with the authenticporteño accent of Buenos Aires) but also started Ecosur Group, a business dedicated to working with small and medium-sized companies in Argentina, helping them develop cogent business models and providing them with an entrée to the all-important U.S. market. Ecosur would eventually morph into Eco Valley, a joint venture with Argentina’s Valle de la Puerta winery, with whose proprietors Miller shares a common ideology and sense of purpose.
The relationship started when Miller approached Valle de la Puerta’s commercial director, Andrew Noble, about importing the winery’s offerings to the U.S. “Andrew only wanted half a container,” recalls Noble, “and I had been instructed to ignore requests for anything less than a full container.”
But given that they had the same first name, the synergies between the two idealists began to click. “I saw potential in Andrew and his project about helping small companies develop,” Noble explains. “We had so many things in common.” Noble found someone else to take the other half container, and the deal was made. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A couple of years later, the men began to ask what they could do together, and the idea for Eco Valley was born. Both agreed that making Argentina more visible in the U.S. market was a priority.
That grew into what we have today,” says Noble, “and our success is based on a few things that have nothing to do with simply making money: honest people, clear goals and flexibility.”
Sustainable, Socially Responsible, Ecological
“We didn’t initially plan to work with wineries,” explains Miller, who didn’t even drink wine when he arrived in Argentina. But wine, Miller soon realized, offered long-term sustainability and was also an industry that had become closely identified with Argentina around the world. Presenting the extraordinary range of Argentina’s appellations and wine offerings to the American beverage trade—and, through them, to consumers—became the focus of the new company. And Miller, whose sense of responsibility is as keen as his business acumen, insisted on doing it in a fashion that was economically sustainable, socially driven and ecologically minded.
“Our strength is that we focus on microclimates in Argentina,” says Miller. “I’m happy that Americans know that Mendoza is in Argentina—that’s a huge leap forward; but we’ve tried to be on the cutting edge as far as Argentina’s other appellations are concerned." The stately Gran Reserva from Bodega Barberis is an exemplary Mendoza Malbec.
Although Eco Valley’s focus is on smaller wineries, Miller and Noble are quick to doff their hat to the big guns of the Argentine wine industry. “We see other wineries not so much as competitors, but as partners. The more Argentina is successful, the more successful our collective brand is going to be.”
Miller travels frequently between Eco Valley’s North Carolina headquarters and Argentina’s capital and wine country, spending face-to-face time with the wineries and overseeing every detail of the Eco Valley venture. “One of the reasons we’re successful and were able to create this kind of company is because of our hands-on approach,” he says, “because of being on the ground in Argentina."
Synergies That Make Sense
For Eco Valley, cooperation is more than an ideal, it’s an absolute essential. “In approaching a winery, I always ask, ‘How can we work together?’” Miller and Noble note.“We look for synergies that make sense,” they point out. What has resulted from this approach is a collection of producers representing nearly all of Argentina’s major growing regions and a portfolio of wines that includes the best-suited and most characteristic varietals and blends from each appellation.
Miller and Noble are justifiably proud that Eco Valley has managed to sidestep the jealousies inherent in a small import portfolio, in which one winery might feel neglected at the expense of another. “We’ve essentially created an export cooperative without everybody realizing that they’re participating in a cooperative,” Miller discloses with a hint of creative mischief.
At first, he notes, there was “pullback” from some of the wineries that he approached. But as wineries from all over Argentina began to see what Eco Valley was all about and the success they were having, a growing number have come into the fold. As Noble puts it, “Results make all the difference in the world.”
Eco Valley has shown exponential growth over the past several months, and its stable of wineries has burgeoned from just a couple to nearly a dozen, including wineries in Chile and Spain (more on these in future issues of THE TASTING PANEL).
And the synergies—those synched-up bundles of collective energy that Miller, a former college soccer captain, loves to discover and to play off of—seem to be increasing naturally as he and Noble push Eco Valley forward. “These kinds of things have happened organically,” Miller smiles. Nothing could please the Andrews more.
Argentina North to South
The Eco Valley book reads like a guide to the wine-producing regions of Argentina. Mendoza, with its signature Malbec, lies at the center of the story, but as Andrew Miller notes, “We’ve gone beyond just Mendoza. There’s a lot more in Argentina to discover.” The Eco Valley portfolio draws on nearly every wine-producing region in Argentina.
Here’s a look at the regions and the producers that represent them in the Eco Valley catalog of discovery.
Not to be confused with the similar-sounding appellation in Spain, Argentina’s La Rioja province lies 350 miles northwest of Mendoza, the country’s wine capital. “Bonarda is really starting to become a star for this region,” notes Miller.
It’s in La Rioja’s Famatina Valley that Eco Valley’s original Argentinean joint venture partner, Valle de la Puertawinery, is located. The vast estate has 375 acres planted to vineyards as well as extensive acreage devoted to olive groves, from which excellent oil is produced and imported to the States by Eco Valley. The semi-arid climate and large temperature differential between days and nights makes this an ideal place to grow vinifera grapes.
The Valle de la Puerta range encompasses varietals ranging from Torrontés (with “less acidity and better body” than Torrontés from other regions, according to Miller) and Chardonnay among whites, to Shiraz, Cabernet, Malbec and Bonarda. At the top of the line is the complex and multi-layered Valle de la Puerta Gran Reserva, a blend of Malbec, Bonarda and Syrah made only in the best vintages.
“If you talk to people in Argentina and ask them where the best Syrah is from, they’ll say San Juan,” reports Andrew Miller, who was keen to have this winegrowing region represented in the Eco Valley portfolio. Syrah is becoming San Juan’s signature varietal.
Intense sun (at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level) and stony, well-drained soils in San Juan’s Valle de Zonda appellation create a special microclimate at Finca Santa Sylvia, home of theXumek label. The designation “Sol Huarpe” on the Xumek label is a tribute to the Huarpe tribe, natives of this region.
First planted to reds in 1998-99, with whites added in 2004, Finca Santa Sylvia’s wines enjoy the benefit of the Zonda Valley’s ideal ecological terroir, as well as the winemaking expertise of internationally known consultant Paul Hobbs. The Xumek 2008 Syrah is an exemplary version of this varietal as grown in the Valle de Zonda; chewy and meaty with rhubarb and pomegranate, it finishes with mint and white pepper.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Mendoza in itself is a very big region, with four different sub-regions,” explains Miller. “You can’t compare it with Napa.” Although the province has become synonymous with Argentinean wine, aficionados look for several distinct terroirs and styles within the large appellation.
In the zone just south of the city of Mendoza itself are several small communes that date back to the birth of Argentina’s wine industry. In Luján de Cuyo, for example, some vines at Bodegas Barberis are more than 100 years old; the family-supervised vineyards produce highly extracted, fruit-forward wines.
Family-owned Pulmary, with vineyards in several of Mendoza’s growing areas, is dedicated to organic winegrowing, making them an ideal fit with Eco Valley’s ecological stance.
Just nine miles from the city, Premier Wines has one of the best equipped facilities in Argentina for the production of sparkling wines.
Against the backdrop of the sublime Andes Mountains, Mendoza’s high-elevation Tupungato district is home to Domaine Jean Bousquet. The French native found his dream terroir at this 4,000-foot elevation and, like other producers in the Eco Valley portfolio, utilizes the ancient canal system created by the area’s original Huarpe people to irrigate his carefully tended vines. Bousquet’s Camaleon Cabernet Sauvignon is exemplary of the tannin structure and intensity of wines from Tupungato.
Although his winery is located in Perdriel, up-and-coming star winemaker Mauricio Lorcadraws on grapes from the Valle de Uco in central Mendoza province, where low yields (one to two bottles per plant) create concentrated aromas, brilliant color and superb varietal expression in wines such as Lorca’s Temático Malbec. Lorca’s stately, Malbec-driven Temático Gran Reserva is cluster-selected and aged 12 months in French and American oak.
Even further south, in Mendoza’s arid San Rafael district, the venerable Bodegas Goyenechea dates back to 1868, making it the oldest established, independent, family-owned winery in Argentina. Goyenechea was instrumental the creation of the official San Rafael appellation in 1993 and produces 100 percent estate-grown wines under the Goyenechea and Tango Real labels.
This remote province represents the mystery of Patagonia—the wind-swept southern tip of the South American continent—and is also becoming known for some of Argentina’s most cutting-edge wines. At the vineyards of Familia Schroeder, the difference in temperature between day and night can span an astonishing 70 degrees, while soils of pebble, gravel, sand and clay provide a rich terroir.
The state-of-the-art Familia Schroeder winery is one of Argentina’s most advanced. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc is a specialty, and it’s also at this gravity-feed facility that Paul Hobbs is working with the Schroeder family to create something entirely unexpected: an emblematic Pinot Noir from Argentina.