When Peter Gamble and wife Ann Sperling started looking for a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, it seemed like a simple plan.
“We wanted to make great wine from a smaller property,” Gamble tells me from the comfort of their St. David’s home in Niagara.
It was a two-pronged attack for the ambitious Ontario couple — Sperling the winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara and at her family’s Sperling Vineyards in the Okanagan and Gamble, an accomplished wine consultant for Benjamin Bridge Vineyards in Nova Scotia and Ravine Vineyard in Niagara — who began their quest for both an ancient Malbec vineyard and an elegant residence in Mendoza wine country. After countless trips to the South American country, Sperling and Gamble’s search for a residence culminated in 2007 when they found the estate they now call Villa Viamonte in the old town of Chacras de Coria, now a neighbourhood of Mendoza.
With a couple of friends from the upper echelons of the Canadian wine industry — Moray Tawse, owner of Tawse Winery in Niagara, and the McConnell family, of Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge Vineyards — they invested in Villa Viamonte and went about renovating and refurbishing it. It is now offered as a guest rental when not in use by the owners.
The tougher job was locating the perfect vineyard for what Gamble and Sperling wanted to do — make world-class Malbec from ancient vines on a property that could be converted to organic farming.
It’s not exactly easy for “gringos” from Canada to walk into Argentina and simply buy a vineyard. Every transaction needs to go through an Argentine national. Complicating things is the fact that when a property does come up for sale, neighbours will try to scuttle the deal from a foreigner by putting forward a better offer or strongly “urging” the seller not to sell to anyone but a national.
Gamble and Sperling never gave up their quest, looking at over 240 properties before finding the perfect vineyard that was in bankruptcy — and under the radar from other potential buyers — after two years of severe hail wiped out two vintages and made growing grapes undesirable for the previous growers.
In 2008, after nearly a year of wrangling with bureaucracy, they purchased the ancient vineyard on the legendary Cobos Road and named it Versado, a Spanish word that translates to ‘well-versed’ (expert or accomplished) and has the same poetic echo (relating to ‘verse’) that it does in English.
The three-hectare property, with Malbec plantings dating back to 1920, is located in a cool-air corridor with pristine water winding its way to the vineyard from the mountains.
The next steps were to assemble the permanent team that would carefully bring the vineyard to the meticulous level of viticultural tending that is required for the production of the world’s finest wines.
Working with consultant Roberto de la Mota and two other specialized Mendoza viticulturists, the couple became ever more versed in the soils, aspects, meso-climates, topography and potential of the finest ‘micro-terroirs’ of Mendoza’s many and varied high altitude vineyards.
With much to be done to bring the grapes up to Gamble and Sperling’s demanding quality standards, they elected to sell the 2008 harvest, and sections of the 2009 vintage, to another winery, where they ended up as a major component in their top wine — at $120 per bottle. The first vintage of Versado was a limited release from the top vines in 2009.
The small-lot wines from Versado — made in three tiers from the regular Malbec to Reserva to the Old Vine bottlings — are extraordinary wines unlike most every day Malbecs from Argentina you find at your favourite wine shop.
They are complex and concentrated yet maintain a certain freshness that makes them perfect companions for the dinner table.
There are several reasons for this, but all have to do with the location of the vineyard.
Mendoza is in the ‘rain shadow’ of the Andes: from the Pacific, predominant westerly winds begin dropping their moisture as they ascend the Chilean side of the mountain range, and have precious little left by the time they reach the Argentine foothills.
The disadvantage of this is that all of Mendoza’s vineyards must be irrigated to survive. The advantage is that vines grow in conditions with little disease pressure reducing the need for pesticides. It also means that viticulturists and winemakers can regulate the amount of water a vineyard will receive; and how and when.
With roots deeply established, and as high quality producers, Versado elects to irrigate very sparingly in order to obtain the finest quality wine.
A huge benefit of the Versado site specifically, is its location in an area where cool, clean meltwater from the high Andean glaciers can be provided to the vineyard. Much of Mendoza — famously — is “furrow irrigated,” but Versado vineyard’s high elevation and location immediately below the region’s largest fresh mountain water supply, in Potrerillos, ensures a water channel that is still cool and clean. By contrast, irrigation waters that have flowed over countless hectares of farmland bring with them not only unwanted weed seeds, but also the untold spray contaminants of dozens of conventional farms upstream.
Particularly for Versado, as winegrowers convinced of the qualitative benefits of organic farming, access to fresh, clean melt-water is a fortuitous blessing.
Another element often cited as one of the most critical in the production of the greatest wines is the age of the vines from which they are produced. The Versado vineyard plantings all date back to the year 1920. Nearing a hundred years of age, the naturally reduced yields of grapes, and the increased intensity and complexity of their flavours, play a significant role in the final quality of the wines.
With the exception of less than 1% Tempranillo, sparsely interspersed, and an even smaller quantity of Cabernet Sauvignon, Versado’s vineyard is planted to Malbec — the signature grape of Argentina. It is plantings of this era that, in fact, established the reputation of Malbec as the signature grape of Mendoza.
One quality factor at Versado, however, relates not to age, climatic or geographic reasons, but to their own recent intervention. Prior to purchasing the vineyard, Gable and Sperling realized that the same cool airflow that gives the vineyard its greatness, also, unfortunately, brings far too frequent hail to the area.
Achaval-Ferrer’s famed Bella Vista Vineyard — the vineyard immediately to Versado’s north, between them and the Rio Mendoza — has had the highest rated wine in Argentina over the last decade, but produced no 2005 or 2006 wines due to devastating hail damage.
To solve this issue at Versado, they went to the extreme expense of covering the entire vineyard with overhead netting. They did it on tall wooden posts, three metres up, so as not to interfere with the all-important airflow. As a direct benefit, not only does the netting stop hailstones, it intercepts approximately 3% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, so the wines’ pH is tweaked favourably by another fraction, complementing the already excellent moderation of the cool air corridor. (And some protection from marauding birds, and the damaged, infected berries that often result from their pecking, is a further advantage provided by the netting.)
The Versado wines are well represented in Canada. In Ontario, the Versado Reserva 2011 (now at Vintages) and regular Malbec 2013 (Vintages in January) can be purchased while the Reserva 2010 is available in both B.C. and Alberta.