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Dona Paula Rising Star in Argentine Wine
By Robert Whitley
Jul 21, 2015
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First there was Nicolas Catena, who took the family winery in Mendoza to new heights when he brought in California winemaker Paul Hobbs to rock the Argentine wine world.

Then there was Hobbs himself, who left Catena and opened his own Mendoza winery, Cobos, to much critical acclaim.

The brilliant winemaker from Bordeaux, Michel Rolland, also established a base (in Rolland's case, many bases) in Argentina.

Then along came Italian winemaker Roberto Cipresso, renowned for his superb Brunellos, to soar at the remarkable Achaval Ferrer winery.

Argentine malbec was suddenly all the rage, more so after the Great Recession of 2008 forced wine lovers to look away from France and California to find great red wines they could afford.

The country that once produced a sea of foul-smelling, insipid red wines that lacked both color and structure is now at the forefront of modern winemaking.

The high-altitude vineyards of Mendoza and Salta, for example, have been populated over the past 20 years by wineries and winemakers with ambitious plans to take Argentine wine to the rest of the world, and compete with the best wines of the world.

One of the rising stars, under the leadership of new winemaker Marcos Fernandez, is Dona Paula, a 300,000-case winery with estate vineyards in the Uco Valley, at the base of the Andes. Fernandez has worked with both Rolland and Hobbs, though Hobbs is probably his strongest influence. Fernandez, a native Argentinian, spent five years on the winemaking team at Hobbs' Crossbarn Winery in Sonoma County.

His task is made easier by a philosophy that embraces the estate concept. Dona Paula controls all of its own vineyards and only bottles and sells estate wines. The entry level Dona Paula, dubbed Los Cardos, are made to be fruit forward and easy drinking, affordable, anytime wines at the modest price of $10 to $11 retail. Its 2014 Los Cardos Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is fresh and crisp and a winner as a summer sipper.

The best value, however, comes from the Dona Paula Estate line. These are more complex wines with a more nuanced oak barrel regimen for aging. Both the 2011 Dona Paula Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Estate Malbec are superb, and a steal for $15 or less. The cabernet, which shows black fruits and earthy notes, with a touch of cedar and graphite, is one of the most impressive cabs you are likely to find at the price. The malbec shows ripe layers of black and red fruits, with softer tannins than the cab.

For these wines Dona Paula uses older barrels, with little or no aggressive new oak.

"We want to show the place, not the oak," says Fernandez.

For those who would be tempted by a wine that goes beyond the everyday and demands cellar time to achieve maturity, Dona Paula has a little something. It's 2009 Seleccion de Bodega Malbec ($40), a stunning wine and a shining example of the brilliance of Argentine malbec. It spends two years in barrel (a mixture of 50 percent new oak and 50 percent used) before going into the bottle, and is worthy of a spot in the finest wine cellar.

At the highest point of the Dona Paula wine pinnacle is its parcel series, which are intensely flavored, concentrated malbecs produced from special vineyard blocks that typically yield about one ton per acre (which is extremely low). These limited-production wines are made in small lots and sell for $100 retail.