While Mendoza is part of the New World of wine, there’s really not much “new” to Argentine wine. Wine has been a national tradition here since the 16th century, carried through time by immigrant families who married their old world roots with this new world soil. Among them, the Lopez family, of Bodega Lopez, a traditional-style winery in the heart of Maipu.
And though it was a chilly, rainy day, I decided to visit.
Crossing the threshold of the winery and stepping out of the drizzle, I found myself in the still quiet of a room that smelled of sweet fruit, sawdust and rain. It was a large, high-ceilinged tank room, filled wall to wall with dark wooden cubas, massive vertical oak barrels.
And though the cubas and the wonderland of stainless steel would have been plenty, we still hadn’t seen the true heart – and history – of this venerable vino producer.
The toneles are enough to make you forget about the rest. Toneles are the wine barrels of giants. They have a capacity of 5 – 35 thousand liters and are between 50 and 80 years old. Walking through the room where they are housed is like walking through a ship yard. Silent giants, standing at attention, flanking the left and right sides of their barn-like warehouse, the toneles are the unmistakable cornerstone of the Lopez Winery.
Red wines are held in these behemoth barrels for anywhere between 6 months and 6 years, depending on the brand of wine being made. They are made of French oak, and are used, cleaned and used again, and again, for decades. Though the toneless don’t contribute the same oaky notes of smaller barrels (which are typically used 1-4 times before retirement), they do help the red wines reach complexity in different ways.
After each usage, the toneles are thoroughly cleaned, a process that reopens the wood’s pores and allows micro-oxygenation to take place. This small introduction of oxygen allows tannins to soften, the wine to smoothen, the bouquet to more fully develop and increases the wine’s aging potential.
As for the whites – they never actually make it to the ship yard. They are stored, up to a year, in the stainless steel kingdom of modern tanks.
After walking through the grounds, it really shouldn’t have surprised me to learn that Lopez houses nearly 40 million liters of wine, 99% of it destined for a Argentine consumer with a modern day taste for history.
Madeline Blasberg is a wine and travel writer living in Argentina. She accepts that Mendoza is a dessert and relishes the few rain days that come around by curling up with a blanket and a glass of something delicious.