Interview with Edgardo Del Popolo on the extraordinary wines from PerSe

  • You have travelled all over the world visiting vineyards – where have been the most inspirational places you have visited and why?

I enjoy travelling and meeting people (especially those who do the same as I do) and I like a vast array of places with their particularities. But what I really think makes a difference is the people you can find in certain places, not everywhere.

I have found special people in quiet, diverse places in both the old and the new world regions of wine, therefore my answer about inspirational places will be: it depends. Tell me who you were with and I will say if I liked the place because I was inspired by the best complement of place, the people I associate it with. I can be visiting what would be considered the most exceptional and unique wine growing region in the world, but if the people there don´t have the warmth to make me feel that is true, it will remain in me just as a statement.

Edy del Popolo – PerSe Vines
  • Per Se is a quest to produce pure terroir expression in a wine. In your opinion what are the biggest concealers in viticulture and vinification in today’s wine world – most particularly in more commercial wines but also is there concealment in “fine” wines too?

In the world of wine we know, there are concealers everywhere and not necessarily in the so-called commercial wines. Any overused or overthought technicism goes against the purity and finesse of a wine.

A pure expression contains, in its interior, certain candor or innocence that simply comes from the grapes and from a person who has more interest in the transcendence of the site where the wine comes from, than his own personal transcendence.

  •  Can you explain what you mean by non-interventionist viticulture and micro-vinification and how does this affect the final quality of the wine?

After several years in the vineyards I have contemplated the passion and almost obsession of grape growers and viticulturists to get the best from their vineyards.

In many circumstances and after a tireless effort, the quality simply does not match the expectances or simply it does not appear.

Then, is when you really understand the meaning of a great site. Great sites wherever they are in the world map of wine have the natural ability to deliver what no viticulture practice can do. So there comes a day when you stop doing practices in your vineyards that maybe you previously considered important.

All this happens also when you leave ´your´ technician behind. The observation phase begins and you realize how the nature itself adjusts some mechanisms much better than you. And the best sites give you the best and the non-gifted places simply cannot do it. Once you have the grapes from those special sites, what you must do is to not to ruin them.

If there is something that nobody can question is that the wine cannot be better than the grapes that gave its origin.

For many years now, we have been doing vinifications in a minuscule scale, that means, fermentations in small oak or concrete vats in order to understand how every special parcel from our vineyard needs to be taken apart for its distinctive characteristics.

Working this way, everything is done by hand at human scale. There is no need of the use of pumps, you don’t need to control temperature in the fermentation if the room temperature is adequate. You don’t need necessarily to use yeast or acidify if you have harvested at the right time.There is no better way to define your vineyard´s map than the micro-vinifications. We´ve learnt a lot from them and they have helped us to build the story of our wines.

This is the meaning of minimal intervention, when you really put in practice the ‘less is more´philosophy, always to do less you need to understand more the context of how things happen in your vineyard, with your grapes, must, wine…and for doing it, you need to watch the same movie many many times.

David Bonomi – Edy’s partner at PerSe Vines
  • Can you give some background to you and David in regard to viticulture and wine making? Where have you worked in the past / currently and as what?

David started his career as winemaker when he was 17. Now he is 51. He has worked in several wineries in Mendoza since then. He is currently the head of winemaking in Norton with huge responsibilities at his back. He manages millions of litres of wines.

I started as viticulturist in a local winey owned by the Gancia family. They were pioneers in the local sparkling business in the late 60´s making the wine they did in their birthplace of Asti spumante.

I was in charge of the vineyards there since 1992. David and I met there in 1995. I left that company in 1998 to join a very promising new project that was born in that same year: Doña Paula. I helped with the startup of this venture from scratch. I had the opportunity to select, purchase land and design many vineyards. Since 1998 I have planted more than 1500 hectares of vineyards in several appellations, the Uco Valley being the main place where I have developed my profession.

I called David to join me in 2005 and he became Doña Paula´s winemaker that year. After 14 years of hard work there, I thought it was the time to bring to reality my own wine and I decided to leave Doña Paula to join Susana Balbo, a family owned and smaller winery, lead by Susana, the first female winemaker of Argentina. I´m the General Manager at this winery and that gave me enough time to develop my own wines with David.  

  • When did the idea for the Per Se project come about and what was the inspiration?

During our time at Doña Paula, we began to make small lots of wines with the aim to reflect clearly the place of origin, especially those that came from goblet vines that I had planted in Gualtallary years before. I think that was the starting point, which year after year we have been improving in its definition.

Per Se was born in the harvest of 2012 in pursuit of making wines by itself =´perse´, without any influence over the grapes and with the sole idea of showing our interpretation of the landscape where they come from.

  • What was your first vintage?

Our first vintage was the warm 2012. It was a good one to begin.

  • Would you say Gualtallary is an extreme place to grow grapes? What are the biggest concerns through the season?

Gualtallary is not a very large appellation, there are no more than 2.300 hectares of vines, nevertheless is very diverse in climate and soils. Perhaps it is the most diverse within the Uco Valley.

The highest areas of Gualtallary are the most extreme climate-speaking and in some cases mixed with incredible soils, constituted by pure calcareous rock, where viticulture is like nowhere else.

In our vineyards, planted above 1400 meters above sea level, the vines are exposed to the weather in an outstanding way. I´m not talking about the risk of frost, being that height is not a major problem compared with other areas, but there is a strong exposure to winds and sunlight, although the weather is cold, there is a high solar radiation. It´s a matter of more sunlight than high temperatures.

The soils are extremely calcareous, as in few places I´ve seen in the world and this is also limiting, because in some spots the vines need to deal with the bedrock too close to the surface. But the result is so good, we get grapes of so much character, natural concentration and freshness that determines the wine is made in the vineyard.

  • You talk about the ripening cycles in Gualtallary – what makes them particular / unique and how is this best managed?

Considering that defining the harvest date is the most important among the decisions, I can say that I like to harvest ripe but as early as possible. In Gualtallary, due to its altitude and sunshine together with the low natural yields of the vineyards, there is a certain type of precocity: we can harvest early but mature, resulting in very balanced grapes in sugar and acidity.

Malbec in this area develops very thick skins, from which aromas and flavors can be superbly extracted during the vinification, if you know how best to macerate during the winemaking.

With a good decision of the harvest date and extended maceration with very little intervention (soft pigeage) we can obtain refined wines of good personality and depth.

  • You talk about Gualtallary’s “verticality” in terms of flavor profile, can you describe what you mean by this?

This is a somewhat empirical answer: when you understand the profile of tannins in your grapes and how they will react during extraction what you do is judicious by the tactile sensation the wine creates in the mouth. It could be represented as a vertical “stele” – a monument/ slab that begins from the front of the mouth, with very fine grain tannins that remain in a rather thin and continuous line, which ends up falling with weight and definition at the back of the palate. The aftertaste of vertical wines is pronounced.

Vertical wines are never ample, rich and round. They are exactly the opposite: they could be more or less austere (austerity is not always a synonym of verticality), long and profound.

  •  You like “cold vintages” – can you outline why? Is this particular to typically warm regions?

Yes, I do like cold vintages more than warm ones. The reason is that the wines tend to be more restrained at the beginning, when they are still young, showing in a more natural way and for a long time, the youthful spirit that characterizes the vintage. They are wines with restricted fruit in their early stage, with more earthy-mineral edge and electrifying acidity, whereas the wines from warm vintages tend to have a little more obvious open-fruit, and a wider texture in the mouth.

  • You often relate your wines to music? Do you see a connection between music and wine?

Definitely, I like the connection between wine and music. And my preferences are broad on both sides. From classic music to progressive rock of the late 60´s and early 70´s to the underground of the 80´s, some songs from the punk movement then and the beginning of pop rock later. Also some local expressions of our Argentine rock of the 80´s which was characterized by the popularity of fantastic bands that managed to capture the feelings of this era.

  • The vineyards you have are incredibly small (0.5 hectares) are their plans to expand the production?

The total size of our own vineyard is small: about 2,2 hectares and the parcels where each cuvee is settled has an average of 0,5 hectares as you pointed out.

There is not too much room to expand, maybe less than 1 hectare, in proportion it sounds meaningful but is still very small.

  • How did you decide the right planting densities? Do they differ from each vineyard?

As I said that the harvest date is strategically perhaps the most critical decision made in the short term, whereas vine spacing is one of the most important viticultural decisions in the long term.

I have my own criteria, based on the type of soil: texture, fertility, depth, % of stones / rocks in the total % of soil (how many stones in how much soil), potential of water retention are all the most relevant factors.

Perhaps quite opposite to some regions of the old world, the poorest soil has the narrowest space and the richest soil has a wider space between rows and vines.

They differ between each vineyard because I believe that quality resides in the site first, then in the intrinsic attribute what each plant delivers. Productivity is based on the amount of vines per space.

  • How old are the vines?

They are very young actually. From 6 – 15 years old.

  • Is the yield natural or do you de-bud / green harvest to keep the yields low?

That is precisely what I call minimal intervention viticulture, we don´t do practices like de-budding or green harvest. They are not necessary. The yields are naturally low. In our goblets of Malbec, they have 4-5 bunches per vine being an average of 350-400 grams. per vine. The ´per hectare´ yield is about 2.5-3 tons.

  • Do you irrigate the vines?

In semi-arid regions irrigation is fundamental. In Gualtallary, the average annual rainfall doesn’t overcome 350 mm, so we must irrigate because it is not enough. And both irrigation, as is artificial drainage in other regions, are essential components of our terroir. There are wet seasons like the spring-summer of 2015 or 2016 where it wasn’t necessary, but regularly it is.

  • In light of the vines being young, how important is the notion of “old vines” compared with other qualitative factors – terroir/ yield etc? It is suggested by some that vines need to be over 30 years old to express the terroir they operate in – what are your thoughts on that?

I agree with the notion of “old vines”, what really excites me is when you can make excellent, unparalleled and unique wines with young vines. Can you imagine the wines you will make when they get old?

The idea of ​​the best terroir expression through vines of more than 30 years old is too vague and reductionist: for some people there are 30, other 50 and other 100 …  there is nothing clear in this subject, it is like saying as an attribute of quality: the soils where my vines are planted are Jurassic, they have millions of years, I don’t think the vines can realize between more or less ancient soils.

  • With such small production levels how is the project sustainable?

Yes we are sustainable, mainly if your name and brand are based in a non-negotiable long term vision, the rest is a question of an income-cost balance and ambitions.

A vigneron´s life is a worthy life to be lived if you are proud of what you do and understand the high and lows of the times with the firm conviction to overcome them.

That applies to the temptations of change that usually come to you when, i.e., you are not making a ´trendy´ wine or when you could be selling more volume of a decent, but not exceptional quality wine.

  • What are the real distinct differences between what you are doing at Per Se compared to more commercial projects in Mendoza?

If commercial projects have sectorized in areas of specialized people for every task, we do everything from the vine´s establishment until the sale of the last bottle we make.

  • Do you think projects such as Per Se is part of a growing development of fine wine production in Mendoza?

Yes, and we hope to have more small independent projects like us coming to see the light. We would like to encourage other colleagues to stay tied to their vineyards and the region they belong to.