THE CIRCULO V.E.RO.
Tempus Alba, The case
Tempus Alba is a winery located in the Coquimbito district, Maipú, just 30 minutes away from the capital city of the province of Mendoza. The landscape is typical of Mendoza’s rural areas: vineyards, olive groves, cherry orchards and vegetable crops, 12 and the changing hues of the majestic Cordillera de los Andes. The grapes used in the winery are from their own vines grown in the “La Alborada”, “El Retorno” and “San Antonio” vineyards (110 hectares in all), located in the privileged areas of Luján de Cuyo, Maipú and Tupungato. Altitude ranges from 2,600 to 3,950 feet (800 to 1,200 meters) above sea level.
Because of the untapped quality potential of Malbec grapes, this variety was adopted as a strategic factor for the growth and sustainable development of Tempus Alba’s grape-wine business. To this end, based on the premise that genetic selection can be an important point of differentiation from the competitors, the winery has been working on the identification, evaluation, selection and in-vitro micro propagation of its own Malbec clones since 2000. Thus, although Argentina’s Malbec wines already are a “registered trademark”, it was thought that science could contribute to further improve the enological quality of this variety.
The initial requirement was to start with the maximum genetic diversity that Malbec can offer, and then select clones exhibiting superior enological quality for subsequent propagation. To a certain extent, Tempus Alba foresaw changes in the environmental, economic and market contexts, and evaluated the possible impact of innovation on product, process and marketing not only for itself but for the entire grapewine sector from the point of view of its long-term sustainability. Specifically, its proposal consisted in investing in knowledge that could contribute to the adaptation of Malbec to the new and changing agro-ecological and economic macro- and mesoenvironments, with a unique and differentiated product in response to a comercial strategy of creating scarcity in a context of saturated markets.
In short, the company has bet on investing in research and technological innovation and on raising the value of human capital by stocking up on knowledge, and recognizing it as the engine of its future development and increased sectoral competitiveness. In transferring the knowledge gained to other grape growers, the company emphasizes a spirit of cooperation, a deeply-rooted value of Tempus Alba expressed in the motto of its dogma: “to cooperate in order to compete”.
The journey of technological innovation proper begins by selecting a bud from a “genetically superior” mother vine, from which bits of green tissue are taken. The bits 13 will eventually sprout a root system and grow in a glass jar under completely sterile conditions. Once the new plantlet is some 10 cm tall, it is divided into small segments (micro-cuttings) that are replanted in another glass container; thus in-vitro micropropagation continues until the desired number of plants is reached. After a rustication period, they can be taken outside and planted in the vineyard.
The economic importance of this technique lies in the fact that from a single bud it is possible to obtain tens of thousands of genetically identical, virus-free grapevines in one year: a woody cane obtained from the winter pruning of an adult plant will take the same time to give rise to a single plant.
It is important to note that this technique does not involve genetic manipulation; it consists simply in accelerating a process as natural as millenary. It replaces a climate dependent production process with an industrial production process under controlled and completely sterile conditions, which ensures genetic uniformity, an exponential rate of multiplication, and absolute plant health and traceability.
In 2000, the winery launched an ambitious program of genetic screening by implanting a 2.6 hectare vineyard (“El Retorno”, Coquimbito, Maipú) with 8,000 Malbec vines from massal selections coming from different areas in the province which, through time, have proved to be particularly well-suited to Malbec. This is the origin of a highly representative genetic bank of the different expressions of this variety in Argentina’s main grape-wine province.
In 2004, a phenotypic selection of plants was performed based on visual morphological features: length and diameter of the shoots; cluster size and weight, and cluster distribution; berry size and weight; vigor and yield in kilos per plant; susceptibility to millerandage; etc. The values obtained were checked against the ampelographic characteristics of Malbec described by noted Argentine specialists more than fifty years ago.
Also in 2004, a total of 589 plants - future clone heads - were selected and transplanted to a 1.5 hectare vineyard (“La Alborada”, Anchoris, Luján de Cuyo), where the winery ’s mother vines remain. A small yet sufficient number of plants from the 14 same mother vine was planted to produce grapes for future physical and chemical analysis and for experimental micro-vinification.
In the meantime, from 2004 to 2007, the propagation of in-vitro plantlets, their subsequent rustication, and planting in the vineyards took place. During this period, there was a most fruitful exchange of experiences with Dr. Danijela Harlt, from Croatia’s Mediterranean Agronomic Institute.
From 2007 to 2010, the vineyard was monitored every year, from shooting (bud break) to véraison, to study the agronomic and enological behavior of the clones during the selection process. A most useful non-refundable grant (ANR) from the Fondo Tecnológico Argentino (FONTAR) of the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica (ANPCyT) made it possible to hire three prestigious local researchers during three consecutive agricultural cycles to conduct a scientific assessment of the enological potential of the mother vines. The assessment included the following: monitoring of agronomic behavior; calculation of the grape quality index (lqv); sensory evaluation of grapes; calculation of the maturity and enological quality index (IMCE); micro-vinifications using 20-30 clones each year; and blind tasting of the wines. One of the consultants assisted the company in the field of tissue culture and micropropagation, especially during the rustication phase of the new plantlets and their transfer from invitro to ex-vitro (greenhouse) conditions.
All aspects of each clone were thus classified and by late 2010, as a result of the assessment, a second classification yielded a selection of 16 clones of a superior enological quality.
Although the main research output was the selection of 16 clones of superior enological quality, the comparative analysis of the genetic material under study made it possible to draw other relevant conclusions and validate some hypotheses about the impact of clonal selection on wine quality. The following are some of the most important:
• 2007/8: Existence of a “terroir” effect in favor of Anchoris (Luján de Cuyo) over Coquimbito (Maipú).
• 2008/9: Higher wine quality with grapes from clonal rather than massal selection.
• 2009/10: Higher wine quality of clonal blends over the single-clone wines in the blend.
Between 2010 and 2011, with the financial support of the Secretariat for Small and Medium-Scale Enterprises (SEPyME for its acronym in Spanish) of the National Ministry of Industry, and within the framework of its Programa de Acceso al Crédito y Competitividad (Credit Access and Competitiveness Program), the firm hired a renowned Argentine specialist in viticulture, who drafted a vineyard management protocol to grow Malbec grapes for high-end quality wine production.
Along 2013 two new studies were conducted, namely the ampelographic and genetic characterizations of the 16 selected clones. The first one was done following the parameters suggested by OIV for different varieties of Vitis vinifera, and observations were made on the plant, clusters and stems. For the DNA analysis molecular markers (S-SAP) were used, which made it possible to clearly and unambiguously distinguish all the clones. This technique can be used also in the future as a method for clonal selection.
From 2013 until now, within the framework of the Círculo VERO Malbec Program, the new genetics of Tempus Alba began to be transferred to other grape growers on the basis of sharing a combination of three clone vines out of the 16 selected ones, so that the emblematic Argentine variety can find its own expression in the different terroirs where it is planted. A standard contract has been devised for any vitner from any grape-wine production region in Argentina who wishes to join the Círculo, may have access to the improved genetics. New comers to the Circle are only required to furnish information on the agronomic performance of the clones and oenological quality of the grapes grown in their respective terroirs.
Thus, through the common efforts of all users involved, it will be possible for Malbec to achieve its maximum quantitative and qualitative expression under similar conditions of genetic material and vineyard management. The information collected by the Círculo is fed into a common data base shared by all its members.
We at Tempus Alba believe that this is the only way to isolate and assess the pure impact of terroir on the production of unique wines with genetic identity in a given geographic region. The final challenge is to produce a science-based national sensory map for Malbec.