"I like to break all of the structures": An Interview with Susana Balbo

I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Argentina's best-known winemakers, Susana Balbo, for a great lunch and flight of wines in Mendoza this past January.  Opinionated, headstrong, and bold: Susana epitomizes the Argentinean spirit and her wines enjoy great success in the USA.  She pioneered the new "classic" style of Torrontes, and was happy to answer a few questions about the grape, her life's work, and wine in Argentina.  Special thanks to Bruno Alonso, the US exports manager for Dominio del Plata, whose assistance in conducting and translating this interview was invaluable.  
-Matt Stamp MS

You have achieved great success in a traditionally male-dominated Argentinean wine industry.  What was the industry like when you were struggling to get a job in 1981?  How did you get your start?

    When I was looking for my first job back in 1981, the wine industry in Argentina was in one of its major crises: the value of a liter of wine had gone down from $1 USD to $.35 USD. Consequently, more than 100,000 hectares of vines were eradicated, turning it into a deep, full-blown crisis.

    Such hard times brought the tides of change to the industry, forcing it to reinvent itself, to try different things, to go down paths it had never gone before.

    How did I start? I found a job advertisement in the newspaper for a winery in Salta that was looking for a winemaker.  I applied for it as did 68 other winemakers, and I went through the whole selection process until I and two other applicants were selected. I finally took the job, and I spent 9 years working for Michel Torino.  Structurally speaking, women were not included in the winemaking side of the wine business. Women only used to work as lab technicians in the wineries, and we were not part of the decision-making process. And since I think that all limits are self imposed, that they are defined by our convictions, I kept on breaking the structures and status quos at that point in time that defined those imaginary limits, which allowed me to be where I am and what I am today.

    At this stage in your career, you are a successful winemaker, both in Argentina and abroad, and you served for four years as the President of the Wines of Argentina organization—presumably the first woman to do so.  What do you think are the Argentinean wine industry’s greatest successes in your time, and what should the industry focus on in the future?

      I was indeed the first woman ever to be elected as the president of Wines of Argentina (WOFA). The most important milestone I achieved during my presidency was the professionalizing of WOFA’s structure. We were able to bring in experienced professionals in areas like: marketing, finance, international business, etc. We were also able to plan and fund simultaneous activities in the 5 main focus markets for Argentinean wines. Thanks to this professionalization, we organized more than 300 events a year in our focus markets. Their impact was even bigger than expected as some of the events happened simultaneously and in different locations.

      Another contributing factor was a huge marketing campaign based on interesting cultural elements such as Tango, folklore, and more.  Moving in the right direction with the right people and a supportive board enabled us to run Wines of Argentina more like a company which made us much more efficient and effective.

      I think the focus in the future should be to preserve our wine’s identity and the ever growing connection they have with quality over time. The price/quality relationship should always be something people think of when referring to our wines.

      Another important factor should be to effectively communicate the fact that Argentina has great potential and quality in all of its grape varietals, and not just Malbec. Malbec and Torrontes have become huge successes due to their uniqueness and the fact that these grapes grow best in Argentina. But we also have outstanding Cabernets, Merlots, Bonardas, Syrahs, etc.  As long as we keep producing constantly improving high quality wines and maintain an excellent price/quality relationship, Argentine wines will continue to impress and be among the best in the industry.

      Susana Balbo's Dominio del Plata in Agrelo, Mendoza

      With “Crios”, you have been instrumental in developing the international image of Torrontés.  Will you tell us about your history with the grape, your winemaking methods, and what characteristics of the grape you try to emphasize or restrain in the wine?

        Torrontes is a grape that is closely linked with my history as a winemaker, and therefore   to my own personal growth and development. Torrontes was the first varietal I worked with while I was in Salta, and one of my personal challenges was to create a high quality wine with a grape that historically had been used to produce basic table wines.

        It is a very manageable grape, but it has a lot of secrets in the way it must be dealt and worked with. This includes both the vineyard management and winemaking aspect of the varietal. One of the main challenges, for example, is reducing some of its sour qualities so that it is more enjoyable for the consumer.

        I was able to successfully do this thanks to one of my main attributes as a taster, which is a strong aversion to sour flavors. Given that it was an unpleasant taste to me, I always translated that to my style of Torrontes. And that has been the key to prevent the Torrontes’ I have produced from tasting sour, like much of the Torrontes being produced. Other factors that have contributed to my success with the varietal have been: effective vineyard management, proper fermentation processes, and protective methods in order to always work with the cleanest juice possible.

        What do you consider the “classic” profile of a Torrontés wine, in terms of color, aroma, and structure? 

          A classic profile of Torrontes would be:

          • Color: mainly yellow notes with hints of green in lower proportions. Crios Torrontes tends to always have more greenish notes than yellow.
          • Aroma: very intense floral aromas. People sometimes even describe them simply as “grape-like”. The reason being is the concentration of terpenic components in the grape which people associate with the “muscatel grape”, a popular grape in our country (consumed often, and used produce table wines)
          • Structure: it is bigger and broader than a regular white wine. It’s also more phenolic and tannic, and has well-defined retronasal elements.

          Crios Torrontes has greenish yellow notes and soft terpenic aromas due to specific tehcniques used in its production process. Floral aromas are predominant, like jasmine and roses, and it structure is known for the lack of sour finish on the palate.

          What are the basic differences between Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino, and Torrontés Mendocino?

            Back in 2005, Cecilia Aguero, an Argentinean vineyard manager (agronomic engineer) did her University of California at Davis thesis on the genetic identification of Torrontes’ DNA. She found that the Torrontes grape is a hybrid created from the crossing of two other grapes.  In the case of the Torrontes Riojano, she was able to identity both of the “parent grapes”. They were Muscat of Alexandria, originally from Italy, and Criolla chica, also known as the “missionary grape”, originally from the Canary Islands.  Regarding the Torrontes San Juanino and Mendocino, she could also identify Muscat of Alexandria as one of the parents, but she couldn’t define or recognize the second “parent grape”, which was different in both cases.

            When it comes down to the grape itself, its defining components are the same: geraniol, linalool and terpeniol, but in different concentrations.  Terpeniol is responsible for “grape-like” aromas; geraniol for rose aromas among others, and linalol for jasmine aromas. Linalool can also be found in citrus fruits, and lichee.  The San Juanino and Mendocino Torrontes have more terpeniol but less linalool and geraniol, which is why they are not as elegant as the Torrontes from Salta. These particular concentrations also make the aromas dissipate faster than the Torrontes from Salta which has more linalool, making its aromas more consistent and persistent.

            Have you noticed how jasmine scent lingers for a long time in your house? (Editor's note: in Argentina, flowers are commonly displayed around the house for aromatic purposes). It is much more persistent and lingering than terpeniol. When you open a bottle of San Juanino and Mendocino Torrontes, the first glass is usually great, but if you leave the bottle opened for an hour, you will notice how the aromas start to dissipate. You can still perceive the aromas on the pallet, but not on the nose. That is the main difference among them. I don’t want to pick on Torrontes’ from Mendoza and San Juan, but they are of lower quality than Torrontes from Salta and the North. It’s like comparing perfume with “eau de toilette”.

            Despite Malbec’s success, Torrontes is still relatively unknown to the average US wine drinker.  Is the industry trying to position Torrontés in order to achieve consumer recognition akin to Malbec, and what steps do you think will be necessary?

              The Argentine wine industry is trying to advertise and position Torrontes akin to Malbec because it is also a unique varietal. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, just like the style of Argentine Malbec, so its character cannot be replicated by any other country. That makes it much more interesting to the consumer, much more exotic.

              To achieve the same level of recognition as Malbec has, the same steps will most likely be followed. Let me expand: when Malbec first started to be exported there were limited amounts of great quality Malbec produced. As time went by, the total number of exported Malbecs grew considerably, but the proportion of regular quality Malbec was still much bigger than the finer ones. Nowadays, that proportion is almost even, and it is at a sustainable production level.

              Torrontes is showing the same pattern. Differing quality level wines are being exported, but the high quality wine proportion is growing much more relative to lower quality wine. By doing so, we will gain recognition by the consumer which will hopefully trigger a similar process as the one Malbec has enjoyed. The press is also playing a very important role, and the emphasis they put on Torrontes is growing by the day.

              Have you tasted Torrontés made outside of Argentina?  With its success in the country, are any other areas of the world interested in producing the grape?

                I am not aware of any other country producing Torrontes at the moment. For example, what is known as Torrontes in Spain is actually “Almabacia”, and it is a different varietal.

                Susana Balbo is a winemaker graduated with the Gold Medal from Universidad Juan Agustín Maza in Mendoza. She was the first female to get a winemaker’s college degree in Argentina. Susana has provided winemaking and business consultancy services for international wine companies in Chile, Spain, Italy, among many more. She has taken numerous training and technique courses in some of the most reputable wineries around the world, in places like: California, Italy, France, Spain and Australia. Since 2001, Susana has been the Chief Winemaker and owner of Dominio del Plata winery, her personal project and life-long dream. Susana was the first female President of Wines of Argentina, and she served as such from 2006 to 2010. She continues to be involved in the organization as the current vice-president. Some of the main pillars of Susana’s work in the wine industry continue to be the development of Argentina’s exports and the strengthening of its brand’s internationally.
                1978 – 1979:  Arizu S.A. Winery – Quality control
                1981 – 1989: Winemaker - Suc. Abel Michel Torino Winery - Salta.
                1990 – 1992:  Viñas de Balbo Winery - Vice-president – Production Director.
                1990 – 1995:  Lovaglio Balbo Winery CEO.
                1996 – 1998:  Martins Winery – Production Director.
                2000 – 2002:  Export Manager Catena Zapata Winery
                1999 – till present:  CEO Dominio del Plata Winery and Chief Winemaker (Wine lines: Crios, BenMarco, Susana Balbo and Nosotros)