Solo Mission: Winemaking in the Shadow of the Andes

By Nicola Ross.

Few things in life are as sexy as wine. Oenophiles – people who love the alcoholic beverage derived from grapes – often dream of owning their own vineyard, of spending their days tending to their vines and their evenings sitting around a rustic wooden table under an arbour as they sample the fortified nectar of their labour with friends.

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While the dream remains just that for most people, it is a reality for Thornbury, Ontario residents Noel and Terry Neelands, owners of The Mill Cafe and Sisi Trattoria. The couple’s dream began while they were vacationing in Argentina. The outcome, as anyone who has tried their line of Solo Contigo wines knows, can make an oenophile swoon. The Neelands’ 2010 Malbec Reserva and their Malbec Coleccion scored resounding 92s with Wine Enthusiast magazine, making them wines of “exceptional quality.” Similarly, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocates awarded 90 points to their 2010 Coleccion Series. This is not Baby Duck and the Neelands are not toiling in Ontario’s harsh climate hoping to produce an acceptable vintage.

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“We want to make the best wine possible,” says Noel. His dream is to score a perfect 100 from wine critics, and he believes his 2013 Reserva will bring him a step closer to his lofty goal by reaping a 94. Such success is the result of a combination of factors including the Neelands’ decision to make wine in an area describes as “ideal for growing grapes with ripe, intense fruit characteristics and good acidity levels.” Mendoza Province in central Argentina consists of a series of valleys at the foot of the highest of the Andes mountains. It is hot and dry (the sun shines for more than 300 days per year) with an ancient irrigation system that waters the rocky volcanic terrain. In turn, the soil imparts Mendoza’s grapes with that sought-after and unpredictable terroir.

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The Neelands’ success is not a fleeting affair. After a serendipitous rendezvous with the owners of The Vines of Mendoza, a wine-tasting bar in the city of Mendoza (Argentina’s version of San Francisco), they invested in a unique project. Almost 10 years in the making, it boasts a newly opened swank resort and restaurant, recently named to Condé Nast’s 2014 Hot List of the 33 best hotels in the world. Its Siete Fuegos (Seven Fires) restaurant operates under the guidance of the internationally acclaimed chef Francis Mallmann. Surrounding the starkly clean lines of the modern flat-topped buildings (there are 22 villas as well as the restaurant, reception area, swimming pool and spa) are 1500 acres of grape vines. The land is divided into one-acre private micro-vineyards cared for by some of Argentina’s most talented agronomists.

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“You can’t make good wine from bad grapes,” explains Mariana Onofri, The Vines’ wine director who works under the direction of head winemaker Pablo Martorell and consulting winemaker Santiago Achaval. Producing 90,000 bottles of wine in 2014, the Neelands are the largest producers of the more than 135 micro-vineyard owners in the development. With the assistance of The Vines’ experts, the Neelands and others are turning out fine Malbec, Cab Franc, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and even Pinot Noir wines. Each vineyard owner goes through an exhaustive process of tasting to determine what grapes or combination of grapes will give them the signature wines they desire. Then the waiting begins – it takes at least two years until the new vines reach the level of maturity needed to harvest.

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The Neelands tended toward Malbec in the past because it is perfectly suited to Mendoza’s climate. Their success with Argentina’s tried and true grape has made them more adventuresome. “It’s impossible to sell expensive wine when you first start,” explains Noel. But now that Solo Contigo has a track record, the couple is taking some risks. “We are working on my new TEN wine,” says Terry, whose initials are T.E.N. “It is pure Syrah because I love it.” But this is no ordinary Syrah. Terry’s signature wine was stored in new oak barrels for a year, then transferred to new oak barrels for a second year. Then it will be put aside in bottles for a final year. All of this time spent in storage, particularly in expensive oak barrels, adds up. “This wine will retail for $250,” says Terry.

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Mariana says, “One of the most important reasons for The Vines’ success is people [like the Neelands] who are passionate about wine and really want to learn.” If your dream is to make wine that your friends will to clamour to receive, you could join the Neelands and others who don’t just label their own wine, but also participate in growing the vines, harvesting the grapes and customizing the wine to meet their individual tastes – often while sitting with friends around a rustic wooden table on a summer evening in February as the sun sets behind the snow-capped Andes.

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To try the Neelands’ wine, drop by The Mill Cafe or Sisi Trattoria in Thornbury. You can also order wine from Solo Contigo by contacting Noel Neelands. Finally, Solo Contigo wines will soon be available by the glass and by the bottle at Soho House hotels in Toronto, Miami, West Hollywood, New York and Chicago.