If you’re reading this, chances are you like a glass of something red, white or blush come sundown. But you probably wouldn’t actually consider getting dirt under your nails and making the stuff yourself. For this latest edition of Wine Chats I chatted to Mikhail Klassen of Klassen Wines to find out why he and his family made the leap from popping out to the local bottle shop to producing their own wine in Mendoza, Argentina.
Wine Culturist: What would be your desert island wine?
Mikhail Klassen: I’d want as large a cask of Madeira as could be had, since the stuff is virtually indestructible. Neither heat, nor sun, nor humidity seems to spoil it, so if I am to be marooned on a desert island, that would be my recourse. My father, on the other hand, would just want some Bordeaux, preferably left bank.
Wine Culturist: And your favourite food and wine pairing?
Mikhail Klassen: Champagne with anything at any time of day. You could probably even pair it with breakfast cereal, if you were committed enough to that idea. More seriously, though, I love the simplicity of fresh bread, torn from the loaf, with a full-bodied red wine and some soft cheese, like a creamy brie or camembert.
Wine Culturist: What do you do when not drinking wine?
Mikhail Klassen: So our family has fairly diverse pursuits. My brother about to move to Germany to pursue further training in opera. My father and I co-founded a technology startup while I was still a PhD student in astrophysics. Our startup is trying combining advances in artificial intelligence research with aerospace training technology. We’re actively working on that right now. And my mother has always been at the centre of our family’s home life, filling it with good food and love, and now she’s working on the details of what our presence in Argentina might look like.
Wine Culturist: Most people just buy their wine at the local wine shop. Why did you want to set up your own vineyard?
Mikhail Klassen: That’s a very good question. And a scary one, because succeeding in wine is anything but guaranteed. I believe that for my parents it was a question of dreams and passion and legacy. They both grew up in South America: my mother in Bolivia and my father in Uruguay. They moved to Canada as young adults and that is where my brother and I grew up. This vineyard project in Mendoza reconnects them with a continent that was once their home, and now my brother and I feel a deeper connection there as well. We will never be a major wine producer, but we hope to make small-batch wines that will be an expression of what our family loves and draws us together.
Wine Culturist: Why Mendoza?
Mikhail Klassen: We traveled to Mendoza something like 10 years ago and visited a few of the main producers there, including Catena Zapata and Bodega Salentein. My brother and I were 18 and 20, respectively, but it connected us with a faraway part of the world. I still remember eating a gigantic meal under the stars one New Years Eve in Mendoza, sitting at a long table with strangers, some of them locals and others visitors to the region. It was a beautiful moment. The rich, rustic food of Argentina, inseparable from the wine and the wood-fired barbecues, or asados, are something that our family loves and connects us with the continent.
Wine Culturist: Why Vines of Mendoza and how does that model work?
Mikhail Klassen: The Vines of Mendoza have an interesting model that I believe others may come to emulate over time. It was founded in 2006 by Michael Evans, a former tech executive in Washington, D.C., and Pablo Gimenez Riili, whose family has been making wine in Argentina for generations. Additionally, they brought on Santiago Achaval as the Consulting Winemaker.
Michael and Pablo recognized that the Uco Valley south of Mendoza has enormous winemaking potential, but is still underdeveloped. The Vines of Mendoza sells private vineyard estates so that others can partner with them and participate in world-class winemaking in the Uco Valley. The Vines manages the estates, and owners, in consultation with the agronomists, Francisco Evangelista, the winemaker, Pablo Martorell, and experts at The Vines, select the types of grapes they will grow on their estates and the types of wine they will make.
The owners are active participants in the process, and we selected varietals that we like and see potential with, such as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which are very interesting as single varietals and work well in blends.
Wine Culturist: Greatest challenge so far?
Mikhail Klassen: There have been many, but the hardest has been navigating all the legal requirements of foreign ownership, import/export, liquor bureaus, labeling requirements, etc. Once it’s all figured out, things will hopefully run smoothly, but for a small boutique upstart vineyard, it’s a lot of headaches and expenses. On top of that, we’ve just had an El Niño year, so the weather has been less predictable, but the people at the Vines have done a great job in managing the vineyards and accounting for the weather. In fact, there was snow shortly after the harvest finished this year. What a relief all the grapes were in before the snows came.
Wine Culturist: And greatest pleasure?
Mikhail Klassen: The greatest pleasure is in selecting the blends and waiting in expectation for the day we can try them from the bottle and share them with friends.
Wine Culturist: Tell me about the first vintage, 2016. What are your expectations?
Mikhail Klassen: Actually, our first vintage will be a 2014 wine that is a blend of 85% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot. These grapes, however, will come from other plots within the Vines of Mendoza, as our own vines were still not ready yet. With those percentages, it can technically be labeled as simply a “Malbec”, but we believe the additions of the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot add more structure and balance. It’s already in bottles and we’re trying to get it imported to Canada. That process is going to some time but it should make it to Canada later this year.
Nevertheless, my father was able to bring back two bottles directly from the bottling line. One we’ll keep for posterity, but the other we opened in November 2015 and it was great. Good structure, classic Malbec expression, fruity, but not overly much. Although we were pleased with it, we expect that future vintages will be even better. We were a little too eager to drink it; it could have been even better if we had given the bottle a few months to settle.
The 2016 vintage will be the first vintage with grapes from our own vineyard and we’re very excited about it. One wine will be a tank-fermented Grand Corte (Big Blend) of co-fermented Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The other will be a barrel-fermented Malbec and Petit Verdot. We expect that they’ll be very unique.
Wine Culturist: What goes into making a great wine?
Mikhail Klassen: Most would say that the land (terroir) matters. The potential of the Uco Valley is still being realized and I think in time people will be come to speak about the various microclimates and sub-regions, and then begin labeling their wines according to them. As if there aren’t enough details to keep track of!
But obviously what matters most, besides being in the right place, is the quality of the grapes that result from good farming practices, vineyard maintenance, and the skill of the winemaker.
We believe we’ve planted the right grapes for the climate, but still given ourselves room to experiment. You never know what the final result will taste like until it’s poured from the bottle into glasses, but you refuse to cut any corners during production, and you surround the whole operation with the best people you can. Then you wait and see.
Wine Culturist: What are your dreams for the future?
Mikhail Klassen: My dream is to be able to share something with friends and family that will enrich our times together. My parents hope to build a house in Argentina some time soon which we want to enjoy together with friends and family.
Wine Culturist: How has your relationship with wine changed since becoming a wine producer?!
Mikhail Klassen: I read more about wine now, because we did not come from a winemaking family. There isn’t this generational knowledge that we can directly draw from, even though we draw from the knowledge and experience of the people at The Vines.
I also look at wine differently in the store. I live in Calgary, Alberta Canada, and Malbec is very popular here. I smile when I walk through the store and see bottles from producers that I’ve visited in Mendoza. I respect and admire their wines and feel very humbled to be working in the same industry.
Wine Culturist: One sentence summary of Klassen Wines?
Mikhail Klassen: Klassen Wines is a tiny family-owned vineyard in the heart Argentina’s wine country that delights in making small batches of unique super premium red wines inspired by our shared love of South America.
Big thanks to Mikhail for sharing, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed this super inspiring Wine Chat! Have you got a great wine story to tell? Why not tell us all about it in the comments, or, if you’d like to be featured on The Wine Culturist, send us an interview request using the contact form below!