Catching Up with Jose Galante, One of Argentina's Malbec Pioneers

José Galante was one of Argentina's Malbec pioneers. He worked at Catena Zapata for 34 years before leaving for Bodegas Salentein. Salentein which sits 1,500 meters above sea level produces cool climate Malbec, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Some of Saletein's vineyards can be traced back to Jesuits of the seventeenth century.

José Galante talks to Dorothy J. Gaiter about Malbec, the Uco Valley, and how the Argentine economy impacts its wine trade.


Dorothy J. Gaiter: Today, we have with us José Galante, who is the chief wine maker at Bodegas Salentein in Mendoza.

José Galante: Yes.

Actually the Uco Valley, in Argentina.

Yes. 100% of our vineyard is located in Uco Valley.

Uco Valley is a beautiful region in the west of Mendoza. It was the last region developed in Argentina, and began to produce high-quality wines in the last 20 years when grape irrigation arrived in Argentina. That was the main reason to develop this area. It's a beautiful area because it's in the slope of the mountain.

That sounds beautiful.

The climatic condition, the possibility to produce grapes at different altitudes with different flavors, different air pressure, I think is the most attractive for us. Especially in Salentein, because Salentein has 2,000 hectares, with vineyards of more than 800 hectares and our vineyards go from 1,000 meters to 1,700 meters.

So you have a lot of different micro-climates to work with.

Yes. This is very difficult to explain because in a short distance, only 22 kilometers, the ripeness of the grape can be different. And the expression of the grape also is different from one place to another.

Must be very fun for a winemaker, though, right?

Yes. For example: Chardonnay. We have Chardonnay at 3 different altitudes. And the Chardonnay at the low altitude usually has more tropical flavor.

But in the middle is more pears, apple, this kind of flavor. In the higher altitude, there's the most exciting Chardonnay with citrus, a lot of minerals, good flavor, good acidity.

At the highest altitude?

In the high altitude, the same with the Malbec, the same with the Pinot Noir. Also, it's different, the timing of the moment of picking the grape. For example, in the low altitude, we pick Chardonnay at the beginning of March. In the high altitude, is at the end of April, more than one month.

It's all handpicked as well, right?

Yes. All our grapes are picked by hand. Our winery is in the middle of the vineyard. In a few minutes after we pick the grapes, we have the grapes in our winery and we have control of the different situations.

Okay. You are well known for helping introduce Malbec to Americans. Was it difficult to sell Malbec to Americans in the beginning? You worked for Catena Zapata for 34 years?

You were in the very beginning.

At the beginning, our expectation with Malbec was not too strong, not very confident. Nothing like the success we have now with Malbec. It was new flavor. But when people tasted Malbec, they fell in love with Malbec. The color is very attractive, the flavor is black fruit, full of flavor, and I think the most exciting feature is the sweetness of the tannins. Malbec is easy to combine with different food. You can drink Malbec with pasta ...

I like it with roast meats. I love meat.

Yes, with everything. I think this is one of the reasons that Malbec is very successful. Also, Malbec is the most important variety. Almost 50% of our portfolio is Malbec. We are working a lot trying to even define the best region to produce Malbec in our vineyard. We are working a lot in two different ways.

One of them is to explore some specific site where we can find the most exciting expression of Malbec. The other way is to explore Malbec blending with another variety. I think these two ways are the future for the Malbec in Argentina.

You're a real student. You're an academic student and a teacher of wine making? I read that you got your degree at the Universidad Maza. You used to teach there, too?

I taught there for 15 years.


I no longer am teaching there. I’m more focused now in the winery. I think was a good experience because it was an opportunity to translate all the information about our beautiful treasures in Argentina.

This Bodegas Salentein, they've got 3 vineyards, right?

We have 3 different estates. The higher estate, we call San Paulo. It's a beautiful region in this area.

Sometimes, you have snow in August in that vineyard?


That's amazing. That's really high altitude?

Very high altitude. In this area, we produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Meunier also. In the middle we produce a lot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc. We are now planting more Malbec, and a little Merlot. The low altitude, we say low altitude, but this is 1,200 meters high. For us it is low altitude, but not for other makers of wine. In this area, we have Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo, a lot of different varieties.

When people think of Argentine wines, they think of Malbec. Are there other varietals that you're very excited about?

We have a lot of different varietals. I think one of the varietals that could be successful in the future is Cabernet Franc because the expression and the flavor of the Cabernet Franc in our region are so nice. I love Cabernet Sauvignon. I love Chardonnay. I love Pinot Noir. We are producing, I think, good references of these wines.

I love Cabernet Franc. Why is it doing so well there?

I think because in our climatic conditions, Cabernet Franc grows very well and it's sweet, round, and has a lot of flavor. There is a lot of potential in Cabernet Franc. I think Cabernet Franc is a varietal that is not too strong. It’s clean and here we can produce a good expression of the varietal. Our Cabernet Franc, we began to produce and now it's very successful in our portfolio.

Your winery is owned by a Dutch company and that's where it got its name, right? This is the name of a 17th century castle, right?

Yes, it's the castle. It's a beautiful castle and it's the name of our wine, yes.

The current winery is some spectacular destination winery, I've read. You've got a resort, you've got a gallery, you've got restaurants, you've got this amazing wine facility.

I think Mr. Pon was very visionary when he decide to invest in the Uco Valley because he bought the best land and he helped the region develop. He was a real pioneer to start. After, then to start planting vineyards at 5,400 feet, creating an art gallery there, a hot spot of tourism.

Yes, yes. Imagine when Mr. Pon arrived in the Uco Valley, there was nothing in this area. It had only the natural vegetation. Imagine our average rain in this area is 200 millimeters. It's a desert. He decided at the beginning to buy this land. Then, he decided to plant his vineyard and to build a beautiful restaurant, art gallery, and of course, a wonderful winery with all the new technology.

I think it was a tremendous decision because I remember hearing that everybody thought, "This man is crazy." There was no other investment in the area for a long time. Mr. Pon was a real visionary to develop Uco Valley.

That's incredible to have that kind of foresight. With Argentina's economy going through a difficult time now, is that having an effect on the way you can sell the wine, the prices that you can ask for? Is it affecting your ability to sell your wine?

We're very optimistic about the future because usually Argentina goes up and down, up and down. I think in a few months, we will see improvements in the economy. We are continuing with our project. I think the most important thing for us is that 100% of our grapes are produced in our vineyards. We have all the control in all the different stages of production. This is one of the reasons we are very optimistic.

Okay. The Netherlands and Argentina have become very close in recent years. The Queen of the Netherlands is from Argentina. Have your wines been served at any of the official affairs, any big parties, weddings?

JMaxima and Willem-Alexander were married in 19 ...


2002 and Pinot Noir was served, our Pinot Noir.

Is that right? The Pinot Noir? Not the Malbec? That's interesting.

It was Pinot Noir. Now, in the future, we would serve Malbec.

That's wonderful. She became queen last year.

Yes. For us, it's a very big honor. Maxima is a lady. For us, it's very important to know that she is the Queen and also represents our country.

Is the Netherlands a big market for your wines?

Yes. In Europe the main market is Netherlands, yes.

If you could describe your wines with one word, what one word would you use?

Now, I feel very happy because people in the world are changing their ideas about wine. A few years ago, people complained that wines were “too strong, too concentrated.” Now, people like a wine that you can drink with food. People prefer a wine with more elegance, with finesse. This is the wine that we are producing in our winery. We’re always thinking of the consumer. If people drink a bottle of wine and it's good, they’ll think ‘I’d like to drink another.’

Want more? Be sure to read Dorothy J. Gaiter's column featuring José Galante and Salentein.