Bodegas Y Viñedos O. Fournier

Although now resident in Mendoza, Argentina, José Manuel Ortega is a Spaniard. He comes from a family of lithographers who set up shop in Burgos in 1782. A century later they enjoyed a near monopoly as playing card manufacturers and Fournier became a household name in Spain, which is why he chose to name his winery Fournier rather than Ortega. The lithography company was sold in the 1980s.

Young José Manuel went to Pennsylvania to study, and soon after graduating, landed a rewarding job at Goldman Sachs. "During that time I also did my military service in Spain. So I spent some months as a humble soldier, and then a week later I was handling enormous budgets. After 1995, I ran South American investments for Banco Santander in Madrid. I wasn’t much of a wine drinker back then. I first got into wine as an investment. Collectors of top Bordeaux were doing well, so I started buying and cellaring top Spanish wines such as Vega Sicilia, Janus from Pesquera, and L’Ermita from Priorat. Then I started visiting wineries to source more wines.

"During my travels I got to know people in Argentina who knew I was thinking of getting into the wine business. I looked at various propositions there and eventually heard about what is now my property. This part of the Valle de Uco in southern Mendoza was already becoming one of the most desirable wine regions in Argentina. The local real estate guy tried to cheat me by asking double the price at which he was advertising the property – some locals hear my Spanish accent and think I must be a fool. So I went directly to the owner and made the deal.

"That was in 2000. The vines once planted at this property had been ripped out in the 1980s and replaced by tomatoes. I tested the water wells, which were excellent, restored the abandoned houses, and planted vines again, including the only bush vines in South America. We used rented winery facilities until my own winery was ready in 2003."

And what a winery it is. From a distance, it looks as though a flying saucer has landed on concrete pods in the middle of scrubland and vines. Indeed, the roof is a 43-square-metre steel slab resting on four stubby concrete pillars, linked by glass-walled office areas, with the winery itself spread over four storeys below. The design is made even more dramatic by two ramps that sweep up to the glass offices on both sides, and the cumulative effect is remarkably beautiful. The gravity-operated facility is mostly underground, and the vast, hushed, concrete-walled barrel cellar is 50 feet below the plaza next to the winery.

"I needed the winery to be functional as well as beautiful, so my winemaker José Spisso had a large say in its design."

The O. Fournier estate owns three vineyards in the La Consulta region of Mendoza, planted to classic red varieties with an emphasis on Tempranillo. Working with a number of local growers, Bodegas O. Fournier also buys in high quality grapes from old vines, employing a system which actively encourages green harvest and low yields. "While waiting for my bush vines to mature I bought fruit from local growers. It’s also a kind of insurance. There are risks of hail and frost and it makes sense to spread the risk by buying from different areas. But my 17 growers are within 15 miles of the winery. I pay not by the tonne but by the hectare – which was almost unheard of in those days – so that I can control the farming. We set a likely harvest date and if by that date Spisso and I decide the vines need more hang-time, I assume all the risk. If thereafter the crop gets wiped out by hail, I must pay the farmer in full. In other words, I treat my growers exceptionally well. This means we made really good wines from the outset in 2001."

Ortega admits he is primarily a businessman. But his commitment to quality is uncompromising. "I know little about the technical side of the business, so I hire the best. Spisso has been with me from the start and oversees both my properties" (Ortega also owns the 60ha Spiga estate in Ribera del Duero, Spain). He has also built a handsome glass cube of a restaurant next to the winery, run by his wife, and he has plans for small luxury resorts on his properties.

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