2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Mendoza
Expert Rating
ST 92 points
(Read the full review below)
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Susana Balbo 92 points: Turning Heads from Oakville to Stags Leap

Steve Tanzer's winter coverage of the top Cabernets of Mendoza put the Silverado Trail on notice. In the hands of superstar winemakers of Tupungato and Uco Valley, where Michel Rolland, Susana Balbo and Paul Hobbs work their cellar magic, Mendoza is hot on Napa's trail.

Thirty years ago, a young Susana -- the first female graduate of Mendoza's top enology school -- landed a position in Warren Winiarski's cellar at Stag's Leap. In the mid-1980s, Napa had reached a crossroads. Bordeaux ruled the roost, and as a result, most in Napa Valley were focused on imitating Pauillac. Fruit was picked on the lean side. Alcohol levels were modest. The Cabernets tended to be stern in youth, and while some would prove age-worthy, many simply remained astringent and green.

Winiarski was already questioning the status quo, and Balbo listened intently as the Stag's Leap founder challenged Napa's "wannabe" direction. Still, when Susana returned to Argentina, she continued to make Cabernet as most were making it in Napa. "I didn't really like the wines I made," Balbo told us last winter, "but I didn't know any better, and I was scared to buck the trend."

Then, in 1993, a chance meeting with an American wine journalist serendipitously changed Susana's direction. The writer, Chuck Everett, tasted the bell peppers in Susana's wine, and disapproved. Balbo asked why, given that she was doing exactly what she'd been taught in Napa. "The more he criticized my wine, the more I became excited. There was a new wave in Napa, he told me, one that emphasized later maturity and higher sugars. Stag's Leap was leading the charge."

Over the course of the next two decades, Susana Balbo re-planted vineyards with tightened spacing, some to 8,000 plants per hectare, harvesting just one kilo of Cabernet per plant. Still, she recognized that Mendoza was missing the cooling effect of Napa's fog, so she took extra care to protect her small berry clusters from the hot Andes sun. Working with small crews, she taught her vineyard team to pull leaves only from the cooler, western side of the vines to promote ripeness, while leaving the canopy in place on the eastern side. By 2004, the "Queen of Agrelo" was harvesting ultra-ripe bunches, putting out a deep, dark, sleek reserve that would earn 91 points from The Wine Advocate. But it wouldn't be until the stunning harvest of 2011 that Balbo would really turn heads from Oakville to Stags Leap.

If one had to compose the perfect script for a great Cabernet vintage on the mountain terraces of Tupungato, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the one written in the topsy-turvy growing season of 2011. Spring featured an excellent set, but on November 9th, a zonda wind, moving up from Patagonia, led to a major frost, trimming crop levels before things really got started. The summer would feature high winds and some heavy rain, even a bit of hail. But as always, great harvest stories are largely not told until the final chapter -- never more so than in the foothills of the snowcapped Andes in March 2011.

The fabulous Indian summer that began three weeks before harvest brought turquoise skies, mild days and cool mountain nights. The dramatic diurnal temperature shift spiked sugars during the day as the chilly evenings preserved every gram of crisp acidity. At harvest, the berry size was small. Skins were thick, but seeds were perfectly brown, providing for exquisitely ripe tannic balance.

Susana Balbo's extravagant 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is her finest "Signature" to date. Opaque purple in color, with explosive aromas of blackberry and blueberry preserves, spiked with sweet mountain herbs. Rich, juicy and wildly opulent and silky on the attack, still braced by Pauillac restraint, Balbo has brilliantly walked the tightrope between the Old World and New with this luscious shot across Stag's Leaps' bow.

Tasting Notes

2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Mendoza
"(aged in 80% new French oak): Good saturated ruby-red. Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, violet, leather and herbs. Sappy, juicy and attractively sweet, with rather claret-like flavors of dark berries, herbs and spices. Nicely combines an Old World silkiness of texture with the ripeness of Mendoza cabernet. The long, rising finish features very smooth tannins. Classy juice, and long on personality."
92 points -- Stephen Tanzer, International Wine Cellar


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