Susana Balbo studied enology at university and graduated Cum Laude in 1981,becoming the first qualified female enologist in Argentina. In 2015 she was elected for National Congresswoman and in 2017 Argentinian President Mauricio Macri selected her as Chair of the W20 (Women’s 20), a working group dedicated to women’s empowerment on a global scale. The British magazine Drinks Business named her ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2015 and in 2018 included her in their Top 10 list of ‘The World’s Most Influential Women in Wine’. That same year she became the first female Goodwill Ambassador of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), from where she fosters development, inclusion and empowerment, with special emphasis on matters related to gender and rural youth. Last year, she was awarded the ‘2019 BRAVO Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the Council of the Americas.
Susana is currently the owner and founder of Susana Balbo Wines, her family-run winery, which in 20 years has become one of the most important and renowned in Argentina. With a career in the wine industry of over 30 years, Susana is certainly the most well-known Argentinian female winemaker. She was elected to be president of ‘Wines of Argentina’ for three terms during which Argentinian wine exports increased exponentially making the country stand out in the world wine map.
What made you choose a career in wine as a winemaker?
I have a university degree in oenology so I
am scientifically qualified to make wine, but
not in the sense the word ‘winemaker’ is used in other countries, where a person can make wine without necessarily having a certificate that enables them to do so. In Argentina it is mandatory, the figure of ‘winemaker’ does not exist here, only enologists are permitted to make wine.
You have been widely acclaimed for your pioneering efforts in resurrecting the Malbec grape from limbo. Can you elaborate on what makes Malbec unique?
I don’t quite agree with Malbec having been in limbo, Reva. I would rather say that the problem was that Argentina, and Malbec particularly, did not have a place in world markets. Argentina started to export in a significant way in 1999, so our export activity has only had 20 years of continuous growth with presence in international. markets The choice of Malbec as an emblematic varietal of Argentina was a decision made by all the wine industry together with ‘Wines of Argentina’, the organization where I was president for three consecutive terms.
Malbec is a varietal that has best adapted to our soils and presents unique characteristics which make it more elegant, intense and fruity with a great personality, compared to other Malbecs in the world like the ones from Cahors. They give the possibility to create a vast range of products, which could be called Malbec 360 – from sparkling Rosés and young Malbecs with low alcohol, to more concentrated Malbecs with red fruit aromas when they come from clay soils, or really fruity and floral Malbecs when they come from calcareous and stony soils, and even late-harvest Malbecs. Very few varietals can offer such a possibility to express so many facets. We can have this 360 experience with Malbec. This is the main reason why Malbec started to sparkle as the distinctive character of one of the most important wine regions in the world.
What would you say was pivotal in achieving success and arriving at this point in your career as an icon of the Argentinian wine industry??
I am not sure whether I can call it pivotal, but if I should consider it a landmark then it is the fact that I was the first woman to graduate in enology. And that made a difference since I opened the way for women that came after me. It entitled me to be regarded as a pioneer in the industry. After that, I think prestige and reputation is built with consistency, talent and hard work. There is no single high point or secret recipe in building a life’s career. It is mainly consistency, and always working hard on an ascending path towards quality as a result of experience.
Looking back on the dedication and hard work required, what were the highs and lows to stay the course?
The life of an enologist has the same ups and downs as life itself, with good and bad harvests. Based in a country like Argentina the ups and downs are usually more critical from the economic point of view than the climatic. If I could make an abstraction of my business, my company and my winemaking projects, I would say the biggest challenges I have had to bear, throughout the years, have been to survive the economic difficulties in my country. And I have been able to do so by focusing on exports and foreign markets.
Regarding harvests, Argentina is a blessed country since it has a continental, desertic and semi-desertic climate in the wine regions, with very low rainfall and very little cryptogamic diseases that represent a hazard to wine quality. As a result, our harvests are of a consistently high quality. We may have differences in the intensity or type of fruit. If summers are mild, we have fine-grained tannins and spiced, floral aromas. If summers are warmer we have more intense red fruit aromas, a bit sweeter with more coarse-grained tannins, but always intense and with strong colours and aromas. From the enological point of view, Argentina is a great country to make wines.
In which direction do you see South America’s, especially Argentina’s, wine industry evolving?
The South American wine industry, and especially that of Argentina, is evolving
towards regional and micro regional wines, slipping away from pure varietals. It is concentrating more on offering consumers the same varietals developed in different micro terroirs with totally different characteristics, yet maintaining the same level of quality, as well as the opportunity of taking a ride across Argentina through the flavours of these unique wines. Argentina is also evolving towards producing great white wines.
This seems to be the tendency in Latin America in general. Searching for extreme wine areas in higher lands or unexplored lands near the sea, it is mainly focusing on terroirs or micro terroirs and developing different versions of the same varietals.