Have you been to Argentina? My toes haven’t yet touched down in any part of South America but, thanks to Protocol Wine Studio I feel like I’ve just come back from a month-long wine internship in Mendoza. As she does each month, Tina Morey put together a diverse group of wine writers from around the country and hauled the lot of us (virtually, of course) to a special destination, this time the Andes-hugging vineyards of Achaval-Ferrer.
During the month of September, we met via Twitter chat each Tuesday evening, following the #WineStudio to participate in a running conversation with founder Santiago Achaval and winemaker Gustavo Rearte. We delved into the history of winemaking in Argentina and the country’s rapid ascent to its current fifth-place position among producers worldwide. Our hosts explained what makes each vineyard unique, pointing out how that translates into subtle but important differences in the wines. It was a colorful, imaginative, and eye-opening trip.
Before I jump into the fascinating details of my virtual voyage to Mendoza, I have to confess something: I am not a Malbec lover. Not a hater, either, I’ve just never been wowed by the jammy, dense wines that I have tasted over the years. With their eager-to-please personalities bursting with fruit (and alcohol) they called to mind big, happy, lumbering dogs – agreeable and fun, perhaps, but hardly the masters of the agility competition. Well, after these past four weeks, all I can say is, “Mea culpa, Malbec.” I’ve had a revelation in the Andes.
On the Argentine Cabernet Franc Trail
As blasé as I might be about Malbec, the opposite is true of my sentiments for Cabernet Franc – I love it! We all have wines that we inherently adore, and Loire Valley Cab Franc is one of mine. That said, I vowed over the past year to broaden my horizons a bit, experimenting more with versions from the USA and Argentina. It has been a brilliantly successful enterprise, if I do say so myself! The first Argentine bottle I tried, from Bodega Lagarde, piqued my curiosity about the region and fueled my search for others. But more important, it opened my eyes to the high-quality wines being produced in areas like the Uco Valley, regardless of grape variety. They were wines of elegance and structure, in which lovely fruit was balanced by fresh acidity and an almost saline minerality. So I suppose you could say that my Argentine Cab Franc excursion whetted my appetite for similar wines from the same area. Enter Achaval-Ferrer.
How It All Began
Achaval-Ferrer dates back to 1995, when Argentine wine had just begun to arrive on the world scene. Wine had been made there for centuries, but most of what was produced was consumed locally. Two factors have changed that dynamic: per capita wine consumption in Argentina has decreased over time, and an increased focus on developing export markets, particularly the United States, has created enormous demand for the country’s wines. It didn’t hurt that many were easy-drinking wines at an attractive price point. Since then, influential winemakers from California (Paul Hobbs), France (Michel Rolland), and Italy (Alberto Antonini) have upped the ante by partnering with local wineries. As a result, annual exports of Argentine wine have exploded, to the tune of 30%-40% annually, between 2005 and 2012. (Figures quoted in Bloomberg Pursuits, August 19, 2016)
As the world’s attention drew a bead on Argentina and its seemingly limitless supply of Malbec for the masses, a few folks toyed with a revolutionary notion: instead of dutifully pumping out bottle after bottle of decent wine aiming for broad appeal, why not try to craft something truly exceptional? It would involve rethinking every aspect of the winemaking process, from vineyard location, to clone selection. An adamant refutation of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the dreamers kept asking themselves: why not shake things up and shoot for the stars? They took their lofty idea of what Malbec could be, and built a solid foundation underneath it.
It was a massive undertaking, but one well worth the effort. Adopting this new mind-set, Achaval-Ferrer went to work, implementing a more modern philosophy of winemaking. They acquired desirable vineyard sites at high elevations, including plots with diverse soil compositions meant to elicit particular characteristics from the grapes. From there, they took a three-pronged approach to their work:
- Using centennial, ungrafted vines – Achaval-Ferrer found that grapes from phylloxera-free old vines resulted in wines of darker color, higher acidity, and stronger flavors. Vines over 100 years of age produced fruit that was more concentrated, with richness and balance.
- Aggressively managing yields – Proactive pruning and thinning, along with high-density plantings (260 plants per acre) resulted in more concentrated fruit. The average winery in Mendoza can produce four bottles of wine from one plant. At Achaval-Ferrer that ratio is dramatically lower: for the Malbec it takes one plant to make one bottle; for Quimera the ratio is two plants for one bottle; and for each of the three Fincas, three plants are required to make one bottle.
- Taking a non-interventionist approach – No clarification/filtration. No added sulfites. No enzymes. No acidity correction. In their own words, “respecting and trusting the most pure and honest message that the terroir can give us.”
Three of our four Wine Studio discussions were dedicated to specific wines provided as samples to us by Achaval-Ferrer. Achaval and Rearte explained to us that each wine is unique and a reflection of the particular vineyards that gave birth to it. All come from favorable sites at high elevations, where cooler climates preserve acidity. Soils vary, giving rise to different characteristics in each wine. This proved especially true of Malbec which, compared to the Cabernets (Franc and Sauvignon), Merlot, and Petit Verdot, changed dramatically depending on soil, climate, and vineyard aspect. Santiago Achaval offered up that, “Malbec is the best translator of the character of the soil. I have been learning from Malbec for 18 years. The more it teaches me, the less I use classical wine descriptors.”
If you study wine and have attempted to understand the technical terms oenophiles use to describe it, you’ll no doubt be familiar with terms like tannin, structure, and acidity. And, while adhering to a commonly accepted lexicon is helpful from an academic perspective, it’s of little use in describing a wine’s soul. For that, Achaval says, you need to talk about wine in terms of its personality. So which words does he choose to describe the Mendoza Malbec? “Introvert, sexy, academic.” My interpretation: Sexy Librarian.
2014 Malbec Mendoza (100% Malbec; ABV 14.5%; $25 retail)
Notes: Deep ruby in the glass – already I’m surprised that it’s not opaquely purple. Aromas of red raspberry and cherry waft up, followed by a more intense flash of violets and blackberry. This wine smells nothing like I expected it to! On the palate there is all the fruit that’s been promised on the nose, plus some dusty cocoa and a distinctly mineral component. The tannins are present and accounted for, striking a lovely balance with the fruit, and underscoring the ribbon of acidity that really makes this wine dance. Again I am taken by surprise at how fresh and elegant this wine is. It reminds me of a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. I know how bizarre that comparison might sound, but it’s appropriate. Taking a nod from Santiago Achaval, I’m giving this Malbec a personality: the cute girl next-door who goes abroad for a semester and comes back a knock-out, speaking three languages and drinking absinthe. And now she’s way out of your league. In a similar fashion this wine will make you re-examine everything you think you know about Malbec. Lucky for us, it’s not out of our league at all: at a retail price of $25, this wine is a no-brainer.
2012 Quimera (Bordeaux Blend; ABV 14.5%; $34.99 retail)
A traditional Bordeaux-style blend, Quimera represents Achaval-Ferrer’s “search for perfection.” It is composed of Malbec (50%), Cabernet Franc (24%), Merlot (16%), Cabernet Sauvignon (8%), and Petit Verdot (2%). Again, the vineyards come from high elevations between 2,500 and 3,500 feet. Soils here are characterized by limestone and volcanic ash. Each of the component wines is fermented separately, then they are blended together before going into barrel. The finished wine was aged for one year in French oak: 60% in one-year-old barrels; 40% in new barrels. So what does each grape variety bring to the party? According to Achaval, Malbec brings freshness of fruit and expression of terroir; Cabernet Franc offers up soft tannins and structure; Merlot adds fullness of body and stronger tannins; Cabernet Sauvignon affords elegance and a long finish; and Petit Verdot represents “nerve,” which Achaval defined as liveliness on the palate. I am so happy to be invited to this party!
Notes: Dark red to the rim, and redolent of cherry, plum, and violets. Secondary notes of blackberry and cassis emerge, for an enticing promise of what’s to come. A sip shows black fruit, rosemary, and a dusty/earthy element – forest floor? There’s a lot going on here! This wine is very well-balanced and I am struck once again by the lively acidity that showcases one flavor component after another. Continuing with my theme of assigning a personality to each wine, I’m dubbing the Quimera, Vinous James Bond. We’ve got all the elements we’ve come to know and love about Bordeaux blends over the years. They rarely disappoint. But this is Daniel Craig, as opposed to Sean Connery or Roger Moore. All the traditional character is there but he’s just a little more of a badass than his predecessors. And as Craig is the best James Bond of all time (IMHO), I am all-in on this Quimera. (Retail price $34.99; another bargain.)
2012 Finca Bella Vista (100% Malbec; ABV 14.5%; $140 retail)
Bella Vista, a graceful centenarian Malbec vineyard on the slopes of the Mendoza River, is also home base for the Achaval-Ferrer Winery. Nestled at about 3,000 feet in the foothills of the Andes, this plot of land gives rise to one of Achaval-Ferrer’s esteemed single-vineyard bottlings. First produced in 2003, Finca Bella Vista is 100% Malbec, from the alluvial soils of Perdriel. The hundred-year-old vines fight against the poor soils, pushing their roots ever deeper in search of better nutrient sources. With such deep root structures, these older vines are often better able to withstand the damaging effects of hailstorms, which threaten this region throughout the growing season. Gustavo Rearte, shared that on the whole, older vines provide a healthier balance between fruit and leaves. This wine is 100% Malbec from centennial vines yielding just .75 tons per acre. It spends 15 months in new French oak barrels.
Listening to Rearte and Achaval talk about the unique qualities of each Finca wine, I’m reminded again of the idea that wines have personalities, just like people do. In describing Finca Altamira, Achaval labels it as the Sexy Wine. Finca Mirador is the Brooding Introvert, the tortured artist, if you will. And Finca Bella Vista is the Intellectual. I haven’t tried the first two, but I was fortunate enough to sample the last one. Intellectual? Okay, I will go with that as a start. But I have a lot more to add.
Notes: A most brilliant ruby red in the glass. I think it is actually sparkling! Right away I am in a cloud of raspberry, blackberry, and violet aromas that are very intense. After sitting for an hour, the floral/fruit notes are more subdued, allowing earthier elements of cedar and tobacco to come forward. On the palate this wine is heavy and silky, making me wish it were a fabric that I could wrap myself in. The texture is pure elegance – soft tannins, a hint of salty minerality that pops as more of a tactile sensation rather than a taste. Acidity is medium-high, which is why I don’t really notice the alcohol of 14.5%. Instead of assigning a famous personality or caricature to this wine, I’m going back to one of my earliest sense memories of my parents. They were going to a fancy party, so it must have been around the holidays. I couldn’t get over how different my mom looked, in her burgundy silk dress, with a full skirt that rustled quietly as she walked. She smelled good, she wore her pearls, she had on make-up and black suede pumps. In short, I knew her but didn’t recognize her. When she hugged me before she left, I was enveloped by all of that at once – the perfume, the soft crush of her dress on my skin, the way her heels clicked on the wood floor. For me, that’s Bella Vista: a beautiful moment you’ll remember all your life.
I’m sorry, Malbec. Argentina, I apologize. Throughout my years of wine tasting I’ve given you short shrift, never taken you seriously. But I’ve changed, I promise – thanks to Achaval-Ferrer and Protocol Wine Studio, who made me see you in a whole different light. I’ve discovered that I like you; I really, really like you.