Last September, I was lucky enough to tag along with the #winestudio gang as it visited the Mendoza vineyards of Achaval-Ferrer. As you might suspect, the focus of that virtual voyage was Malbec, the Bordeaux grape that has reinvented itself in the southern hemisphere, wooing wine lovers with its ripe fruit flavors and budget-friendly prices. What most surprised me during our four-week adventure though, was the complexity of the wines we tasted – ripe, juicy fruit reined in by lively acidity and tannin’s firm hand. These Malbecs were interesting and worthy of contemplation, and they forced me to look at the variety with fresh eyes. Yes, I owed Malbec an apology! If you’d like to shake up your own preconceived notions of the variety, I’d suggest starting with a bottle of Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Malbec. It’ll rock your world without busting your wine budget.
#Winestudio returned to Argentina in April, for a deeper dive into the magic of Achaval-Ferrer. While none of us would have objected to a little more Malbec research, Tina Morey (the dynamo behind #winestudio) and Gustavo Rearte (winemaker at Achaval-Ferrer) had other plans. Our expedition this time around would delve into the winery’s unique approach to Bordeaux-style wines, including varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. We’d also get the chance to blind-taste two vintages of Quimera, a meritage blend dominated by Malbec.
When I saw the list of wines we’d be tasting, I almost gave myself a high five! Hey, Malbec might not make me swoon, but Cabernet Franc sure does! And, over the past year or so, I’ve been exploring Argentine versions, much to my delight. On the other hand, my knowledge of Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon was thin; but based on my previous experience with this winery, expectations ran high and I couldn’t wait to try theirs. Yes, I was super-excited for this trip back to Achaval-Ferrer.
What’s So Special about Achaval-Ferrer?
The creative minds behind Achaval-Ferrer wanted to expand the public’s perception of Argentine wine, so they 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 managed 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 (single-vineyard) Fincas, three plants are required to make one bottle.
- 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.”
2015 Achaval- Ferrer Mendoza Malbec (100% Malbec; 14.5% abv; $25 retail)
Well hello, old friend! On our previous #winestudio excursion, we sampled the 2014 vintage, which was, to put it bluntly, a knock-out. In fact, my own tasting notes conclude with the following statement: “ . . . this wine will make you re-examine everything you think you know about Malbec.” Still true for the 2015 version.
As with the 2014, grapes were sourced from three distinct parcels within Mendoza. Uco Valley vineyards lie on slopes at about 3,500 feet on well-drained gravel soils. Fruit from Luján de Cuyo comes from slightly lower slopes, and the Medrano slopes, with their heavier clay soils make up the balance. Oak influence is minimal, the result of 9 months spent in second-use French barrels.
Color: deep, bright ruby red with glints of violet flashing throughout.
Nose: Distinctly floral (violet), with lovely notes of blackberry and black cherry, plus a hint of herbs.
Palate: Loads of ripe, black fruit bound by bright acidity and smooth but firm tannins, this wine is well-balanced, with a long finish that is equal parts cherry vanilla, baking spice, and thyme. There is also a saline, almost mineral quality that laces through the medium+ body. A real winner with food; a complete joy to sip on its own.
2015 Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.5% abv; $25 retail)
Achaval-Ferrer has always included a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in its Bordeaux-style blend, Quimera, but never made a varietal wine until 2012. What drove that decision? According to winemaker Tavo Rearte, who joined us on one of our #winestudio chats, it was the two parcels where the grapes are grown. Agrelo, located in the Cordon del Plata sub-range of the Andes (3,600 feet) is what he refers to as a “unique place with its own personality.” The deep, loamy soils spread over a ridge of limestone give rise to wines of intense color and bold fruit aromas, as well as round, silky tannins.
Medrano, which lies in Maipú along the banks of the Mendoza River, is quite literally an oasis in the desert. Vines are planted along east-facing slopes at approximately 2,300 feet, where comparatively warmer temperatures and heavier, clay-based soils create highly aromatic wines with a meaty, spicy character and strong tannins. Blending grapes from these two parcels, Rearte says, creates a Cabernet Sauvignon with “elegant texture and flavors,” a wine that is complex on the palate.
Color: Dense, dark ruby red; a little paler at the rim. What a gorgeous shade of red!
Nose: More red fruit than I expected – currants and plum – plus some floral notes that (if I didn’t know better) would make me suspect this was Cab Franc. There’s even a whiff of smoke and a touch of cedar.
Palate: Red and black berries, a scant touch of vanilla. Full bodied but kept honest by racy acidity and tannins that make themselves known, but gently. This wine is, by turns, velvety-smooth and lush, then crisp and almost tart. There’s nothing overblown about this Cabernet which, in my opinion, confidently walks the fine line between ideal ripeness and jammy fruit. It practically dances across my tongue, making me long for another sip (glass.) I feel sexier and smarter just by sitting next to this bottle! As I said during our chat, it makes me want to listen to Nina Simone on vinyl while I ponder the state of the universe. I like feeling sexier and smarter and, in fact, I think I’d like some more of this wine!
Want more details? 2015_MendozaCabernetSauv_Techsheet.compressed
2015 Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Cabernet Franc (100% Cabernet Franc; 14.5% abv; $25 retail)
This was the inaugural vintage for Achaval-Ferrer’s varietal Cabernet Franc and, based on its overwhelming popularity with the #winestudio group, it surely won’t be the last! In fact, savvy buyers for the Morton’s Steakhouse chain commandeered the lion’s share of production, which was a meager 1,000 cases total. That doesn’t leave much for the rest of us, so visit the winery’s Facebook page for a list of retailers near you, and grab whatever you can. Failing that, make haste to the closest Morton’s restaurant, choose your steak, and ORDER THIS WINE!
What’s so special about it? The grapes grow in the Tupungato zone of Mendoza’s Uco Valley, a small region highly favorable for the production of balanced, elegant wines that are easily enjoyed in the short term, but are capable of aging for as long as 10 years (an impatient wine lover’s holy grail.) Higher elevations (3,300 feet) afford the vineyards a relatively cool climate, characterized by sunny days and cold nights – both are necessary to achieve full ripeness while maintaining acidity. Vineyard plots are well-drained, thanks to variable soils composed of shallow sandy loam soils topped by loose gravelly stones. Tupungato, one of Argentina’s highest peaks at nearly 22,000 feet, gives its name to the region, as well as a little spice to the soil: it is an active stratovolcano (like Mount Vesuvius) whose ashes are layered throughout. It last erupted in 1987, but you never know . . . .
Color: Bright ruby red with only slight fading at the rim.
Nose: Notes of red currants, cherries, and fig give way to fresh bay leaf and, after an hour, tobacco. There’s also a slight hint of green pepper, a typical scent marker for Cab Franc. This is an intensely aromatic wine!
Palate: Juicy cherry, blackberry, and currants followed by earthy notes of tobacco and dust. Tangy acidity, soft tannins, and a long finish with notes of black pepper and just a dash of dark chocolate. It sure doesn’t taste like a Loire Valley Cab Franc! But nor does it remind me of California versions or even other Argentine specimens I’ve tasted. My verdict: a sumptuous, varietally correct wine that delivers on the Achaval-Ferrer promise to make wines that will offer immediate pleasure in the short-term. And I think it could continue to evolve for another five years – I’d love to taste it again in 2022.
Want more details? 2015_CabFranc_Techsheet.compressed
Our Blind Tasting Adventure
For a bit of fun, and to celebrate World Malbec Day, we tested our palates in a blind tasting of two Achaval-Ferrer wines. The bottles were shipped to us disguised in brightly patterned wrapping paper or burlap wine bags, and we knew nothing about them other than their vintages: one from 2012, the other from 2013.
For a typical #winestudio chat, most of us have already sampled the wine and we chime in with our thoughts, opinions, and food pairing ideas. Not this time! We had all agreed to wait until the chat to open the wines, and then taste them together. It was tons of fun to read everyone’s comments as my husband and I were trying to articulate our own perceptions of the two wines.
Here’s how we fared:
Wine #1 (aka The Solid Triangles; 2013 vintage)
Color: Deep ruby, all the way to the rim. Intense!
Nose: Soft vanilla top notes followed by loads of red fruit (plum, berry, cherry) and a whiff of something funky which later reveals itself to be graphite. A little rosemary too. Fruit dominates.
Palate: Red fruit, as on the nose, with tart flavors of red apple. After opening for an hour, secondary notes of licorice spice emerge. Tannins are soft and acidity is medium+. A very approachable, fruit-forward wine. On the first night, my husband much preferred this wine to the Wine #2.
Want more details? techsheet_quimera_2013
Wine #2 (aka The Striped Triangles; 2012 vintage)
Color: Another dense, ruby red wine.
Nose: Initial notes of green herb (or is that pepper?) followed by blackberry and (interestingly) blueberry. Some cherry, too. Another aroma I can’t pinpoint, but it reminds me of tomato skin.
Palate: There is lovely fruit here, but it doesn’t dominate like in Wine #1. The green notes persist but they are in harmony with the fruit and spice. My impression is that this wine is more savory in character than the first one, and perhaps a bit lighter in body. As it opens, I become more intrigued by what it offers up. This was my favorite of the two.
Want more details? 2012_Achaval Ferrer_Quimera_New.compressed
I correctly identified Wine #1 as Quimera, the Achaval-Ferrer Bordeaux-style blend. It comprises Malbec (50%); Cab Franc (21%); Merlot (19%); and Cab Sauvignon (10%). Wine #2 I pegged as varietal Malbec but it, too, was Quimera! Not sure how many folks made the right calls but I do know that we all enjoyed ourselves immensely, sleuthing our way to the final verdict. It was also a brilliant exercise highlighting the effect of vintage variation on wine; one that made me more appreciative of the difficult and ever-changing roles of the winemaker and vineyard staff.
Many thanks to #winestudio and Achaval-Ferrer for another enlightening experience on the vineyard trails of Mendoza!