Argentina has some of the most spectacular grape growing regions on the face of the earth. Mendoza (the province at the foot of the Andes about a third of the way down this long country from its northern border with Bolivia), accounts for about 70 percent of the wine produced. Large parts are at high elevations (2,000 - 3,600 feet) and snowmelt from the Andes is the source of irrigation. Humidity is low, reducing disease.
It is no surprise that, in these conditions, 150 plus wineries flourish with many garnering worldwide reputations, or that the country should prove so adept at making popularly priced wines (less than $12) that are so good.
In particular, for whole generations of American wine drinkers, Argentine innovation with malbec has virtually redefined the organoleptic quality of that grape as its Argentinean expression. That expression is fruit forward with velvety tannins and an approachability when young.
There is still structure, but it is not an obstacle to consumption on release, especially consumption with food. The nose of Argentinean malbec typically is rich with ripe dark fruits: blueberries, black cherries, and blackberries.
Some wines, generally the finer ones, have spicy or herbaceous notes, and maybe black pepper nuances as well. There is less forest floor and "barnyard" character than found in French counterparts from Cahors in Southwestern France.
In this competitive firmament, one of the distinctive members of Argentina’s top tier is Achaval-Ferrer (Achaval), a Mendoza grape grower and wine producer. Established in 1995, Achaval has prospered thanks to an unwavering philosophy that can be summarized as:
They produce less wine per plant but their deep roots (down to over 30 feet) permit them to reach nutrients that younger vines cannot. AF uses the grapes from young vines for their lower priced wines, transitioning them into their best wines as the vines mature.
Achieved through dense planting (2,600 vines per acre) that creates competition for nutrients and promotes deep roots, and vendenge verde (green harvest) in which bunches of fruit are cut off early in the season to focus vine energy on those remaining. The objective of low yields is to produce fruit that will make powerful and complex wines.
Modern winemaking is a story of second chances. The thinking that what is not right with the fruit on arrival from the vineyard can be corrected by a chemistry set of dozens of substances. AF takes only one chance with many things. There are no enzymes employed, (enzymes are used in winemaking to enhance extraction or make more aromatic wines). Yeasts are all natural. There is no fining or filtering. Both of these techniques remove tiny particles from a finished wine with the aesthetic result of a brighter, more transparent beverage and the substantial result of removing a source of post-bottling microbial storage. Achaval is brave to eschew filtering, in particular, because of the spoilage issue. Very clean conditions in other stages of production are required to make it redundant. Likewise, no sulfites means not using sulphur dioxide to prevent spoilage, arrest fermentation or prevent oxidation.
Other repudiations have more effect in limiting the winemaker’s freedom of manoeuvre: No added sugar (chaptalization) is likely to be fairly insignificant in the warm Mendoza climate. No acid corrections might be more of an issue. No racking off the lees (pumping juice above the solid matter at the bottom of the barrel into an empty barrel), and no extended maceration (allowing unfermented juice to soak on the skins) would seem to be big limitations on stylistic freedom.
With all these injunctions, the fault-free expressive winemaking found at Achaval is all the more impressive. In an industry where the mantra “the wine is made in the vineyard” is a bromide, Achaval actually walks the walk.
With these house rules the resulting wines are released in three quality levels:
Mendoza wines $25
Achaval’s entry-level wines. These consist of a malbec and a cabernet sauvignon made from estate fruit. Each is an example of the Argentine way with the grape. The malbec, in particular, contrasts sharply with France’s Cahors, where 70 percent of the wine must be malbec. Achaval is far more fruit driven, but tightly wound and dry. Supple tannins give it structure and prevent the epithet "fruit bomb" being an accurate description of the wine. Cahors would typically be less fruit-driven and more earthy with firmer tannins. The Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon is close to a Napa cabernet in style but (at this young age) a little more closed in.
This is a wine made from a Bordeaux blend of varieties in which malbec plays the lead. It is sourced from three vineyards named after farms: Finca Diamante, Finca Bella Vista, and Finca Mirador. Each consists of three feet of chalky topsoil overlaying loam. We tasted the 2011 with Achaval Sales and Marketing Director, Gaston Williams, and found it to be a complex and powerful red blend that will benefit from a decade’s ageing. Despite the names of the grapes in the blend being the same as the five found in Bordeaux, this wine would stand out as stylistically distinct in blind tasting with Bordeaux red wines.
Single Vineyard Blends $140
Three wines, Finca Mirador, Finca Bella Vista, and Finca Altamira are each 100 percent malbec. Amongst the most lauded wines from Argentina, they routinely earn scores at or near ‘classic’ ratings. They are tight-knit balls of concentrated fruit, herbal and spice flavors when young (we tasted the 2011) they are best aged at least a decade before being consumed with red meat, maybe cooked in the traditional Argentine asador or parilla. Before considering them expensive “for Argentine wines” place them next to top Bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon from California, Australia, or South Africa and they look like good value for comparable quality.
Achaval-Ferrer is a winery making its best wine ever. I recommend that serious fans of Malbec taste its products and maybe put some away for the next decade.