If it were all about quality, then winemakers like Karim Mussi wouldn’t ever have to worry about selling their wines. Mussi, of Lebanese descent but born in Chile, moved to Argentina with his family at a young age, growing up alongside his father’s business brokering juice and bulk wine.
Mussi eventually went into the wine business himself, but with an eye on producing quality table wines. His winery, Altocedro, sources fruit from old-vine vineyards in the cool, higher elevation La Consulta area of southern Mendoza. Mussi ferments his grapes in cement vats, uses little to no new oak and blends his Malbecs with a touch of Tempranillo to produce some of the purest, raciest, red fruit- and mineral-filled versions you can find from Argentina.
His Altocedro Año Cero bottling is a consistently very good value under $20, while his Reserva Malbec, a blend of three vineyards with vines at 49, 64 and 70-plus years of age, has earned outstanding marks (90 points or better) in every vintage he’s released so far. Though its price has moved up, it’s still under $40 and can easily stand in with many of the bigger Argentine Malbecs at twice the price.
So what’s the holdup? Well, when you produce just 7,000 cases a year from 15 hectares of vines located in an out-of-the-way place like La Consulta, it takes more than just quality and a build-it-and-they-will-come methodology to get your wines sold in the marketplace.
To that end, Mussi has been in the New York area, visiting retailers and restaurants to push his own wares. It’s his first business trip to the U.S since he tagged along with his father as a young child. And the trip hasn’t been easy. I sat down with him here at the office yesterday to hear about what’s he’s been seeing and hearing in the marketplace.
“I can tell they’ve heard the same story before about a family-owned winery with old vines, doing everything by hand,” said Mussi with a bit of a sigh. “I need a good joke or something to make them think I’m different from everyone who’s come in before me,” he added with a self-deprecating laugh.
Mussi is seeing the Malbec invasion in the U.S market firsthand. That’s partly good and partly bad in his opinion.
“It's great because I don’t have to explain what Malbec is or where Argentina is,” said Mussi. “But on the other hand, not everyone is taking the long-term view. There’s a lot of opportunism and you see a lot of brands on the shelves with a back label that just has a number, no name.”
Mussi is referring to the INV registration numbers that every Argentinean winery is required to put in the fine print on the back label. As more and more wineries get contracted to do custom labels at low prices for importers and retailers alike, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to know who is really making the wine, since the INV numbers aren’t exactly common knowledge among consumers.
“In the past, we competed just to get a spot for Argentina in a store,” said Mussi. “Now, we’re competing with Argentine brands and suddenly there are a lot—some good, some not so good.”
Mussi, like me, is concerned that the proliferation of nondescript Malbec, now being rushed here in an attempt to catch the rising wave, may at the same time drag down Argentina as a brand. It’s not a new story—it’s happened to other regions and varietals before (see: Australia or California Merlot).
Mussi isn’t defeated or forlorn by any stretch. Quite the opposite. He’s passionate and committed to his beliefs, namely low yields and high quality. And if all goes well, he intends to grow his winery, though not by leaps and bounds.
“We have to grow, but we also have to learn at the same time. Learn about everything from our vineyards to the market. So it’s necessary to keep growth slow and manageable,” he said.
Mussi has just bottled his 2008 reds. They will ship here in the coming months and, as always, official reviews based on blind tastings will appear then. In the meantime, track down his 2007s and 2006s.
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