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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Two Rising Stars, and a Vineyard in the Middle of Nowhere

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 25, 2008 1:00pm ET

At Alta Vista, the influence is distinctly French, from owner Patrick d’Aulan (who also owns Château Sansonnet in Bordeaux) down through his whole team. Director Philippe Rolet has just put the finishing touches on a $5 million renovation and expansion of the winery facility—the building dates to 1890 and the cement vats to the 1940s. Winemaker Didier Debono now works in a consulting capacity, while Loire native Matthieu Grassin has taken over the in-house winemaking duties. With its lavender- and olive tree-lined walk, the estate's entry is distinctly Provençal, but the wines are very much Argentine in feel.

This is a winery that has quietly been producing some very solid wines that now seems to be dialing it up qualitatively. Production has reached 2.5 million bottles (there’s a solid value-priced line of Malbec and Cabernet varietal bottlings), and the winery is now seeing 10,000 visitors annually, a number that has exploded in just the past three years.

The focus at Alta Vista is Malbec. 17 hectares of Merlot were finally given up on and ripped out last year to make way for more Malbec plantings. The top wines here are the single-vineyard bottlings, which Alta Vista began in 2001 as a small project aimed at learning more about its various terroirs. Now it’s resulted in a bone fide set of outstanding wines. With production for each of the single-vineyard cuvées now in the several-thousand-bottle range, consumers should be trying to track these wines down—they retail at about $30 which, these days, is cheap for that quality level.

The Alizarine vineyard (20 hectares) is actually Alta Vista’s name for their parcel of the Las Compuertas vineyard, of which Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes is the other major owner. Located in Luján de Cuyo, this prime spot features 50-plus-year-old vines planted on sandy soils that produce ripe, floral and spicy flavors with a mix of red and black fruits. It’s the class of the parcels.

Alta Vista's Alizarine vineyard enjoys a terrific view of El Plata, the Andean peak that looms over Mendoza.

The Serenade vineyard (92 hectares) is also in Luján, but has deeper clay soils. The 45-year-old vines produce slightly riper fruit but with more austere tannins, and this is typically the most structured of the four bottlings.

The Albaneve vineyard (85 hectares with another 30 on the way) is located in the Vista Flores area of the southern Uco Valley, in the same property where Michel Rolland and several partners produce their Clos de los Siete wine. D’Aulan was an original partner in that project but pulled out several years ago to focus on his own Alta Vista instead. With very stony soils and vines that are just 9 years old, the resulting wine is powerful and forward, but not as dense or complex on the back end as the wines from the Serenade or Alizarine vineyards.

Next door to Vista Flores in El Cepillo, near the Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier winery, is the Temis vineyard (22 hectares), with 50-year-old soils planted on sandy soil that produce a fresh, floral, blue and purple fruit-filled wine.

By spreading their vineyards out, Alta Vista hedges its bets against the destructive nature of the very localized hail storms that move through Mendoza each year. By bottling wines from each of these various spots separately, Alta Vista also gives consumers an excellent introduction into the differing flavor profiles of the large Mendoza region—the wines display the diversity that Argentine wineries will need to aim for if they want to distinguish themselves from each other while they focus primarily on the Malbec grape.

Tasting through the 2005 and 2006 lineups, I favored the latter vintage for its extra freshness, bright aromas and lively acidity, though the '05s, with their richer textures and rounder personalities, were also outstanding.

Alta Vista’s top wine is its Alto cuvée, a blend of three-quarters Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon, the former primarily from the best spots in the Alizarine vineyard, the latter from the Albaneve vineyard. The 2005 Alto, which spent 16 months in 100 percent new oak, is a monster of a wine, with dark, racy fruit and loads of fig cake, currant paste, loam and mineral notes. It would be the best wine Alta Vista had produced to date—if it weren't for the 2006. The '06 Alto features a touch more Malbec from Temis along with its Alizarine portion, and while still very primal, it offers gorgeous raspberry ganache flavor, with a lush, powerful texture and great drive on the finish, which is loaded with red currant, licorice and plum sauce notes.

Just a stone’s throw away in the Mayor Drummond area is another winery that is quickly on the rise, Bodega Mendel. The winery, which debuted with a pair of outstanding wines in the 2004 vintage followed that up with almost-equally impressive ‘05s. There were just over 6,000 cases produced at this boutique operation in the 2007 vintage, with a third earmarked for the U.S. market. Production is set to top out at around 8,000 cases annually.
Let me get this straight. You’re planting a vineyard out here?

Winemaker Roberto de la Mota continues at the helm here, undeterred by a severe automobile accident last August that left him in a wheelchair. De la Mota’s longtime expertise in Mendoza—at 47, he’s been in the wine industry here for 25 years and is one of the most respected winemakers in the country—helped him locate the old vineyard which provides the fruit for the winery’s Malbec bottling. The 80-year-old vines planted on the classic powdery clay and sand soils of Mendoza were in disrepair when de la Mota introduced the site to Anabelle Sielecki. With her backing, the vineyard was purchased in 2002 and they began the process of bringing it back to life (changing the trellising; replacing dead vines). Today, the low-yielding 25-hectare vineyard, which has olive and nut trees planted within some of the vine rows, is producing a sleek, silky Malbec, which in the 2006 vintage looks to be the best version yet. The wine sees an equal mix of new, second-year and third-year barrels and is aged for 12 months in oak. It’s bright and pure with a range of red and purple fruit, backed by a long, spicy, well-integrated finish. De la Mota feels that as the vineyard has been brought back into balance, the acidity in the wines has improved, and I’d agree, as the 2006s here are a marked step up from the slightly chewy 2005s.

De la Mota has also always favored blending Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon. "Cabernet is the frame, with its structure," he explained. "With the fleshy, sweet fruit of Malbec it’s a great combination." To that end, the winery’s Unus cuvée is typically 65 percent Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 100 percent new oak for 16 months. The fruit is all sourced from some additional vineyards just a few hundred meters away in Perdriel. The wine shows a darker fruit profile and more grip, with plum and fig flavors. It’s clearly bigger than the regular Malbec cuvée, though in 2006 I find the two cuvées to be nearly equal in quality.

Bodega Mendel is adding a third wine to its range, a 100 percent Malbec sourced from a vineyard in Altamira. The vineyard, which Mendel has leased since the 2005 vintage, totals just 3.5 hectares. The wine, which is racked back into new oak barrels and sees 18 months of barrel aging in total is a gusher of pure raspberry, plum and fig fruit, with a seamless, superlong finish that shows flashes of exotic mesquite, fig, fruitcake and warm licorice. There are only 1,200 bottles produced of this Malbec, so the trophy hunters can start lining up now. The debut 2006 is slated to be released later this year. I’d put the wine in the category of the other top Malbecs sourced from the Altamira area, including Achával-Ferrer’s Finca Altamira, Catena Zapata’s Nicasia bottling and Luca’s Nico bottling.

While Alta Vista and Bodega Mendel might be new for some folks, those who have been following along with my coverage of Argentina over the years should be fully familiar with Achával-Ferrer. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to watch this project grow from its beginning as a small, terroir-oriented winery run by a passionate group of partners.



Cordoba natives Santiago Achával and Manuel Ferrer run the business. Tuscan native Roberto Cipresso makes the wines. In time for the '05 harvest, Achával-Ferrer completed production on their new winery facility located at the end of a rutted dirt road named Cobos that passes for the high-rent district in Mendoza, with Viña Cobos around the corner and Catena Zapata down the road. Harvest here is always on the early side by Mendoza standards, typically in the first half of March, as the winery’s top vineyards are cropped to such ridiculously low yields that they are able to achieve phenolic maturity before most other vineyards.

I’ve visited a lot of vineyards, some more remote than others. On this particular day, I visited a vineyard that is truly in the middle of nowhere, a vineyard that isn’t even a vineyard yet.

“Originally, vineyards were planted in Mendoza with practicality in mind,” said Cipresso, referring to the original wave of plantings by Italian immigrants in the late-19th century. “They were planted near a railroad access or near water. The reason some of these vineyards are great today is because they have old vines, not necessarily because of their terroir.”

“To get the true, great expression of Mendoza, we have to find the great soils,” said Cipresso who, like me, has been wondering if Mendoza has the diversity to support an industry that relies predominantly on one grape, Malbec.

So with that in mind, Achával and Cipresso took me to their latest find, a 20-hectare piece of land, basically scrub brush, 25 kilometers due west of Mendoza city in a spot called El Challau. Set in the rugged landscape of the pre-cordillera—the Andes foothills—El Challau features soils that were created in situ from volcanic activity, rather than the classic alluvial mix in Mendoza proper. Here, with fractured schist, calcareous and iron oxide-based soils, the differences are stark and visible to the naked eye. Check out the accompanying video as Achával talks about the spot.

Achával-Ferrer will plant Malbec and perhaps some Syrah on the spot. Results are obviously years away. But the project in El Challau is driven by the kind of passion that has put Achával-Ferrer among the qualitative leaders in Argentina, and the wine business is all about passion.

Back at the winery, we tasted through the range of 2007s, starting with the Quimera, a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It shows the bright, snappy fruit that is this winery’s hallmark, with floral, kirsch and iron-tinged notes.

The Finca Mirador Malbec is sourced from a 5-hectare vineyard located in the Medrano region of Mendoza, and it’s always the most dramatic of the three single-vineyard wines, with piercing violet, sanguine and iron notes set against a backdrop of vivid purple and blue fruits. The Finca Bella Vista Malbec is back from the dead in 2007. Hail wiped out production in this 4-hectare Perdriel vineyard in both ’05 and ’06. This tends to be the most stylish of the three, with cherry and raspberry fruit and a superlong, silky finish that shows terrific definition. The Finca Altamira is sourced from the grand cru-quality area of the same name, a cool spot in the La Consulta region of southern Mendoza where several of the country’s best Malbecs come from. This 4-hectare parcel produces a sleek thoroughbred of a wine that is both flashy and stylish at the same time, dripping with cassis fruit and backed by a mouthwatering minerality. The finish just sails on and on.

All three of the ’07 Achával-Ferrer single-vineyard wines show potentially classic quality.

Anthony Brade
Toronto —  March 25, 2008 11:55pm ET
Wow, from these two reports sounds like it's time to start setting aside mindshare (and walletshare) for the 06 vintage out of Mendoza. Many thanks for making this trip James, love the detail and the video blogs. Argentinian Malbec has been at the top of my value list for several years running now and it looks like that will continue for some time. Love it with the lean but tender grass fed beef that they produce down there as well (perhaps the anti-Wagu?).
Jon C Martinez
Overland —  March 26, 2008 12:46pm ET
The vineyard site in the video remind me of a lot of the things that exist here in eastern Washington State. Bunchgrass, sagebrush & basalt. I always thought there were some similarities between the arid portions of the Mendoza and here. Have you ever traveled to Washington State's wine growing areas?
James Molesworth
March 27, 2008 8:16pm ET
Anthony: Yes, their beef is terrific. The grass fed stuff is way better than the typical American corn-fed beef.

I am liking the '06 vintage a bit more now - it has stretched out and is showing some nice fresh acidity now. There are some really good wines on the horizon...

Jon: No, I haven't been to Washington (that's my colleague Harvey Steiman's beat, and he's there now so check out his blog).

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