Alberto Antonini was one of the first to see Argentina's potential—not with Cabernet Sauvignon or other blue-chip varietals—but with Malbec. In 1995, he and his Italy-based partners started Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina's Mendoza region. As outsiders, they were among the first in Argentina to stake their reputation on Malbec. It worked.
But now, Antonini, who has a lengthy client list in Italy, Argentina, Chile and elsewhere, sees the next phase of Argentina's wine industry—the need to promote diversity in the wines. I sat down with Antonini here at my office today to catch up on his endeavors at Altos Las Hormigas as well as get introduced to one of his newest clients, Chile's Viña Intriga.
At Altos Las Hormigas, Antonini is planning to expand the portfolio, with new wines based on a micro-terroir approach.
"My dream is that one day we won't talk about Malbec first, when we talk about Argentina. Instead, we'll talk about Vista Flores or Luján. We'll talk about where the wine is from, before we talk about Malbec," said Antonini. "Diversity is going to be a major issue going forward."
The winery's basic Mendoza Malbec, always a solid value, will remain unchanged, drawing on fruit from the southeast corner of Mendoza, which provides a juicy, soft, forward-styled wine, according to Antonini.
Antonini will also continue to use selected parcels for the Malbec Uco Valley Reserva. The wine was labeled as the Vineyard Selection Reserva previously, with the new label debuting in 2008. The wine has a consistently outstanding track record and Antonini plans no changes there other than distinguishing it as Uco Valley on the label.
From there, two new Malbecs from the Uco Valley join the lineup, with a new basic Uco Valley bottling debuting in the 2009 vintage. It will provide a contrast to the Mendoza bottling, aiming to display the Uco Valley profile of more blue fruit and floral notes.
The second new wine will be a single-vineyard bottling from Vista Flores, where Antonini has a vineyard under long-term contract. Matured for 36 months in barrel, the debut '06 vintage will be released shortly. (As always, official reviews, based on blind tastings of the wines, will appear in the near future.)
Some folks might bemoan a winery suddenly adding new, smaller-production wines to their portfolio—they can be harder to find in the marketplace and sometimes they're just marketing gimmicks. But Antonini is a serious winemaker, who believes in a sense of place. He was correct back in '95 to home in on Malbec in Argentina and I suspect he's right this time, choosing to produce a wider range of more site-specific Malbecs that can highlight Argentina's diverse terroir.
Argentina has a lot of "sameness" going on right now, hidden behind the popularity of Malbec, which has sent imports to the U.S. soaring (you can reference my most recent annual report in the Dec. 15 issue of Wine Spectator). Anything that can highlight the country's diversity is welcome.
"Old World winemakers still come to South America and say there's no terroir here in the New World," said Antonini. "But of course the world was all created at the same time and in the same way. The Old World may have developed their terroir more over time, but the potential everywhere is the same."
It's that kind of thinking that brought Antonini to Chile as well, where he is now working with Viña Intriga. The Maipo-based winery is a spin-off from the Colchagua Valley-based Viña MontGras. Cristian Correa, 35, began working at MontGras in 2000 and then moved to the Intriga project when it started in '05.
The terroir hunter, Pedro Parra, has joined Correa and Antonini. Parra did his usual work in Intriga's existing vineyards, as well as soil research in parcels before planting.
"With existing vineyards you can make some changes, but you can't change everything," said Antonini of the combination of old and new vineyards that now makes up Intriga's 160-hectare vineyard. "But in new vineyards you can do everything the way you want to from the beginning, if you take that micro-terroir approach and do the work before you plant."
The team has now isolated just 15 hectares out of the 160-hectare vineyard (the remaining fruit is then sold back to MontGras), with the '08 vintage the first to be made since the more detailed approach. (An official review based on a formal, blind tasting will appear in the near future.)
"We were looking for the filet in the vineyards," said Antonini. "It was the quality of the tannins that was the biggest difference. Ripeness, concentration, aromas—those were not as different. It was the tannins, especially from grapes grown in lesser soils, that were not as fine, and that was the biggest difference we saw as we did the smaller parcel vinifications."
Learning a vineyard and developing a new project can be a daunting task, especially when there isn't a long track record of experience to work off of.
"The problem with the New World is, it's new," said Correa. "And of course, you only get one vintage a year to learn from."
Antonini, Correa and Parra are learning from the ground up. And isn't that the best way?