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A Sit Down with Karim Mussi of Argentina's Altocedro

An Argentine winemaker sees the good and bad in the current marketplace
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 16, 2009 10:12am ET

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.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]

Tim Schultheiss
Monrovia CA —  October 16, 2009 4:47pm ET

Having not yet developed a malbec palate, would you describe the expected differences between a good Argentine malbec and a good California malbec?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 16, 2009 4:56pm ET
Tim: Good question, but impossible for me to answer as I don't cover California wines. There are California Malbecs of course, but they're few and far between. My colleague James Laube who covers California hasn't even reviewed one in all of 2009.

The reason the grape does well in Argentina though is it requires a long growing season - and Argentina provides that. Plus with Argentina's higher elevation vineyards, the grapes receive extra UV radiation which results in thicker skins and darker colors - factors that Malbec is well-suited to produce.

Argentinean Malbecs generally offer ample but very rounded tannins, with a range of red, blue and black fruits - they're exuberant but for the most part not top heavy.

You can find more on the background of Malbec in Argentina from one of my early reports here: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/Argentinas-Dark-Horse_1920
Scott Ellison
California —  October 17, 2009 1:57pm ET
James, first off, thanks for the great work you do! We have a chance to do a last minute trek to the Southern Rhone the week after next (last week of October) and we hoping we could get some brief feedback from you on "must visit" spots.

As background, I've read through your terrific June '06 article and also Bruce Schoenfeld's article from the same issue. Both Heather and I are "French challenged" so we're unfortunately going to have to restrict ourselves to places that speak at least a bit of English. With that said, we love traveling in wine country, having done previous stints in the Barossa, Argentina, and Tuscany.

So, are there a handful of places that you'd put at the top of your list? We're going to stay at Le Prieure, which we hear has been significantly upgraded since '06. So far, for tastings, we've got Beaucastel and Pegau. From one of the other WS forums, we hear that we should consider Telegraphe & Pegau. We'd love to visit Clos St. Jean as well but can't figure out if it's open for tasting. Do you know?

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated! Thanks again.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 19, 2009 1:14pm ET
Scott: You'll have fun for sure...

While speaking French is obviously a benefit, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much English is spoken in the Rhône these days.

I don't like to play favorites by advising folks to see one producer over another. Choose your favorites - the wines you like to drink. Send a fax or call the domaine, let them know you're a customer and fan, and most are happy to provide a visit. There's also a Châteauneuf info booth right in the middle of town, a few doors down from La Mere Germaine - they can set you up with a map, appointments, advice, etc.

Clos St.-Jean is one of those domaines you may have to wrangle your way into. They don't have an open-to-the-public tasting room per se, as opposed to some other domaines like Beaucastel, Beaurenard, Roger Sabon, etc.

You're going at a nice time of year - the air will be crisp as Fall moves in and the 2009s will likely have been racked off into vat already. There may also be a few truffles just starting to appear on menus...
Delia Viader
Deer Park, CA USA —  October 19, 2009 8:45pm ET
i would like to meet this karim of lebanese descent but born in chile who moved to argentina at a young age... as someone of spanish & dutch descent born in argentina but moved to napa valley at a young age, i'm sure we'd have a lot to talk about. :)

i'm curious if you know of other producers who blend tempranillo and malbec?

from karim's comments about his first market visit, he sounds quite down to earth. manhattan was my first marketing trip when i became national sales director for viader in 2007. at the time i thought, "thanks mom for throwing me to the wolves!"

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 20, 2009 7:30am ET
Delia/Janet: Karim is an interesting person. I'd be happy to put you in touch.

As for Tempranillo and Malbec, Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier, also in the Uco Valley, blends the two.

Some other folks like Mapema, Luigi Bosca and Familia Zuccardi are making Tempranillo as well, though not necessarily in blends.
Scott Ellison
California —  October 21, 2009 4:45pm ET
James, thanks for the feedback. We've had remarkably good success arranging visits (including w/ StJean) and are excited about our week in the Rhone. Chave is one that it's tough to even track down contact info for so what a surprise to see your chat today w/ Jean-Louis. ->thanks for attempting to put Heather and I to work after my question to JL : ) We'll see if the visit works next week -> would be a thrill if it did.
Karim Mussi Saffie
La Consulta, Mendoza, Argentina. —  December 29, 2009 8:21pm ET
Dear Janet, I have just read your comment. I will be glad to meet you in my next US visit or maybe if you come to Argentina.
Aldo Luis Biondolillo
Maipú, Mendoza, Argentina —  February 15, 2010 2:55pm ET
Dear Delia,

I think it is very wise of you to meet with my good friend Karim to know many little secrets about how to make excellent malbec wines.
As respect to your question about some other argentine blends using malbec and tempranillo in it, I can tell you that we at Tempus Alba have launched last year the 2003 Tempus Alba Winemaker Reserve 2003, a blend of 95% malbec and 5% tempranillo. The wine participated in the last year international contest of Brussels, hold in Valencia, Spain, and gave us a Great Gold Medal, one of the six that were given to argentinean wines. The 900 bottles made went away after only six months in the market.

Aldo Biondolillo
Founder and General Director
Tempus Alba Winery and Vineyards

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