“Grapes are the most noble and challenging of fruits.”
Malcolm Dunn, Head Gardener to the 7th Viscount Powerscourt, c 1867       

Called Cot in much of western France including the Loire Valley, and known as Auxerrois in Cahors (southwestern France and the spiritual home of Malbec), it was known as Pressac in the Libournais (near Saint-Émilion and Pomerol) and widely used as a blending grape in Bordeaux.  But it was Argentina that brought this grape forefront to the world’s stage so that it is now universally known as Malbec. It is Argentina’s most widely planted black grape taking up more than 76,500 acres across the country, about 70% of which is planted within the province of Mendoza.

But Mendoza is a huge province, with elevations ranging topside at 22,831 feet down to the semi-flat lands of the east. Lowlands have very hot summers and warm nights in the north with evenings being cooler in the south.  Diurnal swings can be as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas of Mendoza.  Proximate rivers and their tributaries (there are several) affect growing conditions as does the vineyards’ altitude.  And although Malbec was brought to Argentina in 1868, it wasn’t until recently that producers matched grapes to local growing conditions.

Achaval-Ferrer and Alta Vista led in pioneering single vineyard Malbec; Malbec that displays a single vineyard’s unique typicity. In fact, such became the core philosophy, along with minimalist intervention, of Achaval-Ferrer production.  Emphasizing single-vineyard production within Mendoza is risky business. The province is known for hailstorms and entire crops can be lost in a day. A fearsome hot, dry wind (known as the “zondra”) while keeping vines dry and well aerated, is also capable of destroying crops upon flowering. For this reason, it is common in the province to produce unblended Malbec from several vineyards.

Bottles at the sampling table
Comparing two and making
Achaval-Ferrer, founded in 1998, has had multiple wines listed on Wine Spectator’s “TOP 100” list. It is Argentina’s first ever recipient of Decanter’s “5-Star Award” and for three consecutive years was Wine Enthusiast’s “Winery of the Year.” More important, to me at least, is the winery’s consistent history of high scores. Looking back ten years, no Malbec has been rated under 90, with most averaging in the mid-90s. What’s that quote again?  “The best predictor of what someone will do is what they have done.”?  Well, understandably, when I was invited to a tasting of Achaval-Ferrer wines, I eagerly accepted. Here’s the take on my favorites:

Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Malbec 2014 (SRP $24.99). 100% Malbec sourced from vineyards throughout Mendoza. Robert Parker was impressed enough to award this wine 91 points, and I was impressed too. Careful vineyard management and low yields with very little intervention (more on this later) and selecting the best grapes results in a wine tasting higher than priced. My first impression? “Smooth.”  Tannins are wrapped in silk and glide across the palate with notes of black and red cherry, raspberry and violet.  The presentation of this wine is both aromatic and on the palate with delicious fruit that is balanced and not jammy. Rich mouthfeel but with enough minerality and acidity to leave a clean and long finish. If this is “entry level” no wonder Achaval-Ferrer is referred to as “Argentina’s 1st Growth.”

Achaval-Ferrer Finca Bella Vista 2011 (SRP $140).  Wine Enthusiast awarded it 92 points. I would have awarded more.  Suckling gave it a 98. Parker came in with 95 and Tanzer a 94. 100% single-vineyard (Perdriel) Malbec within the Lujan de Cuyo in the upper Mendoza valley at an elevation of 3,200 feet. This is Mendoza’s most traditional quality region. In fact, it is known locally (along with Maipu) as Primera Zona (first zone).  100 year old vines. This is one of two Achaval-Ferrer Malbecs you want to taste if you want to experience how wondrous Malbec is capable of being, or if you want to give a special gift to anyone who thinks they know Malbec.  Full-bodied and with a luscious mouthfeel, this wine is decadent in its depth.  The finish is voluptuous and long, preceded by seductive aromas of blackberry, licorice and violet that carry into the taste along with a note of graphite adding to some dust on the palate.  The aroma is subtly overlaid with a hint of mocha. Concentrated but elegant, it’s Malbec but at a different level.  There’s an interplay of minerality and acidity to fruit and freshness that is a joy to the palate and commands continued sips to understand. Dense and concentrated, yet smooth and silky and with freshness, there is a tension to this wine that mystifies and intrigues.

Achaval-Ferrer Finca Altamira 2012 (SRP $150).  Another single-vineyard wine (La Consulta) within the Valle de Uco (Uco Valley) of Mendoza. Valle de Uco is Argentina’s rising star. Cooler weather, very poor soils with good drainage and a continuous breeze make for healthy vines with low yields – those used for this wine being grown at an elevation of 3,444 feet. Old vines producing concentrated fruit, it was hard to accept, at first taste, that this was 100% Malbec.  Rich and medium ruby in the glass, the nose was more reserved than Bella Vista with notes of blackberry and black cherry. Its rich flavor of cassis had me question if this was a Bordeaux blend!  A seamless composition with feminine floral notes balanced against masculine expresso and a hint of leather contrasted against black plum fruit. Balsamic, licorice, dark chocolate. Complex, elegant, graceful.  I really didn’t know Malbec could be this good. Wine Advocate awarded it 98 points / 95 from Wine Spectator and a Wow factor from me that made tasting this wine a memory to last a lifetime.

The alluvial and sandy stony soil of Mendoza, the hot and dry wind of zonda blowing down from the west, protection and isolation created by the Andes and the lack of abundant rainfall (but with enough water from rivers to irrigate as needed) lend natural conditions to growing healthy vines. Pesticide and spraying for disease is little needed. So while Malbec may have been born in France, it found a home in Argentina. And America (Argentina’s top purchaser of the varietal) seems to prefer it. In fairness, the Malbec of Argentina may be a different clone from that of Cahors. It has smaller, tighter bunches and smaller berries.

But what you do – or don’t do - with the grape is important too. Achaval-Ferrer’s vines are ungrafted and old and grown at high elevation in excellent terroir.  Low yields produce concentrated and vibrant fruit from berries already smaller than their cousins in France.  Achaval-Ferrer uses no enzymes, adds no sugar (chaptalization) and no corrections are made by adding acid. There is no fining, no filtering. What there is, is New World fruit expressive of terroir and New World innovation but married respectfully to Old World acid-driven, elegant, structured and balanced wines that are so eager to be enjoyed with food.

Achaval-Ferrer makes several other wines. I sampled also a
Manuel Louzada (R) and the Wine
100% Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend  (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) labeled “Quimera” and suggestively priced at $24.99 and $34.99 respectively. Regarding Suggested Retail Price (SRP), let me mention that looking online for Bella Vista and Altamira, I noticed that prices varied significantly and lower than the SRP stated– nearer the $100 mark.

I sat next to Manuel Louzada, head of global winemaking for Achaval-Ferrer, and we talked awhile about his wines. I commented that I have enjoyed Malbec for some years more than the average age of persons in the room and that I found his wines particularly special; mysterious and seductive.  I light heartedly but sincerely mentioned that his wines were something like a beautiful woman appearing in lingerie instead of being nude.  There was a mystery to these wines.  Not everything was obvious. Well, I am an old man, and hopefully that didn’t come out too old and dirty. He laughed, and I think he understood.  In either event, I followed up with referring to him as “The Michelangelo of Malbec.”  I meant both those comments though you won’t find either being used in any wine study course.  As Malcolm Dunn said “Grapes are the most noble and challenging of fruits” and Manuel and his team at Achaval-Ferrer have indeed mastered the challenge. Perhaps that last comment says it best.

……………… Jim

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