Wine: Masters of Malbec

  • Anthony Head

From the terrace of his newly completed winery, which overlooks a vineyard appropriately named Finca de la Vista, Santiago Achaval rests his gaze momentarily on an olive grove. He points to the shade the grove casts on his vines. He would like to cut the trees down, he admits, but they have been here at least a generation longer than he has: They belong, he says resignedly, and so they stay.

Achaval, though a relatively young man (he turned 45 in March), has become as much a part of this estate in Mendoza as the olive trees and the rows of vines themselves. “In Argentina, people often stay where they’re born,” he explains. “There’s a bond between the land and the man. So I’m not making wine from the land that belongs to me, but rather from the land that I belong to.”

He has belonged since 1998, when he and fellow Argentinean Manuel Ferrer partnered with Roberto Cipresso and Tiziano Siviero, the proprietors of La Fiorita in Montalcino, Italy, to found Achaval-Ferrer, a wine estate in the foothills of the Andes dedicated to making small-production red wines based primarily on the Malbec grape. But, in spite of the partners’ passion for capturing in their wines the personality of this place, the grapes themselves were, until recently, moved to a rented winery in the pampas city of Luján. “That winery was so old and ugly that it came around to where it was beautiful again,” Achaval jokes. Though the first vintages of single-vineyard Malbecs and a Bordeaux blend, Quimera, consistently scored in excess of 90 points from critics since their commercial launch in 2000, Achaval remained dissatisfied because he knew a modern winery could bring tremendous advances in quality and control. So, as soon as they feasibly could, the partners broke ground amid their own vineyards. “We hired no architects for this winery,” Achaval says. “We designed it with our operations manager and winemaker on a piece of paper, right down to the inch. It is a winemaker’s winery.”

This new facility supports what Achaval refers to as “lazy winemaking.” Cipresso, Achaval-Ferrer’s winemaker, does not cold-soak the grapes (that is, lower the temperature to stall fermentation and extract greater color and flavor). He does not adjust the natural acidity, nor does he rack the wine in and out of the barrels every few months during aging. The wine is bottled without fining or filtering. “The list of the things we don’t do is longer than the list of things we do,” Achaval says. “But lazy winemaking makes up for the extra work we give the vineyards.”

Each vineyard’s distinct terroir—or terruño, as the Argentineans call it—emerges from its own unique set of characteristics. Finca Altamira, the estate’s most celebrated vineyard, lies along the Tunuyan River at more than 3,400 feet above sea level. This higher elevation increases the vines’ exposure to sunlight during the day, while the river cools the vineyard at night, enhancing the fruit’s acidity. The poor soil—a mixture of sand and gravel—lowers yields while imparting to the wine its signature minerality. Achaval-Ferrer’s 2003 Finca Altamira Single-Vineyard Malbec ($85) perfectly encapsulates these qualities and is one of the best bottles ever to come from Mendoza; lush and elegant, it is a stunning mélange of earthiness, acidity, and soft tannins. Barrel samples of the 2004 vintage (to be released this month) promise complexity, power, and great definition.

The 2006 vintage—the first wines produced exclusively at the new winery—will be available in 2008. The more modern surroundings in which the wines are made have not deterred the partners’ pure pursuit of terruño, which may express itself even more clearly in vintages to come. After all, the wine, like Achaval’s olive trees, belongs here—a palpable and deliciously palatable expression of the bond between the man and his land.

Achaval-Ferrer
www.achaval-ferrer.com

Photo by James Lipman
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