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posted: 7/29/2015 6:13 AM

Quality Malbec from Achaval-Ferrer

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Malbec is the stuff of wine legend: Once, the yeoman grape of southwest France; uniformly ripped from its roots in the 1950s with complaints of vineyard disease and susceptibility to frost; replaced by more glamorous varieties including Cabernet. Spared from oblivion only by cuttings brought to Argentina in the 1850s but again, generally ripped up in favor of (then) more glamorous grapes including Bonarda.

Fortune changed for Malbec in the 1990s. By then, the vine had adapted to Argentina's vineyards, transforming France's weedy Malbec flavors to something velvet, juicy and imminently enjoyable. Canny winegrowers, campaigning for international investment in Argentina's (then) stable economy, gambled on Malbec as a unique product in a crowded international wine market. They won. Today, Argentine Malbec is a star, with worldwide shipments -- as well as backing from the wine world's biggest bank accounts -- soaring. Now, with the world awash in excellent to not-so-good Malbec, producer Santiago Achaval-Ferrer (Ah-CHA-val fair-AIR) is betting that wine drinkers want Malbec of profound character, structure and complexity, and are willing to pay for it.

Since 1999, Achaval-Ferrer has set the bar for Argentine winemaking, beginning with a 5-star rating from Decanter, (the self-described "best wine magazine in the world") for his first release, the single-vineyard Finca Altamira.

During a recent tasting with Achaval-Ferrer, this palate found Finca Altamira 2011 to be soft and sexy on entry, with flavors striding confidently through plum, dark chocolate and spice to finish with focused acidity. (About $140 in wine shops)

In 2012, Achaval-Ferrer claimed the #10 spot of the Wine Spectator's "Top 100 Wines" with the Finca Bella Vista, 2010.

Finca Bella Vista 2011 is provocative and dynamic, with perfectly ripe fruit accentuated by mountain herb flavors, all framed by long acidity and supple tannin (about $140.)

This is hands-off winemaking. Vineyards up to 120 years old are planted on original, pre-phylloxera rootstock at 2,400 to 3,400 feet into the Andes. In the desert-like climate, vines are watered by pristine snow melt, grapes ripen in the purest sunshine.

Other producers protect high-elevation vineyards from birds and hail with netting, but Achaval-Ferrer refuses to sacrifice even one wavelength of sun to the shadow of nets. "We have lost whole vintages to hail, but sunlight is fundamental to the finest grain of tannin." He adds with his mischievous grin, "My investors think I'm crazy, but I'm fascinated by how something that is aesthetically pleasing also sells."

With single vineyards, Achaval-Ferrer allows Malbec to be profoundly expressive of place; in "Quimera", he explores winemaking creativity in blending.

"Quimera" reflects the historic Bordeaux blend of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The 2010 vintage is perfumous and dense, with finely-woven tannin wrapped around flavors of ripe fruit, herbs, licorice and exotic spice ($36.) Achaval-Ferrer recommends patience for 10 years of maturation, then three hours of decanting.

Even Achaval-Ferrer's entry-level Malbec (see Ross's Choice) is a textbook example of what wine should be: distinctive, very drinkable and refreshing.

He found Malbec's refreshing acidity by accident. "Fifteen years ago, we began pruning vineyards, culling less-than-perfect fruit to increase complexity. We found that vines adapted by ripening early, retaining natural acidity in grape."

Between rising labor and land costs and overproduction, the days of decent under-$10 Malbec are over but -- at least for Achaval-Ferrer -- business is booming. His happy importer reports, "We sold out the previous vintage; the new vintage isn't bottled but we already have full commitments."

Santiago Achaval-Ferrer bet on the world's wine drinker taste for quality and he's won.

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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