Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Marcelo Victoria, director of wine Achaval-Ferrer
I was thrilled when I heard that the Sales Director of one of Argentina’s finest boutique wineries – Achaval-Ferrer - would be in Washington DC to show his lineup. The Achaval-Ferrer wines have developed a cult following in the US in recent years.
Wine Country Argentina
Argentina has always been a giant wine producer. But historically, Argentine winemakers were more interested in quantity than quality with the country consuming 90% of the wine it produced. For most of the 1900s, Argentina produced more wine than any other country outside Europe, though the vast majority was consumed at home. Argentine wines started being exported during the 1990s, and are currently growing in popularity, making Argentina now the second biggest wine exporter in Latin America, behind Chile. The devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002, following the economic collapse, further fueled the wine industry.
Argentina is the 5th largest producer of wine in the world, following Spain, France, Italy and the US. Like much of the new world, Argentina owes its first vineyards to the Catholic church and its Holy Communion. As early as 1556, missionary priests crossed the Andes from the Spanish colony in what is now Chile, to Argentina.
The wine industry grew rapidly, as the Spanish and Italian immigrants brought with them the habit of having a bottle of wine with every meal. In the 1920s, Argentina was the 8th richest nation in the world. Domestic wine consumption was as high as 90 liters per person.
Yet it is only very recently - perhaps over the last ten or fifteen years - that the wine industry has really begun to develop the methods, attitudes and will to become a serious player in the international wine market.
The Andes Mountains are the dominant geographical feature of Argentine wine regions, with the snow cap mountains often serving as a back drop view in the vineyards. Most of the wine regions are located within the foothills of the Andes. The most important wine regions of the country are located in the provinces of Mendoza and San Juan and La Rioja. Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Aires are also wine producing regions. The Mendoza province produces more than 60% of the Argentine wine and is the source of an even higher percentage of the total exports.
Picture: Argentina's Wine Regions
Due to the high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions, Argentine vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries. This permits cultivating with little or no pesticides, allowing even organic wines to be easily produced.
Argentina, like Chile, is unique in the wine world for the absence of the phylloxera threat that has devastated vineyards across the globe. Unlike Chile, the phylloxera louse is present in Argentina but is a particular weak biotype that doesn't survive long in the soil. Because of this most of the vineyards in Argentina are planted on ungrafted rootstock.
Mendoza is the leading producer of wine in Argentina. The vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone is slightly less than half of the entire planted acreage in the US and more than the acreage of New Zealand and Australia combined. Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the average vineyards in Mendoza are planted at altitudes of 1,970-3,610 feet (600-1,100 meters) above sea level. The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winter dormancy.
There are many different varieties of grapes cultivated in Argentina, reflecting her many immigrant groups. The French brought Malbec, which makes most of Argentina's best known wines. The backbone of the early Argentine wine industry were the high yielding, pink skin grapes Cereza, Criolla Chica and Criolla Grande which still account for nearly 30% of all vines planted in Argentina today.
While the historic birthplace of Malbec is Cahors in France, it is in Argentina where the grape receives most of its attention. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives; they have smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters.
Achaval-Ferrer is a small winery, committed to the production of limited quantities of top red wines. Achával Ferrer is arguably Argentina's first "cult" winery, commanding prices in excess of $100 a bottle in both the U.S. and Argentina. They export 85% of their production, 40% to the USA.
The vineyards are located in the province of Mendoza. The region’s desert climate and soil conditions are ideal for the development of Malbec and other red varieties. Low yields, significant thermal gradients (warm days, cool nights), poor alluvial soils, low rainfall, high altitude and the pure Andes irrigation water, all work together to mature grapes that can be transformed into complex, deep and structured wines.
Picture: The Vineyards of Achaval-Ferrer with the Andes in the Background
A group of Argentinean and Italian friends started this adventure in 1998.Santiago Achaval and Manuel Ferrer are the Argentinean partners. The Italian partners are Roberto Cipresso, (the winemaker), and Tiziano Siviero. Both Italians also own La Fiorita Winery in Montalcino. The other key people in the company are Diego Rosso (Vineyard and Winery Operations), and Marcelo Victoria (Sales), who I had the pleasure to meet in Washington DC.
Achaval Ferrer’s Quimera blend has an average yield of 18 hectoliters per hectare. The Finca Altamira single-vineyard Malbec has a yield of 12 hectoliters per hectare. Achaval Ferrer harvests only until mid-morning for the grapes to be very cool when they arrive in the winery. They do severe triage both on the grape bunches before desteming and on the grapes themselves after desteming, to assure that only the best go into our tanks. After fermentation (7 to 10 days), the wine is pressed and barrel-aged. Achaval Ferrer uses 95% French oak (Taransaud) and 5 % American oak (Canton). The wines stay in barrel until the winemaker decides they have the appropriate balance. No formulas or rigid time frames, just tasting. Achaval Ferrer bottles without fining or filtering, to preserve aromas and flavors. Achaval-Ferrer holds the honor of being the first Argentine winery to receive a score of 96 in Wine Spectator magazine.
What Marcelo Victor Poured
2008 Malbec, 91 WS, $22.99
Tasting notes: Ruby in the glass, delicious, pour purple fruit develops on the nose, a full-bodied wine, raspberry and pastis notes on the palate, long finish.
2007 Quimera, 92 WA, 91 WS, $36.99Tasting notes: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot, interestingly, the blend occurs before racking into barrels, of which 40% are new (10% American oak and 90% French oak), ruby in the glass, attack of blackcurrant and ripe plums on the nose, a full-bodied wine, good structure, subtle herby complexity and some minerality on the palate with a smooth finish.
2007 Finca Mirador Malbec, 94 WA, 94 WS, $107.99
Tasting notes: good full ruby in the glass, attack of wet stone, toast and blackberry on the nose, a full-bodied wine, outstanding concentration, impeccable balance, long, mouthwatering finish.
2007 Finca Altamira Malbec, 95+ WA, 95 WS, $107.99
Tasting notes: good full ruby in the glass, the nose displays sweet fruit with a savoury, herbal edge, a full-bodied wine, the palate is lush and intensely concentrated with good acidity and a bit of minerality, a delicious wine.