Achaval-Ferrer: A purest approach to making Argentine Malbec

Santiago Achaval, Achaval Ferrera Argentine Malbec

In Argentina, the combination of purity in winemaking, terroir-driven wines, and old vines is symbolic of one winery, Achaval-Ferrer. It is the passion of the winery owners to produce Malbec from single vineyards, but there is more that makes the Achaval-Ferrer wines exceptional. In addition to the land and the grapes, it is the people behind these Argentine Malbec.

Santiago Achaval-Ferrer

Recently I had the opportunity to meet Santiago Achaval, one of the owners of Achaval-Ferrer. If you were to ask Santiago in the early 1980s about wine, he would probably not have been able to respond. His background was in accounting. While working as a CPA, his company sent him to Stanford to get his MBA. It was during this time that he discovered wine. He would take weekend jaunts to Napa and Sonoma. These trips ultimately got him hooked on the whole process of winemaking.

In 1991 he decided to make a career change. By 1998 with three friends, Manuel Ferrer, Roberto Cipresso, and Tiziano Siviero, they founded Achaval-Ferrer Winery. When meeting Santiago, one feels his love for the land and the wine he is creating.

Argentine Malbec Vineyards

Achaval-Ferrer consists of four vineyards: Finca Altamira, Finca Diamante, Finca Mirador and Finca Bella Vista. Finca Altamira is located in La Consulta, Valle de Uco and is made up of vines that date back to 1925. In Tupungato one finds Finca Diamante. Finca Mirador is located in Medrano and planted with vines from 1928. Finally, Finca Bella Vista, which is also the location of the winery in Luján de Cuyo and has vines dating from 1910.

All four different vineyards utilize the same techniques and practices used to grow and create the wine, but the differences come from the individual terroirs, which each have their own distinction. Santiago describes four fundamentals that are the backbone of grape growing and the winemaking process that make Achaval-Ferrer wines excel in excellence.

Argentine Malbec Vines

The first starts with having old ungrafted vines. These vines tend to produce grapes that are darker in color, have a lower pH, instill a greater intensity in the flavors, and provide for better aging potential. The older vines have a deeper root system allowing them to travel further into the soil to obtain nutrients that are not typically seen by the young vines. It thereby enriches the grapes and their expression of the Argentine terroir.

Next is the premise that low-yield produces more complex and concentrated fruit. Again older vines typically grow fewer grapes than the newer ones. During the growing process, the winery drops 5% of the fruit, which equals one bunch per shoot. In addition, the planting of these vines is at a higher density than most. The idea behind this principle is they are anticipating what the grapes desire. It is almost like Santiago, and the other workers are having a dialogue with the vineyard.

Winemaking Process And Practices

Low intervention in the winemaking process is the third principle. This allows the grapes to speak for themselves. The grapes ferment at a higher temperature than most wineries.

Lastly, Achaval-Ferrer combines both old and new world practices. By utilizing a plan of less intervention, letting nature take control, and incorporating the new world concept of bigger and brighter fruit makes the wines very elegant, complex, and balanced.

With these principles and practices, each vineyard produces yields of less than 1 ton per acre. In addition, some of the other factors that influence the Achaval-Ferrer Argentine Malbec wines are early leafing, so enhance tannin development and minimizing the water to retard growth during ripening.

In keeping with the purist approach, thereby letting the grapes speak to each of us, the winery does not use sulfites at crush. They do not use enzymes, nor correct acidity. There is no cold soaking or maceration. They have chosen to have the wine go through spontaneous malolactic fermentation. The wine aged for 12 to 15 months on the lees without ranking in 100% new medium toasted French oak barrels. For Santiago, the barrel is a breathing tool rather than an ingredient to add flavor. Finally, there is no fining or filtering. Once bottled, the wine sits for another year to 14 months before release.

Weather and Nature

Nature took its toll in 2012 to the Mirador Vineyards. A hailstorm in the late spring destroyed the grapes, but that did not stop Santiago and the winery team from moving forward with the grapes produced from their other vineyards. As Santiago told the story about the sudden spring storm, I got the impression this is part of the ebb and flow of life for Argentine grapes, and one must move forward by creating the best with what nature has provided you. In this case, it was the grapes from the Bella Vista and Altamira Vineyards.

The Argentine Malbec Wines

Due to this act of nature, I was only privileged to taste the 2012 Bella Vista and Altamira and a vertical of the Altamira 2009, 2006, and 2000. All wines I sampled were 100% Malbec and represented a single vineyard.

The 2012 Finca Bella Vista I found velvety smooth with flavors of dark fruits, especially dark cherries with hints of pepper. It is big and fruit-forward.

The 2012 Finca Altamira displays brighter red fruit and is creamy in texture. This characteristic immediately shows the difference that the Uco Valley brings to these vineyards and the Malbec grape.

After sipping the 2012 Altamira, it was interesting to see the development of the wines from this vineyard as they aged over a span of 12 years. The younger was jammier and fruit-forward, while the 2009 Finca Altamira bloomed and became more complex and peppery. You could really sense the growth and development. The 2006 Finca Altamira was exceptionally vibrant and bright with the same complexity. It too held onto its peppery, spicy flavors. The 2000 Finca Altamira seemed subtler. It appeared more rounded and very balanced thus showing that the wine still has legs.

The vertical tasting of the Finca Altamira Malbecs shows that the principles and practices utilized by Santiago and the rest of the Achaval-Ferrer team enhance the longevity of their Argentine Malbec wines.

Ultimately the philosophy and mission of this winery is a duty to pass on what the vines have given the fruit. In essence, Achaval-Ferrer’s concept of making wine is that less is more establishing a caretaker-like approach to the grapes and vines rather than just being owners of the winery. In essence, they are stewards of the Argentine Malbec grape.