Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Altos Las Hormigas: Malbec Is Unimportant?

The winemaker from Altos las Hormigas, which specializes in wines made from Malbec, told me that the grape was unimportant.  Why would he say that?  Isn't he denigrating the very grape that his winery relies upon?

Malbec, which is also known as Auxerrois, Côt Noir and Pressac, was first introduced into Argentina in the mid-19th century.  But, in 1995, few wineries were doing anything with Malbec, except using it as a blending grape, as they were concentrating on international varieties. It was at this time that two pioneering Italians chose to explore the potential of Argentina and believed they had found an excellent place to produce wine.  Others followed in their wake so that, presently, Malbec is the most planted red grape in Argentina and many wineries are making Malbec wines.

Back in 1995, Alberto Antonini, a Tuscan winemaker and former head winemaker at Antinori, and Antonio Morescalchi, a young entrepreneur, bought 216 hectares of land, and primarily planted it with Malbec. For the last 15 years, they have produced Malbec and Bonarda wines, generally inexpensive wines.  But now they feel they are ready to take it to the next level, which includes the belief that the grape is no longer important.

Last month, I was invited to a luncheon at Abe & Louie's, to meet Alberto and Antonio, as well as to taste their new wines.  I also had the opportunity later that evening to speak with Alberto and Antonio again at a small reception at the Elephant Walk.  It was a very informative day, and I was impressed with their ideas and wines.  Both Alberto and Antonio were clearly passionate individuals, devoted to producing the best wines possible and Alberto was clearly a lover of Malbec. As the U.S. accounts for about 50% of their market, it was important to Alberto and Antonio to present their wines to members of the Boston area wine industry.

We did not start with Malbec though.  Our first wine at lunch, with a Boca Chopped Salad topped by a Dijon Vinaigrette, was the 2009 Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda (about $10).  I have long been a fan of Bonarda, feeling it is an underappreciated grape which often produces good value wines around $10.  Hormigas started producing Bonarda in 2003, and is still learning and experimenting with it.  Bonarda requires a long growing season and needs sufficient sun to ripen properly so Mendoza has a very good climate for the grape. But due to its climate, it is much tougher to grow Bonarda in Italy.  I do know that I have much preferred the Bonards I have tasted from Argentina over those from Italy.  The Italian ones seemed much more rustic, with less fruit flavors, and just didn't impress.

This Bonarda wine sees no oak and has an alcohol content of 13.9%.  I enjoyed this wine, finding that it had excellent red fruit flavors, low tannins, some underlying spice and plenty of character for this price point.  It was easy drinking and would pair well with many different casual dishes, from burgers to pasta.  A great every day wine, this will appeal to most wine lovers. 

For the rest of the lunch, we would have three different Malbec wines, tasting the results of the winery's new endeavors. They see the winery as a laboratory and after fifteen years of experimentation, the winery has decided that Malbec is no longer important.  What they mean is that they will no longer focus on the grape, Malbec, but instead will now concentrate on terroir, a sense of place.  This is a more European attitude, and it is not surprising based on the fact the two founders are Italian.  They felt they needed the last fifteen years to understand the terroir of Mendoza, to most appreciate where Malbec grows best.

They consulted with Pedro Parra, a Chilean scientist who is the only terroir and soil specialist in South America, and discovered that soil profile and microzoning were the most important elements in producing excellent Malbec wines.  Altitude, vine age, canopy management and such were found to be of far lesser importance. So, the winery has been seeking out the best soils and microzones which can impart terroir and produce top notch, age-worthy wines.  Most of these areas have been found in ancient river beds, known as alluvial terraces.   

The winery sees Malbec as an indigenous Argentina grape as its expression is very different in France, due to their different soils, climates, etc. In addition to their concern about terroir, Hormigas is also moving towards organic farming as they feel it is better farming.  All of their grapes are hand-picked and they produce wines which are intended to be paired with food, especially their higher-end wines. Thus their wines need tannins and acids, though in balance.  

With my entree of a tender New York Sirloin and a side of Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes, we had two of their new terroir driven Malbecs, including the 2009 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Valle de Uco Terroir (about $15) and 2006 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Vistaflores (about $80).  The sirloin was quite good, and a perfect accompaniement to the Malbecs. These Malbecs definitely benefit from being paired with food, especially a hearty steak. I also loved the taste of the potatoes, with that prominent sharp flavor of blue cheese which also accented well the sirloin. 

The Terroir, with a dark purple color, had an appealing spicy and floral, violets, nose.  On the palate there were flavors of black cherry, raspberry and spice, including hints of vanilla.  It had some complexity, moderate tannins, and a lengthy and satisfying finish. This is a very good value wine, as you get plenty of complexity and character for the price point.  It is a couple steps above the usual Malbecs you find from Argentina.

The king of the tasting was the single-vineyard Vistaflores, from a 2 hectare site, which spent 36 months in the barrel.  The winemaker feels that it could have easily remained longer in the barrel, and will keep the next vintage of Vistaflores in the barrel for 48 months. 2006 is considered the best vintage in the last ten years, and they won't make the Vistaflores every year.  In some respects, the Vistaflores had a similar flavor profile to the Terroir but ramped up several degrees.  There was more complexity in the wine, with more blackfruit flavors, additional spice notes and even a touch of minerality.  Great structure, well balanced, and with a very lengthy finish.

A very impressive wine, and this may be the best high-end Malbec I have ever had.  It is worth the high price and Hormigas is working on producing other single vineyard wines.  If this is the result of all of their experimentation, then I consider it a big success and look forward to seeing more top notch wines from this winery. 

We ended the meal with a Selection of Cheeses, paired with the 2008 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Valle de Uco Reserva (about $22). It was aged in small French barrels for 15-18 months, and can age for ten years or more. It too was similar to the Terroir, but its quality was even better.  It also had a touch more earthiness to the taste, which appealed to me. Another wine I would recommend.

I deeply respect the concept of Altos Las Hormigas, their desire to concentrate on terroir rather than the grape.  They have taken the time and effort to discover what best produces Malbec, and their studies and experimentation continue. They were pioneers fifteen years ago, producing Malbec wines, and are pioneers once again, introducing more terroir driven wines to the region.  Malbec from Argentina has long been seen as a relatively simple and inexpensive wine, yet it is clear it can also produce complex, high-end wines too.

As Altos Las Hormigas says, forget the Malbec grape and instead, concentrate on the terroir.

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2 comments:

Rebecca said...

IMHO, Altos is by far the most superior in the moderate ($11.99 - $29.99) Malbec producer out there. (Or rather, terroir enthusiasts?) :) The quality is always consistent.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Rebecca, they certainly do produce an excellent wine.