Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Alta Vista Winery: A French Flair With Guinea Pigs

As I walked upon the grounds of Alta Vista Winery, I noticed numerous small, furry creatures scampering about the grass. On a closer look, I realized that they were guinea pigs, and I easily saw a dozen of them. They have free reign of the property, and though there are some people in South America who eat guinea pigs, these do not end up on the barbecue. Not that I would have minded trying a bit of grilled guinea pig if it had been offered.

The Alta Vista Winery is situated in the small town of Chacras de Coria, in the wine region of Luján de Cuyo, just south of Mendoza. It is owned by the D'Aulan family, a French family with wine interests in Argentina, France and Hungary. They founded Alta Vista in 1997, renovating older winery buildings that had been around since 1890.

Their focus is on Malbec and they currently own about 200 hectares of vineyards, nearly all in Mendoza, and all at an altitude of 1000-1100 kilometers. One of their vineyards is in Cafayate, where they obtain their Torrontes.  They believe that altitude is very important to the quality of their wines, a sentiment echoed by many other wineries in Argentina. They produce about 140,000 cases annually, with 60% being exported to various countries.

Matthieu Grassin, a native of the Loire, is their wine maker and brings a European flair to the winery. There are numerous old vines in the vineyards, and they are irrigated by a gravity system, though that can cause some uneven watering, leading to certain sections being less ripe than others. All of the grapes are hand harvested, and most of their wines are fermented in concrete with epoxy. The concrete tanks are square in shape, which means that 25% more of the wine is in contact with the concrete walls. As constant and specific temperatures are needed, the concrete allows that to occur. To do the same job, stainless steel tanks would have to be much thicker and would also be much more expensive, though they do use stainless steel for their white wines. Their tanks are smaller and they possess three times the number of tanks than any other winery in Argentina of comparable size.

The original wine cellar, constructed in 1889, has been retained though some newer and smaller cellars have been added.

Nearly all of the wines I tasted from Alta Vista were either 100% Malbec or Malbec dominated blends. But, I did get to taste their 2010 Alta Vista Pemium Torrontes ($14.99) and it was one of the best Torrontes I tasted while in Argentina. They pick the grapes for this wine on three different dates, so that they can obtain different characteristics, such as a little bitterness from the less ripe grapes. I found the wine to be very aromatic, with pleasant citrus and floral aromas. On the palate, flavors of citrus, pineapple, peach and white flowers complemented the crisp, clean taste. It had some character, and was not a simple, one-note wine. At this price, it is a very good value and simply a delicious wine that I would highly recommend.

In general, their Malbecs evidenced consistent quality and they certainly showed the many different faces of Malbec, how terroir in Argentina can affect this grape. They have chosen to specialize in Malbec, and their passion and devotion have led to the creation of some excellent wines, at all price points.

The 2009 Alta Vista Premium Malbec ($14.99) delivers a mouthful of ripe plum and blackberry, with some mild spice notes, moderate tannins and some character. It delivers more than many other similarly priced Malbecs and is a good entry wine into their portfolio. Moving up the portfolio, the 2007 Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec ($25-$30) is a blend of the grapes from the best terroir of that year, and they only produce about 100 cases. It is more complex than the Premium, and also had a spicier core as well as a lengthier, and very pleasing finish. A more serious wine, it should be paired with steak or a hearty dish.

I also got to try three single vineyard Malbecs from 2007, each about $50, showing a progression of vineyards from the north to the south, including Temis, Serenade, and Alizarine. All three were complex and compelling wines but my personal preference of the three was the 2007 Alta Vista Single Vineyard Temis. I enjoyed the Temis because I felt it had the best balance of black fruit and spice. The Serenade was more spice dominant while the Alizarine was more fruit dominant. Your own personal preferences will indicate which of the three you would like more.

The first wine that Alta Vista ever produced was the Alto ($115), now considered an Argentine icon. They produce about 100 cases annually and do not produce this wine every year (which they did not make in 2008). It is always a blend of Malbec, from the Alizarine vineyard, and Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Temis vineyard, and the proportions of each will vary year to year. I tasted a vertical of three vintages, 2005-2007, and they were all impressive though my personal favorite was the 2007.

Both the 2005 and 2006 were blends of 75% Malbec and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2007  was 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. 2006 was considered one of the best Malbec vintages in recent history. All possessed an alcohol content of 15%, and each was complex, interesting and unique in its own way. The 2007 was more muscular and powerful, yet well balanced, while the 2006 was much more elegant and restrained. The 2005 opted for more of a middle ground between these two others. These are pricey wines, yet they are high quality ones as well, and worth the splurge if you really want something special.

I still would have liked to see which wine went better with grilled guinea pig, the crisp Torrontes or a spicy Malbec.

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