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11.19.2005

2002 Achaval-Ferrer "Finca Altamira" Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina

achaval_ferrer.jpgI've been of the opinion for a while that Malbec, while a noble grape, and a valuable contributor (albeit in smaller and smaller amounts these days) to the great wines of Bordeaux is really not a grape that makes exceptional wine on its own. I've voiced that opinion here on Vinography several times, to a raft of criticism from my readers and suggestions left and right of different Malbecs to try. I have diligently tried many of them, and I'm sorry folks, I still wasn't impressed.

However, I don't lightly dismiss wines on a categorical basis, and certainly not before trying what some consider to be the best versions of a particular varietal, or the best producer in a given region.

I've actually managed to find a couple of decent Malbecs, wines that are pleasant to drink and not that complicated, but I still haven't found the wines that can compete with the depth and complexity of the big reds from Bordeaux, The Rhone Valley, Australia or California. Finally I decided that I needed to go out and spend a bit of cash to try what some people consider the best.

Which brings me to this wine.

Achaval-Ferrer is a new kid on the block in Argentina, but in just a few short years their wines have garnered international attention (and very high scores) from most major wine critics. A joint venture between Argentinean and Italian friends, Achaval-Ferrer began as a collaborative project in 1998 focused on making small amounts of red wine that express what the partners felt was a unique terroir.

Together the group of partners, Santiago Achaval, Manuel Ferrer, Diego Rosso, Marcelo Victoria, and Roberto Cipresso purchased four vineyards in the province of Mendoza, Argentina, some of which had ancient Malbec vines growing on their own original roots. Such vines are a rarity throughout the rest of the world thanks to the ravages of Phylloxera and the vine killing disease it carries.

The vineyard that produced this wine is known as "La Consulta" and it sits in the western central part of the province, in the shadow of the Chilean Andes, like much of the province. The La Consulta vineyard contains 10 acres of ancient Malbec vines, the youngest of which are 80 years old, and all of which are planted on their own original roots. The vineyard sits on a relatively flat glacial plain named the Uco valley, at an elevation of 3400 feet.

The climate, the soil, and the age of these vines result in extremely low yields, something approaching less than one pound of grapes per vine, meaning that you need three or four vines to make a single bottle. A whole acre of vines ends up producing about three-quarters of a ton of grapes.

After harvest, which takes place towards the end of March, winemaker Robert Cipresso and team hand sort the grapes several times before careful destemming. The wine is made in small tanks with extended soaking time on the skins before being moved to barrels for secondary fermentation and aging. Cipresso uses 95% French oak (100% new) and 5% American oak, and has no set aging timeframe. Consequently the amount of time in barrel varies from year to year. The 2002 spent 14 months in barrel before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. 551 cases were produced.

So now what do I think of Argentinean Malbec? Well, this wine is certainly the best Malbec I've ever had, and is an excellent wine, that I liked, as you can see below from my tasting notes and score. But even in the midst of my enjoying it with some good food and friends, I found myself saying, "so this is all you got?" Frankly, this wine is made like an excellent Bordeaux -- it clearly has those characteristics, and some of the depth and complexity, but I'm still not sold on the varietal. I haven't given up on it entirely, and I want to find another example that is perhaps more old school (Achaval-Ferrer, while clearly accomplished, are upstarts in Argentina, rather than an estate that has been there forever).

Tasting Notes:
This wine is a deep, inky garnet in color and is nearly opaque in the glass. It has a nose that mixes dark blackberry and black cherry fruit tones with mineral notes of wet slate, and pencil lead as well as some slight floral highlights as the wine gets some air. In the mouth it is smooth and thick with a slight spiciness and subdued deep flavors of blueberry, cassis and graphite that carry through a long finish that has an herbal note to it as well as some sweetness of oak. The tannic structure of the wine is delicate and well integrated making for smooth drinking now and some aging potential over time.

Food Pairing:
I think this wine is a lovely pairing for rustic Italian or southern French foods, though its low alcohol content makes it an easy choice with lots of things. I'd love to try it with a smoked sausage cassoulet.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $68

This wine can be purchased online. It is imported by TGIC Importers, Woodland Hills, CA 91364

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