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Altos Las Hormigas and Their New 2006 Vistaflores

February 18, 2011

A few weeks ago I attended a lunch featuring the wines and winemaker Aberto Antonini of Altos las Hormigas. The food was fine but one of the wines really surprised me. I have tasted both Altos las Hormigas’ regular Malbec and their Malbec Reserva before and have developed mixed feelings about them over the years. Both are good enough to demand their respective askings, probably more than good enough actually, but I remembered both as being typical Mendoza Malbec: quite ripe  with dark fruit flavors and a veneer of oak, nothing very special or distinctive. We tasted four wines on this occasion: one Bonarda and three Malbecs.  Two of the Malbecs are new to their revamped portfolio and of those two one was very special and distinctive indeed.

Upon invitation I was informed that the lunch was intended to highlight the release of a couple new wines from Altos las Hormigas’  terroir project. “Ok”, I thought, “that should be a larf, too much oak, overripe flavors and not enough tannin or acidity to hold it together, how will that highlight terroir?” What a jerk I can be sometimes.

Altos las Hormigas calls themselves ‘The Malbec Specialist’ and also claims to be the first all Malbec  project in Argentina. This is a bit dubious in my opinion seeing as there were Malbec vineyards in Argentina long before they arrived and somebody must have dedicated themselves only to Malbec wines before them, who knows though. They are however specialists of Malbec and in the 90’s, when experimenting with a wide variety of international grape varieties was quite popular in Mendoza, they arrived on the scene and chose to work with Malbec alone. ALH recognized that Malbec had adapted to the terroir of Mendoza over the past 150 years, including developing an even thicker skin to deal with the effects of increased UV light in Mendoza, and felt that this had to be the grape that would produce the best wines of Mendoza. ALH has planted French Malbec next to the indigenous Mendoza Malbec and according to Alberto Antonini the wines are quite different, the Malbec of Mendoza exhibiting darker flavors and more tannin.

When it comes to their terroir project they are actually doing some very interesting things. They have hired Pedro Parra, South America’s only soil and terroir specialist, to work with them in mapping the soil types of their vineyards. I remember reading about Pedro Parra in Decanter and thinking “what a cool job, dig some holes, used to do that when I was a kid, can’t be too hard”. There is certainly a science to soil, as well as vast fields of study within it (geology, biology, chemistry), and I have but a superficial knowledge of said science so I’m actually confident that I’m hardly qualified to consult on the potential of any given plot of land to produce great wine. ALH’s website has an interesting overview of the different soil types of Mendoza and this is a decent introduction to some of the basic ideas behind the concept of soil affecting wine-grape terroir.

The soils of Mendoza are 100% alluvial, the result over  countless years of melt water pushing sediment down from the slopes of the Andes. Soil variation is huge in Mendoza and within a matter of meters can change enough to result in marked differences between wines. ALH along with Pedro have been mapping their vineyards’ soils and identifying macrozones and microzones of desirable soil types. There are various techniques used to analyze soils, among them are measuring pH, digging trenches and electroconductivity tests (see here for an explanation). ALH has used these techniques in conjunction with each other to map and rank their vineyards as precisely as possible.

For their Malbec Classico and Malbec Valle de Uco Terroir ALH has identified the soil types of all their vineyards using ‘macrozoning’, identifying large swaths of vineyard land appropriate for these wines. In the case of their Valle de Uco Reserva they have used ‘microzoning’, digging holes wherever necessary to analyze the soil of individual blocks within a vineyard, to identify areas with soil created by ancient riverbeds. The older the soil generally the more consistent and complex the layers of sediment will be and the resulting wines theoretically more structured and complex.

In the case of their Vistaflores Single Vineyard ALH found a vineyard that produced uniquely concentrated grapes and has identified individual rows in this vineyards that follow an ancient riverbed. The soil in this specific area has “very consistent layers”  and “high pebble stone content, 3 feet in depth, with a 5% presence of a clay component in the stone layer, which is very uncommon in Mendoza” and the resulting wine has a minerality allied to abundant but fine grained tannins. The elevation of the vineyard is also quite high at 1250m (4100ft) and the resulting cool temperatures and increased light also helps to concentrate the grapes.

The elevage of Vistaflores is also on the extreme side. I was getting kind of scared when they said this wine was aged in new french oak for 36 months but this was one of those amazing wines that apparently needs that sort of treatment. “Lees are friends” says Alberto, the wine is only racked twice over the course of its three years in oak and besides the presence of lees must have helped to ameliorate the effects of new oak. From ALH’s website: “The wine has gone through two different sets of new, tight grain, French oak barrels”. Does  this indicate the infamous 200% new oak treatment or have they separated two lots of the wine using different types of barrels? I dunno. In any case the wine saw a lot of oak and I can’t say I would have treated it any other way. The wine has also been aged in bottle for two years before release.

In my opinion the Vistaflores is a profound wine and the other Malbecs I tasted that afternoon also commendable but like a conspicuous  pachyderm the question lingers so plain: how does terroir affect the way these wines taste? The question resonates most strongly in the case of the Vistaflores, a tremendous wine made from grapes grown in a painstakingly selected area.

Historically the best terroirs have been valued for their ability to produce wines with complexity, balance and the ability to last. One may be able to get good ripeness in a wide variety of sites but theoretically only the best will make a wine with the structural integrity to outlast the rest.  A balanced wine of great extract can only be made when the raw materials are perfect and only certain sites have the potential to produce such grapes. Certainly the quality of tannins in the grapes is a huge factor and the unique qualities of soil in the Vistaflores vineyard are likely responsible for much of the wine’s tannic clout. “In Pedro’s experience this clay presence enhances the firmness of the tannins, and the mineral personality of the wine.” I wouldn’t discount the firmness of the tannins in the Vistaflores but what was notable about the tannin for me was its abundance and fine grained quality. Extracting a lot of tannin from imperfect grapes would yield an imbalanced wine; rare indeed is the wine that has high tannins and retains a smooth texture. Acidity, an integral element in a wine destined to age, must also be appropriately judged and is determined by a host of factors including one, picking time, that is not inherent in a vineyard’s terroir. The cool climate of the Valle de Uco coupled with the high altitude of the Vistaflores vineyard should help keep acidity high while the clay in the soil, usually associated with a cooling effect on the roots of vines, would also help to preserve acidity. Attaining high sugars and intense fruit flavors is likely the least of worries in Mendoza so that exposition and slope are probably not important factors in the terroir of Vistaflores.

Here an argument for the flavor of terroir has devolved into technical terms. Sure the soil and climate help to give certain qualities and quantities of tannin, acidity and sugar to grapes and a perfect confluence of these elements will only occur in certain sites in certain years. If however we speak of the terroir of Vistaflores there ought to be some unique flavor that distinguishes it, a particular gout de terroir – the opulent spice of Vosne compared to the delicate poise of Volnay or the masculinity of Barolo versus the femininity of Barbaresco. What is the uniquely tasty flavor of Vistaflores? I cannot say exactly. There were aspects of the wine that I’d say were typical of a Mendoza Malbec but there were others that were not. This was also the most powerful wine I’d ever tasted from the area so I have  little reference.  The cooler climate of the Valle de Uco combined with the high altitude and particularly excellent soil composition of Vistaflores allows ALH to extract from perfect grapes a profusion of the elements that would result in a wine both balanced and powerful but what the hallmark flavor of Vistaflores might be I cannot really say.  One thing I’m certain of though is that the terroir must be great when the wine is so good.

The wines, in the order they were served:

2009 Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda: A separate venture so as not to sully the pure Malbecness of ALH. Apparently Argentinian Bonarda is not the same thing as Italian Bonarda and has been determined to be genetically identical to California’s Charbono. The wine was full of strawberry and dark cherry flavor, lightly spicy and with a hint of leafiness. The finish juicy and fresh and was typical of Bonarda with a light bitterness, like someone threw an aspirin into the tank or something.

2009 Valle de Uco Terroir Malbec: Red fruit, licorice, white flowers, vanilla and spice, oak is not blatant but certainly apparent. Medium acidity and medium minus tannin. A little warmth on the finish. Overall surprisingly good and fairly unique in its red fruitedness, I usually associate Mendoza Malbec with dark fruits. This red fruit is, Alberto said, the result of the Valle de Uco’s cool climate.

2006 Vistaflores: Bad lighting so I couldn’t really judge the color, but it was clearly opaque.  The nose is complex but reserved, aromas need to be coaxed out of the glass. One of the most intense smells is that of burning embers and hot rocks but a wealth of black and red fruit emerges along with graphite, white flowers, camphor and suspicions of pineapple and dark chocolate. Massive in the mouth with an ‘all the berries in the forest’ effect in full swing, earthy and floral flavors are in the background but still present. Medium plus acidity and high tannin, very fine grained, deceptively smooth and full bodied, alcohol untraceable but I’m guessing it is high. Finish is fine and long echoing so many of the aforementioned flavors. This should last and last. I totally underestimated these guys, this is the best Malbec I’ve ever tasted.

2008 Valle de Uco Reserva: Sappy red and black fruits, oak is apparent but not overwhelming. Much more open than the previous wine, medium tannin and acidity, soft and inviting. Why did they serve this after the Vistaflores? Almost makes the wine feel flabby after that model of poise.

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