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Malbec That Makes You Think
By Michael Apstein
Mar 8, 2016
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Subtlety and Malbec are two words rarely used in the same sentence.  Malbec, at least from Argentina, usually produces a big, ripe, jammy monotonic red wine with little structure or finesse.  But then, along came Count Patrick d’Aulan and his team at Alta Vista in Argentina and, later, at Altamana in Chile.  Together, they have shown that New World Malbec can convey both subtlety and a sense of place. 

Malbec, grown in Cahors, its traditional home, makes an entirely different style of wine--less fruity, more mineraly and with structure--than in Argentina.  Argentine Malbec has become so popular in the New World that fewer and fewer consumers realize it has been planted in Cahors (and Bordeaux, where it was often used as part of the blend) for centuries.

D’Aulan and his current team at Alta Vista, led by head winemaker Matthieu Grassin, produce Malbecs that makes you think by focusing on single vineyards that contain old vines--more than 60 years of age.  D’Aulan, along with co-founder Jean-Michel Arcaute (the innovative winemaker at Château Clinet in Pomerol, who has been credited by many for having catapulted that property to near-cult status), purchased their first old-vine Malbec vineyard in 1998 just outside of Mendoza and quickly added a couple more.  A decade and a half later, d’Aulan and Didier Debono, who had been winemaker at Alta Vista from 2002 to 2007, found their treasure across the Andes in Chile.  In Maule, they picked up a 2.3 hectare (ha) vineyard, Constanza, which had Malbec vines planted in 1923 as well as a 1.3 ha vineyard in Bio-Bio, Catalina, with Malbec planted in 1915 and established the Altamana winery.  The first vintage of Constanza, a dry-farmed Malbec, was 2012.  The bottling from Catalina followed in 2014.

Old Vines Are Key

D’Aulan is emphatic about the importance of old vines.  He insists that old vines transmit the character of the site because their roots go deep and extract the essence of the specific terroir.  He notes that while it is difficult to ensure that a particular bottling does, in fact, come from a single vineyard, it is relatively easy to judge the age of the vine.  Sandy Block, MW, who is based in Boston and in charge of Legal Seafood’s wine program, points out that just looking at a vine can give an approximation of its age.  Importantly, the vineyards that d’Aulan has purchased typically were held by a single family.  Thus, there are either records stretching over generations or at least a memory of when grandfather planted the vines.

Argentina--The Last Outpost

Patrick d’Aulan, whose family owned Piper Heidsieck for 210 years, says he moved to Argentina to make his mark in the wine world.  He feared that staying in Champagne would not prove to be much of a challenge and that he would always be referred to as, “So and so’s son.”  He had some knowledge of Argentina thanks to the joint venture Piper Heidsieck started there in 1973 to produce sparkling wine for the domestic market.  The project ended in 1988 when the Champagne house was sold, but Patrick remained interested in the country.  Following his first trip to Argentina in 1998, d’Aulan teamed up with Arcaute.  Like Jacques and François Lurton, who left their famous wine-making family in Bordeaux to establish themselves in Argentina in 1992, d’Aulan and Arcaute viewed Argentina as “the last outpost for wine” and hoped to establish a project that would have an effect on the whole culture.

D’Aulan recalls how their first vineyard purchase, in 1998, came in the midst of one of Argentina’s many financial crises.  The vineyard, planted with almost 100-year old abandoned Malbec vines just outside of Mendoza, cost them the princely sum of $7,000 per ha ($2,750 per acre), which the seller allowed them to pay in three installments because of the crisis.  D’Aulan notes with a smile that they have been able to buy old vineyards because the Argentine farmers typically have a very short-term mentality.  As the vines age, he adds, yields decrease, and that is something that is simply counter to a farmer’s instinct.  Hence, farmers either replace vines with fruit trees or sell the now “poorly yielding” land.  D’Aulan has been able to acquire 209 ha of these naturally low yielding -- 6,000 kg/ha -- Malbec vineyards in four different areas around Mendoza.  “We like old vines,” he says with a grin.

D’Aulan notes that when they started, aside from Catena and Lurton, few produces were making high quality wine for the export market, so he figured Alta Vista could compete.  It turns out, he was right. 

The Vineyards and Their Wines

Alta Vista made their reputation with its first wine, Alto, a high-end Malbec, in 1998.  D’Aulan explains how the small 6-ha vineyard has four distinct zones with different soils and climates in which the temperature varies by 2 degrees centigrade from one end of the vineyard to another.  Similar to Clos du Tart in Burgundy, which also has multiple distinct terroirs over a relatively small area, at Alta Vista, d’Aulan treats and vinifies each parcel separately before making the final blend.

In 2001, Alta Vista released its first single vineyard Malbec from the 19-ha Temis vineyard, located in El Cepillo, the coolest area of Mendoza in the Valle du Uco sub-region.  The vineyard, which was planted to Malbec in 1942, and later with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, has a light soil, a mixture of sand and silt.  D’Aulan discovered that the Cabernet Sauvignon from Temis was extraordinary, which led him to change Alto from 100 percent Malbec to its current blend of approximately 2/3rds Malbec with the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon starting with the 2002 vintage.

The 74-ha Serenade vineyard, with its deeps clay loam soil and located in the Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo sub-region of Mendoza, is planted with a variety of vines, including Malbec, which date from 1960.

Alizarine, their oldest vineyard and located in las Compuertas, Luján de Cuyo at the terrace of the Mendoza River, was planted to Malbec in 1927.  The soil of the 19-ha vineyard is poor and thin, a combination of silty clay loam.

Alta Vista has other vineyards as well, planted to Syrah, Chardonnay and Torrontés, as well as more Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  D’Aulan stresses that they treat each vineyard and even the plots within the vineyards differently depending on the characteristics of the soil and climate. Grassin, who says he “loves technology,” uses computer-assisted maps and infrared pictures from planes to assess the vines and help decide how to tend the vineyards.

High Altitude

D’Aulan, like many who trumpet the quality of Argentine wines, emphasizes that, “It is the altitude here that makes all the difference.  After all, Mendoza starts at 750 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level and our vineyards go up from there.”  Their Torrontés vineyards are at 1,700 meters, almost a mile high, in Cafayate, Salta, but all their vineyards are “high altitude”--above 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).  At that altitude the diurnal temperature swings are dramatic with warm days, critical for ripening, and very cool nights that allow the grapes to hold on to malic acid, which translates into fresh vibrant wines.

Continuing their success, Alta Vista introduced what it calls their “Classic Line” in 2007, which includes Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Torrontés and Chardonnay, using purchased grapes. As d’Aulan explains with a smile,  “Coming from Champagne we have some idea of how to deal with growers.”  He finds that although Argentine growers traditionally have had little allegiance, Alta Vista has managed to establish long-term contracts with its growers, presumably by paying them on time, and adjusting the payment with inflation, which is still rampant at 1.5 to 2.0 percent a month in Argentina.  D’Aulan observes that at Alta Vista, “We like Malbec with tannins,” which means that they age wines, even those in the Classic Line, in older French oak barrels to provide more structure compared to most of similarly priced wine coming from Argentina. 

The Bottom Line--Malbec Taken Seriously

What’s truly amazing about Alta Vista and Altamana single-vineyard Malbecs, tasted side-by-side, is the vast differences among them.  Alta Vista’s 2011 Malbec from the Temis Vineyard (92) ($41) is quite elegant with lovely combination of spice, minerals and fruit.  Slight bitterness in the finish reinforces the idea that this is serious wine.  It’s the least “Malbec-y” in their Argentine line-up.  By contrast, their 2011 Malbec from the Serenade Vineyard (91) ($45) conveys heavier, deeper tones, no doubt in part, from the clay soil.  Though there’s more fruit and less tension than with the Temis, the elegant texture is still apparent. Concentrated and powerful, the 2011 Alizarine Malbec (90) ($40) comes across as the most “Malbec-y” with its 15%-stated alcohol peeking out in the finish.  That said, it conveys surprising finesse for all its power.  Strikingly different from the Argentine examples, the 2012 Altamana Malbec from the Costanza Vineyard (94) ($37) in Maule, Chile is quite floral and almost delicate--at least for Malbec.  The focus is on spice rather than fruit and appears almost light on the palate.  Beautiful balance makes you take another sip.

Others may argue, but I can only ascribe the differences among these wines to the vineyard, since the same winemaking team using the same basic techniques made all of them.  These wines demonstrate clearly that Malbec in the right hands should be taken seriously and that it can deliver complexity and reflect the site in which the grapes are grown.

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March 9, 2016

Email me your thoughts about Malbec at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstei