Feature Story, Game Changers

Mendoza Malbec

It may have been the chocolate cake that put me off malbec. It was on a trip to Mendoza, back in the early 2000s, before I passed on the critic baton to Patricio Tapia; he lives just over the hills in Santiago and speaks much better Spanish than I do. Back then, Mendoza was just beginning to turn from a sleepy Andean agricultural town to the sophisticated city it is now, a move fueled by malbec. At the time, the bigger and lusher the red wine, the better it sold on the international market, and the vintner I was visiting presented his flagship malbec alongside a huge slice of chocolate cake. It was so sweet and juicy, he explained, and the tannins so soft, that it was the rare red wine that could pair with dessert.

He was right: The two went well together. But I really didn’t want another sip, or another bite.

Since then, I’ve dipped back into Mendoza malbec from time to time, because I do love its sunny generosity. The wine’s smooth tannins and licorice-scented plummy fruit are even better at an asado, with grilled meats and juicy empanadas. But that doesn’t happen too often in my corner of NYC. It wasn’t until fairly recently, while reading Tapia’s tasting notes, that I began questioning my expectations for Argentine malbec. In among all the lush, purple-fruited reds he’d found some fresh, lifted wines with marked acidity—not a feature of malbec as I knew it. “Tara, you need to taste the wines,” Tapia urged me when I asked about them. “It’s changed so much since you were there.”

So, I headed to Descorchados, a tasting Tapia hosts in NYC every year to celebrate the release of his annual guide to South American wines. As I ticked off the Argentine standouts, I noted the appellations: Tupungato, Gualtallary, El Péral—all areas high up in the Uco Valley, a good hour and a half drive west, into the Andes, from Mendoza.

I’d never ventured there; back in the early 2000s, most Argentine malbec came from vineyards close to the town of Mendoza itself—areas like Luyán de Cuyo and Maipú, and south to San Rafael and General Alvear. This is the historic heart of Mendoza’s wine industry, sometimes referred to as the birthplace of Mendoza malbec. When you’re driving down from the Andes, you can see it to the east: a large green square in the middle of a brown plain. The sun shines nearly constantly here, the clouds held back by the Andes; irrigation water comes from snow melt channeled down from the peaks in a complex system of acequias, ditches dug by the Huarpes, an indigenous people, more than 400 years ago.

The region’s sunny warmth is checked by the altitude: Mendoza sits at 2,450 feet, and the vineyards in Luyán de Cuyo rise up to 3,630 feet. Mountain breezes lend daytime relief to the vines, and nights get cold—cold enough, in fact, that most locals believed malbec wouldn’t ripen well if it were planted any higher. Nicolás Catena was an exception in the 1990s: Wanting to make a less ripe, more structured version of malbec, he headed higher into the Andes, to the Uco Valley, where he planted a vineyard in Gualtallary at 4,856 feet in 1996. Named Adrianna, after his daughter, the vineyard became the flagship for the Catena Zapata winery.

Several others followed Catena into the higher altitudes, including Roberto Luka, who founded Finca Sophenia in 1997, and Michel Rolland, who started planting the 2,000-acre Clos de la Siete in 1999 with a group of friends. But what was most surprising at Descorchados was the number of wineries pouring wines from old vines in Uco Valley. “In the early days, there were a lot of Spanish and Italian immigrants who went immediately to Altamira,” Tapia explained, referring to an area of Uco. Achaval Ferrer was one of the first to bring these vineyards back to prominence, bottling Finca Altamira, a malbec from a vineyard planted in 1925 in La Consulta, at 4,444 feet; Alejandro Sejanovich, who worked for Catena before starting Tinto Negro, also works with old, high-altitude parcels for wines like his juicy 1955 Vineyard Malbec, from La Consulta, at 3,600 feet above sea level.

Catena Adrianna Vineyard Catena Adrianna Vineyard

Matías Michelini, who was pouring a range of wines from his various projects—Passionate Wines, Gen del Alma, Zorzal, Michelini I Mufatto and SuperUco—supported Tapia’s explanation with both a semillon and a malbec from old vines in El Péral, high up in the Uco Valley. “Semillon used to be the most popular wine in Argentina,” Michelini explained. The reds were lighter back then, too, he said, pouring the Superlógico 2017 Malbec, from what he believes to be the only vineyard left in Argentina that’s more than 100 years old. Fermented in concrete vats with 30 percent whole bunches and no pumpovers, the wine has old-vine concentration lifted by a bright, fresh acidity—a window into a style of malbec that had been forgotten in the last decades.

While altitude is a major factor in the new wave of Argentine malbecs, it’s not the only important one; many of the growers I talked to at the tasting cited the presence of calcium carbonate in the soils as integral to the character of the wines they want to make now.

Sebastián Zuccardi Sebastián Zuccardi
“Chalk is what gives malbec texture,” said Sebastián Zuccardi, pouring me a taste of Concreto, a juicy, peppery malbec he vinifies solely in concrete tanks. Zuccardi, who launched a research department in his family’s winery devoted to soil studies, explains that it’s not limestone, as the soils in the Andes are alluvial, and limestone is sedimentary. Rather, it’s calcium carbonate that’s washed down from the limestone higher up in the Andean peaks and coated the stones or formed pieces of chalk. And although he’s loath to use the word “minerality,” he does think the soil makes a difference in the wines.

“What we’ve found, after ten years of microvinifications, is that those soils give the wine a special texture—more vertical and elegant.” The difference is perceptible even in wines like his José Malbec, a richer style made in homage to his father.

Still, the question of how high is too high tugs at Mendoza vintners: Zuccardi has introduced Polígonos, a wine from a vineyard in San Pablo, at 4,593 feet. In terms of altitude and cold, it’s his most extreme site, planted five years ago and already producing a vibrant wine—purple fruit shot through with bright, energizing acidity. Bodega Tapiz is another player betting on the region, opening a new winery there in 2017 to bottle its Alta Collection wines, sourced from nearby vineyards. Tapia mentioned some vineyards in Uspallata, at 6,500 feet, though the plantings are too young to know the quality.

Considering the threat of wind, frost, snow and hail at these altitudes, why go higher? Zuccardi points out that climate change has been slower to make itself felt in the Southern Hemisphere, as there’s less land than water, which is slower to react. Even so, they know it’s happening. “Fortunately, we have tools and experience to fight against some climatic risks—especially hail and frost. Having that solved, I think that place will resist better the impact of an eventual global warming, or a lack of water.”

And besides, so far, the risk is paying off with some of the most vibrant malbecs our generation of wine drinkers has ever tasted.

Fresh Mendoza Malbecs
Tasting Notes by Patricio Tapia, W&S Argentine wine critic

Achaval Ferrer 2014 Mendoza Finca Altamira Malbec

Achaval Ferrer is one of the pioneering wineries for single-vineyard malbec in Argentina. In 1999, the team debuted with this red from a vineyard planted in 1925, southwest of the Tunuyán River, at an elevation of 3,444 feet. In 2014, the harvest was cool and complicated by rain, yet the result counts among the best from Altamira. It’s austere in aroma, with notes of herbal red fruit, but rich and juicy on the palate, the ripe cherry flavors delineated by a structure of powerful tannins and sharp acidity. Give this at least five years in the cellar, when it should begin to show its complexity. (95 points, $150; Stoli Group USA, NY)

Catena 2017 Mendoza High Mountain Vines Malbec

Marked by herbal notes and violet aromas, this has the stamp of Uco Valley in its fresh flavors of black cherries and tense acidity, the wine lasting on the scent of flowers. (90 points, $24; Mundovino/The Winebow Group, NY)

SuperUco 2014 Tupungato Valley Calcáreo Granito de Tupungato Malbec

“If there is no chalk, the building of fruit collapses,” says winemaker Matías Michelini. In this wine, he’s focused entirely on malbec grown on chalky soils in Gualtallary, one of the highest spots in Uco Valley. It tastes of pure fruit, focused on cherries, with notes of violets, moist earth, dust and minerals—a deeply flavorful and complex mountain red. (93 points, $40; Brazos, Brooklyn, NY)

Tapiz 2014 Mendoza Alta Collection Malbec

Sitting at 4,400 feet in altitude, the San Pablo area is now one of the most sought-after spots for grape growing in the Uco Valley. At that altitude, malbec grapes ripen with intense flavors and firm acidity, as in this red from vines planted in 2007. It’s rich in notes of tart cherries and violets, with a gripping structure and a lovely floral finish. (91 points, $20; Vino del Sol, Corralitos, CA)

Tinto Negro 2014 Mendoza Vineyard 1955 Malbec

Alejandro Sejanovich makes this wine from vines planted in 1955 on alluvial soil, rich in chalk. The site is located in La Consulta, some 3,600 feet above sea level, where malbec tends to be fresh, with a linear structure due to the cold Andes influence. This is deliciously juicy, its acidity contrasting with the sweetness of the fruit, providing nerve and tension along with firm tannins. (94 points, $100; Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL)

Zuccardi 2013 Uco Valley José Malbec

Sebastián Zuccardi makes this malbec in homage to his father. Selecting fruit from a vineyard in Altamira with chalk soils, Zuccardi crafts a wine with distinctive tannins, firm and sharp, sustaining flavors of black cherries and spice. It’s generous rather than concentrated, with floral notes in a refreshing finish. (92 points, $45; Winesellers, Niles, IL)

illustration by Tom Labaff

This feature appears in the print edition of Fall 2018.
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