Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Last Day in Mendoza with Visit to Achaval Ferrer

Farewell Argentina BBQ
(March 22, 2014) It was difficult to wake up after the huge Argentine BBQ at Alejandro’s house that didn’t end until 2:30am. Everyone ate so much meat and drank so much red wine that it was difficult to move.  Luckily his friends came with guitars and we sang many Argentine songs late into the night.  A truly wonderful last evening in Mendoza. 

After packing for the long flight home and checking out of the hotel, Alejandro picked me up at noon and we drove to Achaval Ferrer Winery in Lujan where we had a 12:30 appointment.  Neither one of us had visited this winery before, but it has such a great reputation in the US – especially with Wine Spectator – that I was curious to see it.  So we booked as tourists.

We got slightly lost on the way, and I was surprised to find that such a famous winery is tucked down a dirt road with very little signage on how to get there.  But eventually we found ourselves on a tiny road, driving through the vineyards decorated with white roses at the end of each row.

Achaval Ferrer Winery is quite small, but with a large grassy lawn on which many people were relaxing at tables and drinking wine.  It is situated on a dry river bed of Mendoza, but there is a great view of the snow-covered Andes with an old Malbec vineyard (Bella Vista) right in front.

History & Vineyards of Achaval Ferrer

Our tour guide was named Julien, and he was excellent. He began with the history, explaining that the name came from two men who made their money in cement, and then started the winery in 1999.  They began by buying 16 acres of an old malbec vineyard planted in 1928 in the Uco Valley, called Finca (estate) Altimira.

Entrance to Achaval Ferrer Winery
The vineyard was very neglected, so they irrigated it a little, but when they harvested it that year, it only produced 2/3 pound per vine, or 1 bottle per 3 vines. But the wine was so exceptional that they decided to buy more old vineyards and keep the same low harvest yields. This is how they acquired Finca Bella Vista (planted in 1910), where they built the winery, and Finca Mirador (planted in 1934), SE of Mendoza.

The vineyards are planted on low guyot with cane pruning only 5 to 6 bunches per vine on 3 x 3 meter spacing.  Therefore, it looks a bit like Burgundy, but with the Andes in the background.

Today they have 115 hectares and produce 20,000 cases.  They harvest from the 3 Fincas, plus also produce a basic Malbec and a Bordeaux blend called Quimera. They usually sell out of the Finca Altimira right away.

Winemaking at Achaval Ferrer

We toured the winery, and were thrilled to see that the malbec harvest was in full swing.  Eight people manned two sorting tables, one for clusters and the other for berries after destemming.  The must was then transferred into large concrete tanks with epoxy coating.  Julien said they pick at around 28 brix, and acid is usually added. They inoculate with Bordeaux yeast and a pump over is started immediately. Fermentation temp. is high at 30 to 34C, and finishes in 10-12 days.  They are the only winery I visited that doesn’t do the long extended maceration or cold soak.  Julien said they don’t believe it is necessary because with the high temperature they extract what they need in that time.

Cement Tanks at Achaval Ferrer
The wine is pressed in pneumatic press and immediately blended, if necessary, and then put in French barrels – 100% new for Fincas for one year, then one year aging in bottle.  For basic malbec only 7 months in older barrels with 3 to 4 months bottle age, and for Quimera 10 months in 50% new.

One interesting aspect is they are experimenting with 160 liter French oak barrels that they have custom ordered.  These only hold 200 bottles, and they believe the smaller size allows more oak contact and more oxidation, which results in more well rounded, better integrated oak.  Cost of the barrels is $1500 each.

I asked what the going rate was for cellar workers, and we were told that generally employees make 5000 pesos per month, or $3.50 per hour.

Wine Tasting at Achaval Ferrer

Since the winery had sold out of most of their high-end wines, we tasted the more basic level, and then Julien was kind enough to pull a barrel sample for us.

Basic Malbec 2012 - simple, approachable red fruit with some blue berry notes.  Thinner, not exciting. Harvest at 5 tons per hectare for this wine.

Sorting Grapes at Achaval Ferrer
2010 Quimera – closed, seemed to be going through a dumb phase.  Wine was flat on palate.  30-40% Malbec (always leads), then other 4 varietals.  Different each year based on vintage.  Opaque Ruby, ripe plum nose, fresh acidity, but then flattens out on palate. No spice or character at this time. Need to try again later.

2011 Finca Mirado ($700 pesos) Opaque Purple Red. More minerality from clay soil, old world style, with less fruit, but highly perfumed.  Seemed more lot a cab franc to me.  Violets, raspberries.  Thinner, less concentrated.  A little disappointing for the price.

2013 Finca Bella Vista ($90 US)  - barrel sample.  Magnificent!  Finally found a wine here that impressed me, but far too young.  Raspberry, velvety.  Great concentration.  Would enjoy tasting this again in a few years.

2012 Passito Malbec – sweet, fun dessert wine with loads of blackberry syrup, dried fig, and spice. $28

As we departed Achaval Ferrer for the airport, I was glad we had ended at this winery with its magnificent view of the vineyards and Andes.  Pure Mendoza.  Alejandro hugged me at the airport, and then I started to long trip home to San Francisco.  This included 2 airplane changes, with a 2 hour stop in Santiago, Chile, then a 4-hour layover in Miami, before arriving home 22 hours later in SFO.  However, all flights were on time, and I had a business class seat that I had upgraded to, so all was smooth flying.

Farewell to Argentina

Wines from Farewell Party in Mendoza
I feel incredibly grateful for my two weeks in Argentina, where I met some of the warmest and most fun-loving people I know.  There is so much graciousness there, with a love for the land and life, which is echoed in the wine, food, and music.  Argentina will always hold a special place in my heart.  Thanks to the Fulbright Scholarship, the University of Cuyo, and all of the wineries and other organizations that made my visit so magical.

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