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Visiting Mendoza, Argentina
Part 6: Achaval Ferrer

Does Argentina have a fine wine dimension? That’s a good question. I think I’d answer ‘yes’, and largely because of the amazing wines of Achaval Ferrer, which, for me, is Argentina's most impressive producer. I’d tried their wines in London, and been blown away by them, so I was delighted to be able to visit the winery, even though it was in the rather busy time of vintage.

When we arrived, the winery was bustling with activity. Santiago Achaval, one of the partners of this venture, took us through the winery and then hosted our tasting. (The other two partners are Manuel Ferrerer and winemaker Roberto Cipresso.)

It's a slightly unusual winery. Although it's modern – it was only finished in 2006 – it doesn't look like a typical brand new winery. The fermentation vessels are all epoxy-lined concrete tanks – with no stainless steel in sight. No whites are made here, just reds. Also, there are no drains, because Santiago reckons that these can lead to bacterial problems. Everything is painted in light colours so any dirt can easily be seen.

One of the problems with concrete is that it is a good insulator, and so the fermentations can get a bit warm. 'We only cool down when the fermentation temperature touches 33 °C', says Santiago. 'We like warm ferments because the yeast works on a cycle of its own activity. With the yeast in a comfortable environment, we get better extraction.' When cooling down is needed, the use of a heat exchanger (see the video, and picture below) is enough. Pump-overs and delestage are carried out. Cold soak is not usually used, and a day after fermentation finishes the wines are pressed. They’re not fans of extended macerations here.


Racking only takes place there are serious reductive problems that battonage can't cure. Barrels are topped up every week.

After starting his career as an accountant, Santiago did an MBA at Stanford (class of 89), and spent 9 years making money before he turned to wine. He'd liked to have got into wine sooner, but he still had to complete his contract with the company that financed his MBA. He found his first piece of vineyard land in 1998, and first vintage was 1999. Now he owns 40 hectares of vineyards and leases another 45. These are deliberately managed to restrict yields. In the vineyards, the yields are low. For the entry level Malbec they are 5000 kg/ha, for Quimera they are 2500 kg/ha and for the single vineyard wines they are 1800 kg/ha. Production is 15 000 cases typically per year, depending on hail. 40% of this finds its way to the USA.

Santiago Achaval 

‘We harvest about three weeks before everyone else’, says Santiago. ‘It’s the effect of low yields. As soon as we have ripe tannins we pick, and we usually have low sugars with nice natural acidity’.

Santiago describes himself and his partners as 'Old vine, low yield, Malbec lunatics'. He adds that, 'when we do double yields, we notice the balance is different'. How are they doing? 'We are profitable but don't have a positive cashflow yet'.

'We decided to make every wine an expression – a ‘spotlight’ – of old vine Malbec', explains Santiago. He has three different ideas of Malbec in Mendoza. The first spotlight is Malbec as fruit: correct varietal expression of Malbec. The second is 'spotlight': pursuit of a perfect wine with complexity and balance. This is Quimera, which translates as foolish – pursuing the unobtainable. The third spotlight is Malbec as a translator of the character of the land, and this is represented by three single-vineyard old vine Malbecs.

‘I want to achieve a wine that is balanced and belies its size’, Santiago adds, ‘with nothing sticking out. We try to make wines that are drinkable on release, but we think we are behaving in such a fashion in the winery that our wines will age well. We try to respect the integrity of the wine.’  

In the vineyard, they are virtually organic. No synthetic fertilizers are used, just manure. ‘We only use cow manure: goat and chicken manure is too quick and vigorous’, says Santiago. ‘The only thing between us and organics is our herbicide use. Without herbicides we’d need to till, and this would use gas and oil, and compact the soil’.

Hail is a problem here. In 2005 and 2006 they lost the entire Bellavista vineyard crop to hail. But they don’t like netting because of the shade effect. Black netting gives 15% shade, and white 8% shade (but this is 10% in reality because dust gathers on it). They are insured against total catastrophe by having their vineyards spread out geographically.

Achaval Ferrer Malbec 2007 Mendoza
’We made this because we couldn’t balance some blocks to low yields’, says Santiago. ‘We got a very nice wine’. Beautifully open and perfumed. A bit violetty with lovely perfume. The palate shows ripe, elegant fruit with lovely purity. Thrillingly joyful and bright. 90/100

Achaval Ferrer Malbec 2006 Mendoza
Elegant, meaty and perfumed with a lovely floral character. The palate is elegant and smooth with lovely pure, expressive fruit. It’s almost a Burgundian expression of Malbec. Fantastic: fresh and delicious. 91/100

Achaval Ferrer Quimera 2007 (barrel sample)
This is a blend of 35% Malbec, 30% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. Very sweet and pure – almost jammy. Very primary and perfumed with lushness and sweetness. The palate is soft and pure with really smooth texture and fine tannins. Good concentration here and lots of sweet fruit. 90–93/100

Achaval Ferrer Quimera 2005 Mendoza
Beautifully elegant, perfumed red/black fruits nose with some sweetness. Fresh and bright. The palate is supremely elegant and pure with lovely smooth tannins. Fantastically expressive and well balanced. Really Burgundian. 93/100

Now, the three single vineyard wines. Mirado is 37 km south east of the winery at 700 metres altitude. Bellavista was planted in 1910. And Altamira is at the southern tip of the Uco Valley. We don't set out to create any differences among these wines, says Santiago. It's like a controlled experiment, where the only variable is the location.

Achaval Ferrer Mirado 2007 (barrel sample)
Beautifully sweet, pure, elegant smooth red fruits nose. Lovely intensity of raspberry fruit on the palate with firm spicy tannins and great concentration. Some minerality, too. It's tannic with great potential. 91-94/100

Achaval Ferrer Mirado 2005 Mendoza
Beautifully perfumed nose showing elegant, vibrant red berry and black fruits, with real purity. The smooth, softly structured palate is elegant with lovely purity and freshness as well as good tannic structure. Bright and fresh with lovely elegance. 93/100

Achaval Ferrer Bellavista 2007 Mendoza (barrel sample)
Sweet and lush with real focus and purity, and quite some depth. Very sweet, powerful fruit. It's a robust, fairly tannic wine with lots of presence. Bigger, with more structure, darker fruits and less floral character than the other wines. 90-93/100

Achaval Ferrer Altamira 2007 Mendoza (barrel sample)
Really beautiful nose is perfumed with some violet notes and well defined, fresh fruit character. The palate is rich with dense structure under the smooth fruit. Quite elegant, Brilliant structure but not at the cost of elegance. 92-95/100

Achaval Ferrer Altamira 2006 Mendoza
Wonderfully perfumed nose with some meaty, spicy depth to the pure red and black fruits. Nicely poised. The palate combines supremely elegant, smooth fruit and soft texture with some lovely structure. Bright, fresh and pure. Elegant and structured with a long life ahead of it. Brilliant. 95/100

Achaval Ferrer Mirador 2000 Mendoza
Smooth dark fruits nose with some complex spiciness. Really expressive: earthy and meaty. The palate is rich and dense with lovely concentration and earthy, spicy complexity. Evolving beautifully and drinking well now. 93/100

A short video of the visit:


Wines tasted 03/08  
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