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Terroir in Argentina: interview with Santiago Achaval of Achaval Ferrer

While terroir is a French word, it’s ludicrous to suppose that France is the only place with terroir. Speak to winemakers from just about any region and it will become apparent that this important concept is relevant to fine wines everywhere. But while the French have had centuries to explore and perfect the matching of grape varieties with vineyard sites, in the Southern hemisphere the process of terroir discovery has really only just begun in earnest. I recently tasted two wines from premium Argentinean winery Achaval Ferrer, and had a chance to quiz the president of the company, Santiago Achaval, about his views on terroir.

Does he ever use the word ‘terroir’, and is it something he considers important? ‘Yes, we do use the word “terroir”: in fact, there’s an equivalent word in Spanish’, says Achaval. ‘Our word has the same nuances as the word terroir, plus an additional one: it’s the land a man belongs to, not the land that belongs to a man. It describes a man’s bond with the land where he was born,’ he continues. ‘We think the concept of terroir is of the highest importance. Terroir is for us the only source of originality and personality of a wine. It is also a source of never-ending wonder: how small distances and slight differences in soil composition, exposure, and even surrounding plant-life result in very noticeable differences in the wines.’

He refutes the idea that terroir is confined to classic old world regions. ‘Argentina does have terroirs in the same way as France and Italy do. The difference with those other countries is that the discovery of our terroirs is just now beginning. Both France and Italy have been perfecting their knowledge of their soils and microclimates since the early Middle Ages. Argentina started a century ago, with a hiatus during the turbulent economic times between the 70s and the 80s. So there’s a lot of exploration to be done until we can really say that we know our terroirs, and that we can design their hierarchy: Not every vineyard is capable of expressing a powerful personality through its wine. And as in the rest of the world there are differences in quality of the wine that are driven only by location.’ I asked him whether terroir influences the way he works. ‘Yes it does, and strongly so. Achaval-Ferrer is producing what we call two “ideas” of wine. One of these “ideas” of wine is what we define as “the research into terroir”. These are single-vineyard Malbec varietals, all three of them from very old, low-producing vines in very special places in Mendoza. You tasted our flagship, Finca Altamira. What we are trying to do with these wines is to showcase the difference between the expressions of terroir in Mendoza. By trial and error, by untiring exploration and by reducing yields to around 12 hectoliters per hectare, we’ve selected and purchased vineyards that express their personality so strongly that it overcomes vintage variations, and can be recognized by blind tasting year after year. We keep the yields similar in all three vineyards, harvest at the same maturity, and ferment in the same way, and use the same barrels. In this way, all the differences between these single-vineyards are entirely attributable to terroir.

‘The other “idea” of wine is what we call the “pursuit of the ideal wine”. It is a blended wine based on Bordeaux varietals. We’ve named this wine Quimera (I think you tasted the 2001). In Spanish Quimera means an impossible ideal. Which is exactly what the pursuit of an ideal wine is. In this wine the “sense of place” is lost (if you define place as a specific vineyard). But again, the low yields allow a mineral expression, and a very noticeable Mendoza character to be found in the wine. A broader "sense of place."

And his definition of terroir? ‘We define terroir as the set of unique characteristics of a wine, which can be found every year (they are so powerful that they overcome vintage variations), and that, everything else being equal (fermentation times, barrel aging, etc) allow that wine to be recognized easily among other wines in a blind tasting.’

Now a more tricky question. It’s easy enough to describe the soil types and climates, but how do these relate to the characteristics and flavours of the wines? ‘This set of characteristics is what we call the “personality” of the wine. And is very related both to soil and location of the vineyard. As an example, take Finca Altamira. This vineyard lies alongside the Tunuyan River, in the southwestern part of the Uco Valley, at 1050 meters above sea level. Soils are sandy, with gravel and boulders mixed in. The eighty-year-old plants are very balanced to low productions (350 grams of grapes per plant, one bottle of wine per three plants). This allows a minerality in the wine not found in wines of high yield vineyards. And this minerality is related to soil structure particular to Altamira. The altitude is very important: The higher you go, the better quality of sunlight the plant receives. The closeness to the river is critical: In Mendoza the rivers are the cool-air conduits out of the Andes mountains. So you have cooler nights than vineyards that are a mile away from the river. (More aromas, better color, more vivacious acidity). And there are less extreme-heat days during summer: again more aromas, with subtle violet and red fruit tones. Add in the surrounding ecosystem: We’re the last cultivated piece of land before you arrive at the Andes mountains. Neighbouring vegetation changes the character of the weather as much as exposure.’ All in all, an eloquent exposition of the characteristics of terroir. What about the wines? I think they display terroir, although when you are talking about terroir characteristics from warm climate wines, it’s likely that there will be fewer of what are regarded widely as ‘minerally’ or ‘earthy’ characters, simply because fruit sweetness tends to be more dominant on the palate. In a way, you need to get away from the rather simplistic notion that non-fruit characters stem from ‘terroir’. Here are my notes:

Achaval Ferrer Quimera 2001 Mendoza, Argentina
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. Interestingly, the blend occurs before racking into barrels, of which 40% are new (10% American oak and 90% French oak). The wine shows a sensational rounded, sweet perfumed nose, with creamy blackcurrant fruit. The palate displays more of this sweet, rounded fruit which hides a smooth tannic core. There’s a subtle herby complexity and some minerality is apparent on the finish. Very good/excellent 92/100 (£20.56 Corney & Barrow)

Achaval Ferrer Finca Altamira 2001
From a single 10 acre vineyard situated 3400 feet above sea level. The vines are ungrafted and were planted in 1925: these yield just 350 g of fruit each. The soil is poor and sandy with a large alluvial sediment, and there is some protection from wind provided by the chestnut and cypress trees that surround the estate. Temperatures here in the growing season can be in the mid 30s centrigrade during the day, dropping to around 12 at night. The nose displays sweet fruit with a savoury, herbal edge: there’s a liqueur-like quality to the fruit. Very rounded and ripe. The palate is lush and intensely concentrated with good acidity and a nice tannic structure. There’s a bit of minerality, too – this is intense and delicious. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£41.48 Corney & Barrow)

see also: a visit to Achaval Ferrer, March 2008; tasting notes of Argentinean wines  

wines tasted February 2004

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