Mendoza produces 75% of the Malbec we see on the shelves, but you’d be wrong to assume the wines are all much the same. To ensure you’re getting the very best that Argentina has to offer, Patricio Tapia reveals the five key sub-zones to look for on labels.
Mendoza Malbec: the sub zones continued
Location southwest of Tupungato, in the northern part of Uco Valley
Area under vine 1,900ha
Percentage of Mendoza’s vineyards 1.2%
Thanks to wines from bodegas such as Catena, Sophenia, Doña Paula and Zorzal, Gualtallary is now a hotspot of Mendoza’s wine scene. And that status is due to the excellent reds coming out of the region as well as the strong personality of its Malbec.
Gualtallary is in the highest zone of the Tupungato department (up to 1,600m, although most of the vineyards are at 1,300m), and therefore Mendoza’s coldest sector. The Andes are majestic here, with their sharply pointed peaks jutting into the horizon. The hillsides that slide down the mountains let loose their sandy, rocky, chalk-rich soils – very poor terroir in which only thorn trees and vines can survive.
This landscape and climate produce some of Mendoza’s freshest Malbecs – even when the wines push the ripeness scale (less and less common in this area) – and offer a completely different side to the variety. ‘This location gives us more austerity than exuberance,’ says Juan Pablo Michelini, winemaker at Bodega Zorzal (pictured). ‘That means aromas that are more floral, herbal and mineral than fruity, nicely textured tannins that are sharp rather than rounded, and rich natural acidity that gives us fresher and more flavourful wines.’
I’m fascinated by the landscape in Gualtallary – the Andes look and feel so dramatic up here. I’m fascinated by its wines as well, both the uncomplicated styles that deliver pure, electric red cherry juice, and the more ambitious examples that can last a decade or more in the bottle. I would urge you to try both styles.
Location in Tunuyán, in the centre of Uco Valley
Area under vine 1,200ha
Percentage of Mendoza’s vineyards 0.8%
Of all of the Uco Valley zones, Altamira (officially known as Paraje Altamira) was one the first sub-regions to put modern Argentinian wines on our radar, and our shelves. Among those wines was Achaval-Ferrer’s Finca Altamira Malbec 1999 – a pioneer in exploiting the single-vineyard concept in Argentinian Malbec and also one of the first (perhaps the very first) of the great Uco Valley wines.
We’re in the Tunuyán department, the heart of Uco Valley, on the banks of the Tunuyán River, one of Mendoza’s most important sources of water. This river begins in the Andes and has made viticulture possible in Altamira for centuries – thanks to man-made canals. The zone’s recent fame has attracted new winemaking ventures, which means that today very old Malbec vineyards stand beside young vines. Altamira is in an alluvial cone, at altitudes of between 1,000m and 1,100m. This desert-like landscape is rich in sand and stones but also in the limestone that lends a special character to some of the wines, especially in terms of texture.
‘Altamira Malbecs are perfumed with violets and lavender and bright red fruits,’ says Santiago Achaval of Bodega Achaval-Ferrer. ‘The best wines are also very mineral, with distinct graphite notes.’ Sebastián Zuccardi of Bodegas Zuccardi also believes that the soils make Altamira Malbecs different. ‘Where the limestone soils are most evident is on the palate. The wines are not usually as fat as those from other Uco zones, but have an elegance and tension in their texture that make them very long and lingering.’
Location in Tunuyán, in Uco Valley
Area under vine 2,300ha
Percentage of Mendoza’s vineyards 1.5%
Vista Flores began to be internationally known thanks to the work of consultant Michel Rolland, who convinced six other key Bordeaux figures to invest in the Uco Valley. The project, Clos de los Siete, is still one of the most ambitious ventures in the New World.
Vista Flores is a zone known for specific parcels with an excellent (though not necessarily abundant) heritage of old Malbec vines that have played a key part in great wines that, until Rolland, were simply labelled under the Mendoza appellation. Today Vista Flores is rightfully in the public eye.
The highest vineyards are in the west, reaching 1,200m in altitude. ‘The soils are of alluvial origin, predominantly sandy loam, and have a significant presence of rounded stones that are sometimes chalky,’ explains Susana Balbo, owner of Dominio del Plata, one of the many wineries that buys grapes from the zone.
Anne-Caroline Biancheri, owner of Antucura, a bodega that makes 100% Vista Flores wines, describes the character of the zone as varied, but primarily as producing Malbec of intense colour and aroma. ‘The flavours are reminiscent of plums with notes of violets and roses,’ she says.
Of all the Uco Valley areas, Vista Flores seems to offer the most lush, ripe versions of Malbec. This may be a result of the marked influence of the concentrated Rolland style of winemaking. However, refreshing new approaches practised by producers such as Dominio del Plata and Antucura prove that the character of the Malbecs of Vista Flores remains to be defined.
Patricio Tapia is the Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Argentina and publishes Descorchados, an annual guide to the wines of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.