It’s not very often someone offers to kidnap you. So when Altos Las Hormigas’ agronomist winemaker Leonardo Erazo Lynch suggested he kidnap me for a day knee-deep in mud and rocks to get to the bottom of ‘terroir’, I couldn’t resist. Heading out to the Uco Valley at 5am, much needed mate and a beautiful sunrise lighting up the still snow-peppered mountains helped us to land in the infamous Altamira vineyards.
Altamira has gained quite a lot of fame and notoriety for its unique expression of Malbec – silky tannins, dark fruit and hints of violet. Leonardo believes that this special expression is all down to the rocks beneath the surface, which are an ideal match to Malbec.
People love to talk about terroir but it had always remained a bit of a mystery to me as to whether a slightly differing amount of rock, clay and sand would make that much difference to a wine – of course I could imagine how wine made in Chile would have different terroir to that of Argentina, but would there really be that much of a difference between rows of vines?
We had to get underground to find out, and so kitted out in boots and dirty jeans (this kidnapping had a strict dress code) we drove up to a row of vines. For the last couple of years Altos Las Hormigas have been getting very serious about the terrains they are working with as part of their Terroir Project and have been digging out soil pits (big holes) in the vineyards they own and buy from – often to the disappointment of the vineyard owner – to take soil profiles and have a look at what the vines are feeding from.
If you haven’t seen a soil pit before, it basically looks like a shallow grave. So when Leonardo grabbed a pickaxe and pushed me into a pit, I started to wonder whether I should have told someone about this kidnapping and brought some kind of GPS tracking device. But what agronomist engineers get turned on by is far geekier – it’s all about the rocks. And digging around in the pit, this agro-engineer was very excited.
“See the limestone covering the pebbles? This is really unique, you don’t see this in many places of the world,” he elatedly explained. The reason why Altamira has rocks different to the rest is that this ancient riverbed has mostly sand and silt, weathered granite and pebbles covered in limestone – a mix which he believes is perfect for Malbec. The old age of the soil helps make the wine more complex, the broken granite is great for drainage, and the limestone traps water around the rocks and gives the wine unique characteristics which are especially prevalent in cooler climates (like Altamira) and gives a particular shalky tannin structure to the wine (much needed for softer, fruitier wines like Malbec and Chardonnay). Basically the soil is all about the water and oxygen available to the vines, how much it struggles and the different materials the roots grow through.
This all sounds wonderful on paper, but is the proof in the pudding? Leonardo brought out a couple samples from those exact vineyards and moving through different pits (some just a couple rows away, others in neighboring Vista Flores) you could taste the different effect of the land composition on the wine. Aside from feeling rather poetic spitting wine back onto the roots that it came from, there was a marked variation in the wines. It was a subtle difference and the aroma profiles didn’t alter too much, but the true effect of the terroir was profoundly noticeable in the texture and length of the wine. The key to Altamira’s beautiful expression are the long, silky tannins, which while they give Malbec a bit of backbone and added tannin, they still keep it elegant and not too aggressive.
After touring around different terroirs and with teeth now as black as raisens, Leonardo returned me to my home and the kidnap was sadly over. However the dirt in my trainers still remains, and so does some of the knowledge of the effect of terroir.
As Uco Valley grows in reputation and fame, the future of the valley is most likely in the different expressions of different vineyards. To understand what makes the difference between Altamira and Vistaflores or La Consulta and San Carlos, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface.
To learn more about Altos Las Hormigas Terroir Project visit www.altoslashormigas.com Make sure to try their different Malbecs including the new Vista Flores Single Vineyard.
Terroir Experiences in Mendoza
Apart from bribing an agronomist to take you out to the vineyards, there are other ways to get your terroir kicks in Mendoza:
Vistalba: Carlos Pulenta’s winery has a stunning tasting room with an entire cross-section of the soil exposed. While trying wines you can take a look at the different layers and make-up of the soil to understand a bit deeper what’s happening beneath the surface. www.carlospulentawines.com
Alta Vista: This French-owned winery actually own the trademark ‘Single Vineyard’ in Argentina, this is how serious they are about terroir. Although they freely let others in the wine industry use the term ‘Single Vineyard’ for their wines, Alta Vista still remains one of the best examples of a winery producing unique wines from different vineyards. At the winery you can try their single vineyard Malbec from the Alizarine, Serenade and Temis vineyards. They also have a terroir selection which is a blend of the vineyards. www.altavistawines.com
By Amanda Barnes
Published in the October/November 2012 edition of Wine Republic