What would you do with 320 days of sun?
In Mendoza the answer is: make wonderful wine. At Altos las Hormigas they want you to taste the unique characteristics of the Mendoza region in their wines. And you do.
Malbec wine has become more popular with consumers. As a consequence, more and more growers are planting it, producing it, and many think, turning it into a generic-tasting wine. You might say it's become treated as a commodity. Think of the difference between a commodity coffee, supermarket brand X. Yes you can tell it's coffee. You may even enjoy a cup. But what about a single-origin from Indonesia? There you have a unique cup to enjoy.
While some consumers may be satisfied with a standardized wine world, it depresses me. It’s like applying a McDonald’s mentality to wine. No matter where it’s from or who made it, I can order a glass of Malbec and it’ll taste exactly the same. Those folks should stick with soda, better yet, read on for a wine suggestion. Me? I want to taste the place, the climate, the soil, the winemaker’s skill, as well as the grape’s characteristics.
Thankfully, a number of winemakers now recognize that I’m among a growing body of wine drinkers who want to experience the place, the grape through the glass. These winemakers also recognize that in a competitive market, treating wine like a commodity is a losing game for many, especially smaller, operations. Taking a different tack and going the direction of the artisan, are wineries like Altos las Hormigas. Their goal is for you to "taste Mendoza in your glass."
With 320 days of sun you might expect overpowering heat and alcohol in the wine. Yet, these are not austere or overpowering wines. They possess a touch of spiciness, balanced by fresh juicy fruit, with a careful acid balance and some floral notes.
In the shadow of the Andes
In Mendoza, the elevation is about 3,000 feet above sea level. The near-absence of humidity means the vines are not vulnerable to many diseases that would necessitate more chemical interventions. There are challenges for the winemakers here. Like their namesake “hormigas” or ants, they needed a team of people working together, over time, to unlock the secrets to making great wines in this area. They survived the ants without chemical intervention and have used canopy trellising and pruning techniques, hands-on picking, sorting and pruning, to achieve success with the vines. In addition, the use of gravity as opposed to pumping of the berries to move them releases less tannins as the skins are left intact. These are some pampered grapes.
Meeting the ALH Team
Recently, I met two of the ants, I mean the team, of Altos las Hormigas: Winemaker Alberto Antonini and Antonio Morescalchi. Alberto travels the world consulting to wineries all over. Antonio manages the winery and its marketing with experience gained at his father’s vineyard in Tuscany. They explained how micro-zoning gave them an
advantage with the unique terroir, further enabling the transmission of a sense of place through the wine. They brought in a noted Chilean soil expert Pedro Parra, to enhance their knowledge of the terroir characteristics in very fine detail. You’ve heard of microclimates, here we’re now able to define micro-terroir.
Within the Mendoza region, you have rich alluvial soils of the Vale de Uco; the best sub-region, producing the Reserva. Within the Vale de Uco there are further micro-zones, designations with a variety of other types of soil and mineral deposits at various layers. By carefully selecting both for terroir and altitude, they can produce Malbec with fresh acidity and balance. In a smaller parcel with even better terroir, we get the single vineyard Malbec “Vista Flores” with its floral notes gracing the well-structured wine.
And for those soda drinkers...
Look, wine can be intimidating. I get it. But there's no reason to be afraid of variety, to avoid unique wines that express something special. The very accessible Bonarda, which ALH has been making since 2003 was the surprise for me. It is a wine anyone could enjoy. It's very drinkable, food-friendly and retailing under or near $10 a bottle. This is a great wine to introduce the region to your palate and to spark your interest in wines with a sense of place. Today a Bonarda, tomorrow a Malbec. We ants have much work to do introducing the world to Mendoza in a glass. Better get back to it!
Detail of "las Hormigas" on the neck of the bottle
Altos las Hormigas Wines - look for these wines where ever wines from the Classic Wines importer are sold.
Bonarda - Colonia Las Liebres - The Rabbit Colony - look for the bunny on the label. This is the sister wine to the Hormigas Malbec line. I could drink this wine every day. Easy, food-friendly and it doesn't break the bank. Still, you get a sense of the place in the glass.
Altos las Hormigas - The entry level Malbec of this portfolio. 100% hand-picked grapes. Available at Sagarino's for those of us in the Leather District.
Vale de Uco Reserva - Micro-zoning techniques in the riverbeds of the Uco river valley yield long finish and an age-worthy wine.
Vista Flores Single Vineyard - Many years of micro-zoning investigation helped Antonini to single out this vineyard producing exceptional wine with special minerality.
- For good reading about food and wine of Mendoza, read From Argentina with Love. The author Rebecca Treon Caro also shares Mendoza travel information on her blog. Buen Viaje!
- For South American Culinary tours, including Mendoza, see Liz Caskey's site.