My first tour in Mendoza took me to Altos las Hormigas in the outskirts of Lújan de Cuyo. The name “heights of the ants” comes from the masses of small ants that filled the vineyard decades ago:
As we refused to poison the ants, and looked for natural ways to deflect their attention, our workers commented that the ants were the ‘real’ owners of the place, free to roam around effortlessly. We liked this novel idea of the ants owning the place, and decided to name our venture after this early situation. As the vines grew taller, the ants moved to other foods.
|Antonio Morescalchi and Carlos Vasquez of Altos las Hormigas|
We were driven from Mendoza city 45 minutes to Carrizal de Abajo, where the winery resides, on the boundary between Lujan de Cuyo and Barrancas. Malbec is the star here, and no winery represents the vision of Argentina as “the land of Malbec” more than Altos las Hormigas. This estate is the creation of two Italian winemakers from Tuscany: Alberto Antonini, former winemaker at Antinori, and Antonio Morescalchi, current head of marketing and management. The two set out to find an investment opportunity in Argentina in 1995 and bought 216 hectares in Carrizal de Abajo and Uco Valley. Together with three others they founded Altos las Hormigas.
The winery is quite isolated, with the Andes barely visible off to the east. The road to the estate winds though Bonarda vines trained in the traditional parral (a type of pergola) style, a system that keeps direct sunlight off of the grapes to maintain delicacy and acidity. A little further the scenery changes to vertically trained Malbec vines planted amidst the old irrigation channels which are still used. Walking among the vines, no sign of drip irrigation can be seen... flood irrigation is used here. When questioned about this irrigation practice, Antonio Morescalchi explained that it is preferable at the estate as it encourages competition between the vines by forcing the roots to spread further than with drip irrigation. A large reservoir along with a few wells provide water which is pumped out to the vines.
This land is relatively free of pests and diseases. The dry climate, extreme temperatures, and sandy/rocky soil ensures that vectors can’t propagate easily. Phylloxera exists in the soil but doesn’t spread. Some say this is due to a break in the phylloxera life cycle eliminating the flying “winged form,” which spreads eggs rapidly and only emerges in humid climates; others say it is a function of the heat and sandy soil; still others claim the flood irrigation makes an unfriendly habitat for the louse. Whatever the reason may be, lack of organic culprits to damage vines leads to lack of necessity for sprays and pesticides. Because of this many Mendoza wines are pretty much organically produced whether the official stamp appears on the labels or not.
Vineyard manager Carlos Vazquez, previously of Catena Zapata, describes the terroir as nearly perfect… the “nearly” comes into play not due to biological factors, but due to the threats posed by the Zonda. This hot, dry foehn wind originates in the Andes and warms as it blows down the slopes to the vineyards. It picks up dust and speed and tops out at 125 miles per hour. The real issue for the vines is not the force of the wind, however; after the Zonda comes the hail, large as baseballs, that breaks the vines violently and leads to incredible losses. For this reason the vines are propped up with sturdy nets, and this also may be the reason vines growing in this region develop thick trunks that make them appear to be much older than they are.
The wines of Altos las Hormigas are crafted in a serious but approachable style, and represent their respective districts quite well: the Lújan de Cuyo wines are fruity and bright with soft, velvety tannins, and the Uco Valley wines are full of flowers and spice, with a more prominent backbone of ageworthy tannins. Altos las Hormigas produced three wines until 2009: an unoaked Bonarda, an easy drinking Malbec, and a Malbec Reserva from vineyards in Uco Valley. Grapes from different vineyards are vinified separately and blended after vinification. Oak is used judiciously so as not to dominate the wines. We tasted at the estate in a very informal setting along with Antonio Morescalchi and Carlos Vazquez:
2009 Colonia las Liebres Bonarda
This wine’s aroma of bright, ripe raspberry fruit was an immediate attention grabber: the Bonardas I’ve tried before tend toward dark cherries. Its very soft tannins, excellent acidity, and lighter mouthfeel would make it a fantastic wine to pair with a Bolognese sauce or a veal dish.
2009 Altos las Hormigas Malbec
Very fruity! This was a favorite. In fact, I took a bottle home for good measure. Nice tannins back a deliciously juicy red fruit focus. The noticeably long finish made it all the more pleasant. You could pair this wine with a rare steak, as we did, but it’s great on its own as well!
2008 Valle de Uco Malbec Reserva
An intense, floral, spicy wine perfect for aging for 5-8 years. There is a definite minerality that shines through, giving the Reserva a heightened complexity. The tannins are relatively soft now, but should become quite silky with a little aging. This is definitely a red meat wine.
The 2010 vintage will rework the two previous Malbecs and include two new wines representing the terroir of the region as a joint venture with Chile’s infamous terroir consultant Pedro Parra. The Mendoza Clasico is the entry-level Malbec, full of bright fruit and spicy notes due to the combination of Valle de Uco and Lujan de Cuyo fruit. The Valle de Uco Terroir comes only from Uco Valley, showing off the floral backbone with fine fruit overtones characteristic of Valle de Uco. The Valle de Uco Reserva is aged in French oak for 18 months and utilizes the best of the available soils in Uco Valley: the ancient stony riverbeds with excellent drainage. This is a wine meant for aging, potentially 10+ years. And the pièce de résistance? The Vista Flores Single Vineyard, from the best terroir identified at an altitude of 1250 meters. Aged for 36 months in French oak, this wine is an investment piece loaded with complex spices and delicate flowers.
For more information on Altos las Hormigas or to set up a visit, go to their website or send an email.