According to Patrick d’Aulan’s father, the best Champagne is always non-vintage. Why? Because it’s a blend. And the great art of Champagne is the skill of the blend. (Though I suppose the more cynical amongst us might argue that a champenois, brilliant salespeople that they are, will always champion what there’s most of to sell…)
And the d’Aulan family is most certainly champenois. For many years, Patrick’s family were owners of Champagne house Piper Heidsieck (until 1988 when they sold to Rémy Martin). And it was a project to make sparkling wine in Argentina that first brought the family to South America, and which ultimately led to the establishment of Alta Vista in 1998. Currently, Patrick is president of the Edonia group, a company that both distributes and produces wine (the latter in Tokaj, Bordeaux – and Argentina).
I went to have a chat with Patrick in South Kensington’s well appointed branch of Prêt à Manger as part of the research for a book project I’m working on. I hadn’t been to Alta Vista in a few years so I wanted to catch up with what was going on.
As it turned out, we ended up talking just as much about Chile as Argentina (Patrick is taking his team on a trip there soon so I gave him a few tips about who to visit and where to go). And he’s not ruling out a potential venture there in the future, so watch this space…he’s promised to keep me updated.
Anyway, back to blending. We were talking about Alta Vista’s focus on single vineyard wines when I mentioned that I’d particularly liked their Grande Reserve Terroir wine (see tasting note below), which is a cross-site blend. “It’s one of our most popular wines,” agreed Patrick (though Patrick tends to agree with many things you say – he’s a very nice man). “We consider it the quintessence of Malbec. Anyone can make a single vineyard wine; great winemaking is about blending.”
What’s currently exciting Patrick about his Argentine winery is some Chardonnay planted at 1,200m (actually part of the Clos de los Siete vineyards, in Vistaflores, though Alta Vista take no part in that operation). Previously he says he’s been a bit disappointed by the potential of whites in Argentina to reach the highest levels of quality. The winery is also now considering planting Chardonnay and a little Pinot Noir at 1,400m altitude, not far from Salentein, also in the Uco Valley. So keep an eye out for any new releases from high-altitude Uco vineyards in the Alta Vista range.
But clearly their focus is Malbec. Patrick readily concedes that they haven’t got things right in the past – by which he meant in vintages even as recent as 2004. “We did too much at the beginning – lowered yields too much, used too much oak…our mistake was not paying enough attention to the experience of the Argentines with their Malbec. We came in a bit like conquistadores, with a mentality that we made the best wine in the world in Bordeaux, so we wanted to make Malbec like St Emilion Merlot. Now, like with all human experience, we’re eventually finding our maturity and equilibrium in the project.”
Patrick points out that their vineyard manager, Juan Antonio Argerich, is a 7th generation farmer from the area and is involved in every decision about the wine. He says that precisely not doing too much is what enables the terroir to emerge in the wines – hence increasing success with the single vineyard wines.
An enlightening example he cited concerned one of the first vineyards they bought when they came to Argentina in 1998. It was in Las Compuertas and the previous owner had been cropping at a massive 125 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha). They came in and did green pruning (a popular bordelais pastime) to reduce the bunch load and thus create more concentrated wine. The farmer went round after them picking up the grapes, incredulous that these upstart Frenchmen could commit such viticultural lunacy. But in a way it was lunacy, admitted Patrick – they were cropping at 15 hl per ha, which made wines that were just too much.
“Somewhere in between is the perfect balance,” he smiled. “And that’s what we’re aiming for.”
I took the chance to quiz him about what I consider to be the trend among top Argentine wines to have discomfortingly high levels of alcohol. Though he admitted it was an issue, especially in an increasingly health conscious world, his view was firmly from the winemaking camp: if it’s balanced, it’s right. And better than cheating (ie by “humidification”, less euphemistically known as adding water…)
He said that the custom in France was to have New World wines for lunch (at 15%) and for supper something like a 1961 claret with 13.5%. Both are valid expressions of their origin, just in different ways, he argued. And 1961 clarets would have taken 10 years to become drinkable.
My reaction was: could I have an invitation to dinner?
But he did mention that they are working to reduce alcohol levels, in the same way that they have been working hard to improve tannin quality and acid balance and integration.
“We’re getting there,” he mused. “But there’s no magic here: it takes time to build up the experience and knowledge to make wines that are elegant, balanced and yet express the character of Argentina and Malbec.”
And with that admirable sentiment he was off into the high-pitched hurly burly that is South Kensington at half term.
Tasting notes (wines tasted 26 Oct 09 – contact Cockburn & Campbell merchants)
Alta Vista Malbec Rosé 2009, 12.5% – £7.99
Leafy red fruit nose, touch of caramel and violets. Crunchy and fresh palate. Dry. Grown up. Hint of spice. Needs food – it doesn’t have that extra touch of richness to it that many New World rosés do. Susie thinks it excellent – exactly what New World rosé should be. I tend to agree. Very good indeed. 4/10
Alta Vista Malbec Grande Reserve Terroir Selection 2005, 14.5%
Peppery, toasty dark fruit with some grilled bacon notes. Quite inviting though not the most extrovert on the nose, as tends to be Alta Vista’s style. Similarly part of the house style is the elegant fine tannin, fresh acidity and lifted palate profile. With dense, oaky, layered, juicy flavours. Spicy notes. Yes it’s big but it’s beautiful too. Savoury elements too. Very good. 7.5/10