The Wines of Mendoza

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Argentina  , Cuyo,
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

As we boarded the overnight bus to Santiago, we bid farewell to Patagonia. A friend of ours used to say that he would always leave a party early because "you want to leave 'em wanting more."  And that's how I felt about leaving Patagonia – wanting more.

With Chiloe in the rear-view mirror, we began a 28-hour trip to Mendoza, Argentina.  Along the way, we crossed the Andes for the fourth – and final time – which included a lengthy stop at a border crossing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level.  As someone who doesn’t handle higher altitudes well, it was a miserable experience.    We crossed some stunning high Andes scenery, including a quick glimpse of Aconcagua (the highest peak in the Americas), but I pretty much missed it all.  I was too busy fending off nausea, headaches, shortness of breath, and dizziness.  Needless to say, it was a relief to finally arrive in Mendoza.

Mendoza is one of Argentina’s oldest cities, and is known as a center for culture and good nightlife.  Tragically, however, multiple earthquakes over the centuries have destroyed much of the city’s colonial architecture.  Equally tragic, since I’m now on the wrong side of 30 years of age, the city’s nightlife didn’t have a strong appeal to me either.  But we didn’t come here for a quaint atmosphere or raucous nightlife, we came for the wine.

Mendoza is the principal wine growing region of Argentina and famous for its Malbecs – a French grape that never produced particularly good wine in Europe (at least, according to our tour guide) but thrives in Mendoza because of its dry climate, cool nights, and very warm days.  

The success of the Malbec may be a bit surprising given that as recently as two decades ago, Mendoza’s winemakers rarely focused on producing single varietal wines.  For more than a century, winmakers made cheap, low-quality blends.  Argentine consumers had two choices – “white” or “red” – and no one had any idea what type of grapes were in the wine.  Very little attention was paid to quality, but no one cared – local consumers had access to cheap booze, winemakers made a good living, and the government prohibited wine imports to protect a local industry, so nobody knew any better.

Around 20 years ago, Mendoza winemakers started to focus on the Malbec, in part because it could be marketed as a distinctive “Argentine” varietal and distinguish Argentine wines from other New World wines (i.e., wines made outside of Europe).  I’m not sure what the catalyst was, but the effort proved enormously successful.  Mendoza’s Malbecs won high praise for their quality, foreign investment followed, winemakers adopted modern production techniques, and Mendoza emerged as major global producer.    

Getting to Mendoza’s wineries can be a bit of a pain on your own, so we decided to do one of the higher end tours.  It was a good decision.   We tasted some great and rare wines, had a fantastic lunch in a gorgeous setting, and learned a good deal about the area’s wine and production techniques.  We also traveled in a very small group (four people + the guide) and the wineries were very generous with their pours.

In all, we visited four wineries (bodegas).  The first, Bodega Benegas, was located about 15 minutes from the city of Mendoza in the Maipu region.  It was the oldest bodega we visited, full of character and charm.  While there, we tried a Cabernet Franc from vines that were more than 120 years old.   The wine tasted delicious (spicy and smoky, if you can believe it), but at $75 U.S. per bottle, it was also out of my price range.

The next bodega we visited was called Alta Vista.  Alta Vista is a more modern operation that lacked the quaint charm of the older bodegas, but the wine was outstanding.  They have vineyards at multiple altitudes, and they make a Malbec that combines grapes grown at these various plots and altitudes.  The “Melbec Terroir Selection” turned out to be our favorite wine of the day.  Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of Malbecs but I really enjoyed this wine.

While at Alta Vista, we also tried our first torrontés – a distinctive white wine that is grown in region called Cafayate, a few hundred kilometers north of Mendoza.  Alta Vista owns some vineyards in Cafayate, and it ships the grapes to its winery in Mendoza.

Commonly referred to as the “liar” (mentiroso), the torrontés smells incredibly sweet and fruity, almost like a dessert wine.  When you taste it, however, the wine possesses a dry, crisp finish, almost like a Pinot Grigio.  Hence, the torrentés “lies” – the bouquet gives the impression of a sweet wine, but it tastes dry.

After Alta Vista, we lunched at a vineyard called Ruca Malen.  Ruca Malen proved to be the most scenic, as well as developed bodega on our tour.   Against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and vineyards, the bodega runs a high-end restaurant that caters towards folks on the wine tour circuit.  Even if a bit touristy, the meal did not disappoint.  The wines weren’t half bad either, and we had the opportunity to try their premium line – the Kinien – which is only produced in years in which the harvest in considered to be exceptional (or so they say).

Our final bodega, Tapiz, proved to be an interesting educational experience.  We didn’t taste a lot of the bodega’s final product, but did have the opportunity to taste white wines at various stages of the fermentation and bottling process.  Most striking to me, a wine that’s just a few weeks old tastes very similar to the final product, even though it may be cloudy and unfinished.   

For dinner, we enjoyed an unexpected treat.  We found a couple who made a multi-course Argentine meal in their home, all you had to do is show up, eat good food, drink decent wine, and make conversation with the other random guests also in attendance.   While getting good conversation from some our dinner guests was akin to squeezing blood from a stone, we enjoyed the experience immensely.

All in all, our day of wine touring turned out to be one of the most decadent days in recent memory…and a heck of a lot of fun.      

Traveling Notes

You have many options in touring the vineyards in Mendoza.  We considered bicycling the wine route in Maipu, but read terrible reviews online.  We inquired about the lower cost wine tours, but they seemed to only visit one or two bodegas, comprised of larger groups, and it was unclear what level of wine we would be taste. 

We finally decided on the higher end option offered by the company Trout and Wine.  Granted, it was a bit pricey, but our guide was knowledgeable, we tasted variety of wines (including some high-end stuff), lunch worked out well, and we felt we got a good feel for the region (as much as you can in one day).  In short, it’s nice way to splurge if you have the means to do so while traveling.

 Finally, the place where we had dinner is called Los Chocos.
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Laura Soldati on

This is so great, I can't even tell you. I can't take this cube anymore! Want company?

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