There was a very good reason why we crossed the border back into Argentina from Chile, making a bee-line for Mendoza….Wine, wine and more wine! We were on a mission to try as many good wines as we possibly could in three days – whilst trying to remember what they actually tasted like! No mean feat with hundreds of wineries on our doorstop to choose from, growing grape varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the infamous Malbec and Torrentes. With rather a lot of success these days… Or so it would seem from the 90+ scores given by Robert Parker, the acclaimed critic. Argentina, one of the New World wine suppliers, is considered the fifth largest wine producer in the world, with Mendoza and the vineyards in the province, producing two thirds of this. The region contains 223,000 hectares of planted vineyards, compared to 400,000 in France, with some 280 wineries opened between 2001 to 2007. Malbec is very much the flagship grape; originally brought over from France in 1855, it thrives in the continental climate and semi arid dessert conditions of Mendoza, perfectly suited to the terroir. With vineyards planted at altitudes between 800 – 1100m, Lujan de Cuyo, is very much the epicentre for this emblematic wine of Argentina.
We decided against DIY; neither of us fancying our chances of making it on bikes all the way out to the Uco Valley, or navigating the city after a few glasses in a hire car. We were keen to learn more about the process and varietals and had noted a handful of vineyards we would be keen to see…. none of them were close to each other.
Notebook in hand and open mind we opted to go with Ampora, a well known wine tour operator for the first two days that offered full on guided tastings and we were so glad we did. Not only were Majo and Alex great hosts cum tour guides, they each added a different dimension; Majo, Mendocino history, culture plus her amazing personality and wine knowledge and Alex, a breadth of technical knowledge that was astounding coupled with a great passion for wine; he had just graduated from his degree in wine making.. Before we arrived at each of the chosen bodegas we were given a brief potted history. It was so interesting to learn about each of the predominately European funded vineyards, their preferred viticulture methods before we began tasting; the tours were given with great passion and pride and you couldn’t help but feel an almost reverential hush fall as we stepped into each of the cool and inviting cellars. Over the three days we met agronomists, owners, along with first and second winemakers – all keen to give us an insight into their world.
Spit or swallow… It’s just one of those questions you have to ask. We did both. With twenty odd wines to taste on our first day, we couldn’t possibly quaff all of them and remain coherent. So we studied the colour and savoured the aroma, before taking a slurp across the tongue and palate; occasionally doing ‘the right thing’ and making use of the spitoons. And took notes … decidedly more legible at the start of each day!
On day one we joined by a handful of Americans as we headed to Lujan de Cuyo, less than 20km south of Mendoza. First stop Bodega Altavista, an really attractive and well established winery, with old vines dating back to 1889, it also doubles up as the French Consulate. Here we had our first taste of Torrontes – known as the “liar” – for a good reason – on the nose an aromatic perfume like Viognier yet on the palate a complex and refreshing citrus finish similar to Sauvignon Blanc.. Unexpected and delicious, it was a show stopper. We actually tried their full range of top shelf wines, from sparkling to their single vineyard Malbec, plus another newbie for us, the Italian grape Bonarda. One wine we didn’t get to try was their Alta Vista ‘Alto’ 1998… Around $2900 AP, or £380 a bottle, we didn’t blame them for not opening it!
The bar had been set and we were not disappointed, as the hits kept on coming.
Next stop, Bodega Kaiken, with its pretty covered pergola overlooking the vineyard we ate our first grapes, straight from the vines. Deliciously sweet the Merlot grapes were weeks away from their hand picked harvest. Their Malbec Kaiken Rose caught our attention; the deep rich rose colour a result of 24 hour contact with the grape skins, an aroma that reminded us of cherries and candy floss, it tasted of bananas and melon…we imagined savouring it with a plate of chorizo and octopus in a sun-drenched beach cafe.
With slightly squiffy heads, we were glad that we would soon be filling our bellies. After a pitstop at Pulenta Estate and a tasting that left us favouring the deep red, spicy yet sweet berry Merlot 2008, we headed to Ruca Malen for lunch, with perfect wine pairing (natch). Our table was the last to leave as we lingered over our five course lunch. We sighed over our starter of goat cheese truffle with dried chilli matched with a Yauguen Torrentes and giggled as our third course of Quartirolo cheese and chorizo, beautifully matched with their 2006 Malbec, came with it’s own presentation “map” under the glass plate. Stuffed to bursting after a full day of wine tasting and wine pairing lunch, we were in need of a power nap, before we could do anything else. Casa Lila, our temporary home for the rest of our stay, also gave us a great taste of Mendocino hospitality. A few blocks from the main drag, it was charm personified; beyond the pretty worn iron gates, it was an oasis of peace and tranquility. Just what we needed after a “hard” day of tasting! Yep, gluttons for a good thing, we both knew come 8pm we would be ready for another food fix and more wine! Matt had yet to completely embrace Argentine late night dining. Mind you, even I struggled getting my head around sitting down for a ‘proper’ dinner at 11pm – the reservation time offered for a table inside one particular popular restaurant. We dined outside, serenaded by street musicians, as we tucked into a langoustine salad for me and Costelata de cerdo, pork chop, for Matt… Washed down with our new found favourite, a bottle of Torrentes.
Ready for round two, we got up early and embraced our first sunny day in Mendoza as we headed for the hills and Uco Valley. With just four of us (we were joined by two young wine buffs who had friends/family that owned their own vines) and the prospect of a tour and lunch at O Fournier, we were in for a treat.
With a special backdrop of the Andes, vines at altitude and high tech holding tanks, Bodega Atamisque was our starting point for the day and second tank tasting; gingerly we sniffed and sipped the murky liquid offered – full of sediment, you could just about detect the top notes of a soft fruity finish. Within thirty minutes the sediment settled and the wine took on a refreshing and slightly florally almond taste; with less than a week in the tank, it showed great promise and would eventually emerge as their Sparkling Cave Extreme. We were completed divided on whether or not we preferred their Catalpa 2011 Pinot Noir or Merlot. Tough call to make at 11 in the morning!
Gimenez Rilli was an unexpected gem. Not only because we toured with one of the owners, but we tasted one of the finest Malbecs we had ever tasted – from the barrel, a month into its maturation, whilst nibbling cheese and quince in the tasting room. With great pleasure we eagerly hoovered up the steaming hot carne empanadas as we worked our way through several of both their Torrentes and Malbecs. The clear winner? Gran Reserva 2008 with its deep red-violet colour and classic taste of cherry, chocolate, spice and vanilla. It was delicious.
We headed further towards the foothills and the incredible looking and super high tech, Bodega O. Fournier. With a restaurant overlooking a lake teeming with trout and the Andes, it was a magical setting for our five course lunch; a twist on classic dishes from Argentina and Spain, matched with some of their best wines. Steak aside – which was cooked to perfection – medium rare and came with a red mojo sauce, the starter, Duo de humita en chalk y cazuela, a thick corn stew served with the savoury cake of corn, came with a first rate glass of Urban Uco Malbec 2011. Spying the well placed deck chairs, it was difficult dragging ourselves away, as we wrestled with thoughts of a siesta, sprawled out on the terrace. Not only were we stuffed to bursting, we polished off another bottle of their B Crux 2008, a heady blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Merlot, after lunch!
On the third day, we were almost relieved to be only visiting one vineyard, Trivento, in Maipu, and home to the production of a wine we had sampled a few times at home, La Chamiza. This time round we got to meet the winemaker and sample with him. We were not disappointed, as each glass surpassed the previous one. Our favourite (natch) was the much heralded Martin Alsina Malbec 2008 and their top end wine. With a bottle in hand we headed back into Mendoza for a hearty lunch.
The most consistent and striking observation we made, over the three days, was just how incredibly well structured the mid to top end wines we sampled were. More so given their age, or serious lack of. So many of them made the cut, it would be difficult to pick our all time favourite, although we will defo be looking out for Torrentes on our return. I would like to say we could spot a Malbec at ten paces – just by the colour – although that just might be wishful thinking!!