The one above shows the general lay of the land with the main growing areas of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo moving out from the city of Mendoza (see this topo/satellite/weather map. Further south is the Uco Valley with many wonderful wineries and 200km south of the city lies San Rafael, home to Famiglia Bianchi among others. I didn’t visit San Rafael on my trip but I did visit the other regions.
There’s an incredible vitality to Mendoza. The region is experiencing a boom. Foreign direct investment, particularly from France and Chile, is pouring in to vineyards and fancy new wineries are going up everywhere. Several locals told me that unemployment is at 6 percent, well below the national average of 20 percent. Demand for luxury hotels is such that the Park Hyatt is often full and two other five-star hotels are being built. And there are luxury boutique hotels such as the 14-room Cavas Wine Lodge sprouting in the vineyards themselves.
The Andes provide a dramatic backdrop for the city as well as plenty of activities for tourists, from hiking to rafting. But it’s the wineries that I went for and I wondered, does terroir matter? Or put more simply, are there different microclimates in Mendoza?
It is always hard to decipher the influence of the vineyard as opposed to the influence of the winemaker. So I had an excellent chance to taste the terroir in the very cool tasting room at Alta Vista with three Malbecs from different vineyards made by the same winemaker. Patrick d’Aulan and family sold the Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck in 1999 and still owns Chateau Sansonnet in Bordeaux, purchased this winery in 1998 and started restoring it and acquiring properties. They now have four vineyard sites including 540 acres in the Clos de los Siete project in the Uco Valley area of Vista Flores (planted in 2002; the d’Aulans have since left the venture).
The other three vineyards are much smaller and run from south to north in Mendoza. La Consulta is a cool-climate, 17-acre vineyard south of even the Uco Valley at the base of the Andes; the Alto Agrelo vineyard is 225 acres an situated in Lujan de Cuyo; and the 17 acre La Consulta is the closest to the city of Mendoza and has a wide temperature fluctuation between high and low. They all lie at more or less the same altidue, about 3500 feet, and about 33 degrees south of the equator. The Alta Vista premium line of Malbec has a limited production of wine bottled from each vineyard site and they are only sold as a boxed set (about $50). While American consumers no doubt have difficulty distinguishing between the various subregions, Argentine laws on place names don’t provide much help since only generic geographic indications, such as Mendoza, are allowed much to the chagrin of many winemakers I met. Alta Vista overcame this problem by including the vineyard name as the brand name for the wine.
I tasted the wines in the order of the vineyards above and they were dscribed as ranging from “elegant and feminine,” to medium, to bold. Well, if the if the La Consulta one is feminine, the woman rides a Harley. While I liked the wine with its aromas of violets, it was still big and lush with a gorgeous mouthfeel. The third wine from Las Compuertas was perhaps more “manly” since on the finish was a rare dose of mouth chomping tannins.
My favorite wine was the middle of the road “Serenade” from Alto Agrelo. Inky purple in color, the attack draws you in with notes of plums, dark cherries, a faint whiff of asado, and lush, velvety mouthfeel. Although the wine sees some oak, it is harmoniously balanced with the fruit and the tannins are sweet.
All in all, the Alta Vista terroir experiment was very instructive and a very good overview of the different vineyard characterisics. It’s a pity it isn’t more widely available in the US–I guess you’ll have to go there to check it out for yourself.
Alta Vista: Alzaaga 3972, M5528AKJ, Chacras de Coria, Menodza, Argentina. Open for visits–check the Alta Vista web site for more info, vineyard maps and photos here. Also, see additional wine maps of Mendoza here.
Alta Vista Torrontes, Mendoza, 2004 $9 (find this wine)
The best white wine that I had on my recent trip to Argentina I had on the first day at Cabaña Las Lilas restaurant in the hip Puerto Madera area of Buenos Aires: Alta Vista Torrontes. And it kept popping up on the trip as I tasted it two more times (including at the winery with the 05) and loved it each time. “Aromatic” is a way that Torrontes frequently gets described but perfumed might be more accurate. White peach, honeysuckle blossom, perhaps even lychee conspire in an hugely rich and expressive aroma that is not for the faint of heart. The wine has crisp acidity and is totally dry (2g residual sugar) despite the vortex of aromas. While this wine is a little bit hard to find in the US, an able substitute is the Santa Julia Torrontes, which has wider availability (Whole Foods) can be found for as low as $6. Pair with Asian foods or try it as an aperitif. Either way, a torrent of flavor will be yours!
In this country of vast distances, it should be no surprise that the grills are big too. And if there’s one thing they like besides wine in Mendoza, it’s grilling. One local told me that while residents in other regions may have tango or polo to keep them busy in their leisure time, the quintessential weekend activity in Mendoza is hanging out with friends or family, and having a big BBQ, or parilla.
At this grill above, I asked for “a little bit.” A hulking piece of meat landed on my plate practically knocking it over like the slab that tipped over the Flintstones’ car. “We don’t understand a little bit,” said the man in the hat with a grin.
Prodigious in quantity, the grilled meats are also excellent in quality. The beef is superb but travelers to the region shouldn’t miss out on the tasty grilled pork, chicken, potatoes, and even a few veggies either. (Mmm, this is making me want lunch thinking about this again) While in Cafayate, I even sampled a llama filet that tasted surprisingly like lean beef–perhaps it is the next ostrich? Whatever you have from the grill, it tastes that much better when washed down with a glass of local Malbec.
Walking into Lasal, an intimate restaurant on Belgrano Avenue, it’s hard to know what will strike you first as the most different: the contemporary decor on two levels, the live guitarists, or the sign that says “sushi night is Tuesday night.” Diners who have fatigue of Mendoza’s many restaurants specializing in grilled meat (aka parilla) would do well to seek out the inventive cuisine here.
A starter salad of frisee with crunchy beef carpaccio was very good as was the insalata caprese (though the mozarella was local, not di buffalo). The best part? They were three US dollars each.
The main dishes, which range from about $7 – 10, include an unusual but effective beer and honey risotto, a vegetarian crepe with creamy vegetables and mushrooms on the side, and pork roast with vegetables. If this sounds eclectic but good, consider that the live guitar the night I was there last week ranged from Hava Nagila to flamenco.
The wine list is a well-chosen selection from the many excellent local wineries. I liked the fact that not only do they list the winery but also the winemaker. While the restaurant may be above average in price by local standards, it’s still an excellent value for American and European visitors, especially those craving culinary creativity.
Lasal, Belgrano 1069, not far from Plaza Independencia. Tel (54 261) 420 4322
It is 10:00 AM and I shiver in my short sleeved shirt. I wander down a row of vines five feet wide and pick a small Malbec grape off a 60 year old vine and put it in my mouth. The flesh is sweet while the seeds and skins are tannic and bitter. Another week and this cluster will be in the de-stemmer.
The vineyard makes the Afincado line of wines from Terrazas de los Andes. I half expected to see terraces like those found in the Duoro or the Rhine given the name of the winery but the name derives from the different altitudes of the different vineyards. The vineyard where I am standing is at about 3,500 feet while the Chardonnay vineyard lies slightly higher and the Cabernet Sauvignon slightly lower.
“Thermal amplitude” is the phrase of the day, a phrase that refers to the range between the day’s high and low temperatures. Although we felt this high-high and low-low phenomenon in Cafayate too, it is probably in the 60s now and the high is forecast in the 80s. I dressed for that high but am regretting it now. It’s a desert here in Mendoza and the vineyards are only possible because of the vital water from snow melt from the Andes. And the wine is only possible thanks to the “thermal amplitude” since the grapes need the cool evenings to recover from the heat of the day.
Terrazas rests under the Chandon umbrella. Chandon has had a presence in Argentina since the 1950s and has built up a dominant share of the domestic market of sparkling wines to the tune of 95 percent market share. In fact, if you were wondering how to say “sparkling wine” in Argentina apparenly it is simply “Chandon.” Now that’s a way that any bubbly producer would love to finesse the perpetual struggle over the names sparkling wine and Champagne.
I head inside for a tasting—and some warmth.
Federal to me implies a devolved system of governance with multiple centers. There ain’t nothing federal about the air system in Argentina where all routes lead to Buenos Aires. As one of our winery guides in Salta joked, “The president lives in Buenos Aires. The Congress is in Buenos Aires. I think God lives in Buenos Aires.”
Although I awoke in Cafayate, I was to sleep in Mendzoa and travel a circuitous route to get there. The two wine growing areas lie about 1000 miles apart so driving would take all day and then some. Instead we flew all day.
The ride back through the Lerma Valley was more spectacular since the cloud cover had lifted and the rock formations seemed more red, and the hillsides more dynamic with the sun and shadows. It is spectacular and really makes the long and windy drive actually enjoyable.
Despite being the closest Argentine city to Bolivia and Paraguay, the sleepy but surprisingly large Salta airport now only welcomes one airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, and has service to one airport, Buenos Aires (domestic).
The check-in counters of several other private carriers that used to service the airport now were ominously dark. Privatization brought only brief joy to the areaÂs travelers as the return to monopoly now elicits complaints of delays and high prices from the locals.
The flight to Mendoza left only one gate over from the one where we arrived in the clean, new terminal. Back in the air for another two hours only to arrive in Mendoza as light was failing and a rare drizzle was falling.
View this leg on the map.
You want big distances, eh? Welcome to Argentina! Cafayate, the main wine growing area of Salta lies three hours south, not by plane, but by van along a windy and bumpy road. Across the fertile valley floor, we passed multiple small-holdings of tobacco and corn—as well as many stray dogs that often made the driver apply a skilled brake-and-swerve maneuver. A quick pit stop at a small goat farm and we entered the Lerma Valley, with dramatic scenery that might have been Utah. A murky river, reddened by the soil, ran the length of the valley and yielded a floor of green that gave way to more arid hillsides and stunning rock outcroppings. It took about an hour to cross this desolate but stunning valley and we encountered only the occasional person or llama before arriving in Cafayate (see topo map).
After the 60-mile long deserted valley, vineyards suddenly appear. The first building is the large colonial style winery of Michel Torino, which we fly by only to return to later.
Cafayate boasts 360 days of sun a year. We got one of the five other ones. Fortunately the rain had stopped by the time we arrived but the ground was wet and muddy and the clouds hung low over the mountains. A narrower valley than that of Salta, it is more dramatic as the steep hillsides rise up from directly behind the vineyards.
Our first stop was El Lavaque. There was an enormous oak with 100 bikes parked. The workers need some way of covering the 600 acres of the property after all. We approached the arcaded winery and had a lunch on their stunning terrace. Sadly, I forgot my download cable so photos will have to wait til I return.
Then we headed over to Patios – a stunning, 30 room hotel in a hacienda style on the adjoining property to Michel Torino. Originally started by the Torino family as a small hotel, a renovation completed in October 2005 has yielded a small luxury resort managed in the Starwood portfolio of hotels. (site).
The whole hotel was designed with feng shui in mind, the manager told us on our brief tour upon arrival. The spa boasts a range of treatments that includes “wine therapy” or beind submerged under the skins and stems of the grapes (there’s a white or a red option). This one is only available at harvest time. They do have other bottles of grape applications available all year round.
Sadly, time again was too constrained to put such treatments to the test. But it is testimony to the high quality of travel that is available now in Argentina, even in such a remote region.
After a tasting of the wines from Michel Torino, a meal in the restaurant, and a final nightcap of coca tea with a band playing music inspired from the Bolivia and Salta, I hit the hay on the 700 thread count sheets. It’s a real testimony to the current state of tourism in Argentina that this isolated town has such luxurious accommodations.