By Bridget Gleeson
Juicy grapes growing plump on the vine. Sweeping views of the snow-capped Andes. Gourmet food and wild horses and three hundred annual days of sunshine. As Argentina's travel destinations go, Mendoza is definitely a crowd-pleaser, full of non-stop palate-pleasing.
The same tourists who grumble about congestion and crime in Buenos Aires or the unpredictable weather in Patagonia often find paradise in the sun-drenched Argentina wine region where most of the nation's famous Malbec is produced.
But many first–time visitors mistakenly expect Mendoza to be like Napa, where road-trippers pull off the highway for spontaneous tastings or winery tours. Reservations are required here — and visitors need a game plan. Countless travel agencies shuttle tourists to the wineries in mini-buses; a handful offer more personalized and elegant services. One of these is Malbec Symphony, a youthful outfit run by an Argentinean sommelier, Julián, and a Canadian expat, Melanie, who offer their services in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German.
My long weekend in wine country kicks off in the arrivals hall of the Mendoza airport, where Malbec Symphony's chauffeur, dressed in a dark suit, is waiting for me. As he wheels my suitcase to his waiting sedan, I notice the striking view before me: the road leading away from the airport is bordered on both sides with working vineyards, and further off in the distance, the Andes Mountains cut a dramatic silhouette against the pale blue sky.
Cooking Like an Argentine, Wine in Hand
We drive directly to the Zuccardi winery and its sleek visitor center and restaurant, where I'm scheduled to take a morning cooking class with a professional chef and Malbec Symphony's guide for the day, Tracy. It's only 10 o'clock in the morning, but the industrial kitchen is already bustling with chefs in starched white hats peeling vegetables and rolling dough. At the bar, several staff members are carefully polishing hundreds of oversized wine glasses in preparation for the afternoon's fully booked lunch and tastings; a few tourists are milling around the lobby. I hear one woman ask another, "Are you in the wine business?" The other woman, an American, replies, "Well, in a manner of speaking. I'm more involved in the wine consumption business."
Her words drive home an important lesson I'm starting to learn about Mendoza: the standard rules of food and drink don't apply here. This is a place where pleasure is a priority and culinary experimentation is encouraged: you can make gelato out of black olives, eat lemon verbena popsicles for breakfast, and open a bottle of wine — or two — well before noon. In fact, visitors are encouraged to eat and drink all day, quite literally. (As Julián will later say when I ask him about the seemingly never-ending feast, "Well, that's Mendoza.")
The gastronomic adventure begins with cappuccino cake served in front of the fireplace. Then the chef, Gonzalo, welcomes us into the busy kitchen. We put on aprons and chef hats and step up to a work station heaped high with metal mixing bowls, flour, eggs and butter. "Today," Gonzalo says, "we'll be learning how to make pan de campo (country bread) and three kinds of empanadas."
By the time Tracy and I are kneading and punching our dough into loaf shapes, Gonzalo is opening a chilled bottle of Santa Julia Viognier, produced here at Zuccardi, of course, and pouring some for each of us to try. The hour that follows is a foodie's dream. Between chopping onions and picking herbs in the adjacent garden, we taste several rosé wines and gourmet treats like candied flower petals and creamy helado de remolacha (beet ice cream), all prepared onsite with fresh ingredients from the vineyard's bounty.
While we're waiting for our bread and empanadas to bake in the adobe oven outside, we sample fat black olives that were just picked off some nearby trees. The finished empanadas, with flaky crust wrapped around a savory beef filling, are the best I've ever tasted. (And I’ve spent the last few years living in Argentina.)
Noon rolls around, and I've eaten so much that I'm not sure how I'll work up an appetite for Zuccardi's famous multi-course lunch. Minibuses start pulling up to the entrance and the elegant dining rooms fills with guests, while outside, thick slabs of steak, pork and chicken are sizzling on the parrilla (grill). At our table for two, Tracy and I manage to taste a few bites of each carefully prepared dish, paired with the winery's fine Tempranillo and capped off with a lovely peach cake and a much–needed coffee.
Siesta Time at Terrada Suites
Still, I nearly doze off in the car as the driver transports me to Le Terrada Suites villa, where I'll be spending the next few nights. Located a short drive outside the city of Mendoza, Le Terrada Suites is tucked between private homes and a pair of wineries on a quiet dirt road that's lined with tall, leafy trees. Adriana, the owner, warmly welcomes me into the airy villa and shows me to a suite with a spacious contemporary bathroom and sliding glass doors leading to a pretty patio. "Make yourself at home," she says, and I do just that, promptly falling onto the soft white bed for a siesta.
I wake up an hour later to the sound of crickets and chirping birds. I step out into the back patio to take in the view: flowering hedges border the large jasmine-scented yard, trees shade cushioned chaise lounges, bright pink roses grow near the swimming pool. This kind of foliage doesn't come easy in this arid province: as Adriana reminds me, water is brought here by manmade irrigation ditches that run like little rivers alongside all the streets of Mendoza.
As I consider how much water it takes to make green grass grow, a tray with an oversized mug of cafe con leche appears before me. Clearly, Mendoza natives recognize the necessity of proper caffeination to counteract the effects of so much food and wine. Before bedtime, I'm presented with a supposedly “light” dinner of empanadas, green salad and pastel de papas (potato tart.) As the chef later explains, most visitors to Mendoza eat a lot of meat; Le Terrada Suites, for a little variation, specializes in cocina criolla, or regional cooking.