Horseback Riding by the Andes
On day two, we take a break from the wine circuit. After an al fresco breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and pancakes with warm strawberry sauce at Le Terrada Suites, Melanie and the driver arrive to take me to a ranch high up in the Andes. For nearly two hours, we bump along winding dirt roads past high-altitude reservoirs and tiny mountain villages. We finally arrive at Estancia La Alejandra around noon. There's a rustic wood and tin lodge that's dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks behind it, smoke billowing up from a large outdoor parrilla, and three horses, saddled up and ready to ride.
Melanie and I reach for our sweaters — the temperature is much cooler up here in the mountains than it was in Mendoza — and follow our guide on a two–hour excursion on horseback. We gallop across wide open grassy stretches, marveling at the rugged mountainscape and the high–flying condors circling overhead. Our guide asks us to help him round up a pack of wild horses and push them back down the hill towards the ranch, where they can find water. It's an exhilarating moment, riding parallel to the racing herd as the guide chases them from behind, cracking his leather whip and shouting "Yegua, yegua, yegua!" (Yegua means "mare" in Spanish; his calls are directed at the pack's female leader.)
We arrive, wind–blown and hungry, back at the ranch's homestead. A table for two with a panoramic view of the Andes — and a large carafe of Malbec—is set out for us. A large, kind–faced woman, no doubt a resident of one of the nearby villages, serves us freshly baked empanadas, grilled vegetables, steak, and a decadent dessert of crepes smeared with dulce de leche. Once again, I'm nearly in a food coma by the time I crawl under the sheets back at the B&B.
Wine Bodega Tour around Mendoza
The real wine drinking, of course, is still ahead of me: on my third and final day in Mendoza, Julián is going to take me around to some of his favorite bodegas. Adriana serves me a vegetable omelet and coffee on the pretty terrace at Le Terrada Suites as the morning temperature starts to rise.
Then Julián and I are off to Kaiken, an up–and–coming winery known for a Malbec Rosado that has a bright fuchsia color and a lovely strawberry–like aroma. After a walking tour of the winemaking process, we're seated in a slick tasting room with huge picture windows facing — what else? — the snow–capped mountain range rising up in the distance. We sample a chocolaty Cabernet and I stare at the page of complicated tasting notes that have been set before me. Julián, in professional sommelier mode, starts explaining the difference between French oak and 'regular' oak and first–use and third–use barrels.
We proceed to the second winery on our itinerary, Mendel, where Julián is excited for me to try Unus, a delicious combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec that scores sky–high ratings year after year in Wine Spectator. By the time we've sampled Unus and Mendel's Malbec — another hit with the critics—I'm starting to feel lightheaded from consuming such fantastically rich red wine on a hot and sunny morning. Luckily, since this is Mendoza, it's time to eat again.
We'll be having lunch at a third winery, Belasco de Baquedano, where the light-filled dining room is filled with tourists from far and wide. I barely sit down before a server is pouring more wine into one of the five glasses that's been laid out for me. Hors d'ouevres are brought out, followed by grilled steak and capped off with a memorable raspberry and chocolate dessert plate, paired with a tiny glass of port wine. Even though the volume in the dining room seems to rise by the minute as wine enthusiasts laugh and socialize all around me, the atmosphere at our table seems tranquil, thanks to our perch beside large windows that overlook acres upon acres of lush green vineyards.
Before we leave the winery, Julián takes me down to the subterranean level to visit the Aroma Room, a cavernous space lined with box-like stations where visitors can catch a whiff of each of the common aromas found in wine. Fruits, flowers, vegetable and animal scents are all represented; on one wall is the “balsamic series,” including wood, vanilla, roasted coffee, smoke and caramel, and the “spicy series,” featuring clove, thyme and truffle. There's even a section for “defects” like vinegar and mushroom — dead giveaways that something has gone wrong in the production of a particular bottle. The Aroma Room is something of a novelty — as a Belasco de Baquedano representative proudly informs us, "Our facility is one of a kind in both North and South America."
Our final winery stop of the day is Catena Zapata, a label well-known all over Argentina as well as in the U.S. Most fans of the midrange Alamos line that's sold in Buenos Aires wouldn't guess that the winery itself is shaped like an ancient Mayan temple. Inside, of course, the place is state–of–the–art, with a lounge–like tasting area downstairs and an impressive cellar of internationally sources vintages. My favorite wine here is a buttery Chardonnay from the high–end Catena Alta collection, a refreshing finish to the tastings on this sun–baked afternoon.
The food and wine extravaganza isn't over just yet, though: as the people at Malbec Symphony know, a luxury vacation to Mendoza isn't complete without a dinner at the world–famous Francis Mallmann 1884. Mallmann, called "Latin America's pre-eminent chef" by Condé Nast Traveler, is known for innovative grilling techniques and twists on classic Argentinean dishes. Since it's my last night, I decide to go all out.
The meal begins with a fabulous humita (savory corn paste wrapped in corn leaves), followed by a generous portion of grilled chivito (goat) that's so flavorful and tender it practically melts in my mouth. My self–indulgent weekend in Mendoza ends there, in the graceful antique dining room, with an over–the–top dessert that's appropriately named fantasía de chocolate (chocolate fantasy.) The chocolate cheesecake, in case anyone's wondering, went very nicely with my third glass of Malbec.
If you go:
Malbec Symphony Wine Tours in Mendoza
Story and photos by Bridget Gleeson