By Tim Leffel
"Why are you going to Mendoza?" other travelers would ask us as we moved through Argentina.
"For the wine, of course."
Like Napa Valley in California or the Bordeaux region of France, in Mendoza it's all about the wine. Mendoza city is a pleasant enough place on its own, with a sprawling city park, shady streets with cafes, and a climate that's warm and sunny all year long. El vino is what pulls in the high-end visitors, however.
Through our hotel, the Park Hyatt Mendoza, I book two private wine tours of the region: one by vehicle, one by bicycle. For the tour by vehicle they set us up with The Grapevine Tours and Charlie O'Malley, who landed in Mendoza while touring around South America and never got around to leaving.
Four of us pile out and snap pictures of the view at our first stop, Ruca Malen, with the snow-capped Andes Mountains glowing pinkish behind the grape vines. We don't realize we will have this view at every stop, nor that we'll hear roughly the same spiel about de-stemming machines, the sugar-to-alcohol transformation, and malolactic fermentation. When the tour finishes though, it's time to sample the local Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. Ruca Malen sits on a vineyard that has been in place for over a decade, but the winery itself opened in 2003. It has already garnered plenty of awards and praise from Wine Spectator and the like, however, from its everyday Yauquén line to the high-end Kinién bottles.
Wines Tastings and Pairings
We then make our way to Bodega Tapiz, which produces an excellent label known as Tapiz locally and Zolo in the U.S. On this tour we got to ride a horse-drawn carriage around the vineyard, but this is post-harvest time, so we're wearing jackets and seeing dormant vines. In the summer or early fall (March and April here) it would be spectacular.
Inside we sample a few young wines straight out of the tanks, from grapes grown at 850 meters and 1,350 meters elevation, clearly tasting the differences before exposure to oak changes the character. We get a taste of a few finished bottles, which are consistently great. "If you give us enough warning," says our Tapiz guide, "we can let you pitch in and help us pick some grapes at harvest time or do some pruning. Or we can set up workshops with our agronomist or oenologist."
At the nearby restaurant at Club Tapiz Wine Lodge, we taste other varietals in tandem with an excellent meal prepared by their celebrity chef Max Casa. Like the best wines the world over, they take on a whole new character when paired with the right dishes, their Tapiz Malbec Reserve creating a magical combination with our grilled leg of lamb.
We linger so long over lunch that we miss our next appointment at Alta Vista. We're just following the tide, going where Charlie can get us in on a Saturday, when many vineyards are closed. He got his start soon after moving to Mendoza, immediately seeing the need for a tour guide who could provide clueless foreigners with access to the best wineries. He got to work honing his vineyard connections, set up a local wine magazine, and started to get known as the man to call when you wanted to get a wine tour matched to your own tastes. "I get some people who are total wine fanatics. They bring down suitcases filled with Styrofoam wine holders and want to analyze soil samples."
Wine lovers who are not fanatics will still find that money for a well-connected guide is well spent in Mendoza. "There's not much of a marketing sensibility here yet," O'Malley says, "so it's very difficult to do an independent tour that goes beyond the very biggest wineries. Even if you do get past the gate, they won't pour the good stuff to taste and if they're busy or someone's at lunch, there's no tour."
Our vehicle rolls past the massive Norton winery and we find that this is still an industry in transition. "In the old days," O'Malley says, "everyone just filled up their jugs at the local winery and that carried them through the week." Norton still keeps that tradition going. Every Thursday morning, the locals are lined up with their dama-joana refillable containers, paying 8 pesos (less than $3) for six liters - nearly a gallon and a half.
Wine Country at Pedaling Pace
The next day we set out on a bicycle tour, enticed by the idea of pedaling through vineyards and going from place to place on our own power. Unlike Cafayate up north, however, Mendoza is not a place where you can set out from your hotel on a bike, pop by a few wineries, and pedal back to your room with a few bottles in the bike basket. So a van from Indiana Aventuras picks us up at the hotel and we ride south for 20 minutes to get to the Luján de Cuyo region.
Once we unload the bikes, however, we leave the traffic behind and hit the back roads. We get to see the wine countryside at a slower pace, working off some of yesterday's indulgence at the same time. Out here there are few cars on the roads and still a few carts pulled by horse. We ride by vineyards big and small, houses with laundry hanging in the yard facing streets with children playing football. Despite the lack of rain in this area, massive trees flank the roads, fed by the same irrigation streams from the Andes that keep the vineyards watered all year.
History with a View
Olive trees line the driveway leading to historic bodega Nieto Senetiner, our first winery stop of the day. We park the bikes and wander the beautiful grounds before touring the whitewashed Spanish colonial building and touring the retrofitted facilities. The treat comes at the end, where we taste some impressive high-end reds, including the austere and refined Cadus Malbec and one of the best Cabernets I tasted in the region. (Back home, I found that Nieto Senetiner goes in and out of stock at local wine stores, so stock up when you get the chance.)
After some more riding, we get to another historic complex of buildings, the LaGarde winery. The 18th-century structures here lend a serious air to the winery and it's unusual in another way: they make sparkling wine by hand, strictly by the Champagne method. This involves corking by hand and periodically rotating the bottles: an expensive process but one that seems to pay off when the result hits the taste buds. We need some food in our system at this point, so I'm glad we've arranged lunch ahead of time. Our guide leaves the two of us alone in a dining room with four different bottles of wine, some freshly baked empanadas and a plate of crusty bread and cheese.
It's the perfect meal for the range of wines we're sampling and I'm thrilled to discover we can buy what we've tasted there without carrying the bottles anywhere: they'll be delivered to us in the capital. I provide an order, plop down a credit card, and give them our hotel dates in Buenos Aires.
As we walk back to our bicycles, however, our legs have gotten wobbly and our heads aren't as clear as when we started that morning. The plan was to cycle to three or four wineries, but our bodies have a different plan. Back to the hotel for a nap.
A week later, after a well-placed call from our concierge at the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires, my LaGarde order arrives the day before departure. Back home I can open a bottle I brought home or a Zolo bottle I found at a local store and relive the experience of seeing where they are made. If only I still had the Andes view.
Story and photos by Tim Leffel
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