We had the privilege of trying renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallman’s cuisine to start the new year. 1884, his flagship restaurant in Mendoza, is housed in Escorihuela Gascón – one of the oldest bodegas in the region (founded in 1884). Mallman won the coveted Grand Prix de l’Art de la Sciene de la Cuisine from the National Academy of Gastronomy of Paris in 1996, and thereby became the first non-European to win this prestigous award. His cuisine is imaginative, yet simple; primal, yet sophisticated. All dishes pay tribute to regional cuisine and a love for open flames; many hail from his homeland of Patagonia.
We chose to sit outside in the garden, for a candlelight dinner with views of the grillmaster managing mayhem around the massive clay oven. To start, we split the whole roasted Andean pumpkin with mint and goat cheese salad and indulged in three types of freshly-made, artisan breads from the clay oven. For our entrees, we selected entrees that made Mallman famous: grilled and clay oven meat. We ordered clay oven lamb and pork chop a la parrilla (grilled), topped with prosciutto and accompanied with Patagonian potatoes.
The grillmaster – One of our favorite parts of this meal was watching the “meat chef” run the clay oven. A one man show, he frantically worked to keep pace with the orders that poured in, seasoning meat only to fly around and yank a massive iron pan of sizzling animal protein out of the furnace. Without a timer and with multiple tasks, somehow he managed to know when each order was ready, delivering a sizzling hot, perfectly cooked slab of meat to the table in perfect synchronization with the sides from the kitchen.
Maipú is the third and smallest of the wine regions of Mendoza, located about 15 km south of the city. It is the easiest region to reach by public transportation (take bus #10 from Rioja & Sarmiento, routes 171, 172, or 173; $3.60 Argentine pesos/person round trip = <$1). This is the area best for biking wine tours – and therefore a cheap, active day – as the bodegas tend to be smaller, closer together, and have rustic shops (selling chocolate, olive oil, etc.) scattered along the path from one winery to the next.
There are at least 5 companies offering biking tours in Maipú: (1) Hugo’s Bikes, (2) Coco Bikes, (3) Bikes and Wine, (4) Bike Cool Tours, and (5) Orange Bikes. Lonely Planet recommends Coco Bikes, many online sites say Bikes and Wine has poor equipment, and a ton of sources (especially Trip Advisor and our local bus driver) prefer Hugo’s Bikes. We therefore chose to give Hugo’s Bikes a try…unfortunately, though, he was closed for the New Year celebration, so we were left with Coco Bikes. Unphased, we excitedly hopped onto our bikes and starting making our way around Maipú. Here’s a map borrowed from Bikes and Wines showing the route:
- Chocolateria “La Antigua” – Chocolates
- Museo del Vino Bga La Rural– Wine Museum – La Rural Winery
- Bodega Viña María – Viña María Winery
- Licores y Chocolates “Historia y sabores” – Liquors and Chocolates
- Bodega Trapiche – Trapiche Winery
- Delicatessen – Almacén del Sur
- Bodega Tempus Alba – Tempus Alba Winery
- Bodega Viña el Cerno – Viña el Cerno Winery
- Bodega Familia Di Tomasso – Di Tomasso Family Winery
- Bodega Vistandes – Vistandes Winery
- Olivícola Laur – Olive Oil Factory Laur
- Bodega Carinae – Carinae Winery
- Hotel Rural – Restaurant “El Agua Miel” – Hotel and Restaurant El Aguamiel
Overall, we enjoyed our day in Maipú and definitely think it is worth a visit if you have a few days in Mendoza (for those on a tighter schedule, we suggest the other 2 regions first).
Our recommendations from today are:
- Make sure you like to bike
- Pick a day < 98° F to bike
- Use Mr. Hugo’s Bikes. His shop is cute, with outdoor tables, provides bottled water for the day, has competitive prices, and the bikes are in better shape. Coco Bikes was a run-down shop without seating or complimentary water, and the bikes lacked functioning breaks, had chains that were easily dislodged, and – the saddest of all – the cruiser bikes were basketless. Fail.
- In terms of bodegas, we recommend a visit to Trapiche and Carinae. Trapiche is a massive producer, with various lines, a decent facility, and a good variety of tasting options. Carinae is open almost daily and is run by a French couple; it is acclaimed as the best bodega in Mendoza for star gazing. It’s also the furtherest away on the trail, which is why we didn’t make it. However, the reviews we heard and our sampling of their Syrah at the Vines of Mendoza leads us to recommend it. Avoid La Rural like the plague. This is a tourist trap with a mini wine museum and awful wine (1 free sample might sound appealing, but no vale la pena).
- Consider having lunch at Alamacén del Sur or Casa del Campo. The former is allegedly amazing and offers tours of their organic gardens (it was closed when we tried to visit). The later is a local joint, family-run, and serves up hearty, traditional cuisine; it also boasts a large wine selection.
The Uco Valley, Mendoza’s newest wine region, is an hour and a half drive south of Mendoza city. This is the up-and-coming area for wine growing in Mendoza, with most vineyards with less than a decade of planting. Tucked into the base of the Andes’ foothills, this is the highest elevation (significant) wine region in the world (up to 5,500 feet above sea level, with the majestic Andean peaks only a few kilometers away). In this mountainous climate, the day-night temperature differential can be as much as 28 degrees.
Most of the bodegas in this area are foreign-owned and emerged following the 2001 financial crisis of Argentina. Investors seized this opportunity, purchasing land and quickly moving towards planting. Salentein and Catena Zapata were two of the first visionaries for this region, each claiming to have been the visionary for this gambling venture. We visited three wineries on this day.
Winery #1: Salentein is a Dutch-owned, state-of-the-art winery that features stunning pieces of modern art throughout the property. The tour guide taught us how to differentiate Malbec grapes from Pinot Noir grapes while on the vine. (Pinot Noir grapes form cylindrical, looser clusters, while the Argentine Malbec forms much tighter, smaller clusters.) We loved the tasting room, with perfect lighting that illuminated the colors of the wines, wall-to-wall vintage bottles, and the long, stately conference table that made us feel like important diplomats. We could just picture the owners getting together with their wine maker (recently lured away from Catena Zapata) to taste and finalize their latest blend. What a job! Here’s what we tasted:
- Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011: nice grapefruit smell; dry, acidic taste that would nice on a hot day
- Pinot Noir Reserve 2010: strawberry smell with hints of minerals; light but taste lingers with a touch of spice
- Numina Gran Corte 2009 (a blend): cherry and licorice smell; complicated, full-bodied wine
- Primus (Premier) Malbec 2007: floral and prune aroma; complex and fruity; 3rd favorite Malbec of the trip
Our favorites: Gran Corte and Primus Malbec
Winery #2: For the second winery, we visited a remote winery with beautiful views. Giminez Riili, a winery in existence since 1945, now run by 3 brothers who took over the family business. We loved meeting Frederico, one of the brothers, and listening to his passion for wine making. He also treated us to probably the best homemade empanadas we’ve ever eaten. Their production may be small at the moment, but it’s very high quality.
- Torrontés 2010: grapefruit notes; smoother and fruitier than Sauvignon Blanc at Salentein
- Perpetuum Premium Merlot 2008: musty oak smell with hints of dark fruit (prunes); fruity Merlot with present but not overpowering tannins
- Gran Reserve Malbec 2007: blackberry jam smell; fruity, medium-bodied
- Syrah 2010 (from the barrel because he was sold out)
Our Favorite: Gran Reserve Malbec (but we bought the Torrontes and Merlot; aka we liked all of them!)
Winery #3: Andeluna Cellars is owned by American H. Ward Lay, of the Frito-Lay family, who spends half of the year on his ranch in Patagonia. The winery is well-known for its lunch with pairings and an open kitchen, allowing you to see the chef hard at work. The decor is rustic and features brightly colored artwork from young Argentinean men with disabilities. This was our least favorite winery, as it felt more corporate (lacked character) and the wines and lunch were less than stellar.
- Torrontés 2011: lighter grapefruit smell and less complex than Torrontés from Gimenez Riili
- Reserve Chardonay 2009: light and buttery with medium flavor
- Reserve Malbec 2009: oaky smell; fruity, not that robust but medium-bodied
- Gran Reserve Pasionado 2005: a blend; not as full-bodied, bold, or delightful as Salentein’s Numina
Overall, the Uco Valley was our favorite region because of its scenic views and marvelous wines.
Achaval Ferrer: We enjoyed a “wine breakfast” at this beautiful winery on the edge of the Mendoza River, which features spectacular views of the Mendoza Valley and is committed to producing small quantities of excellent red wine. This was one of the few tasting in which we enjoyed every wine we tasted.
- 2010 Malbec: strong dark fruit aroma; bold, “biteful” young wine with mod-high acidity
- 2009 Quimera (5 grape blend): lighter fruit smell; fruity start, with spicy, lingering finish
- Finca Mirador 2009 Malbec: Robert Parker 96 points; light, soft & smooth
- Finca Bella Vista 2009 Malbec: blackberry aromas; full-bodied and smooth
- Barrel Tasting – Finca Altamira 2010: The 2009 version this wine received 99 points from Robert Parker. Only 1 other South American wine has ever achieved this high of a rating. Unlike barrel tasting from other bodegas (Norton, Tapiz, etc.), this sample was balanced, full-bodied, already incredibly complex, and only slightly over-oaky. This will be a bottle to keep on your radar – it’s one of the finest wines we’ve ever tasted, and it’s not even finished!
Chandon: Our visit to Chandon was another benefit of having a multi-talented remis (taxi) driver. Originally, we intended to visit Catena Zapata, but were unable to reserve a spot at this popular destination (even when we emailed requests months in advance). Instead, we enjoyed joining a large group of Brazilians for an exploration of the world of bubbly. Carolina – though she had already been to their property in Napa – fell in love with the French décor here.
Choosing to eat early (12:30), we enjoyed a private dining experience at Chandon. Skeptical at first, we soon realized that champagne goes with almost any type of food!
Further reading: Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine Chapter 61 “Eleven reasons to drink bubbly throughout dinner tonight”
Pulenta Estate: Never having tried Pulenta’s wines before, we booked this tour mostly because of raving reviews on Trip Advisor. And we are incredibly glad we did! This turned out to be one of our favorite wineries in all of Argentina and Chile.
A private guide gave us a full tour of the facility, including a chance run-in with the winemaker at work sniffing the barrels. We learned they use only a select 25% of their best grapes, then sell the rest to other wineries in Mendoza. The best part, the tasting, was a repeat of Achaval Ferrer: we loved every wine we tried.
- La Flor Sauvignon Blanc 2011: grapefruit smell; dry and slightly acidic
- Gran Cabernet Franc 2009: green bell pepper smell; fruity and acidic on the tongue
- Gran Malbec 2009: fruity on the nose; starts bold & spicy, but finishes peppery & fruity
- Gran Corte 2008: oak and tobacco smell; plum/cherry/canela taste – a full-bodied delight
Tapiz: Our final stop for the day was at bodega Tapiz. Best known for its restaurant and hotel (Club Tapiz), Tapiz also doesn’t do a bad job with their wines. Though this wasn’t our best tour (the Tapiz guide was a little smashed from over-sampling with guests on the earlier visits that day), we still couldn’t complain about mounting a horse-drawn carriage to catch a glimpse of the vines up close. And, we discovered a perfect, fruity red wine as a present for the cousins and Don Hugo!
Luján de Cuyo is the oldest wine region of Mendoza. Located 25 minutes south of Mendoza City off of Ruta 40 (the main highway that crosses all of Argentina), this region has an old-town feel with adobe houses surrounded by beautiful flower gardens (and often private vineyards). Giant poplar trees line the roads and provide a respite from the strong sun, and the majestic Andes mountains provide a beautiful backdrop. With the help of our taxi driver/tour guide/wine expert, we spent two days in Luján de Cuyo, sipped excellent wine from a diverse array of bodegas, met fellow wine lovers, and enjoyed one of the best lunches (complete with perfect wine pairings) we have ever had in our lives. Some words of wisdom: Always eat a big breakfast before a day of wine tasting!
- Norton is the oldest winery in the area. Norton was founded by an Englighman (Mr. Edmund Norton), who came to Mendoza in 1895 to work on the railroad and fell in love with an Argentinian woman. As a wedding gift, his father-in-law gave him land, and Mr. Norton planted vines imported from France. We had always noticed their wines in the grocery store, so we decided to check out the winery. This was one of our least favorite wineries, though we enjoyed tasting the wine through the different stages of production.
- Finca Decero. We were unable to make a reservation with this bodega ahead of time; however, our taxi driver/tour guide/wine expert came to the rescue. Noticing that his friend was driving the taxi in front of us, he convinced his friend to tell the guard at Finca Decero that we were part of the same group. Finca Decero specializes in single vineyard wines, meaning that all the grapes come from one specific plot of land, thereby producing a wine that better represents the terroir (land and microclimate) of the winery’s land. This is in contrast to Trapiche, a large winery, that buys grapes from over a hundred different wine producers from different wine regions. Finca Decero was the first place we tasted a wine made from 100% Petit Verdot, a grape often used in blends that imparts an ink-like color and bold taste.
- Ruca Malen = Heaven for our taste buds. Chef Lucas Bustos serves delicious meals interpreted from recipes he says he obtained from “little old country ladies” who were famous for their cooking.
Second Course: Countryside chorizo on slices of grape skin toast, sprinkled with Criolla sauce and quinoa. The fresh fruit of the Yanquén Malbec-Cabernet Savignon 2010 contrasted nicely with the fattiness of the chorizo. The acidity of the wine helps to clean the palate.
Third Course: Beetroot confit with honey and cinnamon, burned goat cheese, and a spicy arugula oil. This course brings out the complexity of the Ruca Malen Syrah 2008. The goat cheese highlights the lactic notes of the wine, and the arugula infusion brings out the herbal freshness of the Syrah.
Fourth Course: Grilled beef tenderloin medallion with baked potatoes (boiled, fried, then baked), baked onions, olives, raisins, and Arauco olive oil scented with lavender from the garden. This course was paired with two wines: Ruca Malen Malbec 2010 and Kinien Malbec 2008. The first wine, with its softer tannins and fresh fruit, paired nicely with the meat, while the second wine highlighted the olives and raisins in the dish.
- Carmelo Patti is a charismatic, old-school Italian winemaker. His small winery was anything but fancy, and he does very little advertising or exporting of his small supply (50,000 bottles/year). Still, his 2007 Malbec won best Malbec of the year in Argentina (we snatched up a bottle), and people flock to his winery for the chance to try excellent wine directly from the passionate winemaker himself.
Argentina earned its independence from Spain on July 9, 1816 (9 years before Bolivia, though each nation began fighting for independence around 1809). In territory, Argentina is approximately 30% the size of the USA. The east boasts the Atlantic coastline and fertile farmlands (the best grass-fed cattle); Patagonia to the south is home to wild game and stunning scenery; along the northern border of Peru, some of the few remaining native Indians reside; and Mendoza rounds out the western border with desert-like climate and arid land: the perfect recipe for growing fine wines.
Between 1856 and 1932, a wave of European migration crashed onto the shores of the “New World,” with the vast majority of immigrants landing in the USA, fewer to South America, and fewer still to Canada. By 1914, 50% of the population of Buenos Aires was foreign-born. Italians, frequently of an agricultural background, often struggled in North America, arriving decades after other western European immigrants. However, in Argentina, this was not the case; here, Italians could proudly express their backgrounds, culture, and agricultural knowledge. Today, 60% of Argentines identify themselves as Italian descent. In Mendoza, the fusion of these two cultures is readily seen: through pastas, cured meats, specialty olive oils, a love of wine, vibrant hospitality, and a dreamy outlook on life. That’s why it is often said, “Argentines have their feet planted in the Old World but their heads in the clouds; they’re always dreaming up new things.”
Mendoza, “la tierra del sol y vino” (land of sun and wine), is located on the westernmost border of Argentina. From Santiago, Mendoza can be reached by a 30-minute flight or a 6-hour bus ride through the Andes mountains, which create a natural boundary between the neighboring countries.
“If ever there were a heaven for winemaking, Mendoza is it, with an enviable terroir (as the French call the environmental attributes of a place) of low-fertility soils, cool mountain nights, sunny days, and low-humidity. In Mendoza, the nearby Andes Mountains function as a shelter from the Pacific rains and generate a microclimate of cool nights and the intense sunlight that comes with extreme high altitude – Mendoza is the only important wine region in the world with vineyards above three thousand feet in elevation. The well-drained alluvial soils – filled with rocks, pebbles, sand, lime, and clay – were formed millions of years ago by rivers and glaciers. Planting in these soils, which are less fertile than most, leads to naturally low yeilds of ripe and concentrated grapes – the secret to intense and age-worthy wines.” – Laura Catena
Yet, even with this heavenly terroir, wine production in Mendoza would not be possible if it were not for the ever crafty Incas. The Incan empire, with its capital in Cuzco, Peru, is thought to have reached what is now Mendoza in the later 15th century. As elsewhere, the Incans trained the locals (Huarpe Indians, in this case) to develop an irrigation system. This system manipulates the fresh, mountain water flowing from the year-long snowcapped Andean mountains to the west, thereby providing the province of Mendoza (the city and the surrounding wine regions) with water rations in this desert. Remnants of these canals still line the streets of downtown Mendoza.
Likewise, the Spanish priests are to be thanked for the initiation of wine production in Argentina. During the Spanish colonial times, Catholic priests arrived to convert the local Indians and planted grapes in order to make sacramental wine. Of course, now much more than just sacramental wine is being produced.
Unlike other “New World” wine regions, Argentina both produces and consumes a great percentage of the world’s wine. Still, much of the high-quality wine is exported. Argetina currently exports about 35% to the United States alone. Some wineries, such as Achaval Ferrer, export 85% of their wine, mostly to the U.S. (lucky for us!).
Needless to say, we arrived ready to respect Mendoza’s decorated history, Incan-irrigated wineries, the Spanish Catholic priests of old, and the strong Italian heritage by gulping down as much fermented grape juice as our livers can handle! Our base, a cute apartment complex that we found on VRBO, called Modigliani Art Suites, is located in the heart of downtown Mendoza. The architecture and design fuse a warehouse-like exterior with a modern, simplistic interior. The staff are exceptionally nice and helpful (Caro asked for and received a hair dryer and hair straightener, and found a woman to wash our stinky clothes!).
For further reading, we suggest Vino Argentino by Laura Catena of Catena Zapata.