Travel, Etc. --> A Visit to Argentina
A Visit to Chile and Argentina
Part II: Argentina
A Visit to Chile and Argentina Part II: Argentina The trip from Santiago to Medoza is a short, but spectacular, flight over some of the highest mountains in the world. Only 30 minutes in the air separates the two sides of the Andes that could not be more different. Arriving at Mendoza's single-gate airport, it immediately lets you know that you are in rural Argentina after Santiago's big-city bustle.
While Chile's growing regions surround Santiago, Argentina's wine country is over 1,000 kilometers west of Buenos Aires set against the foothills of the Andes. Chile's verdant central valley and cooler coastal growing regions stand in sharp contrast to Argentina's arid high desserts. Nothing grows here without irrigation and the scenery looks a lot more like New Mexico than California.
Argentina is the fifth-largest wine producing country in the world and until the 1990s they consumed 90 percent of their own production. Basically, they produced a lot of very cheap wine and drank it themselves. Like in Chile, their industry was transformed over the last 20 years with investment and modern winemaking technology flowing in from Europe and the United States. Today, over 30 percent of Argentina's wine production goes for export, over 18 million cases. United States' imports of Argentinean wines have grown by 520 percent just since 2002! And red wine is king in Mendoza, with the Bordeaux varietals well represented – but especially Malbec, a grape that the French always had trouble getting ripe, that has flourished in this arid climate.
We were the guests of Doña Paula Winery, a fast growing winery founded in 1997 and owned by the Claro Group that also owns Santa Rita, Carmen and Terra Andina in Chile. In fact, their executive winemaker, Stefano Gandolini, is the man responsible for the Terra Andina Cabernet that we have sold more than 400 cases of. They produce about 250,000 cases of wines a year under the Doña Paula and Los Cardos labels. You may have tried their Doña Paula Malbec or Malbec Shiraz blend, both of which received 90 Point Scores from Wine Advocate and sell for an amazing $13.99!
We began our visit with a wine tasting and lunch in a lovely gazebo surrounded by vineyards. That was our first introduction to Asado... grilled meat, and lots of it, cooked using open fires. Short ribs, pork ribs, sausages, rib eye...they cooked it all... and served it with Malbec. That's when you really understand Malbec. I concluded that there may be no better food pairing in the world. The meats are simply salted and cooked indirectly with wood fires, and the empanadas (see last week's recipe) are cooked in wood-fired adobe ovens, not unlike a wood burning pizza oven.
We continued our Asado education back in Mendoza that evening at the Francis Mallman 1884 Restaurant located in the historic Bodega Escorihuela winery, founded in 1884. Whatever you wanted – steak, ribs, lamb, baby goat – they had some serious flames to cook it with in an open air kitchen located in the courtyard. It's a very elegant restaurant, designed by Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallman to showcase traditional Argentinean cuisine... which he did admirably... all served with more Malbec and Malbec blends. If you ever happen to be in the neighborhood, it's certainly worth a visit.
We spent that afternoon touring the enormous, ultra-modern winery and the over 1,000 acres of vineyards that surround it. And, as you know, I've toured a lot of wineries and looked at a lot of stainless steel tanks, but this time I got to try something new.
They were in the middle of crush and they had tanks full of unfermented Sauvignon Blanc, and we got to taste it. Sweet as syrup and without a trace of any typical varietal characteristics, I could never have identified what grape I was tasting. Then we visited a Malbec vineyard that had not yet been picked... and I finally understand phenolic ripeness. There I tasted tiny grapes, sweeter than any grape you have ever tasted with seeds that have turned brown and are no longer bitter. Now I understand why I see winemakers constantly tasting grapes any time they are in the vineyard.
Like Chile, I think that the thing that impressed me most about Argentina is not where they are, but where they are headed. Wine tourism is just beginning, but they are still not ready for drop-in visits. Wine Guy Jim Bandy made a wine trip to Argentina back in 2006. But he did plenty of advance planning and made appointments and had a great time. It's coming, though, and even more exciting are the daring new vineyard sites and grape varietals being planted. Doña Paula is growing Tannat, the obscure grape of Madrian in Gascony in Southern France. Later this year, I am hoping to get enough of their Malbec Tannat blend to use as a wine club selection. They are also producing Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo along with the other usual Bordeaux varietals.
Most exciting was their new high-altitude vineyard, Finca Alluvia, 334 newly-planted acres at 4,350 feet, in the foothills of the Andes. The site is a dry riverbed, hence the name reference to its Alluvial soil...that is, if you can call it soil! It is so rocky that they have nicknamed it Châteauneuf du Malbec, because the terrain is so like the Rhône river valley in France. It really is hard to believe that anything could grow in the sandy, rock filled soil, so calcareous that the rocks have all turned white with calcium deposits. They have even planted Malbec bushes in this vineyard, head-pruned single vines that will eventually stand alone... a low-yield technique that should produce some world-class fruit... in maybe ten years. The Argentineans are in this for the long haul with a massive commitment to quality. And it's not just Doña Paula – look at Michel Rolland's Clos de Los Siete project, or Catena, BenMarco or a hundred others. The rest of the wine world needs to be ready...there is some serious competition on the way.
April 22, 2009