Day 1 - Fly from Buenos Aires to Mendoza in time for the tasting lunch at Bodega Ruca Malen
Day 2 - Visit wineries in the Valle de Uco about 100km south of Mendoza
Days 3 and 4 - Visit wineries in the Lujan de Cuyo region
Mendoza is Malbec! Malbec is one of the four grape varieties used in a Bordeaux blend where it is a minor component. It is known for its dark inky colour and strong tannins. In Mendoza it comes into its own. The tannins are tamed and it is full of fruit; some refined and some of the fruit-bomb type.
We did the wine tasting here differently to the way we approach it everywhere else. We hired an English-speaking tour guide from a tour company (www.pulptravel.com) who also arranged our visits to the wineries. Most places require you to book; there seems to be very little ability to simply arrive and taste. The booking invariably involves a tour which, after the second or third one, becomes somewhat tedious. The prerequisite to book seems to be related to security. One cannot simply drive up to wineries or even hotels and restaurants without going through security. There are burglar bars everywhere.
We did meet up with a pair of 30-something women who had had their wine visits booked by an agent and were getting around in a hired car without too much difficulty even though they spoke no Spanish. Outside a small number of people at each winery and the tour guides, there is very little English understanding which is quite a challenge.
Almost all tastings have to be paid for - about $60 to taste 3 wines. (All prices are in Argentinian pesos which, at the time of writing, was about $6.5 to £1.) Some estates provide a discount on any wine you purchase. The benefit of being charged for tasting is that one does not feel obliged to buy.
Another difference is that they do not mention the vintage as they say that all vintages are the same, perfect, because they use drip irrigation. This is disingenuous as even if the difference is only frost or hail it changes the yield and hence the concentration. Many vineyards talk about aging the wine for 5 to 10 years and sometimes even longer, so the vintage does matter.
We had lunch at wineries where we, of course, drank the wine. Most of these lunches started at 2pm and finished at 4 pm; very enjoyable, but wiped out any wine tasting in the afternoon and, more regrettably, wiped out dinner as we were so full and had drunk more than enough for the day. The wineries only serve their own wine, even those that put themselves out as a restaurant first and foremost; not necessarily a good idea.
On one day we avoided a winery lunch and instead had empanadas (a bit like a small Cornish pasty) and coke at a place frequented by tour vehicle drivers. The house was built in 1910 of adobe and reed ceilings, had walls 350mm wide and was naturally cool.
The empanada store / house
The dining area
One evening we went to the Cavas Wine Lodge for sundowners. (Costa Flores, Alto Agrelo, +54 261 410 6927 www.cavaswinelodge.com). This is a Relais et Chateau hotel set in the middle of a vineyard and well worth the visit (and probably to stay except it is somewhat remote).
Sunset over the Andes from Cavas Wine Lodge
La Terrada Suites, Calle Terrada 1668, Perdriel, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza www.terradasuites.com
A comfortable B&B close to the vineyards.
If you want an interesting (and good) boutique hotel in Buenos Aires try the Hotel Babel, Balcarce 946, 5 minutes walk from the San Telmo market.
Lujan de Cuyo region
The Andes from Lujan de Cuyo
Ruta nacional 7, km 1059, Agrelo, Mendoza +54 261 562 8357 www.bodegarucamalen.com
We tasted their wines paired with a tasting menu. The write up about what to look for in the food and in the wine was excellent. It clearly demonstrated the concepts in halfwine’s notes about pairing food and wine The wines were Chardonnay 2010, Syrah 2007, Malbec 2008 and a Brut Method Champenoise sparkling wine from the Ruca Malén range; a Malbec 2009 from their cheaper Yauquén range; and a Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 from their premium Kinién range. Because of the way it was made, the chardonnay was fresh and lemony and had gentle new oak. It went well with the Quinoa salad with lemon zest and olive oil. The malbecs were highlighted for red fruit and soft tannins and paired with a humus dish and with chargrilled, medium-rare steak – both went well. The Syrah was paired with a red beet dish to show its sweet and mineral side. The cab was also paired with the steak but to offset the vegetables baked in butter. The sparkler was paired with an apple and walnut cake with an orange zest-based sauce to balance its acidity with the sweetness of the desert. All in all a great experience and we were happy we weren’t driving, for a change. We bought the Ruca Malén Malbec 2008 ($55).
Alzaga 3972, Lujan de Cuyo. +54 261 496 4684 www.altavistawines.com
An interesting wine tour as it was in an old traditional winery and for some of their wines they used concrete vats for fermentation. We tasted their Torrontes ($50), their premium range Bonarda ($50) and Malbec ($50), the Terroir Selection Malbec ($100). The Torrentes is a local Argentinian grape that produces a fresh, summer-drinking white wine. This was one of the best we tasted. The Bonarda is an Italian grape grown by quite a few vineyards. It was reminiscent of a Sangiovese. The premium Malbec was fruity with soft tannins – great value for money. The Terrior Selection Malbec was well structured with good fruit and more noticeable fruit and wood tannins. We bought this wine.
Mendel tasting room
Capping, labelling and packing
Terrada 1863, Mayor Drummond, +54 261 524 1621 www.mendel.com.ar
We met Anabelle Sielecki from Mendel on the plane up to Mendoza and, coincidently, had bought a bottle of their wine on recommendation from a wine shop in Buenos Aires. She was very helpful about wineries to visit, places to go to in Mendoza and in La Barra where we were going the next week for a week on the beach and places to eat. Thank you Anabelle! Needless to say we changed our itinerary to visit Mendel. We arrived at Mendel a bit early and met Cecilia, the Mendel tour guide. She suggested that we try a tank sample of their top of the range Malbec, Finca Remota ($350), before it was transferred to oak barrels for aging. It was delicious with very soft fruit tannins. The tour took in a walk into the vineyards to taste the Malbec grapes just before harvest. The berries were small with thick skins, the pips disproportionately large, and the fruit really tasty and sweet. It was the most charming tour that I have been on; informative and interesting. Mendel are an organic wine maker and do the minimum of filtration and fining (a process to remove very small particles that land up as sediment). For the tasting we compared the 08 ($90) and the 09 Malbec (not released) blind. We were told that it should be quite obvious as the young Malbec has a violet edge in the glass. As it ages it goes more purpley and eventually brick red. The taste was also different with the tannins rounding out a bit but still noticeable. An interesting twist to a normal tasting. We also tasted their Malbec / Cabernet blend (70/30), the Unus 09 ($160). The Cab added something to the wine. We bought the Malbec, the Unus and the Finca Remota.
Viña Alicia bottling
Viña Alicia pigeage
Terrada y Anchorens , Mayor Drummond, +54 261 498 7385 www.vinaalicia.com
The people from Mendel recommended that we visit Viña Alicia because they made wine in the same style. Unfortunately the travel company messed up the arrangements but the winemaker Rodrigo Arizu very kindly gave me a tasting of his Malbec. The tasting room was above the winery where they were in the process of bottling wine and in punching down the cap of grape skins (pigeage in French) during maceration of red wine in the tanks. The Malbec ($120) came from 150 year old vines and was unfiltered and unfined. The concentration of the taste was unbelievable, lovely fruit and a balance of fruit and wood tannins; made for putting down for 5 to 10 years. The Brote Negro Malbec 07 ($320) was named after the vines from which the grapes came. They are unusual because the new shoots are black – hence the name. On the strength of the basic Malbec we bought both.
Viña Cobos winery
Viña Cobos tasting room
Costa Flores s/n y Ruta National no 7 +54 261 479 0130 www.vinacobos.com
Vina Cobos is a joint venture between an Argentinian and an American. Whilst the winery is nowhere near as fancy as some, the prices of its wines are astronomical. The wine tasting of 4 Malbecs alone cost $260. The entry range Felino 09 ($65) was not typical of other Malbecs we tasted; it was spicy and had tannins that one had to hunt for. The Bramare range started with grapes from the Uco valley. The 08 Uco ($129) had soft fruits but a nose reminiscent of port. The single vineyard wines that I tasted were the Rebon 08 ($249) and the Marchiori 07 ($319). The Rebon had intense fruits, almost like a reduced sauce. The Marchiori had a broad range of tastes and more noticeable tannins. One had to swallow both wines to appreciate the difference. When the wines were first poured the difference was not detectable but after 20 minutes or so as the wines opened up the difference was marked. We could not decide which we preferred – the one that had just been tasted seemed the best. The premium Cobos ($795) was out of stock so they reduced the price of the tasting. We also tasted 2 Cabernet Sauvignons from the Bramare range, the area Lujon 08 ($129) and the single vineyard Marchiori 08 ($249). They somehow did not taste like cabs to us. Despite the offer of a 30% discount on any wine purchases we passed.
Kaiken tasting room
Traditional trellis vines at Kaiken
Roque Saenz Pena 5516, Lujan de Cuyo +54 261 524 3060 www.kaikenwines.com
This producer was not on our original list. It was added by the tour operator, primarily it would appear because one of the sisters was a tour guide here. Kaiken was set up by a Chilean wine producer. The Reserva Malbec was soft and fruity and good value for money. The Ultra Malbec was made primarily from grapes sourced from the Uco Valley and tasted as though it was made from young vines, a bit thin and light. It had good fruit and soft tannins. We decided not to buy.
Catena Zapata winery
Vines netted against hail not birds
J. Cobos s/n, Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo +54 261 413 1100 www.catenawines.com
The Mayan temple-like winery rises out of a forest of vines as you approach. The winery tour starts with a shortish publicity video about the family history and the awards that their wines have won. Their ego is omnipresent throughout the tour. These guys certainly compete with the foreign vineyard owners. We tasted the DV Catena range which is their mid-priced range. The Chardonnay 07 ($60) was unoaked. It had the straw colour of age but no age taste. It was crisp and certainly needed food. We thought that it wasn’t really like a chardonnay at all. The Malbec 08 was floral with bags of tannin and also needed food. The ‘Malbec Malbec’ 06 had good fruit but the tannins were still strong. It needs lots more age before it is ready. The ‘Cabernet Cabernet’ Cabernet Sauvignon 04 was a great cab. It had aged well and was brown on the edges in the glass. We bought 3 Malbecs – the Saint Felicien 08 ($55), the ‘Malbec Malbec’ 06 ($85) and the Angelica Zapata ($180) to do our own taste comparison. The Saint Felicien had good fruit and tannins and was one of the best value for money Malbecs that we tasted. The Angelica Zapata was in a different class; concentrated fruits and strong but not harsh tannins to ensure long bottle aging. All in all, well made wines at a fair price. Could have won our vote for the ‘best’ wines but for the fact that we prefer wines with more body, that is, less filtered and fined.
Cochabamba 7725, Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo +54 261 524 9161 www.bressiabodega.com
Walter Bressia built his reputation as a winemaker for a variety of vineyards before starting his own operation. His family are all involved in the operation; his daughter conducted the wine tasting. We tasted the Malbec and the Cabernet Sauvignon from his Monteagrelo range. The wines are not filtered or fined and taste like it; there is a body to the wine, almost as though you could chew on it. This is our kind of wine! The Malbec 08 had fruit and oak tannins in balance, both soft, and there were plenty of dark fruit flavours but it was not a fruit bomb. The Cabernet 07 tasted like a cab, whilst most others that we tasted did not. We bought both at $110.
Andes reflected in Achaval Ferrer Cellar Door window
Calle Cobos 2601, Pedriel +54 261 488 1131 www.achaval-ferrer.com
We were lucky to arrive at Achaval Ferrer as the harvest was in full swing and to be shown around the winery to observe their process from the grapes being unloaded to the must being turned into wine. Refer to our notes on the wine making process for pictures and a description of this process. After the cellar tour we tasted their Malbec 08, a wine designed to be typical of what a Malbec should be ($110). It was fruity with soft tannins but still too young to drink. The Quinera 08 ($250) was a Bordeaux blend plus Malbec. This wine is blended at the grape stage whilst most blends are blended just before bottling. It was very fruity and the Bordeaux grapes dominated. The Bella Vista vineyard Malbec 08 was really good; full of fruit and the oak and grape tannins in harmony but at $540 pricey for what it was. The Altamira vineyard was also priced at $540, but in Buenos Aires we had an 02 in a restaurant that cost $643 and was superb – our expensive wine of the trip. Either the restaurant was very good value or the vineyard has really increased its prices remarkably in the last few years. We also tasted their Dolce ($150) made by raisinating red grapes in the sun to remove some of the water from the grapes. It tasted like raisins, not surprisingly, but had good acid so it swallowed dry. All in all their wines are far too expensive for what they are relative to what you pay for other wines of the world of similar quality.
Roque Saenz Pena, 3531, Vistalba www.carlospulentawines.com
The primary reason for the visit was the restaurant La Bourgogne. We had a fabulous meal and wines from the winery selected for each course. The wines were uniformly disappointing relative to the food.
Valle de Uco
Valle de Uco in the early morning
Vineyards in the Uco valley are upwards of 1000m above sea level. This is a new wine district with few vines older than 20 years. Most wineries are owned by people from outside Argentina who came with barrel loads of money, and the wineries show it – no expense spared.
Ruta provincial 89 11km south of Tupungato, +54 261 4299 299 www.andeluna.com
A great visitors’ centre designed to replicate a traditional winery with high roofs, eucalyptus beams and cane ceilings. And, of course views of the Andes to die for. We went on the cellar tour to see an impressive array of stainless steel tanks (capacity of 1 million litres; a medium sized winery they said) and barrel maturation cellar. They didn’t let us get down amongst the stuff and it was all a bit superficial. Back up in the visitors centre we tasted some of the bottom of the range wine ($35) which showed promise but when we asked to taste their Reserve Malbec ($69) were met with a stoney ‘we don’t have any open’; and this at the start of the day when they must have been expecting more visitors! We were on an arranged tour so we don’t know what the arrangement was, but if they wanted more money to taste additional wines they simply could have asked. We left forthwith without buying anything as befits that type of unfriendly attitude. Sad really, as their wines have won lots of awards.
Salentein winery with the Andes behind
Salentein barrel maturation cellar
Killka Winery, Ruta provincial 89 south of Tupungato, +54 2622 429500 www.bodegassalentein.com
Serious money went into this ultra-modern, very large winery. The art gallery is worth a visit to see local artists’ works and there are sculptures all over the place. The wine tour starts with a 20 minute video which is one of the best that we have seen; not a promotional video, informative and beautiful shots of the area in all seasons. We walked across quite an expanse with great views of the snow-capped Andes and the vineyards to get to the cellars. The cellars were pretty large; so large that they had split the fermentation tanks into 4 separate areas, each with their own manager and a separate area for the top of the range wines. The barrel maturation area is octagonal and vaguely reminiscent of the cellars at Laffite Rothschild in Bordeaux, but much bigger. And, the tasting rooms were equally impressive. No expense had been spared with the wines; we tasted the Reserve Chardonnay, the Primus Pinot Noir and the Numina Malbec / Merlot blend. The Chardonnay had new wood but very little else – it seemed thin. They are very proud of their Pinot; of the fact that they can produce it at all as a standalone wine rather than for a sparkling wine blend. We were underwhelmed. The blend seemed to be all oak tannins and fruit; in our opinion far too long in oak resulting in an unbalanced wine. The wines were expensive and struck us that they had had too much money thrown at them to the detriment of the wine. We heard later that the winemaker had been replaced.
Ruta provincial 89, right at the first roundabout south of Tupungato, www.altusdetupungato.com.ar
We were taken to Altus for their restaurant La Tupiña but thought that their wines were more to our liking than the other Valle de Uco wines that we tasted because they were less filtered and fined. The lunch started with half a dozen tapas representing local traditional foods – very good. The lunch was steak prepared in a traditional stew-like manner – interesting and a different way to eat meat. We had the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 08 which did not really taste like a cab but went well with the tapas. We had the Altus Merlot which we did not like but was probably the tail end of a bottle opened the previous day. They should have opened a new bottle but, being merlot when we were more after the Malbec which had been poured at the same time, we did not finish the glass and did not complain. The Gaultallary Malbec 07 was well-made and very much to our taste.
The white wine unique to Argentina is Torrontes which is mostly grown in Salta north of Mendoza. Some Mendoza wineries had Torrontes on offer but it was all made from grapes in Salta. The problem with Torrontes is that it is made in so many different styles. Whenever we wanted a white wine we bought Torrontes. The three we liked best were from Alta Vista, Dominio del Plata (called Crios) and Doña Paula (in Salta). What we found in common is that they had a very floral nose, tasted between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Grigio and had a distinct grapefruit flavour when they opened up. The last mentioned was the least exuberant, less of a fruit bomb.
On a somewhat different note we finally found a sweet wine that would stand up to the dulce de leche desserts so loved in this part of the world (and by us) - Cosecha Tardia 2008 Botrytis Noble (www.juanico.com), a white wine made in Uruguay. Uruguay is better known for red wines made from Tannat grapes. We tasted quite a few and concluded they are worth exploring but should not be drunk without steak.