I recently toured Mendoza, Argentina, with a few additional days in the southern metropolis of Buenos Aires. I was part of an “Experience Argentina” press trip focused on the foods of that country and the wines of Bodega Catena Zapata, Escorihuela Gascon and Alamos Winery. So this was a wonderful opportunity for me to delve deeper into a unique and fascinating blend of culture, food, and wine.
Argentina seems most similar to Italy, with the 35 percent of the population of Italian descent comprising one of the largest expat communities in the world. Most of the natives I’ve met use their hands as word substitutes, and here food and wine are major passions, subject to deadly serious conversation even between strangers.
The Mendoza region, the most famous wine area in Argentina, is a broad, flat, high-elevation plain at the edge of a desert. There is very little rain. A breathtaking terroir, it nestles against the eastern flanks of the rugged Andes Mountains, far inland. But the feel is actually quite Mediterranean, perhaps due in part to the large Italian influence previously discussed. I took to calling Mendoza the land of blends and ditches due to an extreme emphasis on combining wine lots to prod quality and the drains that run along almost every street to protect the residents from periodic floods.
The Malbec grape has long been king, but in addition to vines there are also loads of olive trees. Some are hundreds of years old, gnarled behemoths standing in mute testimony to the continent’s long period of contact with its European brother. In terms of winemaking, Europe’s influence on language and culture also makes for a fascinating mixture of Old and New World.
After a long series of flights from Denver through Atlanta and Santiago, the Mendoza portion of my visit began with a quick freshening at the Park Hyatt Hotel and Casino which was followed by a private guided tour of Mendoza. We visited several well-designed open spaces in the city including San Martin Park, named after the mid-19th century revolutionary regarded as one of the fathers of modern South America.
At a Francesco Ristorante dinner that night I had my first taste of the Escorihuela Gascon Extra Brut, a golden yellow, non-vintage bubbly that is unfortunately not distributed in the U.S. Loads of prickly pear on the nose led to smoke, ash, and flint on the moderately acidic finish. I also enjoyed the Gascon Colosal Red Blend, a high-intensity, red-black mélange of red licorice and cola smells and black cherry and red flower tastes. Very beguiling and a great start to the tour.
The next day began at Laur Olive Oil Company, where we tried several extra virgin blends. My favorite was the Cruz de Piedra, with a deep yellow color, green pea and ash nose, and green apple finish. This is distributed in some U.S. areas in bulk but is not widely sold as a branded product. If you can find it, you should definitely take a bottle home.
The afternoon was occupied by a visit to Bodegas Escorihuela Gascon. First we toured the winery’s Agrelo Vineyard with winemaker Ernesto Bajda (nicknamed Nesty) and his crew. We then had an empanada lesson (the national dish of Argentina) and watched a short match of polo (the second-most popular sport after soccer). At lunch beside the polo pitch I enjoyed Escorihuela Gascon’s Malbec Reserva, part of a vertical from 2008 through 2011. This showed black-purple at first, with basil and milk chocolate elements that shot through the nose and landed on the tongue along with black pepper, black plum, and violet.
That evening we toured, listened to live tango music while watching professional dancers, and dined at Bodega Catena Zapata with winery co-owner Laura Catena. It was a beautiful meal prepared by resident chef Lucas Bustos (who also owns his own restaurant in the nearby town of Tupungato). Laura splits her time between Argentina and San Francisco, where she is an emergency room physician. She is an extraordinarily accomplished woman who also mesmerized me with her encyclopedic wine knowledge.
It was a wonderful evening and Catena’s Adrianna Chardonnay White Bones was one of the best white wines I’d tried in a while. It looked like bottled sunshine, smelled of papaya and tasted of yellow grapefruit and fresh pineapple. Another winner was the winery’s flagship red, the Nicolas Catena Zapata (in this case the 2008 vintage). Absolutely black-red, this behemoth nosed chalky dark chocolate and black cherry. On the tongue it was all blackberry, mocha, and lavender. It finished strong and long, marking one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Tuesday dawned with a tour of the Uco Valley, about 90 minutes away from downtown Mendoza. We stopped at the Altamira Vineyard for a quick visit and then headed to Alamos Winery for a tasting. There the Alamos Torrontes showed very well. Its hay-yellow color, white flower and soda ash nose, and green papaya and quince taste were a distillation of the best this enigmatic white grape can offer. Alamos’s Cabernet Sauvignon was also a revelation. Purple-red and smelling of graphite, blueberry, and red currant, this raisin, cola, and granite beauty will age much better than its price tag would indicate.
After a locals-only lunch at La Juntada Pulperia we headed back to the city of Mendoza. That evening we toured Bodegas Escorhuela, another of the company’s wineries, this time in the city proper. There Nesty offered up his Escorihuela Gascon Rosé Extra Brut. Salmon-pink with aromas of meat jus and pink cherry, this also contained flavors of red strawberry and pink peppercorn on a moderately bright but long finish. We finished this very fine day with dinner at the winery’s own Restaurant 1884, a must-stop for any serious foodie.
On Wednesday we toured the Adrianna Vineyard in Tupungato and participated in harvest with the viticultural team and winemaker Felipe Stahlschmidt. A culinary class with Chef Lucas at La Tupina Bistro preceded a visit to the Ayllu Handmade Craft Market in Chacras De Coria, where I managed to purchase gifts for all of my nieces and nephews. That chore accomplished, I was ready for that night’s traditional Argentine Asado (barbecue) at the home of Ernesto Catena, brother to the previously mentioned Laura and an artist and fanatical polo player. The Tikal Malbec (named for Ernesto’s son) was my favorite wine that evening, purple-black in hue and smelling of black raspberry and blueberry. The tongue featured black raspberry again, along with smoke and cured pork.
The next day we returned to Mendoza Airport and boarded a flight for Buenos Aires, a city I had never before visited. I was ready to be wowed — this is after all a place with more than 20,000,000 inhabitants (half of Argentina’s population). The city’s energy was palpable in the same way as that of New York or London. We checked into the Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt and then headed off for lunch at Tarquino Nueva Cocina, a thoroughly modern take on traditional Argentine cuisine. There I grooved on the D. V. Catena Chardonnay, which is unfortunately not available outside of Argentina. Flax, grass and white pepper show first, followed by honey, green pear, and flint. The finish was high, long and thoroughly delightful. Another revelation was the Gascon Sangiovese, also not widely available. Tinted ruby-blue, this wine nosed blackberry and black pepper while tasting of lavender and black plum.
We then hopped on our bus and toured the sights of Buenos Aires, including the Opera House, the Tortoni Café, and a private tour of the Malba Museum. Dinner that night was at Casa Cruz, where I very much liked the Angelica Zapata Chardonnay, a hay-hued delight with flax and apricot highlights followed by pineapple and mango on a moderately weighted finish.
Friday, the final day of the trip, began with a private tour of La Recoleta Cemetary and then an Argentine pastry overview and class with the Park Hyatt’s Executive Chef Maximo Lopez. Lunch at Cabanas Las Lilas was the final event and where I fell in love with the Miguel Escorihuela Gascon President’s Blend. Vibrantly purple even after eight years in bottle, this beauty smelled of blackberries, mocha, and black tea while tasting of milk chocolate, cola, and red raspberry. The extraordinarily long finish helped propel this wine into one of the top spots on the tour.
Experience Argentina was a wonderful event and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have participated. I learned a lot about Mendoza wine and Buenos Aires culture and I hope to return with a Wine on The Road tour in early 2014. If you are interested in coming with me please email email@example.com. Thanks to everyone who made my visit possible. Hasta pronto (see you soon), I hope.
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Planned excursions include Italy’s Piedmont during the annual white truffle festival next November (currently available at www.wineontheroad.com/piedmontunfiltered.php) and a luxury tour of the Napa Valley in October, 2013 (www.wineontheroad.com/napaunfiltered.php). You can also book private groups in wine country world-wide or request more information on any of these tours by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Escorihuela Gascon Extra Brut NV (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Escorihuela Gascon Rosé Extra Brut NV (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Adrianna Chardonnay White Bones 2009 (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Alamos Torrontes 2012 (Mendoza, Argentina) $10
D. V. Catena Chardonnay 2011 (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Angelica Zapata Chardonnay 2010 (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Gascon Colosal Red Blend 2011 (Mendoza, Argentina) $13
Escorihuela Gascon Malbec Reserva 2010 (Mendoza, Argentina) $19
Nicolas Catena Zapata 2008 (Mendoza, Argentina) $95
Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Mendoza, Argentina) $9
Tikal Malbec 2011 (Mendoza, Argentina) $20
Gascon Sangiovese 2009 (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Miguel Escorihuela Gascon President’s Blend 2005 (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A
Laur Extra Virgin Olive Oil Cruz de Piedra (Mendoza, Argentina) $N/A/500mL