Our friends Beth and Chris were our first South American guests. We couldn’t persuade them to come to Peru so we met in Argentina and Chile for a wine adventure. All adventures need some mishaps and ours started with a pretty big one: as Beth and Chris sat on the tarmac in San Antonio, TX, for their flight to Dallas, they received a text that their flight from Dallas to Santiago was canceled and they would be flying out the next day. We were all disappointed to be losing an entire day of vacation together, so we started off strong when they finally arrived in Mendoza.
First stop after our lovely inn, Villa Mansa, was the tiny tasting room at the Carmelo Patti winery per the recommendation of our driver, Marcelo. Carmelo was holding court, surrounded by other tasters, but warmly welcome us despite our limited Spanish. The wines were delightful and we each bought a bottle of the 2004 Gran Assemblage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Who said Mendoza is just about Malbec? A perfect first stop now that our trip was up and running!
Marcelo and Barbara at Villa Mansa attempted to get us last minute lunch reservations at Zuccardi, a popular winery owned by the cousin of a woman Beth and Chris met on the plane, but were unsuccessful. After calling other wineries, they finally got us a reservation at Vistandes. When we pulled up, we were pleased with the choice as it had the beautiful views its name suggests and the outdoor patio was lovely. Unfortunately, our initial server was terrible, the food was awful, and about 10 minutes into the meal I fell ill (no, not due to wine consumption!). We rushed back to Villa Mansa where I was indisposed the rest of the day and evening. While Matt and friends offered to stay on site, there wasn’t much that could be done for me, so they headed to Mendoza for dinner that night.
The next day I was vastly improved when we were picked up at 9:00 by Ampora Wine Tours to start our day of wining in the Uco Valley. Our guide, Sabrina, was very knowledgable and friendly and the other 4 tourers - a Canadian, Brit, Swiss and Brazilian – were all pleasant company (no wine snobs, thank goodness). We learned that tasting wine early in the morning is best because your palate is at its freshest, so that became our excuse for drinking by 10 am each morning. First stop was the organic Bodega Domaine Bousquet.
We pulled ourselves away from the beautiful grounds and went to Bodega Gimenez Riili. This was our favorite stop of the day. Not only were the wines excellent, but the charming owner, Eduardo, gave our tour, complete with tank and barrel tastings. Our final tasting was on the beautiful patio and complete with cheeses, quince, bodega-made chocolate and fresh empanadas brought out by Eduardo’s wife. We could have sat there all afternoon in utter bliss and our only disappointment was that we couldn’t buy the chocolate to go with our wine.
Our final stop was lunch at Bodega O. Fournier. We were late, so we caught the very end of the tour, which was fine as we had already heard the wine making spiel twice that day. The medieval barrel room was over the top and Matt spent the rest of the day humming the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme. Lunch was in a beautiful restaurant, with average food (I stand by my prior statement that Argentine beef is not impressive www.http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/02/14/bread-glorious-bread/) and nice wines, but the experience had a definite assembly line feel as we saw other tables from other tour companies throughout the room and the meal wasn’t as amazing as the setting. Except for the dessert, which was incredible and included a spun caramel confection, or as we preferred to call it, bird’s nest. Matt had to restrain himself from picking off the plates of our fellow diners who didn’t eat theirs. In addition, our wine glasses were readily refilled so that was a plus!
Beth and Chris were accumulating wine to ship at a brisk pace, so we headed to Mendoza after our tour to drop off their loot at Ampora. We wandered about the vendor stalls at Plaza Independencia, which felt very similar to wandering around any outdoor market in any country. Some things are apparently universal. We continued to walk around aimlessly, found another similar but smaller market, and ended up eating at Anna Bistró, where the other three had eaten the prior night because nothing else in the neighborhood was open so early (it was only 7:30). It was very cute, with a nice patio, attentive service from a cute waiter and decent food. My cosmopolitan was terrible (we were all off wine by that point) but as I didn’t need more alcohol, I didn’t mind not drinking it.
Our next day was much like the prior one – Ampora tours picked us up at 9:00 and we were wine tasting by 10 am. Jorge was our guide and the four of us were the only guests, which made for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere. We visited the Luján de Cuyo region and started at Bodega Lagarde, which is right on a busy street in Luján de Cuyo with its vineyards behind it. They offer a pure Cabernet Franc, the first we had tasted on our tours, which both Matt and Chris loved. They also produce sparkling wines, which is a bit unique in the area, so we saw the racks where they hand turn the bottles during riddling – the process of getting the sediment to consolidate in the neck of the bottle for removal prior to final corking.
One thing that amazed us on all of the tours is the manual labor involved in producing the wines – the grapes are harvested by hand, sorted by women (always women, we were informed repeatedly, due to their nimble fingers and attention to detail) at a long table, and, at some wineries, the stems and leaves removed by hand as well. Then, add on the time it takes to make good wine – several months in the casks and time in the bottle as well, and it is amazing that one can buy a decent bottle of wine for $10-$15!
Our next stop was Pulenta Estate, and apart from my notes that indicate we really loved these wines, the only other thing I remember is that the owner is a car aficionado and imports Porsches to Argentina. The winery had an area with some very cool engines and pictures of various cars. Maybe when we drink this bottle some additional memories will return!
After Pulenta we went to Bodega Caelum, a small, family business owned by a woman and run by her son and daughter. The family had produced grapes for other wineries for 10 years prior to opening their own winery in 2009. The son, Hernán, conducted our tour and his pride in his family’s business was evident and endearing. The family took a lot of time in deciding the name and label and settled on Caelum, a small constellation in the southern hemisphere that depicts a sculptor’s chisel. The tour had a personal feel and Hernán even showed us how to hand-label a bottle and mentioned that on occasion he and his sister pitch in to do so if they need to get a shipment out. The wines were good, including a Malbec dessert wine that we hadn’t seen at the other wineries. The family also grows amazing pistachios, which we eagerly bought (although we ended up leaving a half of a bag behind in Mendoza as we knew they would be confiscated when we returned to Chile).
Our final stop of the tour was a gourmet lunch with wine pairings at Osadia de Crear at the Dominio del Plata winery. The meal was excellent, even the ribeye was decent, and we agreed it was our best meal in Mendoza, and that wasn’t because it was about 3:00 and we were in desperate need of food! The experience felt more personal than that at Bodega O. Fournier and the food was definitely better.
After the tour we returned to Ampora so Beth and Chris could ship their two cases of wine back to the US. Matt and I were jealous – due to the difficulty we have had in getting packages delivered to Cajamarca, we limited ourselves to the wine that I could pack in our suitcases (I have become a master at this practice due to the booze runs we make in Lima), which ultimately were 5 1/2 bottles – the half being the malbec dessert wine that Caelum cleverly advertises will fit in your shoe and it did in Matt’s size 12! The irony is that upon their return to the US, Beth and Chris determined that they can buy most of the wines they shipped in the US for only slightly more expensive prices while Matt and I cannot find any of the wines in Cajamarca.
Mendoza was just the start of our tour – next up, the Colchagua Valley, Chile.