Nestled at the foot of the Andes, Mendoza rests in a dry arid desert. In pre-Colombian times the indigenous inhabitants devised a sophisticated irrigation system designed to control the massive runoff from the Andes. This ancient irrigation system is still used today and is responsible for irrigating the acres and acres of vineyards used to produce the great Argentinean wines. While the vineyards certainly appeal to my palate, it’s the trees in Mendoza that really strike me most. You see Mendoza sits in a desert. The 100+ degree weather an beating sun on the road into this city is hardly noticed on the cities streets, strolling through the shaded plazas or walking the ultra-wide peotanals (pedestrian walkways). Were it not for the irrigation, nothing would grow here.
While the irrigation system is centuries old, Argentina didn’t always produce great wine. In fact, Argentina’s booming wine business didn’t get its offical start until the early 90’s. Prior to that practically 100 percent of the countries wine was produced solely for domestic consumption. And the wine produced wasn’t very good. But as beer became more popular in Argentina and wine consumption per capita dropped, bodega’s searched for other markets. To compete the quality of the wine had to improve. Let by perhaps Angelo Catena, who I like to perhaps unfairly refer to as the Ambassador of Argentinean wine, akin to Robert Mondavi’s role in the 80’s in California, today Argentina’s wines are known and appreciated worldwide.
No other wine epitomizes Argentina and Mendoza as does Malbec. Call it a stroke of luck or just great marketing differentiation, but Malbec favors the higher elevation and immensely hot days and cooler nights that characterize the three primary wine regions in and around Mendoza:
1) Godoy Cruz – closest to the Mendoza’s city center it features some of Mendoza’s history as a winemaking region. Here good Malbec’s and Cabernet Sauvignon are produced. But perhaps even better, this region also houses some of the finest restaurants in the region — and in Argentina.
2) Lujan de Cuyo – Sitting between 2500 3500 feet the sandy soil and high elevation is ideal for fruity Malbec’s and other Bordeaux varietals
3) Maipú – In the central valley Maipú is home to some of Mendoza’s oldest vines — perfect for those extracted and complex Malbecs winning awards worldwide
4) Valle de Uco – the newest and perhaps most promising wine region in Argentina the cold, dry winters and high altitudes between 3,200 and 4,200 feet combined with scorching summer thermal conditions provides winemakers with conditions conducisve to many varietals and therefore providing classic Bordeaux blends and new world creative melanges. It sits below the Andes nearly in the shadow of Mount Tupungato which towers more than 22,000 feet above the vineyards making this setting the most scenic of all the area’s regions – plus making perhaps its best wine
I didn’t have much time to explore all these regions, but a day visiting Bodega’s and one night in one of Godoy Cruz’s resteraunts provided a great taste of Mendoza which teased me to want to return very soon.
Perhaps a bit ostentatious and out of place, Angelo’s Catena’s Catena Zapata is constructed as a Mayan pyramid. Though I couldn’t help thinking why as the Mayan’s never set a foot in South America — at least to the best of my knowledge. But a small Mayan pyramid graces the bottles of this fine Bodega while the winery monopolizes its part of the Lujan de Cuyo. The tour was short and sweet and I opted to tatse the premium Malbec’s of which the Angelica Zapata Malbec shines. Sadly, this wine is not exported anywhere. I was inclined to stash a bottle in my panniers, but then again, Doc is on a serious weight reduction diet.
At Bodega Tapiz I was treated to a horse carriage ride through vineydards that until about five or six years ago were owned by Jess Jackson and his Kendall-Jackson wine group. But Argentina’s financial crisis in 2000 and more attention needed on aquisitions domestically forced him to sell. While we rode the carriage through the vineyard Carolina Fuller filled me in on Tapiz’s passion to create good wines at excellent values. With property throughout the region, she was most excited about an experimental project in Valle de Uco.
Achaval Ferrer is a wine that is solely produced for export. I was familiar with this wine having tried and purchased it in California, I was especially happy to be guided in English by a young French woman whose passion for wine floated above her charming French accent. Achaval’s wines have garnered scores in the high 90’s for the last couple vintages. But unfortunately one of their prized vineyards was ruined by pre-harvest hail storms for the last two years. I’m sure when they finally release another bottle of this single-vintage Malbec the price will be higher than the $100 a bottle their other two single-vineyard offerings cost. Actually, some of the biggest vineyards in the Lujan de Cuyo sport massive nettings resting 5-10 feet above the vines. The cool fall air zooming down from the Andes combined with the thermal condition of the high desert can bring the unexpected hail storm without warning. Where frost, rain and mildew are problems Calfiornia vineyards contend with as harvest approach, hail is problematic here.
I was treated to a fine lunch at the Ruca Malen Winery and later dinner at 1854 where I was offered a tasting of fine wines by a group of Brazillian wine importers.
But all good things must pass and my taste and tease of Mendoza was cut abrubtly short. The next morning I straddled Doc and crossed the Andes into Chile where I began my first night of many with my new Chilean friend Cristian.
Oh. And yes, in case you were wondering. I was able to bring a bottle of Punto Final Malbec for my new friend. We polished it that night. Nice.
note: i have had the unfortunate technical problem where oddly one day of photos of Mendoza are nowhere to be found.
These include some great shots in the vineyards and at the bodegas. when i recover these (and damnit I better) I will post another photo essay of Mendoza.