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Wine Capital of Argentina
Mendoza is hot. Like Napa Valley was 30 years ago.
With a strong US dollar and an even stronger Euro, the hotel industry
has developed to accommodate tourists, merchants
and sommeliers from high-end restaurants in the United States and Europe
who flock to the Andean city for skiing, trekking, wine tasting
and eating in what are today some of the best restaurants in the country.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Mendoza is thriving in spite of its desert climate and the capricious viento Sonda, a hot and dry wind with sometimes lethal dusty whirlwinds. The desert climate forced the settlers to create a complex irrigation system, and asequias. If you’re not warned, it is easy to fall in the many curb-side cisterns flanking the streets that bring vital water to the city of Mendoza..
Until thirteen years ago, being the fifth producer of wine in the world didn’t do much for Argentina’s economy, since most of its bulk production was consumed locally. “Historically, we’ve been a high consumer of wine. Before, a construction worker would drink his liter of wine at lunch,” recalled Carolina Fuller, the representative of Tapiz near Agrelo along the Ruta del Vino, or Wine Route, that connects a number of renowned Mendoza wineries. “Not anymore.”
Nicolas Catena who is to Mendoza was Robert Mondavi was to California is to be credited for the boom. Mendoza, once one of the world’s largest producers of wine, is now one of the strongest producers of fine wines.
The investments started pouring in about fifteen years ago. Bodega Norton was purchased in 1989 by Austrian entrepreneur and crystal czar Gernot Langes Swarovski, a wave of foreign investors followed. The California winery Kendall-Jackson managed to buy Bodega Tapiz in 1996 and sell it in 2003; Dutch car dealer Mijndert Pon acquired Bodegas Salentein in 1998. Large corporations followed: Pernod-Ricard (Bodegas Etchart), Louis Vuitton Hennesy Moët Chandon (Terrazas), the Spanish Marquis of Griñon, Allied Domecq, and the Chilean Concha y Toro, have purchased land, either barren or with over 30-year-old vines, on the flanks of the Andes, in areas with names like Tupungato, Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo, or Maipú. The group of Seven; Frenchmen including consultant Michel Rolland and the Lurton brothers, are contributing to raising the bar.
Whereas five years ago Mendoza was attracting foreign investors, the high export figures – a growth of 34% in the first two trimesters this year, according to the DGA (Dirección General de Aduanas, Argentina Customs Bureau) -- have brought in new players:: the Argentines.
“Traditionally we used to sell grapes to the large winemakers. Now, we know better. We produce own own labels,” says Fernando Cairo, general manager of Vinos Altus, a winery at the foot of the Andes owned by GVT (Grupo Vitivinicola de Tugungato, S.A.). Cairo, who was general manager of Tapiz, when it belonged to Kendall Jackson, now owns his own boutique winery together with his childhood friend Juan Bertona.
TOURIST BOOM IN MENDOZA
The last time I was in Mendoza, aside from the ski resort Las Leñas, the newly opened Hyatt was about the only modern hotel. Today, boutique hotels with ultra sophisticated amenities have sprouted with fine restaurants, tasting rooms and important cellars to boot like the recently renovated four-star Hotel Huentala (Hotel Huentala, Primitivo Larretta 100, Mendoza, Argentina. Tel: 011-54 -0261-4200766/941/664. www.huentala.com), in the center of town, which has an important art collection from artists connected to Mendoza either by birth or by coincidence.
To accommodate the large number of tourists -- Visitors from around the world come for the spectacular beauty of the Andes, the wines, skiing, rafting, trekking, mountain biking and other outdoor activities --, conferences and sports events goers, over two dozens fine restaurants, including French/Argentine Huentala’s Chimpay Bistro, have opened since then and most wineries have opened charming guest houses with exquisite restaurants, such as Terruño, run by the ClubTapiz, a delightful small lodge in the old house of Navarro Correas surrounded by the Tapiz vineyards – where chef Max Casa prepared one of the beat meals of my stay.
And to service all this new hospitality industry, new schools of sommeliers and hospitality have opened in Mendoza, along the existing Escuela Internacional de Turismo, Hoteleria and Gastronomia de Mendoza.
The growing wine industry has developed into other areas. The investments and know-how have extended to related industries. Mendoza is investing in high-value technology and service companies. The goal: to reduce the region's dependence on costly imports and manufacture locally more products like stainless steel vats, grape crushers and filters. Bottles are now being produced in Cordoba. "It makes our economy more competitive and keeps value here,” said Cairo at an asado (BBQ) party at Bertona’s house in one of the plushest gated neighborhoods of the city.
According to Cairo and Bertona who is also the marketing manager of the multi-media company Uno Medios, the boom is set to continue in spite of Argentina’s sluggish economy. In June 2005, the first Lan Chile flight added seats between Buenos Aires and Mendoza; and in 2006, a new Tren Trasandino (cross-Andes) rail line will cut Mendoza's transportation costs for many goods which are actually trucked to Chile or to city ports for export.
Ruta 15 KM 29 in Agrelo
is not just an address. It is the label of the boutique malbecs and cabernets Juan Bertona and Fernando Cairo lovingly produce from vineyards surrounding The Bertona family finca, and where Juan Bertona’s parents still live. In the background, the snowy peaks of the majestic Andes overlook cerro Tupungato, what the locals call El Cordón del Plata, beginning at 7,220 feet and descending to 2,952 feet, where signs like Salentein, Chandon, Tikal, Lurton, El Alamo, Catena, Terrazas, etc… have become familiar labels in wine stores and supermarket shelves in the US and Europe.
The volcanic clay and sandy soil, the dry climate and controlled irrigation make for almost sustained farming of thousands of hectares of Malbec, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Torrontés, some 40 years-old or older. 1200 meters high on the pre-Andes, and only 120 km from Santiago, the capital of Chile, the blood red Altus Winery stands out against the bare flanks of the Andes. Wells, as well as water channeled from the round-peaked Tupungato glazier give the Valle de Uco life.
There, under the supervision of Fernando Cairo, oenologist Alejandro Colombi and his assistant Mariana Reyes work on making some of the best wines of the region, which will hopefully be distributed to the US in the near future.
At the new renovated guest house, complete with a hearth, a cellar and a state of the art kitchen with a mud oven outdoors to bake suckling pigs and empanadas, you can taste Altus wines: a deep ruby, peppery and rich Altus Cabernet Sauvignon, an intense Altus Tempranillo with round tannins and a good balance on the palate , a deep purple, rich tasting Altus Malbec with concentrated ripe fruit on the palate, good acidity and a spicy finish still lingering on my palate and my memory buds; and a light yellow Altus Torrontés: striking floral nose, delicate and aromatic, a velvety texture trumped by an exciting tartness tasting of citrus, grapefruit and apricot with an intense finish.
Higher up, at 1550 m. above sea level, adjacent to Catena Zapata’s vineyards, at the end of a dirt road snaking up the mountain, Altus’ Gualtallary vineyard planted on sandy and deep, very well drained and restrictive mineral nutrition soil with French clones of Chardonnay and Merlot are grown with modern conduction system and drop irrigation. The result: exceptional wines. “Merlot expresses its best characteristics in a high altitude. And here we are at 1460 m above sea level,” says Cairo twirling his glass of 2004 Merlot Gualtallary against the light. “The terroir is dry, sandy soil and the harvest for this one was at the end of April – almost the end of the season.” After 12 months in new French oak barrels the wine was gorgeous, deep garnet and violet red, with mature tannins, chocolaty, fruity with raisins and dried fruit compote. Only 15,000 bottles will be produced in 2005. “The juice will go to Altus,” leaked Cairo. Another leak: A 21st century Spanish colonization: Freixenet is planting several thousand hectares nearby. “All this will become vines next year,” muses Cairo, zooming by in his dust-covered car. .
With the Malbec, the Mendoza region comes into its own. The velvety black grape of Cahors, ripens beautifully in the heart of Perdriel, a terroir considered of the best pedigree in terms of wine growing quality, where Bodegas Terrazas de Los Andes ( www.terrazasdelosandes.com.ar), the first subsidiary of Moet & Chandon outside of France since 1960 now owned by LVMH, Moet Henessy Louis Vuitton Group, produces the now famous Cheval des Andes.
The day we went to Terrazas, the Sonda wind was blowing hard and we almost didn’t make it. Carolina Macaya, the winery’s public relations manager kept calling her daughter’s school in fear of road blocks. The heat was intense in the valley in the midst of winter, yet, the passes were blocked by snow in the mountains. Luckily, the winds subsided and we were able to tour the fields and the winery. Old vines, at least 40-year old, were being re-born with shoots in a quasi-organic farming system. Nets were protecting part of the vineyards from hail and insects, and birds were kept away the old-fashioned way: “we call in falcon-owners to keep away the birds,” explained Carolina.. In the oldest, most precious vines, rose bushes had been planted at the head of each row. “Roses are more sensitive to insects than grapes,” she continued. At the old brick building of the original winery with 6 naves we saw the state-of-the-art technology.
But it is at the beautiful and tasteful two-story guesthouse overlooking the vineyards and the Andes that we tasted Terras Reserva Chardonnay 2004: gold yellow, greenish brilliant with aromas of peach, honeysuckle, melon and a good acidity and hints of citrus; Terrazas Reservas Malbec 2003: just released; a typical Malbec with chocolate, dry fruit smooth tannins and good acidity; Terrazas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: dark red with orange rim, elegant, slight mineral nose and good tannins with the right amount of spices and pepper and a long finish; Afincado Malbec 2002 ($40): ater 3 and a half years in barrel and one and a half year in bottle fermentation, this wine can keep for at least another 15 years. It is slightly cloudy, jammy with raisins and prunes and with a great finish. Afincado Cabernet Sauvignon 2002: the dark garnet wine with a long bottleneck and cork can keep for up to 20 years; it is complex with cassis and macerated fruit that grow in the mouth into red pepper and coffee. Good young tannins that promise a lot. The jewel of the crown is Cheval des Andes 2002 ($70) – 40% Malbec, 58% Cabernet, 2% Petit Verdot. Dar red with hues of garnet violet, the amazing nose of tobacco and smoke over red fruit has the characteristics of both Malbec (fruity, dense, chocolaty) and Cabernet (elegan t, cassis, pepper, good tannins, jam and chocolate). Terrazas produces 35,000 bottles, some of which can be bought in the US.
Not far from there, Pierre Thibaud, the former winemakers at Moet, started his own winery: Ruca Malen ( www.bodegarucamalen.com) with 27 hectares of vineyards in Agrelo, Lujan de cuyo (km.1059 Ruta Nacional 7 which crosses to Chile) at the foot of the Aconcagua.. Ruca Malen ( in Mapuche: the maiden’s house) responds to the trend in emphasizing local customs and heritage.
In addition to the tastings of wines from the first production in 1999, and the second bottled vintage 2001, during a guided tour, you can have lunch at their guest house (starting at $20 per person, including the wines. For information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 4106214)
As Fernando Cairo said good-bye at the airport, he gave me a piece of the Andes to take back with me: a bottle of 2004 Merlot Gualtallary. I still have visions of snow peaked mountains, and dry, sandy soil with gnarly vines still bearing some fruit. I am waiting a bit: I wonder if the gorgeous, deep garnet wine with chocolaty, red and black cherry and dried fruit compote can get any better than it was when I tried it at the foot of the Andes.
Food & Wine
Restaurant Terruño Fincas Patagónicas has also developed a unique place: "Club Tapiz", where guests stay in a small seven room hotel surrounded by vineyards in Luján de Cuyo, one of the best denominations for Malbec in Argentina. The Club also has one of the best restaurants in Mendoza, "Terruño" where the famous chef prepares regional and international dishes to pair great wine with great food in a unique atmosphere.
A basic principle of food and wine pairing is to match wines with regional dishes, as the local flavors tend to have a natural affinity. This is never more true than when enjoying Argentine Malbec with the national dish, Asado.
Argentina is known for high quality beef, which is served at almost every meal. The quintessential meal is asado: beef cooked slowly over a parrilla, or grill, and served with a spicy condiment, chimichurri.
Use the following recipes to enjoy this local favorite in your home!
Telephone: 0261-496 3433