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An Argentina Adventure

Ben Weinberg


BLENDS, DITCHES AND LA VIDA LOCA

An invitation to attend an "Experience Argentina" press trip, focused on the foods of that country and the wines of Escorihuela Gascón, Alamos Winery and Catena Zapata, became a unique opportunity for me to delve into two very distinct expressions of the country's culture: food and wine. It was a tremendous week of viticultural and gastronomic excess, and I learned a ton about Mendoza wine and Buenos Aires city culture.

 
Vineyards in Mendoza, beneath the snow-capped Andes Mountains.

Mendoza nestles against the eastern flanks of the rugged Andes Mountains. Breathtaking and sparsely settled, it is a broad, flat, high-elevation plain at the edge of an inland desert, not unlike eastern Washington or even the wine country of my home state of Colorado. But the feel is actually quite Mediterranean, probably due to the large expat Italian community that has now spread to every corner of the country.

Buenos Aires is not only much more cosmopolitan than Mendoza but also very southern European in flavor and flair. There are great restaurants in all 48 neighborhoods of this metropolis, and if you have happy feet you're never too far from a tango.

Mendoza: Blends and Ditches


My adventures began after a long series of flights from Denver through Atlanta and Santiago before ending up in Mendoza, the most famous wine region in Argentina, at the Park Hyatt Hotel and Casino. A private guided tour of the city showed off several well-designed open spaces, including San Martin Park, named after the mid-19th-century revolutionary regarded as one of the fathers of modern South America.

That first night's dinner was only two blocks from the hotel at the serene Francesco Barbera Ristorante, surrounded by beautiful gardens, a VIP lounge and a singular wine cellar. Francesco is named after the now deceased husband of Maria Teresa, the octogenarian proprietor whose recipes dominate the menu and who still works the kitchen on a regular basis.
 


Bodegas Escorihuela in Mendoza.  

It was on the short walk back, after tasting a dozen wines that perfectly complemented my grass fed, beef-based meal, that I took to calling Mendoza the land of blends and ditches. The blending part comes from an extreme emphasis on combining wine lots to produce consistent quality. The ditches are the drains that run along almost every street. These small, exposed canals, originally laid out by the area's aboriginal inhabitants with the help of nearby Incas, are unique to Mendoza. They control floods and supply water to the thousands of trees that provide welcome shade.

The next day began at Laur Olive Oil Company, where my group tried several extra virgin blends. (Laur is distributed in some U.S. areas in bulk but is not widely sold as a branded product.) Mendoza has been a wine hub for decades, but in addition to vines there are also loads of olive trees. Some are centuries-old, gnarled behemoths that stand in mute testimony to the continent's long period of contact with its European brother.

The afternoon was occupied by our first winery visit, Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón in Luján de Cuyo, a Meondozan sub-region, where we toured the Agrelo Vineyard with winemaker Ernesto Bajda (nicknamed Nesti) and his crew. Nesti loves working with Malbec, his country's most significant grape, at one of its most iconic wineries. During our walk he related that his employer, founded in 1884 by Don Miguel Escorihuela Gascón, makes traditional, classical wine produced in the same way for many years. "But here we are also about innovation, bringing technology and research to our wines and vineyards while always preserving the essence of our authentic style."

Nesti feels particularly lucky to have the Agrelo vineyard, which Gascón owns. "Variability and complexity would be the best words to describe this vineyard that extends for 380 acres and holds at least five different soil types," he says. "Such changeability is crucial for complexity in the resulting wine." Examples include Malbec from Lot 10, with loam-clay deep soils that create smooth/gentle tannins and red cherry aromas, and the fruit of Lot 12, 200 yards away, which grows on shallow, sandy-loam soil with stones on the surface. It has heavier tannins and a more mineral-flower profile. "The same grape, the same clone, planted in different conditions, will always enrich the available winemaking options."    
Winemaker Ernesto "Nesti" Bajda.

After our Agrelo tour we had a lesson in the empanada (a national dish of Argentina) and observed a short match of polo, the country's second-most popular sport after soccer. That evening we toured, listened to live tango music while watching professional dancers, and dined at Bodega Catena Zapata with Laura Catena, the daughter of Nicolas and Elena Catena; Laura splits here time between Argentina and San Francisco where she is an emergency room physician.


Alamos Winery.
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.

After a tasting and a locals-only lunch at La Juntada Pulperia, we returned to the city of Mendoza.  

That evening we hit Bodegas Escorihuela, another of the company's wineries, this time in the city proper. We finished this very fine day with an al fresco dinner at the winery's own Restaurant 1884, a must-stop for any serious South American foodie. A straight-faced Nesti suggested we share the beef steak, which came in at about five pounds and thoroughly destroyed me. 


On Wednesday we returned to the Uco Valley and toured the Adrianna Vineyard in Tupungato, the northernmost of three counties where vineyards are typically quite high in elevation. We then participated in harvest with the viticultural team and Alamos winemaker Felipe Stahlschmidt.

Stahlschmidt said that his Adrianna plot is influenced by a vertically tiered desert climate, intense sunlight, rocky and poor soils, and pure water from Andean snowmelt. "All of these characteristics, as well as those of our other vineyards, help to make Alamos such a special winery. These are just wonderful parts of the Uco Valley that make great quality wine year after year."

A culinary class with Chef Lucas Bustos at La Tupina Bistro, his restaurant in the nearby town of Tupungato, preceded a traditional Argentine asado (barbecue) at the home of Ernesto Catena, brother to Laura.
 
Alamos winemaker Felipe Stahlschmidt.


Ernesto Catena.
Ernesto, an artist involved in his own Mendoza winery projects, including Tikal, somehow also finds time to play the occasional fanatical chucker of polo. In fact, the entire Catena family seems freakishly talented. Did I mention that Ernesto's 16-year-old son is already heading off to an Ivy League college?

The cooking fire at Ernesto's place was well-controlled by the inestimable Nesti, whose passion for food began as a child. "I loved to help my mother prepare the meals she created each day. I was always surprised at how easily she could make flavorful dishes with simple ingredients and a lot of love. It was magical."

Traditional Argentine asado, like American barbecue, is more than just cooking or enjoying a meal. It has a very important background of place and relations.

"You can have asado at home, in the hillside of the Andes, or at a friend's house," said Nesti. "One constant is sharing great conversation and special moments with friends and family while waiting for the fire and then the meat to be ready."

Traditional Argentine asado cooking on the asador.

Buenos Aires: La Vida Loca


The next day we boarded a flight for Buenos Aires, checked into the Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt, and then immediately headed off for lunch at Tarquino Nueva Cocina, a thoroughly modern take on traditional Argentine cuisine. After the meal we hopped back on our bus and toured the sights of Buenos Aires, including the Teatro Colón Opera House, the Tortoni Café, and a viewing of the Malba Museum. Dinner that night was at swanky Casa Cruz.

Friday, the final day of the trip began at the famous above-ground crypts of La Recoleta Cemetery. Then we partook of an Argentine pastry overview and class with Park Hyatt Executive Chef Maximo Lopez. A multicourse, riverside lunch at Cabanas Las Lilas was the last event of this amazing odyssey.

The Last Word


I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have participated in Experience Argentina. Thanks to everyone who made my visit possible. Nos vemos pronto (see you soon) en Argentina, I hope!

TASTING NOTES

Note: Listings without prices are wines not available in the U.S.

SPARKLING

Escorihuela Gascón NV Extra Brut, Mendoza

A golden yellow, non-vintage bubbly that is unfortunately not distributed in the U.S. Loads of prickly pear on the nose leads to smoke, ash, and flint on the moderately acidic finish.

Escorihuela Gascón NV Rosé Extra Brut, Mendoza

Salmon-pink with aromas of meat jus and pink cherry, this also contains flavors of red strawberry and pink peppercorn on a moderately bright but long finish.

WHITE

Adrianna 2009 White Bones Chardonnay, Mendoza
$135
One of the best whites I've tried in a while. Looks like bottled sunshine, smells of papaya and tastes of yellow grapefruit and fresh pineapple.


Alamos 2012 Torrontés, Mendoza $10

Its hay-yellow color, white flower and soda ash nose and green papaya and quince taste are a distillation of the best this enigmatic white grape can offer.

D. V. Catena 2011 Chardonnay, Mendoza

This is unfortunately not available outside of Argentina. Flax, grass and white pepper show at first, followed by honey, green pear and flint. The finish is high, long and thoroughly delightful.

Bodegas Catena Zapata 2010 Angelica Chardonnay, Mendoza

A hay-hued beauty that features flax and apricot highlights followed by pineapple and mango on a moderately weighted finish.

RED


Gascón 2011 Colosal Red Blend, Mendoza $13

A high-intensity, red-black mélange of red licorice and cola smells and black cherry and red flower tastes. Very beguiling.

Escorihuela Gascón 2010 Malbec Reserva, Mendoza $19

Part of a vertical from 2008 through 2011. This shows black-purple at first, with basil and milk chocolate elements that shoot through the nose and land on the tongue along with black pepper, black plum and violet.

Bodegas Catena Zapata 2008 "Nicolas Catena Zapata," Mendoza $95

This winery's flagship wine. Absolutely black-red, this behemoth noses chalky dark chocolate and black cherry. On the tongue it is all blackberry, mocha and lavender. It finishes strong and long, marking one of the highlights of the entire trip.


Alamos 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza $9

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.

Tikal 2011 Malbec, Mendoza $20

Named for Ernesto Catena's son, this is purple-black in hue and smells of black raspberry and blueberry. The tongue features black raspberry again, along with smoke and cured pork.

Gascón 2009 Sangiovese, Mendoza

Tinted ruby-blue, this wine noses blackberry and black pepper while tasting of lavender and black plum.

Miguel Escorihuela Gascón 2005 President's Blend, Mendoza

Vibrantly purple even after eight years in bottle, this beauty smells of blackberries, mocha and black tea while tasting of milk chocolate, cola and red raspberry.

OLIVE OIL

Laur Extra Virgin Olive Oil Cruz de Piedra, Mendoza /500mL

Deep yellow in color, with a green pea and ash nose and a green apple finish. This is distributed in some U.S. areas in bulk but is not widely sold as a branded product.


CONTACT INFORMATION


Alamos Winery
Ruta Provincial 92 s/n
Vista Flores, Tunuyán, Mendoza
República Argentina
www.alamoswines.com


Don Miguel Gascón -Escorihuela Gascón

Belgrano 1188
Godoy Cruz, 5501 Mendoza
República Argentina
turismo@escorihuela.com.ar
www.gasconwine.com

Bodegas Catena Zapata

Calle Cobos
Agrelo Cobos, 5509 Mendoza
República Argentina
+54 261 413-1100
www.catenawines.com

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Certified sommelier and unfilteredunfined.com Editor-in-Chief Ben Weinberg has written forThe Daily Beast , Worth Magazine , The World of Fine Wine , Sommelier Journal and Wine Enthusiast , and is the Rocky Mountain Editor of THE TASTING PANEL Magazine.  He also offers luxurious, behind-the-scenes tours of the world's most famous wine regions at www.wineontheroad.com.

Ben is looking to return to Argentina with a Wine On The Road tour in early 2014. If you are interested in coming along or want more information on any of his tours, please email benweinberg@wineontheroad.com.




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