Argentina is a giant country, with many faces. Although we hated to leave Buenos Aires, and I haven’t even told you about the Tango, the beef, the sidewalk cafes, nor anything about the days of the dictatorship or the current economy, Mendoza beckoned.
For some reason, I have wanted to go to Mendoza for a long time. I think it was some photo I saw of rows of grapevines, set against the Andes, and the thought of delicious wine tasting in a foreign setting, with slight reminiscences of the Napa or Sonoma Valleys, that captured my imagination.
So off we went, west, rather than south, where most tourists go, to the foothills of the mighty Andes, to see what Mendoza had to offer.
Three days of wine tasting, gourmet food, and in-depth cultural absorption proved to be fabulous.
Our flight was from the “local” airport right in downtown Buenos Aires, and is the only way to travel, if your bones are getting older. (You can also go by overnight bus, or if truly brave, you can drive, but I believe it is about 12 hours of driving or maybe it was 20.) The two-hour flight got us to Mendoza just as the sun was setting over the Andes. We stayed at the Park Hyatt in the city center, right on the square. It is now a very up-market hotel, but was once a palace where Peron used to stay. Behind the palace, it is very contemporary, with a huge center courtyard, and very high ceilings in the public rooms, also a spa, and a casino. (We dropped some cash in both places.) Our room was comfortable, but the bathroom, though very classy, had too many mirrors.
We dined at Bistro M, the hotel’s very smart restaurant, on delicious pork tenderloin, with a Torrontes apricot sauce, after a veal empanada, and followed by a chocolate Malbec cake with ice cream and Malbec soaked peaches – unusual and quite tasty. One thing I have noticed in this country is that when you order just a glass of wine, they fill up the glass very full. (None of the snooty ¼ glassful you get in many New York restaurants, a result of the cheap but delicious wines produced in Argentina.)
The next day, we hired a driver to take us out to a bodega (what they call a winery) where we had a lunch reservation. Through the hotel, we found Horacio Bermejo Hilger, a college student who drove us out to the vineyard, and agreed to give us a bit of a tour afterward. By the way, hiring a driver here is really inexpensive. Our cost for the day with a driver and a guide was about $60.00 for both of us.
There are over 1600 wineries in the province of Mendoza, so we really had to get organized to see enough, but not too many that we’d be dizzy. We managed it quite well, I think, in two full days in this superb climate, and we learned a lot along the way.
Argentina is fifth in the world in the production of wine, and the Mendoza province is probably the best-known wine area, where 70% of Argentinean wine is produced. Mendoza was a desert, so everything we saw growing, trees and vines, was brought in and planted. The snows, which come in the mountains from May to October, are very important, because it is their melt that irrigates the vineyards. The Andes are always beckoning in Mendoza, with Aconcagua, at 6959 meters, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, not far away. On another trip, I would want to drive through the pass to Chile, and stop at Chateau d’Ancon, or perhaps in Uspallata, or go to Los Chulengos, a small estancia in the mountains. On the way, we could see Tupangato Volcano.
But I digress. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch at Club Tapiz, a strange name for a boutique, up-market winery, owned by the Ortiz family of Buenos Aires. We had one of our most favorite wines here, the Tapiz Chardonnay Reserve from 2004, which we instantly loved, drank the whole bottle, and were very glad to have a driver. Lunch was delicious, starting with some very tasty jamon, with chives and grilled onions.
This would be one of the fine places to stay in Mendoza, an alternative to staying in Mendoza city proper, with its few simple, but utterly charming rooms, and country air, along with such welcoming, friendly people. There are several boutique wineries with very modern, elegant rooms, and I would be hard-pressed to decide which one to stay in on my next trip.
After visiting three more vineyards in the afternoon, our young guide took us to see his family’s finca, where he proudly introduced us to his mother, and showed us around this charming, formerly very large estancia, and proudly also showed us the family library, filled with rare legal volumes, thanks to his distinguished forebears, several of whom served as Supreme Court Judges.
Our dinner that evening (how could we eat another great meal?) was to be at the famous 1884 Francis Mallman, supposedly the best chef in Argentina. His restaurant is at a winery called Escorihuela, nearer to the center of town. What a fabulous meal we had there: lomo (filet of beef) with mustard finished roast potatoes, with which we drank an excellent Norton Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, after being allowed tastes of the Norton Cab of 2004, and the Norton Malbec of 2003. These folks are dead serious and very generous with their wines. No wonder so many people want to go to Mendoza. Our dessert was a lemon curd tart served with a lemon sorbet, in very sophisticated surroundings, in a dining room that encircled a grass patio, where one could see the very serious asado chefs working at the huge open fires.
We managed another day of Mendoza, and the whole experience just got better and better. We were picked up by yet another handsome young Argentinean driver for a tour of the large, impressive spotless Chandon winery, followed by a visit and lunch at Las Terrazas, Chandon’s boutique vineyard, where we fell in love with everything: the pink brick buildings, the adorable French tour guide, the stunning little country inn on the grounds, our delicious lunch served in a private dining room, and accompanied by Las Terrazas Reserve Chardonnay, 2003, and their Reserve Cabernet, 2003. (Available at Arlington Liquors, by the way.) Following that marvelous interlude, our driver took us to Ruca Malen, a fairly new boutique winery run by the former Head of Chandon in South America. By now, we felt like experts, and chose the Ruca Malen Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004, as our favorite.
We simply couldn’t manage another meal, so we had an early evening, then an early morning visit to the hotel spa for rejuvenating massages, preparatory for our flight back to Buenos Aires.