Laura Ivill travels to Mendoza in Argentina to experience the wine-making journey from humble grape to fine-dining staple
DRAW a line on the map from the bustling streets of Buenos Aires west across Argentina’s interior and you reach the soaring 6,000-metre peaks of the Andes. In the foothills, the low-rise sprawling city of Mendoza lends its name to an arid province. It couldn’t be further from the foggy vineyards of Bordeaux nor the soft undulations of Tuscany, yet the elegant, fruity reds that come from the fertile land here have been made with such precision that any wine lover in Argentina would hanker after a tasting tour of Mendoza.
Deprived of rainfall, snow-melt comes from the mountains via myriad irrigation channels that have kept this dry plain fertile since the time of the Incan Empire. This, together with the influence that the terroir - soils, climate, altitude and aspect - has on the flavours in the glass contributes to the region’s reputation as the cradle of quality Argentinian wine. Some are calling it “the Napa of 30 years ago”, in reference to its growing reputation as a gastro hotspot.
In the suburb of Luyan de Coyo, a dusty avenue of mature trees leads me to Terrazas de los Andes, comprising a modern winery, cellars, vineyards and a guesthouse. Driving through the security gate I am met by the 38-year-old French winemaker Nicolas Audebert. Terrazas is owned by Moet-Hennessey, part of global brands powerhouse LVMH, along with nearby Chandon (big production sparkling whites) and Cheval des Andes (small production fine wines).
Audebert greets me in green-tinted aviators, blue needle-point cords, cotton shirt poking out from a navy Abercrombie jumper and soft brown desert boots, a look replicated by his winemaking team. He arrived from Krug six-and-a-half years ago to head up Terrazas and Cheval des Andes, and, importantly, to establish them as brands. It was a challenge he relished. “With respect, Krug got a bit boring,” he says, referring to the fact that the Champagne house must make exactly the same-tasting wines year after year.
As well as Krug, LVMH also owns Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux, which has recently completed a sumptuous new winery by the Pritzker-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc. On his arrival in Mendoza, Audebert could have made a big splash, too. After all, they gave him €5m to build a magnificent winery at Cheval des Andes. But he had other ideas. Audebert decided that it was the Mendozan terroir that would produce the quality wines he was after.
“It’s the place that makes the wine, not the winery,” he says. “The winery is just the garage, and we have that at Las Terrazas.”
After getting into the local polo scene, he chose instead to put the “cheval” into Cheval des Andes. He sat down with an architect and designed a polo club pavilion and a terrace overlooking the field of play. “Cheval des Andes was a bottle of wine but there was no wine inside,” he says of the enterprise back then. “This was no man’s land, purely site production. We developed the wine, then we wanted to brand the wine and dress up the project. They gave me a blank book.
“We designed it like a house not like a visitors’ centre,” he says of the design touches around us – hats, trunks, vintage record player and pony-skin chairs. “It’s about creating a real Argentine experience. We only invested 10 per cent of the €5m.”
And instead of breaking hearts across the globe as a polo-playing playboy, Audebert has embraced family life instead. Married to his French wife Melissende for 13 years, they have five children together, aged four months to 10 years.
But we’re here to talk about the wines. Audebert’s Cheval des Andes full-bodied reds are crafted from the Argentinian signature grape Malbec, blending in Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, Bordeaux-style. These wines will have been aged in either new or one-year-old French oak before blending and, for the latest 2008 vintage, only 35,000 bottles were produced, half the average release. The high altitude of the vineyards here brings freshness to the powerful yet smooth damson and cassis fruit, with lively integrated spice.
At Cheval des Andes Audebert leaps from his open-top Citroen to show me more of the vineyards. We study the pruning methods and I ask about the irrigation. The ancient irrigation channels were highly regarded and developed by the Spanish invaders. These ancestors did a profoundly good job as they are crucial to wine production today. When the sluice gates are opened, the vines’ roots are drenched with water, even if there hasn’t been much rain.
This flooding has the added benefit of keeping root diseases at bay. The vines here are all ungrafted, which means they are on their own rootstocks, unlike in most of the wine regions of the world where the vine species’ original rootstocks would be destroyed by the louse phylloxera. “We have no diseases and no humidity here so it’s easy to be organic,” Audebert says. “We are not certified organic; I’m organic because it’s the best way – you come back to balance in the vineyard. But if I needed to do something to save the crop, I’d do it.”
His intimate knowledge of the vineyard is only matched by his finely tuned palate. “It’s important to taste a lot. Here, it’s easy to make big wines but it’s much harder to be elegant. It’s much more complicated to keep freshness and have well-balanced acidity.’
He explains how erosion over geological time can lead to different layers of soil being exposed on the earth’s surface, one next to another, which is another advantage for creating fine Cheval des Andes wines. “It’s like privilege,” he says, “When you are born into a good family, it’s easier for you.
“A winemaker can work hard in the winery, but if you don’t have the best ingredients, you won’t achieve the very best.”
Need to know
Cheval des Andes 2007, around £50, from Fine & Rare, Hedonism, Jeroboams and Robertson. Terrazas de los Andes Reserva, £12.99, and Terrazas de los Andes Single Vineyard, £29, from Majestic and Ocado. The simple guesthouse at Terrazas has doubles from $220 per night including a light breakfast, winery tour and tasting. Lunch and dinner are available in the restaurant (terrazasdelosandes.com)
THE BUENOS AIRES STOPOVER
The grand dame of the city is the Alvear Palace hotel on Avenida Alvear. Such is the state of the Argentinian economy that many international luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, have abandoned Argentina, and the former Bond Street vibe of the avenue has almost disappeared. The hotel – with its 1930s interior of marble columns and gilded ballrooms – is still the most prestigious address.
Tom Cruise and Halle Berry stayed recently, joining a long list of dignitaries and royalty that value its traditional, white-gloved hospitality. Nearby, a sibling has just opened, the Alvear Art hotel. Rooms are around $100 cheaper per night and have more of a business vibe, although the elegant design and décor – acres of marble and shot-silk effect wallpaper – are a cut above the norm. The food is a “global adventure” that goes way beyond the steak and potatoes most commonly found in Argentinian hotels. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Buenos Aires from £914 return. Straight flights from Heathrow to Mendoza with the connection on LAN Argentina cost from £992 return (ba.com). The Alvear Palace offers double rooms from $430 (alvearpalace.com)