THE new Argentina is deeply seductive – its famous beef and increasingly famous wine are celebrated in restaurants from New York to Beirut. Its natural beauty, from the Andes to the plains of Patagonia; its sparkling heat, beautiful people and stunning horses lure travellers the world over. And Buenos Aires, the gorgeous, cosmopolitan crown on a country that seems dedicated to good living, exerts a magnetic pull with its massive boulevards, gracious Parisian buildings, super-chic shops and nightlife that makes London’s seem pokey.
It’s so seductive, in fact, that you forget the old Argentina – the one of dictatorship, corruption, repression, murder and hyper-inflation (inflation still stands at around 20 per cent). You forget it – of course – because that’s what happens when you’re under a spell of enchantment. It’s easy to do, too – evidence of the country’s dark past has been overlaid with all those perfect sprawling vineyards, foreign wealth and wonderful leather. And who wants to dwell on unpleasant things?
Not me. Like most people – I want to get on with the business of enjoying myself. Which is why a trip to Argentina’s wine country – Mendoza – via Buenos Aires, fit the pleasure bill more snugly than a glove.
If you don’t enjoy alcohol, I’ll be honest: you’ll be missing out in Argentina. Buenos Aires is all about cocktails and glamour (its heyday was American Prohibition, when all the Americans came to Buenos Aires to booze and it developed a reputation for the world’s best drinks).
Mendoza is all – and I mean all – about wine, most of it red, most of it Malbec (though there are other grapes too and lots of wonderful blends). You can get lighter, skillful Pinots from Patagonia and thumping Malbecs from Salta but Mendoza is the big deal.
Most people have some experience of the Malbec grape – it’s a serious choice for connoisseurs as well as a party pleaser for those who like quality, heavy reds. If Pinot is the delicate ballerina of wine; Malbec is the thrilling, muscular breakdancer. It thrives in heat, and Mendoza provides the perfect “thermal amplitude” for the grape, meaning the difference in temperature between day and night is substantial. Hot sunny days mature the grapes; cool nights seal in their flavour.
The selection in the average wine shop may not have struck you in the past as an insult to this enormous and important category – it didn’t strike me as such – but now that I’ve been to Mendoza, I can hardly look at the Argentina section of Waitrose’s wine department without trembling with rage. Part of this is to do with the Malbec evangelism of one of my travelling companions – Phil Crozier, head of wine at the Argentine-themed Gaucho Restaurants, who takes almost manic pleasure in putting together the steak group’s list.
There are 356,000 acres of vineyards in Mendoza and the region accounts for two-thirds of Argentina’s wine production. Yet frustrated by its relative under-representation globally, 200 of the country’s wine-makers have clubbed together under the auspices of Wines of Argentina, an independent body. Their aim is to increase tourism to Argentina’s wineries and to promote appreciation of Malbec, as well as other grapes Argentina does nicely, like Cabernet Sauvignon, the Italian Barbera, Chardonnay and Tempranillo.
The results of the Argentine investment in wine are magnificent – Mendoza is Napa-like in its vivid neatness and vast wineries. But for all the money around (and there is a lot – the most impressive wineries are owned by Dutch and German business tycoons), it’s South American in the details, such as roadside shrines to heroic gauchos and the intensity of the dry heat.
With space as no object, the tourist to Mendoza enjoys endless vistas of perfectly manicured vines, smooth winding roads through valleys, and the ubiquitous horizon of the Andes – the only reminder that the vineyards don’t go forever.
There are a dozen or so mega wineries, whose product you can find in good wine shops here. Pick the best and not only will you have a chance to cram your head and tongue with Malbec knowledge, but you can dine like a royal on the world’s best meat in woody sunlit dining rooms (or in the open-air); talk to the country’s finest wine brains; admire the architectural ingenuity of the buildings, observe the harvest first hand, and – in the case of certain wineries, like the incredible Salentein – see the very best of Argentine art in a modernist gallery.
The top dogs – as far as the tourist is concerned – are O. Fournier (pictured), Salantein (pictured), and Atamisque.
O. Fournier will whip your breath away, from the moment you see its futuristic, sculptural heft on the horizon to the moment you pull up and see up close how giant, foreboding and utterly cool it is. What looks like a UFO landing-pad from far away is actually a gravity-flow wine building. Indeed, the O. Fournier complex looks like a computer game world, complete with artificial lake and exposed, all-window laboratory suspended above a piazza. The Malbec is serious, too, but it’s worth going especially to see the future of wine-making and to eat in the glass-walled restaurant.
Salentein is simply magnificent. One half of the complex is dedicated to luxury accommodation, with rooms and villas, the chance to go horse riding, a large pool next to the vines (everything in Mendoza hedges onto vines) and an open-air spit for making the massive asados (barbeque) that Argentina is known for. The other half – a short drive away – is the winery, art gallery and shop. The winery is beautiful – it includes a circular chamber with special echoes and the very best tile-work. Concerts are held here because of the acoustics – singers perform right alongside the wine barrels.
In the minimalist, concrete mould of O. Fournier, Atamisque is well worth a visit too. Great Malbecs, superb views, a restaurant, landscaping to die for and even a trout farm.
For really serious wine, you need to hit up the famous Achaval Ferrier and Luigi Bosca wineries, two of Mendoza’s most prestigious producers and big players on the elite world stage. Both serve a mean lunch (the steak at Luigi Bosca was the best I have ever had – and that’s saying something, since I grew up in the US), but you’re here to drink (and spit). We had an overwhelming try of Achaval’s Quimera 2002 and 2008 – Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, oaked for 12 months (2008) and Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (2002). Black jelly babies and tobacco helped structure a complex nectar that the career wine writers among us oohed and aahed over. At Luigi Bosca, it was all about the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (2009) and the Boucher, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend that had been fermented for 18 months in French oak (subtler than American oak). Luigi Bosca is the oldest winery in Mendoza and has a polished tourist facility – tours, shop, food, etc.
Norton is another heavy hitter internationally – it’s a slightly Disney-feeling winery that’s just bursting with visitor-friendliness (gleaming facilities, and plenty of them). Fair play – Norton wine is serious business, as evidenced by the magnificent bottle of 1974 Malbec the head winemaker cracked open for us.
Visiting wineries and gorging on asado-fired meat is only half of a wine holiday. The second half is accommodation – and Mendoza has it sorted, with numerous boutique hotels and lodges integrated into the wineries. In some of them – like Terrazas Wine Lodge, reserved only for special guests of the winery – you sleep to the sound of heavy machinery processing the grapes through the night (if you’re there at harvest time). My favourite was Club Tapiz, with rooms around a courtyard, a beautiful swimming pool, spa, the chance to drink wine amid the vines, and a breathtaking private dining room with murals by a famous Argentine artist.
I left Mendoza with my desire for Malbec temporarily sated. I needed time to absorb the vast amount of quality, subtlety and difference I’d tasted as well as the intense process of the wine-making itself. It only took a few days until my thirst was back, but with a new dimension of understanding. In London, I find myself poring over bottles of Malbec, lingering over the ones from Mendoza, and falling into reveries of the bright oceans of vines, the dazzling wineries and the taste of that great red grape under the blazing Argentine sun.
For further info about the wineries in Argentina and tourist opportunities in the wine regions visit winesofargentina.org
WHERE TO STAY: MENDOZA (AND BUENOS AIRES)
Club Tapiz: This tiny boutique hotel is set amid 14 hectares of vineyards in an estate built in 1890. Lots of activities and a lovely atmosphere. club-tapiz.com.ar
Cavas Wine Lodge: You stay in white clay domes in the middle of a 35-acre vineyard, built so you can sleep under the stars. cavaswinelodge.com
Bodegas Salentein: Stunning grounds and winery, nice pool and views and don’t miss the art gallery. Rooms are nothing spectacular, though. bodegassalentein.com
In Buenos Aires:
Fayena: This art-filled homage to high camp is aesthetically luscious and very popular with celebrities. Amazing tango cabaret. faenahotelanduniverse.com
Alvear Palace: BA’s answer to the Ritz in a prestigious area. alvearpalace.com
MUST-SEE, MUST-TASTE: MENDOZA’S TOP WINERIES
Achaval Ferrier: One of Argentina’s most prestigious wine-makers, with expensive bottles to rival the best of Bordeaux.
Cheval Des Andes: This LVMH-owned winery makes some of the most premium Malbec in the region.
Familia Cassone: Small, family vineyard with delicious Malbec-based rose.
Luigi Bosca: The oldest winery in Mendoza, with wines ranging to the good-enough entry level (Finca La Linda is widely exported) to the top-level Selectetos Familia Arizu gala collection.
O. Fournier: The most stunning winery to visit with state-of-the-art facilities for eating, drinking, tours. Even the cellars are full of fine art.
Atamisque: Another beautiful futuristic winery, with a trout farm and restaurant. Good opportunity to sample wines of the slightly elevated Uco valley.
Norton: The biggest winery in Mendoza with a huge export market. Big, commercial and good for tourists.
Salentein: Another Uco valley premium producer with incredible grounds – including gallery, boutique hotel, shop, a cellar so grand that they hold concerts there amid the barrels.
Zuccardi: Italian family-owned winery which also produces wonderful olive oil.
Carinae: Completely unusual meaty reds. French-run.
Alpamanta: Delicious biodynamic producers with an Austrian wine-maker.
To try some of the mentioned wines and traditional Argentine cuisine in the UK, check out Gaucho: gauchorestaurants.com