The Toast of Argentina
Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and Tuscany, make way for Mendoza! Surrounded by the towering Andes, the province has emerged as a world-class—but astonishingly affordable—wine destination. And did we mention the impromptu tangoing in the streets?
The last person I expected to sit next to on the plane is a rancher from Idaho. But here he is, with his 1970s-style handlebar moustache and cowboy boots. Intrigued, I ask what brings him to Mendoza, a wine region on the eastern flank of the Andes that's almost as big as his northwestern home state. "It's the land, darling," he says. "Very cheap land." After years spent herding cattle to greener pastures, his retirement game plan is to find a vast tract of earth where, from his house to the horizon, he won't be able to see a soul—and where he can dabble in the dream of bottling his own wine. The fact that he knows little about viniculture doesn't deter him for a second.
He's not alone. In the past 10 years, third-generation Argentine winemakers and expats from Europe and the U.S. have been snatching up farms throughout Mendoza and converting them into wineries that are small in size but big on experimentation. Thanks to the region's diverse terrain, altitude, and terroir (or flavor of the soil), these vintners are now producing the same high-quality varietals—sauvignon blancs, viogniers, Syrahs, and pinot noirs—found in Napa Valley and Sonoma, but at a fraction of the cost. This entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with the chance to hike in the Andes, is what's brought an oenophile like me here for a visit. There's also the Latin allure: I'll travel hundreds of miles for a good glass of vino—my last venture was to the remote wine country of Tasmania—but I especially love a place where they take the time to pronounce Laura with three long syllables.
After the rancher and I wish each other success, I head to the colonial capital, Mendoza City, a town with about 130,000 residents and a rich history. Before the Spaniards arrived in 1561, the Huarpes Indians built the city's network of stone gutters, which still irrigate the town with runoff from the Andes. In 1813, Argentine general José de San Martín holed up in Mendoza City with his army—and went on to liberate neighboring Chile and Peru from the Spaniards. My home base is the slick 26-room Villaggio Hotel Boutique near the central Plaza Independencia and several of the city's liveliest restaurants and bars.
Over lunch at Azafrán, a classic Argentine restaurant with a 500-bottle wine menu, I tuck into a trio of meat empanadas and a tender pork loin drizzled with blueberry sauce. The sommelier keeps pace, serving me a different wine with each dish, as I watch locals stroll the cobblestoned streets arm in arm. Some carry tango shoes in cloth bags—a sign that they're en route to a milonga, a tango hall where musicians play live guitar music into the early morning hours.
Part of the charm of Mendoza City is its proximity to several of the region's main wine areas—Luján de Cuyo, Valle de Uco, and Chacras de Coria are within day-trip distance. There's just one problem: I have over 1,200 wineries to choose from and only four days in which to see them. Michael Evans, a former political consultant from Washington, D.C., faced the same conundrum when he arrived on vacation nearly five years ago. He never left, and today he co-owns Vines of Mendoza, a tasting room just off Plaza Independencia that pours over 90 local wines and organizes vineyard tours for flummoxed visitors like me.
"This isn't like Napa Valley, where you can jump on a bus and go from winery to winery," Evans says, pouring me a Bordeaux-style Carmelo Patti Gran Assemblage from a vineyard in Luján de Cuyo. Mendoza's wineries are spaced far apart on unmarked dirt roads, and few let you stroll in without an appointment. Evans explains that I should either hire a driver or sign up for a group tour. "Regardless, it's a more intimate experience here," he says. "Most often, the guy who opens the door will be the vintner himself."
ROOTS OF THE REGION:
Luján de Cuyo
The following morning, I decide to hire a remis (taxi) to drive me to the heart of the wine country. Luján de Cuyo is where the first grapes were planted by the Spaniards in the 16th century—and where some of the most beautiful wineries are, including Bodega Benegas. Constructed in 1901, the adobe building is one of the oldest in the region, with antique gaucho ponchos framed and displayed on the walls. True to Evans's word, I'm greeted by owner Federico J. Benegas Lynch, whose great-grandfather introduced French grapevines to Argentina in 1883. In the whitewashed tasting room, Benegas pours a Syrah with violet and blackberry notes, and after taking three sips, he gives me a wink when I notice him spitting out the wine. "I think Perón had a saying about dividing the day into two mornings because you work best early in the day," he says. "If I want to have a productive second morning, I need to watch myself!"