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?
Unlike Benegas, I wasn't spitting, but I'm ready for more. Bodega Elvira Calle, a few miles down the road, is in a refurbished Spanish colonial house owned by Kirk Ermisch, whose story is something like Evans's. In 1999, while working for Kendall Jackson, Ermisch came to Mendoza to help the company set up shop—and ended up opening his own winery. "At the time, Argentineans were known for making cheap wine that they drank like soda pop," he says. "But what I saw were upstarts producing exciting appellations, using old-vine vineyards and inexpensive methods of farming." To prove his point, he offers me a glass of bonarda, an inky red that costs $15 but tastes like it could go for three times as much.
After giving me a tour of his soaring concrete rooms, Ermisch suggests visiting a fellow winemaker who is a bit of a legend in Luján de Cuyo. It turns out to be Carmelo Patti, whose wine I tried at Vines of Mendoza. Compared to the chic Bodega Elvira Calle, El Lagar Carmelo Patti looks like a big garage with stacks of boxes strewn about. Despite the chaos, it's known for producing some of the best wines in Mendoza. The secret: Patti controls quality by running the operation single-handedly, and he ages each wine for at least three years. He gives us direct-from-the-barrel samples of a 2004 and a 2006 malbec so we can compare the two, and instructs me to look for the tart cherry and black olive notes. As I puzzle over the flavors, Patti takes a sip of each. "The wine talks, and we understand," he says. "Things should be this simple."
A TASTE OF WHAT'S NEXT:
Valle de Uco
If Luján de Cuyo speaks of Mendoza's past, Valle de Uco is its future. An hour outside Mendoza City, this cool valley is home to sprawling wineries that are close to 4,000 feet above sea level—ideal conditions for producing one of my favorite wines, tempranillo. This time, I've joined a group outing led by Ampora Wine Tours. Along for the ride are four men from Texas who are all scouting property. Two of them have already purchased fincas in the area and have plans to open the first luxury resort in Valle de Uco. The other two—a fertility doctor and an Oxford-educated entrepreneur—are hoping to launch their own wineries. "It's a land grab," says the doctor, gesturing at vast fields that stretch clear into the surrounding mountainsides. "Of course, prices have gone up. A few years ago, they were practically giving this away."
Against this epic backdrop, Valle de Uco's wineries are spectacular, many of them designed by some of South America's top architects. Our first stop is Bodegas Salentein, a cross-shaped building planted in a nearly 5,000-acre vineyard that abuts the eastern slope of the Andes. Designed by Bormida & Yanzon—a Mendoza-based firm with a long résumé of winery buildings in the region—each wing of the cross is devoted to creating a different product, from chardonnays to malbec-cabernet blends. But the winery's most surprising feature is the temple-like Killka Gallery, which houses the owners' contemporary art collection, including giant canvases by Argentinean painters Antonio Seguí and Miguel Ocampo.
Before returning to Mendoza City, we drive about 15 miles deeper into the valley to O. Fournier, a winery the Texans affectionately dub "the Bat Cave." The building looks like a giant gray spaceship poking out of a field of grapes. We're ushered into a cavernous stone tasting room decorated with paintings of Madonnas and queens. Sipping the winery's signature tempranillo, the men debate the best places to buy land. "Valle de Uco has the finest terroir in the country, hands down," says one of the aspiring hoteliers. His business partner turns to our driver and says, "I saw a FOR SALE sign on the way. Do you think we could double back?"
That night, I eat a delicious smoked salmon soufflé over tabbouleh at La Sal, an Argentine, Asian, and Italian fusion restaurant. I have one last stop to make before I leave for a weekend in the countryside: Everyone has told me not to miss Winery, a bar with a series of rooms, each devoted to a different varietal. (Malbec, the region's best-known varietal, gets the largest space.) Just after I arrive, my waitress pulls me into a game of bocce taking place outside on Winery's full-size clay court. I play several fierce rounds as an elderly patron shouts strategic advice: "If you shoot from the left, you'll smack her ball away!"
NO TIME LIKE RIGHT NOW:
Chacras de Coria
After hanging out with serious investors, entrepreneurs, and vintners, I'm delighted to meet a hotelier who understands how I like to drink wine—on a comfy sofa, with a cheese and olive plate in front of me. This is Finca Adalgisa, a century-old manor-house inn and winery in Chacras de Coria, just 20 minutes outside Mendoza City, that's belonged to Gabriela Furlotti's family for three generations.