Dark hair; blue eyes. Tango = smoldering attraction about which your mother, and your constituents, must never hear. Late night Malbec with grass-fed beef, grilled. Big mountains.
Argentina is romantic in very many ways. First, they all think they’re Italian. Second, they’re sooo good looking. Third, in the sexual sense of the word, I give you tango, and the factoid that Buenos Aires is the No. 1 lingerie market on the planet. Fourth, in the adventure sense of the word, Argentina sports such wonderful, barely populated, high-elevation frontiers. The highest vineyard in California is about 3,600 ft. The highest in the world, in northwest Argentina, is at about 12,000 ft. Sure, that’s high, but the whole area is still in the rain-shadow of the 22,000-ft Andes. That not enough for you? Try the Euro-ski-elegance of Bariloche in Patagonia. Or the steamy Wild West atmosphere of Iguazu Falls on the northern border shared with Paraguay and Brazil.
Mendoza is the primary wine district of Argentina. It is actually nearer to Santiago, Chile than to Buenos Aires. That’s convenient, re a flight from the US, because Santiago is also a little bit east of Miami and New York. Except in the dead of Winter (our Summer), the bus trip from Santiago to Mendoza is run regularly. It is also inexpensive, comfortable, and affords spectacular views of the Andes, particularly Mount Aconcagua (the biggest).
Once you arrive in Mendoza, you’re going to need two things: a car; and a copy of the latest edition of Vinas, Bodegas and Vinos (annual publication from Austral Spectator). There is no good way to get to the wineries except in a rental car, and the book will give you the latest ratings and driving instructions for top wineries all over South America. Mendoza is a pretty and sophisticated town. There are many fine places to stay, but it is hard to beat the Hyatt on the main plaza for convenience. It is no more than three or four blocks from several nice restaurants and at least one really good retail wine store.
I’m inclined to recommend a minimum stay of three or four nights. Visit, in no particular order: Catena Zapata, Salentein, La Rural, Nieto Senetiner, Ricardo Santos, Familia Zuccardi, Norton, Trapiche, Rutini, Terrazas de los Andes. Also take a day trip north to San Juan to see Bodegas Don Domenico. Definitely eat at least once at 1884 Restaurant. Realize South Americans don’t eat dinner until 10:00 pm. I always find it useful to break the day into four pieces: visit wineries in the morning; lunch and nap in the early afternoon; visit wineries from about 4:00 to 8:00; make an event out of dinner.
Malbec, logically enough, will be a focus of your investigations. Especially when eating a big hunka grass-fed red meat for dinner. Don’t entirely ignore Chardonnay though. Catena is the aristocracy of the Argentine wine industry, and they make really fine Chardonnay from their property way up the east side of Mount Tupengato. Try the version they call Catena Alta. It’s tight and crisp, and wonderfully age worthy. You will be amused to know winery mastermind Nicolas Catena brought his family to Berkeley in the late-1980’s, where he taught Agricultural Economics. Daughter Laura, who now handles the winery’s international marketing, came of age in Bizerkeley. Today she lives in San Francisco, where she is also an Emergency Room physician. Smart girl.
You should also keep your eye out for Syrah and blends of Syrah with Malbec. You’ll probably notice that young Malbec has intensely purple color, but only medium-weight extractive texture. By itself Malbec tends not to be color-fast. For best aging potential, Malbec does well to be blended (even in small percentages) with a tannin-rich grape. Argentine winemakers are working out this artistic puzzle as we speak. It is also fascinating to look into the health benefits which may accrue to high-elevation, South American red wines due to the increased polyphenol content derived from increased UV light on the skins (see anti-oxidant article for more details).
In all likelihood you’ll want to spend at least a couple days in Buenos Aires. Bar Danzon is a top wine bar, although far from the only one of note. Patagonia Sur is a wonderful restaurant, albeit in the industrial district near where the Boca Juniors soccer team plays their home games. Club del Vino is also well worth a visit. Don’t miss the San Telmo antiques market on Sundays. Loi Suites is a nicely appointed hotel in the upscale Recoleta District (one block from Eva Peron’s tomb); Kempinski Hotel is a nice, less expensive option in the center of town. Palermo is a middle-priced district for real estate where a lot of up-coming, creative restaurateurs can afford to open places.
Another idea to seriously consider is taking the ferry (called Buquebus) across the Rio Plate to Uruguay. Unlike Buenos Aires, there is a thriving wine industry local to Montevideo. Perhaps you’d want to fly out of Montevideo. Bouza, Pisano, and Juanico wineries are all within an hour’s drive. The ferry ride is most convenient to and from the 16th century Portugese town of Colonia. Charm someone’s socks off by staying at La Mision hotel. It’s a bargain too. While in Uruguay take any opportunity to try wines from Stagnari, Toscannini, or Carrau. Tannat is the grape variety upon which to concentrate your attention.
If you want an extreme adventure, fly to Salta. Rent a car from Constance Bearzi at Marina Travel. Stay at Hotel Salta. Eat at Solar across the street. Drink Torrentes (a fragrant white variety) whenever possible. Drive south thru Cafayate. Visit Michel Torino and Etchart wineries. Stay at Ruinas de Quilmes (hotel by Hector Cruz), another bargain, where wild llamas will join you by the pool. Drive to Bodega Colome and stay there. Return to Cafayate to visit Yacochuya winery and stay at La Rosa Hotel. Eat at El Rancho on the Plaza, and shop the wine store on the north (opposite side of the Plaza). Believe me, you’ll dine out on these stories for years.
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