Mendoza . . . in one BIG post

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Catena Zapata

Time to finally move on to the last phase of our trip – Mendoza.

Our time in B.A. was all about eating and wandering.  By contrast, our time in Mendoza was all about wine and chilaxing.

Rather than all staying in hotels in Medoza, our group rented a house together in Chacras de Coria, a small town outside the city of Mendoza. (Quick note: Mendoza is the name of both the city, and the larger province in which it lies.)  Check out our cute little bungalow:

The little house in Mendoza

The little house in Mendoza

Here at our lovely abode we spent the time hanging out by the pool and making big dinner feasts for ourselves. Yeah, I’m jealous of us too.

Asado at Home
Tommy at the grill.

But that’s the beauty of travelling with a group.  With the cost divided amongst many people, staying in this huge home was actually more economical than staying in a hotel.

When weren’t luxuriating by our pool, we were out getting to know Argentina’s most famous wine region.  I think we covered a decent amount of ground—we hit about a dozen wineries in all—but of course, there is still so much more to see.  I guess the only solution is to go back.

The structure of winery visits is a little different from those in other big wine regions in the U.S., Australia, or NZ.  They’re more focused on the winery tour, rather than on the actual tastings like they tend to be in other places.  These are some of the most informational tours I’ve been on and you can learn quite a bit about the winemaking process on them. I also have to say though, that sometimes, in my fervor to cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time, I occasionally missed the option to just taste through the portfolio in a tasting a room. This seemed to be an option only in some of the more internationally known wineries like Catena and Alta Vista. Another plus side to these tours though is that they did space out the time between tastings, which definitely is beneficial for one’s sobriety.

Here is a recap of what we liked and what we felt could have been better.
At the end of each section I’ll share some purchases—although this isn’t a complete list—which were picked for a combo of taste and value factors.

The Favorites



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If there’s one winery in the area that is a must, I’d say it is Catena Zapata.  More than anyone else, Nicolás Catena is credited with putting Mendoza’s wine industry and its now signature grape, Malbec, on the world stage. Argentina’s wine industry was previously focused on bulk wines that were mostly sold and consumed within Argentina.  The Catena family had been making wine in the area since 1898, but when Nicolás took over the family business, he set about transforming their wines to wines of quality that could be exported and sold internationally.  His daughter, Laura, now works with him and they’ve continued to innovate and push towards making better wines.

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Our group at Catena

The winery is also absolutely beautiful. The structure was inspired by the Mayan pyramids in Mexico and has gorgeous staircases and wide windows with beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards.

Another plus to getting to know the Catena portfolio is that many of their wines are pretty easy to find in the U.S., with good options at all price points. While they’re higher end wines are certainly delicious, their entry-level lines Alamos and Catena are excellent values at around $10 and $20 respectively and I’ve bought them often.

Laura Catena wrote a helpful book about Medoza’s wine country–Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina. It’s part guidebook, part history, and part cookbook. It’s a useful resource for anyone considering a trip to the area.


Some Purchases:
2008 Catena Alta Malbec
2007 D.V. Catena Malbec 
2007 D.V. Catena Syrah



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The view from Achaval Ferrer

Achaval Ferrer is a newer operation in the area. Its winemakers got together in 1998 and have focused on small production, high-end wines, and they’ve done so with a lot of success and acclaim.  I’m not going to lie to you. Their wines are pricey. They don’t have a whole lot in the entry or mid-level prices—just a couple of options. Their high-end wines, however, are just spectacular.  We sampled the 2010 Finca Altamira out the barrel and it was already delicious.  I couldn’t help it; I had to take a bottle of the 2009. (Well, actually I felt guilty making the purchase, so Greg and our friends talked me into it.) It was the biggest splurge of the trip.  Our friends Rob and Laura, who don’t live in NYC and have actual space for wine storage, walked away with a case.




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La Azul is a teeny, tiny operation in the Tupungato area of Mendoza.  The buildings are small and rustic, and almost seem to blend into the scenery. They produce wines of good value, but unfortunately I don’t think they can be found in the U.S. yet.

They also have a small restaurant (available by reservation) with just a few tables set up in what feels like an outdoor room with a hint of a surrealist vibe.  Their tiny kitchen puts out a mean meal and the steak was FANTASTIC. This rivaled some of the most high-end restaurants for our group’s favorite meal in Argentina.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:






Some Purchases: 
2008 Azul Reserva 
2007 Gran Reserva 
(Both Malbec/ Cab blends) 



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One of the friends travelling with us seems to have a knack for meeting fabulous and important people in unlikely situations and befriending them. Michael’s a really nice guy and doesn’t search out these interactions.  He’s not deliberately looking for them, but they just happen to him.  We got the benefit of one of these meetings while in Argentina.

Michael works for a luxury car brand, and while we were in B.A. he stopped into the dealership in the area to check in and visit. It just so happened, that one of the Pulenta brothers is an enthusiast of said car brand and happened to be in the dealership. They strike up a conversation, Michael mentions that he’s soon going to Mendoza with a bunch of friends, and gets the hook-up.  

Tommy had actually already scheduled an appointment for us at the winery through a contact of his, but with Michael’s added connection, they gave us an extra nice tour. Thanks! 

The Pulenta family has also been established in the area since the beginning of the 1900’s and has a long winemaking tradition. I really enjoyed several things from the upper end of their offerings. I have one small lament, however.  I also really liked their entry level 2009 La Flor Blend.  At a price hovering around $10 (I think it was around $12 or $13 at the winery), I thought it was a great value. It was easy drinking with big raspberry and blackberry flavors, notes of mocha and spice. But alas, I don’t think they sell this one in the U.S. yet. I’d buy it by the case if they did. (Note: They do sell a La Flor Malbec in the US, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as the blend.)



Other purchases:
2009 Gran Cabernet Franc XI


I also liked


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 We made a very quick stop into Alta Vista, so my notes are limited. We didn’t take the tour here, but they have a tasting room and their winery is in Chacras de Coria, so it’s pretty easily accessible.  We only did a quick tasting here, so I don’t have quite as much to say, but they have a wide set of offerings that run the gamut in price, with some very good offerings in the mix. Even though we only tasted a few at the winery, we did order several bottles with dinners throughout the trip.  While they were not studied in the same way they would have been at the winery, they were greatly enjoyed.  I’d like to go back and give them a closer look.  Their Rosé was a particular favorite with several members of our group.


Purchases:
2008 Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec 
2011 Alta Vista Premium Torrontés 
Also, the Rosé, but we drank that by the pool


Notable Tours and Visits

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This winery has a very cool feature built in to their tour. They’ve built an aroma room—kind of like a big gallery of smells. If you’ve ever wondered what we wine geeks are looking for when we’re sniffing and sipping a glass, here they’ve literally laid it all out for you.  The room is filled with a long series of stations, each containing a different smell that’s commonly found in wines. Having these smells highlighted can help you refocus and isolate them for yourself when you next take a sip.

In addition, to the aroma room, Belasco de Baquedano has a very good restaurant, Navarra, where they pair each course with one of their wines.





 
Purchases:
2009 Llama Malbec


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Bonfanti is tiny, family owned operation. The family has had the property since 1915, but recently built their winery facilities in 2005, so they’re still pretty new and in the process of developing.  Being family run, the owners are very involved even in giving the winery tours, and one of the sons lead our group through a lovely tour of the property. What I liked best about this particular tour was that in addition to seeing the wine making operations, as was the case at most wineries, here they also took us to see the vineyards, which was not at all common. After seeing an endless number of tanks and barrels of all kinds, it was nice to take a stroll through the vines and hear about that side of business.


Purchases:
2007 Malbec-Cab Gran Reserva 
2008 Caberent Sauvignon Reserva
2009 Malbec Reserva



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To be honest, we didn’t actually take a tour here, nor did we even really taste through the wines, but we did have a very lovely lunch here. (I should note though, that this is an organic operation for those interested in finding those wineries.)  Service was on the slow side, but the setting was idyllic with tables set up on a wooden deck area surrounded by vineyards as shady trees canopy overhead.  The menu selection tended toward Italian-inspired home-style dishes.









Could Have Been Better


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We had a really nice tour at Luigi Bosca and they have a beautiful winery, but I thought the tasting portion could have been organized a little better.  I’ll admit I’m being picky here, but I think a good tasting should serve as a snapshot of a winery’s offerings, or at least of one of their lines, or how they express a varietal. Luigi Bosca has a lot of lines and many different varietals. The tasting only included three wines, which I think is way too few to get a very good read. Moreover, they were all different varietals and lines. Like I said, I know I’m being picky, but in the end the tasting didn’t put anything about the winery into focus for me. I just didn’t get a very clear picture of what they’re about.


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Monteviejo 

Just a warning, I’m going to go on a bit of a rant here. Feel free to skip ahead. 

Our trip to Clos de los Siete was rather unfortunate.  It’s too bad because I really liked the wines, the property is beautiful, and the concept is cool. French winemaker Michel Rolland decided to buy up property in Mendoza and brought some friends with him with the goal of producing wines in Argentina in the Old World style. They divided up the land between seven parties and now between them they have 5 individually operated wineries on the larger Clos de los Siete property.  

The first part of my complaint is on the nit-picky side of things, much like my criticism of Luigi Bosca above.  I didn’t really understand the logic behind the structure of the visit.  You arrive at a central visitor center, from which you set off with a guide to tour one of their wineries.  You do not get to taste the wines at this winery.  You then set off to another winery, at which you will taste the wines, but not take a tour.  This system just doesn’t make sense to me. I find it antithetical to how my mind forms connections.  One of the reasons that I love visiting a wineries is that once I’ve tasted the wines, and especially if I’ve taken a tour, the memory of the wines stays much clearer in my mind. This system crosses the wires. So while we visited Monteviejo and tasted the wines at Cuvelier Los Andes, I have trouble keeping it straight without looking at my notes.  I also found it funny that our guide seemed genuinely surprised that we asked to taste a wine or two from the winery we’d actually toured. 

From a marketing point of view, I think they’re missing an opportunity here by not allowing people to visit and taste through more or even all of the wineries. They could offer package deals depending on how many you want to visit going up to a full-day package where guests can visit all of the wineries. Or/and they could have one central tasting room where guests could taste through as much of the portfolio as desired (pricing accordingly) and get a better idea of all the offerings.  But I digress.

This is all minor.  My real problems here were with the customer service. After our tasting, we returned to the central tour office, at which point—go figure—our group wanted to purchase some of the wines we’d actually tried.  It turned out they didn’t have any at the office.  The wines were at the winery we’d just come from. They didn’t have anyone available to go get the wines we wanted to pay money for, so we offered to have our driver go with one of the reps to pick up the wine. Somehow, even though the winery was like a five-minute drive away, it took like an hour for them to get back.  Our day’s itinerary was now screwed, but nonetheless, they still charged us full price for the tours as well as the wines. I think a little customer consideration was in order. Also, I’m going to venture that they might do well to perhaps make it a little less difficult for customers to buy their wares.

To add insult to injury, the setback ultimately put us way too late to go to the next winery on the day’s agenda, O. Fournier. It happened to be Tommy’s birthday and O. Fournier had been one of his top picks, so he was bummed. We all were pretty grumpy at that point.  

To be fair, I will say that my friend Michelle took a very similar trip to ours recently and she and her husband had a much better experience at Clos de los Siete than we did.  She counts it as one of their favorites.


Purchases:
2008 Clos de los Siete Red Blend
2006 Cuvelier Los Andes Grand Vin Red Blend


How to get around

It’s quite a drive from Mendoza city or Chacras de Coria to most of the wineries. Moreover, while driving in Argentina doesn’t seem quite as daunting a proposition as driving in most other Latin American countries that I’ve been to, the wineries are in rural areas, which probably don’t have the clearest street signs.  I really don’t think it would be a good idea to attempt it with even a hint of alcohol in the mix.

We hired a driver to take us out, and I think that is probably the best way to go about it. Mauricio was awesome—super nice and knowledgeable about the region. You can find him at his site: www.mendozaprivatedriver.com. He offers tours in English, French, Portuguese, and of course, Spanish.

I didn’t take one myself, but I do know that there are companies offering wine tours on bike, so that could be another option to consider. However, I think you’ll probably need a car to get out to a lot of the good spots.


City of Mendoza

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 We actually did not spend much time in Mendoza proper, so I don’t have any recommendations to share as far as hotels and restaurants. Francis Mallmann has one of his restaurants here, so if you’re in the mood for a splurge, check out 1884.



Getting your loot back to the States

This really wasn’t a big problem at all.  We brought back 22 bottles—however, one died on the journey, so really 21.  With Mauricio’s help, we purchased wine shippers in which to box-up our bottles and just brought it back as checked baggage. (I should note, that the bottle that broke was not in one of these shippers, but in a winery provided box that wasn’t actually intended for air travel.) Of course, you can’t bring back that many bottles back without declaring them, and of course, customs can charge you; however, we simply declared them and we were not charged. No problem. 

One quick note to factor in when booking flights and planning all your luggage and shipping is that if you plan to travel back to Buenos Aires to connect back to the US—or really wherever—realize that the domestic and international airports in B.A. are across town from each other, so make sure to leave enough time between flights, although there really aren’t that many options. We made it just fine from one to the other with all of our luggage and boxes via cab, but honestly, trying to fit it all into one day with the limited flight schedule was kind of brutal.  In total it took almost 24 hours to get from Mendoza to NYC. If possible leave yourself a day in between for a layover.


Other recommendations

As I mentioned, my buddy from the Somm Class, Michelle, made a similar trip shortly after we did. Her additional recommendations are O. Fournier (the winery we didn’t get to visit  thanks to Clos de los Siete) and Mendel Wines.


And that, my friends, will finally wrap up our trip to Argentina . . . only 8 months later.

WooHoo!

Greg dances by the fountain

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