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Mendoza makes good as Argentina's promising wine country

I’d always had this notion that the wines of Argentina were cheap and one-note. You know, the “ta!” without the “da!” with not much more going on than your basic, pizza-night reds. 

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to take one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime treks to Argentina’s most prolific and, inarguably, best-known wine region: Mendoza. And you know what I found out? I was wrong.

Not only are Argentina’s wine still the source of incredible bargains --what you can get for a sawbuck and a Lincoln (that's $15 in case you were wondering) here feels like low-hanging fruit of the best -quality --but the readily available wines had more regional variation than I had expected. 

If you’re looking for a little wine-country trek with European charm and where your dollar goes almost as far as the stunning vistas, it’s more than worth the double-digit flight time.

I used the Park Hyatt Hotel in Mendoza City as my base camp and headed out from there to sip and stomp my way through a week’s worth of sun-drenched vineyards and stunning views of the snow-capped Andes (the source of much of the irrigation in these desert-like lands in the foothills of the mountains).  I enjoyed the affable hospitality in the tasting rooms and memorable meals that still have me approaching the dinner table and thinking, “Where’s my delicious spit-cooked lamb?” Sigh. 

But the great thing is, with few exceptions, nearly every wine I found there that I loved, I can get in America. Argentina exports about 85 percent of their vinous national product, with the U.S. topping that market with open arms.

Some of my favorites can be found pretty easily, like the savory red Bonardas from Nieto Senetiner, the zippy white Torrontes from Familia Zuccardi, and a multitude of Malbec—Argentina’s best-known calling- card red that many producers are blending from different plots planted at myriad elevations to get just the right melding of plummy fruit flavor, floral aromas, and acidity (a technique pioneered by the Malbec-on-the-map producer, Catena Zapata).

What follows are a few suggestions of great spots to hit when you head out. Each has an open-to-the-public tasting rooms -- just be sure to call ahead and let them know you’re coming, and leave yourself enough time to sip, take in the great scenery, and grab a picnic snack or a meal to remember.  

Catena Zapata

You can’t talk about Argentine wine without bringing up Catena Zapata, a 110-year old family-owned winery just south of Mendoza City. Run today by the Renaissance father-daughter team of Nicolas and Laura (the two have more Ivy League degrees between them than you can shake a graduation tassel at) whose ancestors emigrated from Italy to Argentina around the turn of the nineteenth century. It was Nicolas whose think-big experiments with high-altitude plantings and blendings, as well as a 10-year laborious effort to identify differences in Malbec clones, that set the bar high for Argentine wine – and it shows in the wonderful balance of their wines, from their moderate-priced Catena line to the splurge-worthy Catena Alta bottlings.

Today, they have about 1,500 acres planted with that Malbec, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, spanning from about 500 feet above sea level to nose-bleed vineyards nearly 6,000 feet up. Located in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, make an appointment to get a tour of their stunning Mayan-inspired reception spot and tasting room. Constructed of stone block walls, with travertine floors and furniture hand-hewn from the local La Pacho Rojo trees, you’ll find yourself agape at the circular center of the building with a staircase leading up and up to the glass-encased atrium-style peak where you can gaze at the vineyards from the sunny rooftop.  

Wines to Try:

2010 Catana Zapata Malbec, ($15). Fresh and lively notes of soft, fleshy black plum and black cherry fill your mouth and leave you with a nice bit of cinnamon and black pepper spice on the finish.

2008 Catena Alta Malbec ($55). To be filed under “Worth the Splurge”: The nose is all aromas of violets and sweet herbs, that opens up in your mouth to juicy, ripe Italian plums and dark chocolate, that morphs into a slightly tart, espresso-bean finish.

Familia Zuccardi

If there’s any way for you to get an audience with the affable, ever-gracious Jose Zuccardi, do it.  You will never in your life meet someone who loves his job so much and is so passionate about the thing he produces. 

This civil engineer-turned-winemaker has kept pace with the ever-improving wines of Mendoza, and since the first vineyard was planted in 1963, now boasts nearly 500 acres of organically farmed grapes across four different properties in the Uco and Maipu valleys, as well as two olive oil plantations headed up by one of Jose’s three sons. 

In 2001, the Zuccardi’s built a beautiful visitor’s center in Maipu. Constructed within an old barrel-room, the walls of the large, rustic, cheerful spot are hung with paintings of local artists, whose work is curated by Anna Zuccardi, Jose’s wife, and changes every three months, with an upstairs tasting room where you can sample the Zuccardi’s wines.

But the real gem is their seasonally-minded restaurant just across the street, Casa del Visitante, where I was treated to the vibrant, creative cooking of executive chef Matias Aldasoro. This spunky, young chef likes to take local ingredients and traditional recipes and infuse them with a mind toward modern gastronomy, like the plate I was given of local goat cheese wrapped in slivers of pink watermelon, sprinkled with black olive dust, and swirled with thin streams of a citrus-tinged papaya reduction. 

NOTE: The Zuccardis have a second restaurant slotted to open on the vineyards soon called Pan e Oliva prominently featuring their bright and zesty olive oils.

Wines to Try:

2011 Zuccardi Series A Torrontes ($15). The nose will knock you out with its enchanting aromas of honeysuckle, gardenia, and orange flower water. And that's only the hint of good things to come. This pretty,  expressive white made from Argentina’s famed Torrontes grape is creamy and soft from spending 6 months on its lees, and takes on super tropical and honeysuckle juice notes, but manages to stay aloft from zingy acidity.

2010 Emma Zuccardi Bonarda ($30). Named for Jose’s 86-year-old mom, this wine is certainly a tribute. It smells like violets and black cherries, with a little bit of spearmint around the edges, which in your mouth opens up to more of that soft black cherry and cassis that lingers on subtly like an echo in the distance.

Alta Vista

This is the first winery I’ve ever been to that hands out pretty pillows and blankets and picnic baskets for grazing and snoozing on their lovely lavender and olive-tree dotted grounds.  Iit’s definitely something I could have gotten used to. Located in Lujan de Cuyo, Alta Vista is about a half hour south of Mendoza City, where the chilly morning air in the foothills of mountains can deceive you with  how warm it can get later in the day (Read: Wear layers!). This is, of course, part of the secret to much of the good grape growing here.

There’s definitely a European-minded feel to the stone walls and wrought-iron light fixtures, and in keeping with that Euro-centric nod, even their winemaker, Mattieu Gacon, hails from the old country of France’s Loire Valley. But Alta Vistas roots have been Old World since it was founded in 1997 by the former owners of Champagne’s Piper-Heidsieck, the d’Aulan family. 

“We speak of terroir at Alta Vista because… we are French!” Gacon likes to joke, but they are indeed attuned to the differences in aroma and flavor from plot to plot and plant to plant. Be sure to make an appointment to visit for a tour and tasting – and, of course, a picnic and nap on the grounds afterward.

Wines to Try:

2011 Alta Vista Premium Torrontes ($16). These grapes come from the cool Cafayette region, and take on pretty aromas of lily of the valley and honeysuckle here, with flavors of ginger, grapefruit, and lemon zest that float along the silky, creamy texture and minerally finish.

2010 Alta Vista Premium Malbec ($16). This wine surprised me, because once I got past the very satisfying start of blackberries, plums, licorice, baking spice, and cedar, this wine had an unexpected, delicate finish of roses and violets that was a real head-turner.

Renacer

One of the newer kids on the Argentine block, Renacer’s roots begin in Chile, with its father-and-son Chilean owners, Patricio and Pato Reich, and reach all the way to Italy via a winemaking partnership with the famed Italian enologist Alberto Antonini. Their winemaking philosophy is also a blend, seen in their penchant for mixing from myriad plots and altitudes and side projects like their Amarone-style sippers made from dried Malbec, Syrah, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.

Right now, Renacer only producers five wines in their 1.2 million bottle-a-year operation because, as Pato (which means “duck” in Spanish – and you will find many happily swimming in the on-premises pond at this modern stone tasting room) says, “We’re interested in quality, not quantity.” Taste for yourself (and say hi to the ducks) at their Lujan du Cuyo tasting room, which is open to the public daily, or you can reserve a special tasting in their Barrique Room and, if you're a large enough group, possibly work out a special al fresco lunch on the pretty grounds.