Argentina's winemaking region is ripe for an explosion in tourism
Ever wished you'd visited Napa in the '70s, before Mondavi was a household name, traffic clogged the country lanes, and collectors paid hundreds of dollars a bottle for wines from cult vineyards like Shafer and Marcassin?
It's still possible to get a feel for what Napa was like before the hordes arrived. You just have to travel to Mendoza, Argentina's wine region in the foothills of the Andes, a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Five years after the devastating devaluation of the peso, Mendoza is booming. Big-name winemakers, drawn to the favorable climate, and rising local stars already are forging international reputations -- especially for wines made from malbec, a French grape that thrives there. They're also experimenting with better-known varietals including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and, at the highest altitudes, pinot noir, which requires a cool climate. The next logical step: an explosion of gastro-tourism.
Mendoza sits at a latitude of 33 degrees South -- the equivalent of Napa in the north -- but unlike Napa, it's arid and dusty. The region averages 330 days of sun and just eight inches of rain annually. The lush vineyards, harvested from February to mid-April, are irrigated by an intricate system of canals that channel the runoff from the Andes.
You'll find the most beautiful bodegas and enjoyable tours at foreign-owned or established local estates that dot the outskirts of Mendoza city and the Uco Valley, a newer wine growing area 55 miles south. Upon arriving in Mendoza, check in to the Cavas Wine Lodge, the most luxurious of the area's wine-tourism hotels. Opened by Buenos Aires transplants Cecilia and Martin Díaz Chuit, the main colonial-style building is set around a whitewashed courtyard. Each of the 14 rooms ($310 per night) has a roof deck, fireplace, and private plunge pool.
It feels like you're a million miles from anywhere, but it's just minutes to many of Mendoza's elite estates. Bodega Catena Zapata -- its winery is a replica of a Mayan temple -- is just a few miles away and a great place to start the day. The winery is one of the region's oldest and largest producers, which means you can sample chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons as well as the signature malbec.
Your midday stop should be VistAlba, the winery of Carlos Pulenta. Formerly a hired gun for international wineries, Pulenta began producing inexpensive varietals and aged blends of his own in 2003. Book a tour and tasting. Then have lunch at the winery's restaurant, La Bourgogne. Sleek in design, it offers French dishes from garlicky escargot to veal ribs braised in malbec paired with local wines and stunning views.
An hour and a half south in the Uco Valley, the star is Dutch-owned Bodegas Salentein. The property is comprised of three estates on more than 1,000 acres, some of which perch higher than 5,500 feet above sea level. Salentein also has a posada, or inn, with eight luxurious suites, each named for a different grape variety such as tempranillo and pinot noir. The $150 per-night rate includes full board, horseback riding, tours, and tastings (www.bodegasalentein.com).
Like many foreign investors, the owners of Salentein have made a strong commitment to preserving the local environment. Indigenous desert plants line the long driveway leading to the magnificent winery, which is constructed from regional sandstones and painted in colors ground from stone by local villagers. By October, 2006, guests will also be able to visit two art galleries, a restaurant, and a wine shop.
Salentein's philosophy extends to its winemaking. In the fields, winemakers have planted local herbs, such as rosemary and sage, which express themselves, subtly, in the wines. Like other cutting-edge wineries in the region, Salentein employs what's known as a gravity transfer system; wine flows from fermentation tanks on the upper level to aging barrels below. This eliminates pumping, which can agitate the wine and cause bitterness.
You'll find the same attention to detail next door at Andeluna Cellars (andeluna.com). Originally part of a well-known Argentine wine family's estate, the property was sold in 1995 to H. Ward Lay, the son of Frito-Lay founder Herman Lay. A longtime fan of Argentina -- Lay also owns a 200,000-acre hunting estate in Patagonia -- Andeluna is a wine lover's paradise. There are four tasting areas, a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes, and an elegant restaurant with wonderful pastas and other Italian-influenced dishes.
Even at these wineries, which are pioneering the Mendoza tourism trade, you must make an appointment to visit. And you must request a tasting if you want to sample something more interesting than the least expensive bottles. English is not spoken extensively, so you may find it easiest to have your hotel or a local tour company schedule appointments and arrange a car and driver to get you there. For more information, contact the Mendoza Tourist Assn. at turismo.mendoza.gov.ar . In 20 years, when Salentein, VistAlba, and Andeluna are household names, you'll be glad you were there way back when.
Note from Pete (your website author): The prices stated above seem outrageously expensive and obviously geared towards tourists. I have not visited the bodegas so I can’t say for sure, but $310 a night for a place in Mendoza just seems to be taking advantage of tourists (in my humble opinion).