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Mendoza, Northern Argentina's Wine Country
Driving blindly through a raging dust storm — the locals call it a Zonda — in the wine country of northern Argentina, it crossed my mind that maybe I should have just re-visited Napa Valley.
But Mendoza, and the magnificent Andes Mountains that surround it, is an extraordinary wine-producing region and this was a chance to cross it off my bucket list.
So, in northern Argentina’s late winter, my traveling companion and I chose to visit three of the region’s more than 900 vineyards and made our first stop the Valle de Uco. Getting there was more complicated than touring California’s wine country because here we had to calculate the distance between wineries, discern the questionable road markings, and keep in mind that many bodegas require advance reservations.
With the help of a good map, we let the Zonda blow us to our first stop, Bodega la Azul. Fronted by a small rustic building, which turned out to be a comfortable, homey restaurant, we were happy to put ourselves in the hands of owner/chef Jimmy Baeza. He fed us tastes of tender braised pork, grilled chicken with a tangy lemon reduction, and a massive grass fed Argentine rib eye that not even my vegetarian companion could resist. With these sumptuous dishes we drank glasses of La Azul’s premium Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Over glasses of wine, our Brooklyn-raised waiter, Pablo, a friend of owner Ezequiel Fadel, related the history of La Azul.
Following lunch, we ambled back to the small but technologically advanced bodega where Pablo introduced us to the finest wines from their aging barrels and a Grand reserve of which they only produce 3,000 bottles annually and never export.
At our next stop, the Salentein winery, the producers of more than 1.6 million liters of Mendoza wines own three vineyards, each at a different altitude. The buildings on the main “campus” were conceived by two then-unknown Mendoza architects, Bormida & Yanzon, who used only materials native to the Uco Valley. Their design minimizes the impact on the environment and respects the grandeur of the Andean backdrop. An ultra-modern building fronted by contemporary statuary houses a large wine bar, a restaurant, and a contemporary art gallery. This 13-year-old first class operation was founded by Dutchman Pon Mijndert and is named for a castle in the Netherlands.
A short walk through the vineyards brought us to the heart of the operation. The ground level contains gleaming stainless steel tanks and French wooden vats for fermentation and storage. Giant oak casks for aging wines fill the underground level. Finally, we came upon an acoustically perfect circular chamber, resembling an amphitheater, with a grand piano set to one side. There, Salentein regularly hosts classical concerts and tango dancing. In the adjacent tasting room we sampled goblets of fine Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and the region’s famous Malbec. This bodega, as lavish as a Hollywood movie set, is a shrine to sustainable building and wine making.
En route to our final stop, we drove through a countryside just emerging from winter. Eventually we sighted an unpretentious logo marking the entrance to The Vines Of Mendoza. This unique property features private vineyard estates of three to 10 acres and a new resort and spa. Oenophiles who dream of having a vineyard of their own and personally blending wines to suit their own tastes have discovered “paradise found” at The Vines. We drove through acres of vineyards, each parcel marked with the owner’s name and amount of acreage, until we arrived at the core of the operation where the fruit of the vine turns to wine.
Co-owners of this project, American Michael Evens and Argentinian Pablo Gimenez Riili, discovered a mutual passion and set out to create some of the world’s finest wines while offering a special opportunity to wine lovers to create their own distinctive blends.
Neophyte vintners from four continents currently participate in this unique, professionally managed project. In 2012, the amateur vintners created 230 wines using 18 different varietals. We participated in the process of creating a new wine with an Orange County, California family under the guidance of Wine Director Mariana Onofre and Head Wine Maker Pablo Matorell, who had transformed the bar into a laboratory.
The Vines is a dream come true for aficionados of “the grape” and fills the bill for gastronomes. Executive Chef Diego Irrera oversees the unique Argentine style cooking and presents memorable dining experiences. We joined a small group at the ramada, an open-air covered dining area overlooking the snow covered Andes Mountains, for cuts of various grilled meats, fresh vegetables, luscious desserts and ever-flowing local wines.
The Vines Resort & Spa opened in January, 2014 amidst the vineyards, a boutique lakeside resort with luxurious villas, a wine and cocktail bar, gym, spa, swimming pool and activities from wine making to yoga to horseback riding. The Vines of Mendoza presents a remote escape but with all the trimmings.
The Uco Valley, with its vineyards set against one of the most magnificent mountain ranges in the world, boasts no traffic, friendly people, delicious dining and some of the best wines produced anywhere. The bodegas are reminiscent of Napa, California’s wine country half a century ago and it’s worth the occasional Zanda to experience it.
Bodega La Azul
Ruta Provincial No 89
Ruta 89 Sin Numero
Publisher and Editor in Chief of Southern California Guide since 1979, Valerie Summers also contributes to national and international publications. She has traveled on five continents in search of cultural attractions and adventures to share with her readers.