Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Day on the Road in Mendoza

In a way, I'm kind of dreading these next couple of posts. Touring Mendoza has been one of the most highly anticipated portions of our vacation and we're throwing ourselves full bore into the experience. There's just a lot of day to condense into one post.

It took no time to determine that I really knew very little of the Argentina wine scene. Sure there's Malbec and I've even tried Torrontes, but it was abundantly clear that we were barely going to scratch the surface of the Mendoza scene. Perhaps the best bit of trip planning we did was to just leave it up to a travel agent to set all the wheels in motion. I'd advised our agent of a couple of wineries that I specifically wanted to visit because of contact I'd had at this year's Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival - but, then, I left it up to them to pick interesting wineries that we likely wouldn't see much up here in Vancouver. I wasn't particularly interested in just visiting the big, export driven producers. When I saw the list of nine wineries, I actually questioned some of the picks because I couldn't find much information about them. We were asked to trust them. So we did.

Visiting wineries in Mendoza isn't exactly the same as Napa or our Okanagan Valley where you simply drive around, locate a winery that looks interesting, pop in, try a couple of wines and move on. Most of wineries that receive tourists regularly require reservations and revolve around tours that are followed by a more thorough tasting. Our decision to fit three wineries in a day's itinerary was considered ambitious if nothing else.

Our Day One tour kicked in when we were met at Club Tapiz by Ricardo, a local guide who's background included acting as a translator. Since 2005, however, he's been specializing in eno-tourism. The first stop was to be Pulenta Estate in the Lujan de Cuyo district and Ricardo was a font of knowledge about the region and its wine during our drive to Pulenta. It would turn out that, during our three days with Ricardo, he'd prove to be as patient, responsive and friendly a guide as we could ask for. The fact that he seemed to be on best terms with every person we ran across in any winery was simply a bonus.

I'd wanted to include Pulenta Estate on our itinerary largely because of the wonderful bottle of their Gran Corte VII that we shared at Daveyboi's a couple of months back (#557). It proved to be a good choice. After being greeted with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (not the first varietal I associate with Argentina), we embarked on what was to become a recurring pattern - a quick tour of the immediate vineyards, followed by a visit to the winery facilities and cellars - where a quick history of winery and its approaches to winemaking were discussed. As similar as the tours were, the stories behind the wineries and the equipment was always different.

The Pulenta family has been active in Argentine viticulture for three generations. The family, like many in Mendoza, immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's and persevered in the growing of grapes and making of wine to the point where, by the end of the century, the family operated and had a majority share in Penaflor, one of Argentina's leading wine consortiums and the producer of one of the country's best-known international brands, Trapiche.

When the family sold its Penaflor holdings, the various branches of the family took different paths to the future. Two brothers, Eduardo and Hugo, started up Pulenta Estate in 2002 and set out to be part of the new, leading edge of Argentine wine - the production of lower yielding vineyards and higher quality wines. Their desire to develop praise worthy wines was clearly evident in the impressive facilities - that included our first exposure to the ubiquitous concrete fermentation containers and to some costly, French oak casks that were being used to experiment with some of the vineyards very best grapes.

Pulenta Estate produces between 40,000 and 50,000 cases annually and markets their range of wines under two labels - Pulenta Estate and La Flor, with the latter featuring younger, more approachable wines. Each of the higher level varietals or blends is identified by a roman numeral - with the Malbec I being the first wine produced by the winery. Accordingly, our much-loved Gran Corte VII was the seventh wine to be offered. We were told of one exception to this marketing program and that's a special bottling of a Cayenne label. The brothers are avid car enthusiasts and Porsche had Pulenta commemorate the launch of the Cayenne in South America with the special bottling. Drop a bundle on a sport utility and get a case of wine thrown in. No drinking and driving though.

The winery cellar features two barrel rooms that converge in a glassed-in tasting room. With so many of the region's wineries being newly constructed, this was just the first of some incredible settings we'd be tasting in. Luckily, we didn't have to drive at all because we were treated to pours that were substantially larger than are standard at home and we were neither spitting nor leaving much (if anything) behind in the glass. I'm fairly certain that we'd have left with a case of wine had we been back home. The thought of Customs and alcohol duties forced our good behaviour however; we simply grabbed another bottle of the Gran Corte VII and mosied on. And this was just our first stop.

Next up was Bodegas Salentein - a relatively new entrant on the Mendoza wine scene. An example of the foreign investment capital finding its way into Argentine wine, this Dutch based winery is known for its spectacular design. The approximately 1100 acres of vineyards was originally an estancia (ranch) operated by Jesuit missionaries as far back as the 17th Century and, in a tip of the hat to that past, the winery building was designed in the shape of a cross. The four wings of the gravity fed cellar converge in a circular, central chamber that was inspired by ancient, classical temples. Many internet sites refer to Salentein and its "cathedral of wine." Indeed, you can't help but be struck by the impressive structure.

Salentein's production is on a much larger scale than Pulenta. The "temple" has a cellar capacity of 5000 barrels each capable of holding 225 litres of wine. However, like many of Argentina's new breed of wineries, Salentein has a special program - and its own separate mini-winery in the winery - for its Primus line of wines. Like Pulenta, it has a series of temperature controlled French oak fermentation vats - the likes of which I haven't seen in our Okanagan wineries.

It seems that wherever we go, the altitude of the vineyards is one of the most prominent information points that the wineries want to emphasize. It seems that there's serious attitude about altitude in Mendoza. Most of the vineyards in the region are planted at altitudes of 1000 metres (3,2880 feet) or more and, as such, are some of the highest altitudes for wine production in the world. The move to higher altitudes was almost unwittingly started - it became a question of the land around Mendoza city becoming too expensive and the best lands remaining were at higher elevations. One of the benefits was that the farmers and winemakers found that a greater assortment of varietals proved to be well-suited to new microclimates.

Salentein is fortunate in that its vineyards - 80% of which are planted with red varietals - sit at an altitude that ranges from 1,050 to 1,550 metres (about 3,440 to 5,085 feet) above sea level and that range results in a full assortment of microclimates, soils and sunlight orientation. Accordingly, the winemakers have a range of varietals, taste characteristics and profiles to choose from when producing their wines.

The winery also incorporates a cultural centre, called Killka, which houses a collection of contemporary Argentine art and of 19th and 20th Century Dutch artists. Both the interior of the winery and the immediate grounds also feature large sculptures from nationally known artists.

Salentein was one of the wineries that I knew nothing about. Apparently, they participated in this year's Playhouse Wine Festival, but, as was the case with Bodegas Tapiz, I never made it around to their table. Makes me wonder what I was doing there.

Our third and final stop for the day was Bodega Altus. Funny thing about this stop was that we never actually visited the winery. Rather, we were escorted to a small out-building amongst the Cabernet vines to be treated to a lunch that will be long remembered. Restaurants being connected to wineries is becoming a common component of Mendoza's wine tourism and, unbeknownst to us, we were about to experience regional cuisine at its finest.

In my humble opinion, the rustic La Tupina restaurant is a definite must for anyone visiting the area. The chef and creative force behind La Tupina is Lucas Bustos - who we've since found out is heralded as one of the local stars in Mendoza's culinary ranks. Ricardo was clearly on good terms with our chef and, as such, we were given the opportunity to stand around in the Sala del Fuegos (Fire Room) - where the cooking in tupinas or cast iron fire pots takes place - and watch as Chef Bustos worked his magic with an assortment of tapas.

After just a couple of bites of blood sausage, sweetbreads, empanadas and pate, I jokingly asked where his cookbook could be found for sale. Chef turned to Ricardo, chuckled and replied that he actually has one that is currently with the editors and that he hopes that it'll be available in the near future - in both Spanish and English. We NEED this book!

Following an initial nine appetizing tapas and a couple healthy pourings of Altus' Rose, we retired to the main dining room for our actual lunch - another three courses, all matched up with offerings from the winery's portfolio. I can't tell you a darned thing about the winery - except that it's located in the Tupungato region of the Uco Valley. They displayed a full range of wines, but, for our purposes, the winery was completely overshadowed by the lunch and the restaurant.

617. 2009 Bodega Altus Rose (Mendoza - Argentina)

This will also simply have to go down as one bottle that I didn't do my homework on. I can't recall whether Ricardo advised us of the varietal used in this wine at all or not. My guess might be that it was Malbec, but we were so engrossed in the food that I didn't ask to look at the bottle or ask anything about it. It went wonderfully with the tapas and our introductory course of grilled eggplant, prosciutto and tomato sauce though. Once the heavier reds and meat arrived, it didn't really matter.

This was definitely one of the wineries that I'd questioned our Vancouver agent about before we left. Good thing I never overruled them. Guess there's some reason behind trusting the locals and their recommendations.

Our ride home to Club Tapiz may not have been as adventuresome as the truck we passed, but we were definitely as ready for a rest as those passengers were. Day one was done and so were we.

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