Not Just Malbec: Tasting My Way Through Mendoza

I was heading out west via that trusty (and cheaper) method of transportation, the bus. Now, I have never had good experiences with overnight buses so far, but I’d gotten a special rate for the cama suite seats on Andesmar and they were supposed to almost fully recline and be similar to business class airplane seats. They would also feed us and offer wine. Well, the food and wine quality was not that of most first class airlines, but the seat comfort was as good as when I got upgraded to business class on my flight home from Istanbul! Good thing, too, since it was about a thirteen or fourteen hour bus ride!

Andesmar bingo - a tradition

Andesmar bingo – a tradition

I arrived at the hostel, dropped off my bags, and decided to take a half day tour the hostel suggested that afternoon to visit one place that made olive oil and two wineries. While I’d originally had plans to just take a bus and visit places on my own, I was a bit tired from the overnight ride (even though I did actually sleep!) and opted for the easy choice. I chatted with a nice Australian couple who were taking a year to travel the world, and started to learn about the wine making process. All these tours get very similar after a while, the distinguishing feature being the passion and details about the winery.

We started by visiting a medium-sized winery in Maipu where we first saw the large metal fermentation tanks. Over my three days of tours, I learned that the first fermentation takes place in either these tanks or concrete tanks, depending on the quality of the wine. They can then be matured either in the bottle (like for whites where you don’t want oaky notes), or in the barrel and then for an equal amount of time in the bottle.

And I learned A LOT about oak barrels! But that’ll come a bit later…

Our second winery was smaller. I enjoyed the tour more, though the wine seemed to have more of an alcoholic bite. (I prefer my wines a bit smoother.)

Then came the olive oil factory, which was good since we were all starving by then! Lots of yummy olive oil, sundried tomatoes, and dried fruits.
Olive oil tasting (with yummy sundried tomatoes)

Olive oil tasting (with yummy sundried tomatoes)

As if two wineries weren’t enough, I went to a wine bar called Vines of Mendoza to try a flight of local wines (most from smaller wineries) and their “sensory kit”, a box of scents used to help identify individual notes in the wine. It would have worked better if the scents hadn’t been mixed up (and I was a bit annoyed I still got charged for it when I pointed out it was mixed up), but I still enjoyed the experience and the helpful staff at the wine bar – and quite frankly had tried enough wines for one day! I grabbed some dinner after and when they suggested wine, I replied strongly in the negative! Anyway, I had to get up fairly early in order to visit some more vineyards, of course.
Wine tasting with a scent box at Vines of Mendoza

Wine tasting with a scent box at Vines of Mendoza

I had, quite by chance, come across a tour bus run by Cata that did three loops by about seven different wineries in a town called Lujan, with the timing worked out so that you could visit two or three wineries depending on how long you took for lunch. (I think it was called the Viniviticulture bus and I bought the ticket at the tourist office – more people should take advantage of it!) I had read a lot on Tripadvisor about the fabulous tasting menu at Chandon, so I absolutely wanted to eat lunch there, and I chose the other two with that goal in mind.

I ended up being the only person on the bus, which meant I chatted with the Cata guide and had my first tour essentially be a private tour by the sommelier at Dominio del Plata (one of the first wineries run by a woman). This tour was one of my absolute favorites, and the wine was very good (though the third day wines were better). I felt bad having a private tour and not buying any bottles of wine, but given that I still have plans to travel around, it would take a very special wine indeed to have me buy a bottle.

Hills and vines at Dominio del Plata

Hills and vines at Dominio del Plata

We started with an amazing clear view of the Andes in the distance rising over the vineyards. It was quite cold and we speedily moved inside to discuss wine some more. The sommelier had such passion for the wine industry – and given how poorly they are paid in Argentina, it’s definitely a labor of love. She showed me how French and American oak barrels differ in the pore size of the wood, which leads to different amounts of aeration and their different tastes. French oak pores are smaller, so touching a barrel feels much smoother than an American oak barrel. We chatted about wines of the world in this chilly and dim cellar filled with shelves holding barrels upon barrels of wine. I paid for the middle range wine tasting (a better quality of wine) and enjoyed my tasting, learning a bit of the swish and spit (I admit that I googled it the night before) as I realized that I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast to absorb my actually drinking all the wine. Yes, wine tasting is about tasting, not just drinking, and though it broke my heart to do it to good wines, I definitely poured some out so I’d be in a state for to appreciate the upcoming wines. After all, I was going to taste a total of 9 or 10 that day!

Next stop: Chandon. I was so excited to try some bubbly from the Argentine branch of the famous house (yes, it’s Chandon as in Moët et Chandon), but I admit to a bit of disappointment (though luckily not in the lunch, which was superb). Chandon is a big, commercial winery and that’s reflected in the tour, which starts with a glitzy video. I had missed the English tour, which I knew but was ok with as it was needed for the timing for lunch, but I had thought I’d be more or less ok with the Spanish tour. It was, after all, my fourth winery, so the major difference lay in how to produce the bubbles. Well, they didn’t run the Spanish tour because the only other people there were from Brazil, so they did the tour in, you guessed it, Portuguese. Since the tour guide was not a native Portuguese speaker, she spoke clearly enough that I actually understood a lot of it. My Cata guide helped translate the rest. (She joined me on the tour so I wouldn’t be all alone again.) The most interesting part of the Chandon tasting was being able to taste their base wine (aka the wine that goes for a second fermentation) and then what it produced as a bubbly. We tried two different wines. I enjoyed the drier wine more – Chandon Delice was much sweeter so while I enjoyed the first few sips, it quickly grew too sweet. However, I have to admit i prefer champagne! And then came the three course menu (not the six course tasting menu as that would have taken all day.) The food was delicious and I enjoyed the wine pairing (up until more of the Delice was served with dessert, which was just too much sweet). Lunch took quite a while, and I felt bad running over schedule, but with only me on board the bus wasn’t doing its normal three loops anyway.

The last stop was at Septima, so called because it was the seventh winery of a Spanish wine group. The highlight of this tour was getting to drink some Malbec straight from the barrel. You taste a lot of oak (which is why before sale these wines sit in bottles to age for the same amount of time as in oak) but some people also really taste the malolactic acid fermentation, which I definitely tasted. It makes the wine taste buttery as the lactic acid build up.

Wow, two days in and I’d already visited five vineyards and a wine bar. I was definitely learning a lot, and enjoying it greatly!

Each day the quality of wines had improved, and my last day in Mendoza was no exception. I had really really wanted to go to an up and coming wine region called Valle de Uco with one of two pricey but highly rated tours, but it’s low season and nobody else had booked one during my dates. I’d really counted on it, so decided I would still splurge and go back to Lujan (to different, smaller wineries) on an Anpora wine tour. One of the best tour decisions I have made on this trip.

Why so good? Because there were only three of us plus the guide, and while not every vineyard may have been better than the vineyards I had visited (though some definitely were), the level of the tastings was much higher. In fact, I did break down and buy a bottle of Cabernet Franc that has an astonishing note of green pepper at one winery and a couple of half bottle dessert wines from Caelum, where one if the owners showed us around. (One of the dessert wines was a Malbec – did you know Malbec could make a sweet dessert wine? I didn’t.) Like I said earlier, it was going to require some extraordinary wine to get me to lug them all around for ten days, but these samples showed me a complexity and variety of Argentine wine that I had never realized existed. Even the Malbecs were more complex than the ones I had (and enjoyed) in the States. Of course, I don’t doubt most of them were a more expensive level of wine than what I normally buy, too! Our last tasting was lunch at Casarena, which had recently hired Chef Mun, a great closed-door chef from Buenos Aires whom my landlord in BA had recommended. It was Asian-Argentine fusion paired with wine – a fantastic (ad beautifully plated) ending to the tour.
And as a fitting end to the day, I had a lovely ramble and long talk with one of the Frenchwomen once we got back to town and decided to burn off some of the copious amounts of food and wine.

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