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Mendoza, by the glass

Argentina's top wine tourism area

The Orange County Register

The peaks of the Andes in Argentina were covered in snow that never melts as we flew east from Santiago de Chile toward Mendoza. The great range filled our window for our hourlong flight until the Uco Valley appeared below, green with heavy, healthy grapevines.

These Andean foothills 4,000 feet above sea level have become a hub for wine lovers. The altitude, soil, sun and low humidity combine to help create the fruit for excellent wines. The vineyards are fed with the spring waters that flow down from the Andes, feeding more than 900 wineries in the region. It's a mix that has made wine lovers sit up and notice that Argentina is on the connoisseur's map.

Four of us, all women above retirement age, traveled through South America together for three weeks in early December. Mendoza would be our first stop after a short overnight stay in Santiago after a 10-hour flight from New York. Our leader was Gretchen Janssen, my high school friend who had been to Argentina 11 times. Also along were her friends Corry Grant and Joan Coughlin. We were hungry for new sights, sounds, stories, foods and, above all, wine.

We'd arranged for tours of Mendoza wineries for the four days we were there, with tastings and elaborate luncheons. We stayed at the Villaggio Boutique Hotel with a full breakfast every morning and free Internet use in the lobby. The rooms were clean and modern, and we were within walking distance of Plaza Independencia and close to shops and restaurants. And every day, our clean and comfortable tour van was on time with our English-speaking guide, Anna Laura.

We'd read up ahead of time, so we knew malbec is the flagship Argentine varietal, but local wineries also produce other reds, such as syrah, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. There's torrontes, a light, dry, fruity wine (it would turn out to be my favorite). As a novice to the world of wine, my preference was for the dry white with the fragrance of peaches. My three friends preferred the reds. But we promised ourselves to taste everything.

The first day we toured the Atamisque Winery, named for a native plant, with stainless steel tanks, modern wine presses and French oak casks. The farm is over 100 years old, but was purchased in 2006 by Frenchman John Du Monceau and his wife, who settled there and harvested their first grapes in 2007.

But drinking wine at 11 a.m. is a little tough to get used to. After the first day of our visit to Mendoza, touring wineries with English speaking guides and learning about malbec and other grapes, I realized that wine tasting is just that: tasting, not drinking. In Napa one is encouraged to spit wine into special containers after tasting, but such pots weren't as available in Argentina. I wasn't sorry for that; it's an unpleasant necessity for some, I suppose.

Each of the wineries offered at least four wines, and always included malbec. The white wines I tasted during our tours included torrontes and chardonnay, but merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir were more often poured for us.

Every vineyard we visited was outlined in olive trees, and some vintners grow red roses at the end of each row. Anna Laura said there's a symbiotic relationship among roses, olive trees, lavender and grapevines. At the Domaine Jean Bousquet Vineyard, long-stemmed lavender plants were in bloom under the olive trees, a touch of the French culture, she said. The olive oil we had at every meal on our trip was light in color, delicate in taste and easy to distinguish from the Italian or Spanish olive oil I have in my pantry at home.

We met Bousquet, a Frenchman who put his resources to work in his vineyard outside Mendoza. In 1997 Bousquet began to develop the winery, erecting new buildings and cellars, buying equipment and planting new vines. He welcomed us personally during our luncheon while we enjoyed the fruits of his labors. His winery also produces traditional sparkling wines, the Santa Bax Extra Brut and Extra Brut Rose.

We returned each day to Mendoza, with its public squares every few blocks featuring a larger-than-life statue of a local hero or national figure. Mendoza is proud of its parks, but without irrigation, most ground cover is dry. When we had our guide to translate, communication was no problem. But in the evenings, on our own, it was different. If you're fluent in Spanish you have a great advantage in South America, because there isn't a lot of English spoken there, compared with tourist areas I had visited in Europe or even Africa. I felt at a great disadvantage, but Gretchen's Spanish was good enough to get us through.

Besides the wine, Mendoza is known for its cuisine. The local soil is perfect for growing garlic. It and local spices added flavor to our meals each night. Crust on the empanadas was flaky and so thin it didn't steal attention from the beef, mushroom and spicy filling. The filet of beef was crusty on the outside and cooked perfectly – rare to well-done – according to our individual tastes. Vegetables were lightly sautéed in olive oil. We found the service friendly and efficient everywhere we went.

Along with drinking wine before noon, I had to get used to eating very late. Evening meals in Argentina begin around 9 p.m. and can last for three or more hours. The courses – usually four – just keep coming. We were out every night until almost midnight. And over the hours, the wine flowed.

One of the most interesting locations was 1884 Restaurante, operated by Francis Mallman. The Frenchman has developed what looks like an old prison into a fine dining room filled with red and yellow hues. Meats are cooked on ancient outdoor grills.

Contrasting the beauty of the old town and the countryside were less attractive parts of the city. Strollers have to navigate broken cobblestones and pavers. It's startling to see ditches along most public streets, designed to move the Andes snowmelt into the city water supply. But along with mountain water, I saw trash, broken branches and matter I would prefer not know about. Litter was everywhere outside the main tourist areas.

We'd arranged for a full-day hike in the Andes – a bit of a struggle at about 9,000 feet. I begged off for the one and only time on the whole South American trip and instead decided to have a day to myself in Mendoza to shop and simply enjoy not having anything to do.

As I wandered through the streets, I saw that the shops were all closed. One shopkeeper was a sweet woman who stopped to talk to me, but kept the door closed – no business until 4:30, when the shops opened for a short while in the evening. The city slept in or went to church. I found an open cafe to enjoy a quiet lunch and – after so much wine – a beer. I went back to my hotel and had another. I could have a rare lazy day, too.

During our stay, I celebrated my birthday. Over dinner, friends gave me a silver pendant with the outline of a symbol sacred to a native South American tribe, the Mapuche Indians. It represents mountains surrounding a lake, with arms outstretched to open the mind to all new experiences. Apt, I thought, for my journey.

Checklist

Getting there: LAN airlines flies from LAX to Santiago de Chile with a stop in Lima, Peru. The flight time is 12 hours and 20 minutes. LAN also flies from Santiago to Mendoza. The total cost averages about $1,000 round trip. www.LAN.com

Hotels: We stayed at the Villaggio Boutique Hotel (www.hotelvillaggio.travel). Rates start at $105 per night and include a full breakfast each morning and free Internet use in the lobby. The rooms were clean and modern, and we were within walking distance of Plaza Independencia and close to shops and restaurants.

Tours and guides: $70 per person per day.

Eating: The average cost per person in most restaurants was about $20 for a starter, entrée, dessert and a decent bottle of wine for two people.

1884 Restaurante, Belgrano 1188, Godoy Cruz, Mendoza. www.1884restaurante.com.ar.

Before you go: Check out the Argentina page at the State Department website: www.travel.state.gov.

 

Wineries

Atamisque Winery offers a simple tour with a glass of wine, but arrangements can be made for a full tasting menu with a five-course luncheon. www.atamisque.com.

Domain Jean Bousquet Winery, international award winner for its 2009 malbec. Its five-course luncheon is a feast. www.jeanbousquet.com.

Benegas Winery 100-year-old winery with construction finished in 1901 by Agustín Alvarez, once governor of Mendoza province.

 

Click on it

“Unveiling Argentina”: www.unveilingargentina.com

Gretchen Janssen Tours: gretchen.janssen@mac.com. Rothschild suggests Janssen as an expert on Argentina.


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