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Mendoza: Malbec magic - but don’t ignore the Pinot!

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JohnM

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Following some recent chat about Argentinian Malbec on the ‘Nice wines’ thread, I have dredged back to 2009 for a TR on Mendoza. As has been my long-term annual practice, the visit to MDZ was part of a DONEx (with short sectors such as SCL-MDZ-SCL and LHR-CDG-LHR) purchased separately as whY supplements.)

Here is the route:

RTW+2009.JPG

The mission:
Visit Sicily to circumnavigate the island, hit the peak of Mt Etna and check out the wine regions.

Tuscany for a friend’s 60[SUP]th[/SUP] in old-town Certaldo (nice place).

France to visit the WW1 battle sites and memorials in N France and across to the Normandy D-Day beaches via Monet’s garden.

Then over to Beaune in Burgundy, via Vezelay in the northern part of Burgundy (and a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage-listed town where the Crusaders mustered - well worth visiting if you haven’t), and Chablis (pretty town), for a bit of poking around the Burgundy wine region.

Then a loop back to CDG via Amboise in the Loire Valley to visit a friend holidaying there.

It was then down to the Mendoza region for a bit more wine-region rummaging.

Finally to LOTFAP, mainly to visit Santa Fe and Los Alamos in New Mexico (both fascinating, especially the latter for scientists or anyone interested in the Manhattan Project), then home.

I’ll focus on Mendoza in this TR. I tended not to take large numbers of photos back then, so it is short.

Mendoza is a large, bustling city with plenty of accommodation, restaurant and bar options. The region is very dry, being in the shadow of the Andes, and the landscape east of the Andes reminds me of parts of inland Australia with saltbush-like scrubby vegetation. The backdrop of the Andes is spectacular and snowmelt provides plenty of irrigation water for the very extensive vineyards. I was there in early October, preceding budburst in the vineyards, so not the prettiest time of the year.

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The wineries, particularly the larger ones, generally differ from Australia in that they don’t seem to expect tourists to just rock up, have a taste and move on. There is usually a guard post at the entry with a boom gate and details of visitors and vehicles are recorded when you drive in.

I got the feeling that the guard posts may partly be a reflection of, or perhaps more of a hangover from, the traditionally rather authoritarian society, rather than because of any real threats. It probably also provided an ‘important’ job for some people at very low pay rates.

Tastings mostly seem to be done in tour groups. All those that I encountered were small groups in large cars or mini-vans, so it wasn’t overwhelming. At one very high-level winery, the tasting that I stumbled in on looked very structured – rather upscale US-style. Not much leaning-on-the-bar stuff. It looked to be a quite ritzy group from the US in a limo.

I rented a car and travelled solo. When I fronted up at the entry of a few large wineries, the non English-speaking guard seemed perplexed by this unusual occurrence. I’m not sure whether it was because I was solo or arriving independently of a wine tour that had them puzzled – maybe a bit of both.

Anyway, with a bit of smiling and sign language and maybe a radio check with the office, I was never rejected. Despite my fondness for wine, I was generally more interested in taking in the overall experience of the region than doing endless tastings - especially of the entry-level wines, so I was quite selective in visiting only a few wineries that I had done some homework on.

There are wineries close to Mendoza that people rent bikes and cycle to but I avoided those as I figured they would be fairly packed with tourists. I wanted to explore the region more widely and I was particularly interested in the newer Valle de Uco region about 120 km south of Mendoza. There, vineyards have been established at higher elevation (around 1200m) and a big attraction was some high-level Pinot Noir production, as well as perhaps somewhat more elegant Malbec than from the classic production area close to Mendoza. Also, good Chardonnay.

Assuming things are much the same as they were in 2009, anyone visiting Mendoza and especially if unfamiliar with the ways of Latin America may wish to consider organised tours for tasting. I would certainly recommend visiting the Valle de Uco. It gets you closer to the Andes and some of the wineries just have to be seen to be believed. They make most Australian wineries look Mickey Mouse.

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The very high-end Catena Zapata (top); many large companies are in the region in massive scale; the ever-present Andes.

My best experience was visiting two large wineries in the Valle de Uco – Salentein and O. Fournier. Salentein is a large Dutch-Argentine agricultural conglomerate and O. Fournier is Spanish. Both have made massive investments in spectacular wineries. I’d highly recommend a visit to these wineries.

The general expectation at both is that visitors do the organised tour and then some tasting. I’m usually not given to tours and rudimentary descriptions of winemaking but the chance to tour these fabulous wineries far outweighed any downside of basic winemaking descriptions.

I had read about Salentein as being a pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region and I was particularly interested in trying their Pinots. When I arrived at the desk, I pointed out that I was on that mission. The attendant said I could join the next English-speaking tour in about an hour. It was around lunchtime so I went to get something to eat at the restaurant and went back for the tour.

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Bodegas Salentein. There is an extensive very high-end art gallery at the left, restaurant to the right. Nice, fairly casual style restaurant. The gorgeous lunch backdrop of the Andes washes out in photos taken inside. Back of the reception/restaurant/art gallery building. Separate winery building. The estate is large.

After a pleasant lunch, I arrive back at the desk to find that the English-speaking tour consists of just moi! Well, was I in for an experience to just about rival a Daver6 tasting!

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My lovely guide and part of a vineyard with the Andes merging into cloud in the background, main meeting room, the tasting set up for just me! All their top-end wines – decanted. I was treated like God! If you ever get a chance, try the top Salentein ‘Primus’ labelled wines.

Cont...
 

JohnM

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Salentein cont:

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Forecourt of the art gallery area. They have a large permanent display gallery plus a gallery for periodic displays – and a dedicated art curator! There is also a chapel. View back to the main building from the chapel entry statement. The whole place really has to be seen to be believed.

On a separate day, I went to the O. Fournier winery. Where the Salentein buildings were understated and reflected a sort of traditional adobe style, O Fournier made a BIG statement.

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The enormous winery complex was hewn out of the earth, with massive cellars and vat rooms underneath the big canopied building. The large semi-circular ramp was the delivery point for the grapes and fed into the vats below. Several separate building were all linked underground.

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Again, I got a solo English-speaking guided tour. The glass-walled laboratory had the most stunning views of any chemistry lab I’ve ever seen!

I followed the tour with an excellent lunch with matched wines. The O. Fournier wines were not up to the Salentein level but the food was superior. A Salentein wine/O. Fournier food combination would have been bliss.

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The restaurant building and shots from and in it. Bit of a pity they chose to store the bins between the restaurant and the mountains.

An excellent lunch while staring at the Andes wrapped up a great visit to Mendoza.

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I’ve seen a few spectacular wineries and wine regions in my time but around Mendoza with the Andes backdrop take some beating. I must go back…
 

RooFlyer

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Huge thanks! As you know I'm in Mendoza in May. Looks like you've 'marked my card' perfectly - I too intend to hire a car and get out a bit. Any issue with doing Salentein and O. Fournier in a single day? Haven't looked yet, but hopefully I can sus out English tour times before I get there.

As fall-backs, what would be the next 2 picks? Any tips for a HUUUUGE Argentinean steak experience in Mendoza?

Or should I just shut up and wait for the next instalment? :)
 

JohnM

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No more instalments, RF. As I mentioned, I didn't take many photos back then. Also, I tend not to make a mission of visiting numerous wineries in a wine region as I find it can get a bit tedious getting presented with the entry-level wines and going through the motions. I really much prefer driving around extensively, taking in the production ecosystem.

You could do Salentein and O. Fournier in the same day, but getting English tours at both may clash. I'd look at spending a night down that way. Tunuyan and San Carlos are the main towns there. It is a major fruit producing area as well as vines and in May everything will be green as opposed to my October, effectively still late winter, visit.

I also went to San Juan (about 150 km N). Not a major wine region and nothing special that I'd recommend going there for. Barreal to the W of San Juan is a lovely little town at the foot of the mountains and gateway to a major ski area. Worth a visit IMO if you are really wanting to get out and about.

Catena Zapata is close to Mendoza but you may need to check in advance about getting into there as an independent traveller. They seemed a bit formal there but it's worth getting in if you can. I ran into someone who phoned on my behalf. Don't forget, I was there in 2009 and things may be done differently now. Rutini, which I didn't visit but I did slurp some of their wine with dinner, is close to Mendoza and quite historical IIRC.

There are plenty of other wineries.

For restaurants, again it was some time ago and things change. One that I did like was Azafran and Mr Google tells me it's still there Azafrán Restó. Not so much a monster steak parrilla but good food and a great wine selection. They have a wine cellar room that is pictured on their web site where you can go in and choose a bottle of wine and they add what was then a ridiculously low corkage.

I think just do some googling and you'll pick up winery and resto ideas.

Are you going to Buenos Aires? If so, I'll give you details of my absolute favourite parrilla in Argentina.
 

RooFlyer

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<snip>

Are you going to Buenos Aires? If so, I'll give you details of my absolute favourite parrilla in Argentina.
Yes, please; just the 2 nights and one full day in BA. Been there before and when the current trip got too long, this was one place that got pared back.
 

JohnM

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Yes, please; just the 2 nights and one full day in BA. Been there before and when the current trip got too long, this was one place that got pared back.
Here you go, mate: Cabana Las Lilas Cabaña Las Lilas Restaurant About Us. An easy walk from Centro down to the old harbour redevelopment. It gets very busy, so depending on the night, you may need to book.

My 30-something son and his girlfriend went to BA a couple of years ago and ended up eating there just about every night because he was so blown away by it. It is always a great talking point between us!
 

RooFlyer

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Bonzer, thanks. Just along Avenida Corrientes where I'll be staying at the Novotel.

I find that Bodegas Salentein has accommodation: Posada Salentein and scheduled English tours; so its shaping up like drive there on arrivalk; dinner at their restaurant then lunch at Urban Restaurant at O. Fournier with tours tucked in between!
 

JohnM

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Bonzer, thanks. Just along Avenida Corrientes where I'll be staying at the Novotel.

I find that Bodegas Salentein has accommodation: Posada Salentein and scheduled English tours; so its shaping up like drive there on arrivalk; dinner at their restaurant then lunch at Urban Restaurant at O. Fournier with tours tucked in between!

Sweet! Dang - I want to come too!
 
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