Exploring malbec wines and vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina

In recent years, Mendoza, Argentina, has become one of the world's foremost wine regions.
In recent years, Mendoza, Argentina, has become one of the world's foremost wine regions. (Yadid Levy - Getty Images)
By Erica Johnston
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Friends told us. The concierges at the hotel told us. Travel books told us. When you tour the vineyards of Mendoza, hire a driver. It's easier and safer.

Nonetheless, when my friend Jonathan and I set our sights on Lujan de Cuyo, an Argentine wine region that begins just outside the city of Mendoza, we rented a car. After all, it's only a few miles. How hard could it be?

We had just spent a few days in Mendoza, a lovely blend of understated sophistication and truly tempting languor. It's also the capital of the province of the same name. As we enjoyed dinner at a sidewalk cafe one summer evening in December, students celebrated their graduation by cruising through the city -- really more of a big town -- in an open-air bus, singing and cheering. Every night we were there, a different celebration broke out spontaneously.

But we hadn't come for the good-natured gentility of the place. Let's be clear: I came for the wine. My friends came to hike in the Andes, dozens of miles in the distance. If any city has a more majestic backdrop, I've never seen it.

Thanks in part to a Frenchman who, as the story goes, carried sprigs of malbec grapevines to Argentina in the 1800s, Mendoza has in recent years become one of the world's foremost wine regions. It's no longer up-and-coming: It has arrived, and its vineyards reach farther by the day, now extending through much of the province.

Malbec has long been an underachiever in the old country. One of several types of grapes allowed in red Bordeaux, it hardly ever makes the cut. But in the warm, sunny countryside outside Mendoza, tempered by cool Andean nights, the perennial understudy hit the big-time. As a bonus, the weather is so consistent in the "land of sun and wine," as the area likes to call itself, that each vintage is more reliable than those in France, or even California.

Seeing their breakthrough moment on the international stage, many Argentine wineries have shifted gears in the past decade or so, emphasizing quality over quantity after generations of focusing on inexpensive wines for domestic consumption. As millions of investment dollars have flowed in, much of it from Europe and the United States, dozens of new bodegas, or wineries, have put down roots in Mendoza.

So we set out to see for ourselves in Lujan de Cuyo, where Argentine winemakers are convinced that malbec found its true purpose in life. (Cabernet, syrah and chardonnay, along with Argentina's signature white-wine grape, torrontes, are grown in smaller quantities; malbec is the boss, no doubt about it.)

Our hotel has made us appointments, which are usually required for tours. The wineries begin in earnest only about 10 miles outside the city. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out. The city fades fast and a Wild West-with-vineyards landscape soon takes over, with scrubby brush and rows and rows of grapevines. Before long, paved roads and street signs seem strictly optional. But then you catch a full-frontal view of the Andes, a magnificently sculpted wall across the horizon. It's well worth getting lost for. All the same, next time, I'll hire a driver.

After an unintentional detour or two, we're close, really close, to the winery of Carmelo Patti, an old-school Argentine winemaking legend. We know it; we can feel it. We just can't find it.

After inching down a country road and still coming up empty, we turn back, looking for a sign, literally or figuratively. And there it is: The street number hanging from a front door matches the bodega's address. This sprawling old home has to be the place, a renowned winery hiding in plain sight.

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