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The Other Wine Country
A Life-Changing Visit to Argentina's Developing Mendoza Region, Where the Glass Is Already Half-Full

By Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 31, 1999; Page E01
   


Drunk off the vista of the snowcapped Andes and one too many wine tastings--hey, nobody told me you weren't supposed to swallow--a group of friends and I proceeded to the next stop on our tour, the Lagarde Winery, a place that had already changed my life.

Red wines, I had thought, were only for the Don Corleones of the world. In my brief history of wine drinking, fruity whites had always ruled. They seemed less harsh, like Tang with a kick, and my feelings for them had grown from mere tolerance to actual enjoyment.

But that was before the Lagarde's Cabernet Sauvignon dove into my life like an Olympic swimmer, causing a sublime splash. Finally, I had understood wine. It got a perfect 10.

Now, coasting past the quaint European-style homes in the Mendoza wine country in far western Argentina, the world's fourth largest wine producer after Italy, France and Spain, I was to come face to face with the makers of the liquid velvet I had first tasted in Buenos Aires some 600 miles east of here. I had made my way to the enormous Lagarde bodega, as wineries are called in Spanish, with a group of Argentine and Brazilian friends. We had called ahead, and as several members of the group were acquaintances of the owners, we were invited for dinner.

The bodega was stunning, a study in French farmhouse design, with rustic wood on the facade, boxed in by massive, ranchlike gates. Situated in the locally well-known production pocket of Lujan de Cuyo, where several of the choicest wineries in Argentina make their home, the place seemed immediately welcoming. Perhaps more so because of the greeting by the stately proprietress, Monica Pescarmona de Baldini, whose family now owns the 101-year-old house of Lagarde. She embraced us with a big hug suggestive of her Italian roots. Almost before she could issue a word, however, I blurted out, "Your wine has changed my life. I adore reds because of you."

She looked at me knowingly, took me by the arm, and led me down the cellar toward enormous caskets of oak and the slightly acidic scent of aging wine. "Come on," she said. "Let's change it some more.

"I'll reintroduce you to whites."

Chatting in the typical Argentine accent that sounds like an Italian speaking Spanish--more than 50 percent of this nation's population descends from Italian immigrants--she led us to a stack of dusty, greenish bottles. "This," she said with pride, holding up a bottle of Semilla, "is the most expensive bottled wine in Argentina. It sells for $700."

We looked at her in anticipation, none of us ever having tasted wine that cost more than a hardcover novel. She saw the desire in our eyes and laughed. Then she put it back on the rack and walked away.

Tease.

We settled for the fine Malbec--after all, we'd come for the red--and a feast of carbonada, or beef stuff served in a hollowed squash.

"Argentina is the undiscovered wine country," said our joyous, fiftyish hostess, doyenne of one of the wealthiest but perhaps most down-to-earth families in Argentina. She was the kind of woman who seemed as comfortable in a black dress and pearls as jeans covered with the red clay of her vineyard.

"But," she said, lifting her Malbec high by the stem for a toast, "that's going to change."

While a worthy goal for a worthy place, changing Mendoza into Napa Valley South is still many years away--thank goodness. Mendoza, capital of the comely province in western Argentina with a tepid climate highly conducive to fine grape growing is perhaps what Napa was many decades ago--an unspoiled, uncommercialized landscape of wineries where tourists can still drop in on a bodega with a few hours' advance notice, meet the owners, taste the wines and, maybe, if the host is in a good enough mood, join a family asado--an Argentine barbecue.

There are no admission prices, and with a few exceptions, no organized tours. Instead, owners or associates of the vineyards guide visitors around, driven by sheer boasting rights and pride in their wine. Legend has it that grapes arrived in the region in the 1500s, brought by a Catholic priest in Chile. But the true spread of grapes came in the ensuing centuries, brought about by an influx of Spanish and Italian immigrants who settled this region and brought the grapes of their homeland, as well as the grapes of France.

As in the rest of the New World, we were told, wines here are named for the region the grape came from. And although the white wines are good, it is the Argentine reds, and especially the Malbec, that have captured the taste buds of wine drinkers worldwise.

Mendoza remains so relatively pristine for one very obvious reason--this place is far from virtually everywhere. It is two hours by plane from Buenos Aires, which, in turn, is almost 11 hours by plane from Washington, via Miami. If you were flying nonstop from New York for the same distance, you could just as easily reach Moscow as Mendoza, a charming city of 600,000. The only major tourist event here remains the Mendoza Wine Festival in March, when vineyards open their doors for parties; fireworks and folk music fill the air; and an Argentine Wine Queen is crowned.

But October was just fine for our band of Buenos Aires Bacchus-seekers. We stayed in the Cervantes, a modest hotel in town with small but ample rooms and a nice breakfast.

Tourism authorities say Marriotts, Hyatts and other hotels are on the way, partly because of the beginnings of tourism, but mostly because of the booming wine and agricultural industries, which are luring more and more business travelers.

Indeed, Argentine wineries, once thought of as merely places to buy cheap table wines used to mix with European brands for mass marketing, are undergoing a dramatic transformation. There has been an explosion in demand for Argentine fine wines in the United States, England and elsewhere. The demand is also stemming from the Argentines, who are not drinking as much wine as they once did, but still drink more per capita than any society on Earth, downing 14.5 gallons per person per year, according to London-based Euromonitor. And the Argentines, like wine drinkers worldwide, are demanding a higher grade of wine.

Though there are many wine-growing regions in Argentina, Mendoza is king. The dry region in the shadow of the Andes is partially reclaimed, semiarid land irrigated with melted glacial ice that drips from the peaks of the world's second tallest mountain range. Driving from bodega to bodega is a delight, as you are struck by the raw beauty of the Andes and the roads that wind gracefully through the backcountry. If your interests vary beyond wine, whitewater rafting, mountain climbing and horseback riding have become popular in the nearby Andes.

But we were looking to exert only our taste buds. And any wine tasting trip to Mendoza should start in the city center, at the National Wine Growing Institute, where we novices took a crash course in how to "experience" wine. It is best to call ahead for a schedule of classes, some of them up to two weeks long. The association, however, can make exceptions, as they did for us, and give you a special, on-the-spot class in "Vino Uno-Zero-Uno."

Passing rooms filled with beakers, test tubes and big machinery used to analyze and maintain the quality of wines, we were led by our teacher to a classroom filled with rows of tiny sinks. Sitting down, I grabbed my goblet like a water cup, from the flower part of the glass, and was quickly scolded for such audacity. "No!" barked our teacher. "Don't pick it up that way!"

I put it down, and realized quickly I wasn't dealing with some lightweight. This guy meant business. And his business was wine.

"Now pick it up again, this time from the stem!" the man ordered. "Your hand will warm the glass, and that mustn't happen."

The correct way to taste wine, our teacher explained, is by slipping a bit into your mouth and rolling it around your tongue. This is not as easy as it sounds. Especially after you've "tasted" more than a few wines. Dribble can be a problem. Staining another.

Then, of course, the climax. Our teacher promptly spat a wad of red wine into his tiny kitchen sink. It struck its target like a wet laser. He glared at us, our cheeks fat with wine, and ordered us to do the same.

In unison, we spat our wine (mostly) into our sinks, though with considerably less precision than our master.

Although there are dozens of bodegas in the region, negotiating impromptu tours with the owners is usually possible only if you have a Spanish speaker in your group. Though a few owners and/or guides speak English, the surest bet for most American tourists is a tour of La Rural, a massive bodega complete with a little wine bar, trinket store and a Museum of Wine.

This vineyard is home to one of the best of the inexpensive Argentine wines, San Felipe, both red and white. The brand, roughly equal in quality to an $8 bottle of California wine, we were told, sells in Argentina for about $4.50. Founded early this century, it has grown to become one of Argentina's largest wineries. Again, as with most bodegas, it is more noted for its reds.

In the cellar, a professional guide will walk you through winemaking, and the processes that lead to different and better flavors. One such technique is an important step of aging the wine in wooden casks, with the choicest ones, we were told, being those from France. Small French barrels can cost more than $700 each, with American barrels sometimes going for half that. The massive casks for holding large quantities of wine can cost thousands. It's all one can do to resist uncorking one of the aging beauties for a taste.

At the museum, we saw the old way of making wine in these parts--and promptly offered thanks for the new way. In the last century, Argentines used whole cow hides and bare feet to smash the grapes. The grape juice, we learned, poured out . . . let's just say it was a convenient, natural pass-through in the cowhide.

After sampling the wares of La Rural, we bought several delicious bottles at discounted prices. Among my booty was not one fruity bottle of white.

In Mendoza, I had completely surrendered to the Red Side. I have no regrets.

Post foreign correspondent Anthony Faiola is based in Buenos Aires.

DETAILS: Mendoza Wine Region

GETTING THERE: There are no nonstop flights to Mendoza from the United States, with most flights connecting in Buenos Aires. From Washington, it's easiest to fly to Buenos Aires via Miami or New York. United, American and Areolineas Argentinas have the most flights to Buenos Aires, but getting there is expensive, with fares during peak season, December through March, often running $1,200 or more. Cheaper fares are available, especially in October and November.

From Buenos Aires, it's easiest to fly the domestic arm of Areolineas Argentinas, called Austral Airlines, direct to Mendoza, with fares generally around $180 to $200 round trip. But you might be able to find a cheaper fare on Dinar Airlines, a smaller, competing domestic airline in Argentina that sometimes offers fares as low as $150 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Cervantes (Amigorena 65, telephone 011-54-261-420-0131) is a quaint place located near the heart of Mendoza, the capital of wine country. The Cervantes is a solid three-star hotel, but with a four-star price tag: Prices range from $120 to $140. Other options in the same range include the Princess Gran Hotel (25 De Mayo 1168, telephone 011-54-261-423-5666) and the Crillon Hotel (Peru 1065, telephone 011-54-261-423-8963).

THE WINERIES: The best bets for tourists who don't speak much Spanish are the Bodega La Rural (Montecaseros s/n, Coquimbito, 5513 Maipu, 011-54-261-497-2013)and the Arnaldo Etcheart Bodega y Vinedos (Ruta 40 Km. 22, Perdriel, Lujan de Cuyo, 5507 Mendoza, telephone 011-54-261-488-0223), both of which offer organized tours .

If you reach the owners on a good day, you might be able to take a tour of the fabulous Lagarde Vineyards (San Martin 1745, Mayor Drummond, Lujan de Cujo, 5507 Mendoza, telephone 011-54-261-498-1392).

To arrange tours of other wineries, contact the National Winemaking Institute (San Martin 430, Mendoza, telephone 011-54-261- 449-6304), which offers wine-tasting classes.

WHERE TO EAT: La Bodega del 900, with one of the biggest wine lists in the city, is in what appears to be a massive wine cask. Because it's off the main city roads, reservations are a must, if only to get directions; call 011-54-61-262-773. Il Tucco (Paseo Sarmiento 68) offers Italian cooking in the heart of downtown Mendoza, with extensive wine list. La Casona (San Martin Sur 905) features local cuisine, including famous Argentine beef, with a folk music show. Cava Vieja (Ozamis 1040) is in an old winery.

INFORMATION: Argentina Government Tourism Information, 212-603-0443.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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