South America Wine Tour - Part 2 - Argentina

The early morning sky striped with soft greys and apricot, almost a mackerel sky, as the sun rose, saw a sleepy and subdued  group board our luxury coach for the day across the Andes. Leaving Chile for Argentina, we left the Maipo valley and headed towards the Acconcagua Valley. As the city sprawl of Santiago faded behind, the scenery became scrub land with the odd cactus dotted around. Climbing slowly, the valley ever narrowed, with ice cold streams rushing along beneath abandoned rail tracks. Our final destination was Mendoza, but first a farewell to the wines of Chile en route. So we stopped high in the Andes at “The Soldiers Leap”, where legend has it that General San Martin (liberator of Chile, Argentina & Peru – bit of a local hero!), jumped this wide gorge on horseback and thus escaped the invading Spaniards.  There was a selection of wines from estates we had no time to visit, giving a good overview. The Pais Reserva del Pueblo from Miguel Torres showing the renaissance of this ancient grape variety, through to Cinsault made in clay amphora by the innovative De Martino team. One of Chilean first Icon wines, Don Maximiano Founders Reserve from Errazuriz showed  power and complexity and to finish the Cab / Syrah/ Merlot/ Carmenere / Petit Verdot blend from Encierra was a great full stop to our Chilean wine experience – Now Argentina beckoned.

But first, the dramatic backdrop of scree covered looming mountains led to a series of 33 “caracoles” or hair pin bends – wonderful views but glad that Ski Portillo was at just beyond switchback 33 for our lunch stop. During the winter, Portillo is Chile’s oldest & leading Ski Resort, but in February in their summer, the ghost like ski lifts, endless signed photos of skiing legends from Europe and the cosy Chalet like décor,  are mere reminders of another season. A reviving aperitif (farewell to Pisco Sours!) was taken on the terrace overlooking the azul blue lake, apparently formed by the tears of an Inca Princess crossed in love.

Aconcagua is the highest peak in the Andes, and as our new Argentine driver was keen to underline, is 100% Argentinean not Chilean! At some 6962 metres high, altitude can be an issue for climbers, so thankfully our viewpoint of its snow capped peak, albeit slightly covered with cloud, at just over 3000 metres was less energetic. The dreaded customs border crossing awaited – delays of up to 8-10 hours are not unusual – and so our speedy 2 hours and 3 minutes processing was a great start to our Argentine experience.

The landscape and geology of the Andes changes dramatically on the Argentine side as we dropped down towards Mendoza – technically a desert but the unseasonal heavy rain that marked our journey made this difficult to judge – so Derek hosted a tasting to dispel the rain and introduce our palates to Argentina – albeit with a Chilean twist, by tasting  from Montes Argentina outpost Kaiken wines.

No one has been more influential on the modern Argentine wine trade than Nicolas Catena, hence him being awarded Decanter magazine’s prestigious Man of the Year in 2009 - so where better to start our tastings on this side of the Andes, than at their impressive Catena Zapata cellars in Agrelo. Built  in the shape of a Mayan pyramid temple, it is a quirky cellar to visit. Joined by their winemaker Ernesto, it was a great lesson in understanding their approach to high altitude vineyards. From the rooftop terrace, the volcano Tupungato gleams in the distance, and which is where Catena source their high altitude grapes from in the Uco Valley.  The Catena Alta Chardy 2014 was a revelation – having tasted this wine for many vintages, the oak management improves each year and the 2014 was an elegant example with balanced freshness and acidity as well as the oak structure – bit of a bargain at only £15 from the Wine Society.  2013 Catena Alta Malbec had beautiful ripe tannins and sweet black fruit – at the first sip, I started dreaming of a garlicky roast cannon of lamb, perhaps with minted flageolet beans! Staying in the Alta range, the Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was very different to many  New World Cabernets, being fresh, sweet black cherries, a hint of chocolate and with no green aromas at all. Moving onto three of their Icon wines – the Catena Zapata Nicasia ‘12 had lovely rich fruit, the Malbec Argentino 2011 blending fruit 50% each from their historical Malbec vineyards,  Nicasia and Adrianna giving a rich complexity to the wine. Ending on their Nicolas Catena 2011,  a world class blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Malbec from four of their best vineyard sites. There were 210 separate microvinifications (picking different lots and rows at different times) which all added to the myriad of layers in this wine. Although the 2011 vintage, this wine still has a long aging life in it, the beautiful bramble fruit backed up with hints of cassis and chocolate made it the perfect finish to the tasting. Wines available from their UK importer Bibendum.

It would seem hard to follow the Catena wines – but I had chosen next to visit my old friends at Bodegas Cassone. A real family run boutique estate not far outside Mendoza, the charming wine maker Federico Cassone with his lovely wife Connie, welcomed us under the shade of an olive tree in their 100 year plus old Malbec vines. Against a stunning backdrop of the Andes, Federico explained their philosophy at the estate, along with the family’s history having originally arrived in Argentina from Piemonte in North West Italy (home to Barolo & Barbaresco). First wine of the tasting had anyone whose palate may have been flagging sit upright like a meerkat on look out! Their Obra Prima Rosado from Cabernet Sauvignon is simply one of the most delightful wines of South America – even persuading the non Rosé lovers of the group. Pale salmon in colour, it has a wonderful freshness combined with creaminess – think strawberries & cream. Heaven on it’s own in a hammock , but would also pair wonderfully well with a trout and watercress tart. La Florencia blend of 60% Malbec with 40% Syrah, named for Federico’s mother and the labels showing her favourite flowers,  was plums, blueberries and a touch of white pepper – great balance of spice & freshness, it would pair well with red pesto or even the classic cacio & pepe pasta.  The Obra Prima Malbec ’12 had  a great purity to it, none of the jammy gloop that one sadly encounters in some Malbecs on the UK market – fragrant, brambles, with fine tannins, although it will last well, I am not sure if patience will permit!

Staying in their Reserve line, the Obra Prima Cabernet ‘14 (70% Cab Sauv / 30% Cab Franc) was stunning, mint & liquorice on the nose, tapenade and lovely herbal coming from the Cab Franc on the palate – where was a plate of tagliata or lamb with black olive crust when needed?  Ending on the Obra Prima Maximus ’11, which seems well named being as muscular and powerful as Russell Crowe in a gladiators outfit! 40% Malbec, blended with 20% each of Cab’s Sauv & Franc, this was a very serious wine with ripe plum fruit and nice touch of minerality.  The Italian attitude to hospitality lives on today in the Cassone family, so we decamped to their front lawn along with Federicos' parents for a “light snack” that would have kept most delis’ going for a month. A wonderful array of salamis, hams, cheese and of course empanadas (the competition for best empanada still continuing on this side of the Andes!) awaited – as did the gorgeous family dog, who though v nervous as a rescue dog, soon became my new best friend& happy to share my empanada…!  Yet more wines appeared including their fragrant Torrontes, a great variety as an aperitif with notes of tropical fruit and elderflower.  The wonderfully friendly Cassones make wonderful wines and all unbelievably good value! – there were already several orders placed before we left the cellar!  A simple perfect visit and very hard to leave! UK importer is Justerini & Brooks

Mendoza is a bustling university city, with lots of parks to explore but the heat of the day lured most of the group to the air conditioned bar or relaxing by the pool before our evening visit.  Familia Zuccardi have two estates, the original cellars just outside Mendoza and a new one in the Uco valley, and they have a wide range of wines – producing large volume of easy drinking wine through to small production, quality focused, terroir centered wines. The company’s owner, Jose Alberto Zuccardi has been joined by his son Sebastian as wine maker and his daughter Julia in the family company. The short pre-dinner tasting including their Ancellotta, to show off this unusual red grape variety from their experimental range, their Z and two of their Uco wines – the Vistaflores Aluvional reflecting the soils created by glacial movements over many years. But there is only so much tasting to be done in one day, so the remaining five wines were served over an inventive tasting menu devised by their in house Chef – Matias Aldasoro. Their Fiano (a white more normally found in Campania in Southern Italy) paired well with the tomato starter, the veal capaccio with oregano ice cream stood up well to the rustic notes of the Zuccardi Emma made from Bonarda, a red grape hailing from North West Italy. The main of baby goat with raspberry ketchup and consommé of goat bought out all the brambly black fruit of the Zuccardi Q Malbec. For desert, apple cake, pear granite & Catalan peach cream echoed the ripe apricot elements of the Malamado Viognier. So if anyone still thought that Argentina was only about huge hunks of BBQ steak – this tasting menu left them in no doubt that inventive modern Argentinian cooking is very much alive – and such flavour experimentation reflects the open minded wine making approach of the Zuccardis. UK importer is Alliance Wine.

The Uco Valley lies to the South East of Mendoza City, although technically still falls under Mendoza, it is very different to the more traditional Mendocino vineyard regions. With the Tupungato volcano dominating the skyline, and the many off shoots of the Tunuyan River spreading like tentacles, the region is (for now) gloriously unspoilt against wide open skies with incredible luminosity, although vineyard plantings have doubled since 2001. Not only key Argentine names but also from France, including famous Consultant Michel Rolland and several Bordeaux Chateaux and the Lurton Brothers amongst others. The vineyards are planted at a higher altitude then their city cousins, which gives a cooler micro climate. Heading through police road blocks(protection of the biosecurity of the Uco for its fruit & veg industry), the Uco Valley with its poplar lined roads is the place that has the Argentinean winemakers excited. As Sebastian Zuccardi points out, there should be more recognition of the different wine sub regions rather than all being clumped under one classification. The investment in the region over the last 15 years has been considerable and there a host of fascinating estates to visit, from an architectural point of view as well as vinous!

But sadly our time in Argentina was limited, so we headed to one of the most impressive estates, Bodegas Salentein.  Owned by a Dutch family who named the estate after their Castle in Holland, no expense was spared in the design of the winery, which blends in well against the mountains. Having tried to work out how many barrels I have seen over the last 20 years of visiting wine estates (the computer ran out of zeros), it is hard for me to be truly impressed by a cellar but the design of the barrel room 8 metres below ground level is rather good – complete with piano for concerts (limited length of time only to avoid disturbing the wine too much)! But it is the table in the tasting room that is truly breath taking, hewn from a single piece of rock from San Juan – a hand deep in depth and long enough to comfortably seat 30 people! Hosted by the very knowledgeable Marcelo Gil, the tasting started with the Reserve Chardy ’15 from the Las Pampas Vineyard at 1250 metres asl, it was all greengages and clotted cream with 60% of the wine having undergone malolactic fermentation. The Primus Chardy ‘14 was different in style, a blend of several parcels, it was a very textural wine with a long finish. The Primus Pinot Noir ’11, with fruit coming only from their higher altitude vineyards, had a nice nose of violets, hint of tobacco with good structure. Their Numinia Gran Corte ’14, a blend of 62% Malbec, 21% Cab Sauv, 8% Petit Verdot, 5% Can Franc, 4% Merlot but tweaked every vintage. A huge red wine that needs time. The Primus Malbec ’13 showed how fine the tannins can be with the Uco cooler, longer ripening time.

The cellars are also home to the family Art Collection of modern Argentine and Dutch artists, so a quick visit for some culture to feed the soul but before long, lunch called, so a short hop along a tree lined avenue to their Posada. With their in-house sommelier, we had chosen another four wines with lunch, to show how food friendly are the Salentein wines. Red Tuna Sashimi  paired happily with the Single Vineyard Chardonnay, whilst for the main course of pork marinated in dark beer and honey, I’d chosen to show two wines, to see which people thought matched best – the Single Vineyard Pinot Noir and also the Primus Merlot. Despite the threatening rain clouds arriving in style ,causing an impromptu table rearrangement, this caused much discussion with the group divided as to which worked best with the pork. Their Primus Merlot was one of the first merlots to ever impress me in Argentina, with its elegance, and whilst I’d have been happy with either with the main course, the acidity of the Pinot Noir worked superbly with the richness of the pork.  To finish, the Single Vineyard Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc was all clementines & apricots – simply delicious end to a relaxed lunch in the vines. UK Importer is GP Brands

Nights off on wine tour are essential to allow people to explore on their own according to their hunger levels – those who fancy no more than a lettuce leaf & a glass of mineral water after a full days tasting to those made of sturdier stuff, who see a free evening as a good reason to discover even more wines whilst on the other side of the world. Both Derek and I love the restaurant Azafran in Mendoza, for featuring great local produce with traditional recipes reinvented. But it is their wine list that keeps us going back – superb selection and fair prices, it also has a glorious wine room, with walls lined with bottles where we ensconced a select few of our group at the circular table  – having checked them for corkscrews first!

The last day of the tour, was a flight to Buenos Aires with time to explore this cosmopolitan capital before our final dinner together at a local steak house, Fevor in the heart of the Recoleta district. Having checked it out previously for its fabulous steak, I chose it for its wonderful wine list (not to mention impeccable service). Derek had fun deliberating which wines to end this South American Wine Tour, so chose Colomé Torrontes from the Salta region, the highest vineyards in Argentina for our last white. With the steak, there HAD to be a Malbec, so cue Padrillos Malbec 2015, made by Nicolas Catena’s son on his own estate. But also a blend, courtesy of one of Argentina’s most respected winemakers, Susanna Balbo, the first Argentinean female to graduate as a Wine Maker back in 1981! The Brioso ’13 with a fairly Bordelais blend of Cabs Sauv & Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot – which ticked a lot of boxes with the steak – showing good wine, good food, good company equals the perfect evening!

This was my 20th Wine Tour to South America, and there continues to be an on-going excitement in the wine trade in both Chile and Argentina, both countries now with a greater understanding of the land they have already planted through to the newer regions being explored and cultivated. So much has changed in the last twenty years and continues to do so with every vintage. Combined with the welcoming hospitality of the South Americans on both sides of the Andes, this tour was a fascinating way to give an insight not only into the wines but also the people and their history.

Sadly on this occasion, we did not have time to visit the vineyards of Uruguay as I have done on many previous South American Wine Tours, but that will be for next time!

To read my blog on the Chilean part of this tour -

To see full tasting notes written by the ever brilliant Derek Smedley MW – do visit his website

For more information about Argentinean Wine, do visit Wines of Argentina

All photos taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey.