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The Appeal of Argentina's Wine Country

The Mendoza region offers a Wild West travel experience—that is, until you get to the elegant new restaurants and hotels.

Whenever i need to escape from noisy, flashy Buenos Aires, where I live, I take the two-hour flight to the Mendoza region. It's not just the excellent wines and earthy cuisine that keep luring me back; it's also the arid, lunar landscape. The dusty towns and the low-slung adobe buildings, backed by the towering Andes, look like Argentina's version of a Sergio Leone Wild West panorama. Driving around the city of Mendoza—a traditional provincial capital in the middle of a sparsely populated, heavily irrigated desert—I'm reminded that winemaking is ultimately just farming framed with evocative adjectives.

Still, Mendoza has been changing. As its winemaking reputation has grown, thanks to the world-class bottlings made with Malbec and other grapes, the inevitable slew of hotels, restaurants and architecturally striking wineries have opened to serve the booming number of tourists.Recently, I went back to get another dose of the laid-back Mendoza life, drink some wine—and do a little recon.

After arriving in Mendoza's four-gate airport, I drive about 20 miles south to the two-year-old Cavas Wine Lodge. The ride takes me down the dirt road that divides two of Mendoza's best-known wineries: One is the squat red-and-tan bodega (winery) of Ruca Malén, co-owned by former Chandon Argentina chairman Jean Pierre Thibaud; the other is the new industrial hangar that houses American winemaker Paul Hobbs's Argentinean label, Viña Cobos.

Cavas is run by a young couple from Buenos Aires, Cecilia Díaz Chuit and Martín Rigal, who decided to open a Mendoza lodge after "too many caipirinhas" on a vacation to the boutique hotel–filled town of Búzios in Brazil. "We said, 'You know what Mendoza needs? A small hotel in the vineyards,'" says Cecilia, a hotel executive who had worked in the Park Hyatt Mendoza and wanted to build something that felt very mendocino. "We wanted to use local materials—the stone, the adobe—and to complement what already existed, and all the new investments in wine."

As soon as I arrive, Cecilia—fashionable in a gaucho poncho and knee-high boots—walks me around, pointing out the 35 acres of canopied vines that grow the grapes the couple uses to produce 2,000 annual bottles of Bonarda, a juicy wine with a lively acidity that guests can sample in Cavas's dining and tasting rooms. We stop by Cavas's Moorish-style spa, which offers Malbec-seed scrubs and Torrontés cream wraps. Then we walk through the wine cellar, where 130 different Argentinean bottlings are stored in large cubbies closed with antique elevator doors.

After the tour, Cecilia takes me to my suite, decorated with textiles from northern Argentina and housed in an adobe-walled bungalow. From my room, I can see out to my private patio pool and to the Andes. Ceci­lia tells me she and her husband often arrange for local guides to take adventurous guests into the mountains for horseback riding and hiking, and for skiing in the winter.

Most visitors, however, come to Mendoza mainly to taste wine. The Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room, which opened last year in a converted Spanish-style house in the city's Plaza Independencia, has 79 Argentinean wines available for sampling. One evening I meet up with Vines cofounder David Garrett, who traded a career as a Washington, DC, Internet entrepreneur for a life in the wine world after taking a 2004 tasting trip to Mendoza with old friend and ex–John Kerry campaign worker Michael Evans. Within months, they'd founded the Vines of Mendoza, which started as a service to deliver the region's hard-to-find boutique wines to U.S. and European subscribers. Later they launched the Tasting Room and, soon after, they began selling plots to investors—mostly North Americans and Europeans—in a 1,500-acre custom vineyard project in the Uco Valley, about an hour south of Mendoza.

Garrett and I taste our way through five Uco Valley reserve wines, including one—a formidable 2003 Malbec that needs aging—made by famed French wine consultant Michel Rolland, who is also president of Mendoza's Val de Flores. We also taste a 2004 Matices de Abril Malbec, a light, plummy wine. Garrett tells me about the custom wine project in which, with the help of Santiago Achával Becu of the Achaval-Ferrer winery, buyers of vineyard plots will choose varietals for planting and, in several years, produce private-label bottles. "I built the first intranet for the U.S. Navy, and I bet nothing I did is still there," says the tall, goateed Garrett. "But the vines we plant here will probably be around in 120 years, and making better wine."

One of the most visible signs of the new Mendoza is that architecturally ambitious bodegas have been popping up among the vast stretches of vines and dirt. I'm curious to see the new O. Fournier winery, owned by Spaniard José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier, so I drive south, past the boxy brick building that houses Andeluna Cellars, co-owned by Frito-Lay heir Ward Lay. En route I glimpse Bodegas Salentein's cement bunker–style winery, also home to a new gallery displaying Argentinean and Dutch artworks.

When O. Fournier rises into view, it looks like a giant, space-age beetle. As I get closer, I see that the parts resembling beetle's legs are actually ramps that allow grapes to be delivered to the roof; the grapes ferment as they travel to the downstairs barrel room, in keeping with the chairman's belief in using gravity instead of pumps for fermentation.

There's something wonderfully weird about stepping out of a rental car, its hood dented by pebbles from the dirt road, and walking into a hypermodern fantasy. O. Fournier, like Bodegas Salentein, was designed by Mendoza architects Eliana Bórmida and Mario Yanzón, a pair with a fixation on cement and a flair for a Brutalist style of design that has come to define Mendoza winery architecture. The barrel cellars in both O. Fournier and Bodegas Salentein bear a resemblance to the "pod room" in the first Matrix movie, and at O. Fournier, the somewhat masculine Zen ambience extends into the new restaurant, Urban, with its leather chairs and its view of a small man-made lake.

I meet O. Fournier winemaker José Spisso at Urban for a lunch of Argentinean food tinged with Spanish influences. We sample the eggplant chips, topped with gazpacho-like salmorejo sauce and paired with a 2003 Spiga, a spicy red blend from O. Fournier's Spanish vineyards. With my main dish, a tender veal ragù with couscous and mascarpone risotto, I drink O. Fournier's robust, chocolaty 2002 Alfa Crux blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Merlot. Spisso points at the expanse of land behind me. While this bit of Mendoza still feels like the end of the world, O. Fournier is not the only bodega to have discovered it. "Over there," he says, "Chile's Concha y Toro planted 2,000 acres."

The winery boom has made way for more new restaurants like Urban, with chefs who are making use of the ingredients that grow nearby and showcasing them in both traditional and ultramodern preparations. One day I eat at three-year-old Almacén del Sur restaurant and food market in Maipú, about 15 miles from Cavas; the kitchen bottles 35 products from local ingredients, like Malbec wine jelly and piquillo pepper spread, and uses them in a seasonal tasting menu. Attached to a 120-year-old manor fronted with a wisteria-covered pergola, the place feels like a stylized farmhouse from Argentina's belle epoque.

Manager Santiago Orozco guides me past the rosebushes used to make rose-petal preserves, and the sun dryers that turn out delicious tomatoes. Then, in the dining room, surrounded by boutique wines and chalkboards scrawled with epicurean sayings (such as the Leonardo da Vinci quote, "I will put a piece of bread between two pieces of meat; now what will I call this dish?"), I start with a glass of fruity, fresh 2006 Chardonnay from Trivento, a local Chilean/Argentinean bodega owned by Concha y Toro, and move on to a straightforward Malbec from the Mendozan branch of the French bodega Lurton, which I drink with chef Gastón Castaño's lamb with Malbec jelly, lemon and thyme.

The person who can be credited perhaps more than anyone with Mendoza's culinary renaissance is 28-year-old chef Lucas Bustos. In 2004, Bustos worked with Ruca Malén winery's Thibaud to launch a restaurant serving five-course menus that pair the bodega's wines with modern Mendozan dishes, like grilled beef with black-pepper butter. A year later he opened Bistro La Tupiña at Bodega Altus, a winery just down the road from Andeluna Cellars. His latest, open since March, is 743 Bistro, in Mendoza city's residential Bombal neighborhood; here he's getting the chance to express his own menu ideas more freely, without matching his food to a specific winery's bottlings.

Over dinner with Santiago Achával at 743, I taste some of Bustos's latest creations: arugula ice cream garnished with Parmesan cheese, a delicious rabbit cannelloni, and a sorbet of green apples and parsley. Everything is made with Mendozan ingredients. "People come to taste wine from this terroir, and I try to keep the food local too," Bustos says.

On my last day, I contemplate a hike up into the Andes. Instead, I decide to relax in Cavas's fireplace lounge, where I linger over a classic Mendozan salad of bitter herbs and stare out the window. Outside, the bright silver of the sky reminds me how starkly beautiful a rural winter can be.

Published October 2007
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