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The Latest from Argentina | Malbecs from Argentina's Mendoza Region

Ignoring the risk of earthquakes, Wine Editor Lettie Teague heads to Argentina's Mendoza region to try the rich, intense Malbecs.

Before I arrived in Argentina, I knew just three things about the country: It had produced an incredibly important writer (Jorge Luis Borges); it had defaulted on an incredibly large loan ($90 billion or so); and it had turned out some pretty nice wine (mostly Malbec). By the time I went home eight days later, I'd met Borges's widow (she even signed my copy of his book) and tasted some really good reds (almost all made from Malbec). I didn't, however, manage to help out with the loan.

I've tasted Argentinean wines over the years, and though some were quite good, they were often hard to find. But suddenly Argentinean wines are all over the place, and every winemaker I talk with has either just been to Mendoza or is planting a vineyard there. And exports are posting big numbers too: 40 percent more Argentinean wine was shipped internationally in 2003 than in 2002, when 6.4 million cases were exported. And this was over a million more than the year before.

Mendoza is an arid province at the foot of the Andes, some 600 miles west of Buenos Aires. It is where Argentina's wine industry began about 500 years ago, and it's still the most important region in terms of volume (accounting for 75 percent of the country's total production) and quality. The first vineyardists came from Spain, followed a few hundred years later by their counterparts from Italy and France. The latter two brought cuttings of their native grapes: the Italians brought Bonarda, while the French contributed Malbec, from Bordeaux. And though the Italians won the award for most prolific (Bonarda is Argentina's most widely-planted grape), the French took home top prize for quality: Argentinean Malbecs are deep-colored wines of great intensity and flavor with sweet tannins and spicy bouquets.

Some people fly to Mendoza via Santiago, Chile, but I'd heard so much about Buenos Aires that I wanted to see that city first. I'd heard that it looked European. (Like Milan, but with more trees.) And that practically everyone had a plastic surgeon. (The faces didn't look any more stretched than they do in Manhattan.) I'd also heard there were several great wine shops. It was in one of the newest, Terroir, that I first tasted the wines that its owner, Claudio Fontana, calls Super-Mendozans. (Thanks to the Italians who created Super-Tuscan wines, every expensive, nontraditional wine is now accorded the term Super.)

While the bottles were being opened, I took a tour of the store. I didn't see many familiar names. Was it because most Argentinean wines are never exported? Until a few years ago, Argentines consumed almost all of their own wines, a distinction not even the intensely patriotic French can claim. This was probably just as well for the rest of the world; for a long time Argentinean wines weren't very good. They were tired and oxidative, often aged too long in wood. But they were cheap. And most of them still are: 70 percent of the wine consumed in Argentina costs 2.50 pesos or less per liter—that's under a dollar.

And even the best Argentinean wines are relative bargains. The 10 Super-Mendozans I tasted (all Malbecs or Malbec blends) cost $40 to $85 a bottle, notably less than the top wines of any other country. The wines themselves were a mix of styles—some more fruit-forward and international, others more old-fashioned and rustic. Two of my favorites (both from wineries on my Mendoza itinerary) were the modern, barrique-aged 2001 Achával-Ferrer Finca Altamira Malbec and the more rustic 1999 Terrazas de Los Andes Gran Malbec.

First Tremors of Excitement

My first look at Mendoza was less than auspicious: Aside from the decorative vineyard at the airport, there wasn't much to suggest wine. Where were the welcome-to-wine-country signs? The restaurants? The tasting rooms? Even the shops in downtown Mendoza were oddly wine-free. Indeed, the focus of Mendoza's commerce seemed to be $4 shoes and discount perfume. It wasn't that I wanted a grape-printed hand towel, I just wanted some evidence that wine was made there.

The city of Mendoza is on an active fault line; indeed, major earthquakes have destroyed it several times. That might explain why most Mendoza buildings aren't more than a few stories high. In fact, one of the tallest structures in town turned out to be my hotel, the Park Hyatt Mendoza. Its facade was that of a 19th-century colonial palace, but its interior was more of an homage to a W hotel. Among the Park Hyatt's attractions is a mod restaurant—Bistro M, whose wine list features top Mendoza producers—and a large casino. (Was this why the doorman was packing a pistol?)

My first real look at the countryside came the following morning, with a visit to Terrazas de Los Andes, a winery whose name is derived in part from the notion that there are perfect heights to grow particular grapes in the Andes. For example, Malbec is cultivated on "terraces" 3,500 feet above sea level while Chardonnay is grown even higher, at almost 4,000 feet. High-altitude vineyards are one of Mendoza's big selling points, and wines made with grapes from such sites are said to have many of the same qualities as those made from grapes grown on hillsides—greater complexity and depth of flavor.

Although an optimistic cartographer made Terrazas seem just a few minutes from town, it took over half an hour to get there. Much of this had to do with an unfinished highway; there's a lot of construction taking place in Mendoza. Not so great for tourists, but good for the local economy. Not to mention the donkeys, who, thanks to the slow-moving cars, can graze right up to the edge of the road. The Mendoza landscape was unlike any wine country I'd ever seen: desert scrub and adobe encampments giving way here and there to well-tended vines, many covered with netting to protect against hail.

A guardhouse occupied by a man and a dog marked the entrance to Terrazas. The winery itself was a study in beautifully restored brick, set back from an impeccably swept courtyard. A trim little house was set off to one side, its wide lawn encircled by cypress trees. This was where the winery entertained visitors, though tourists could rent it too, I was told. Included in the very reasonable price ($35 a night) were the services of the winery chef and, presumably, the winery guard and dog.

Terrazas is part of Bodegas Chandon, a company owned by Moët & Chandon. Bodegas Chandon was Moët & Chandon's first foray outside France, and its fruity sparkling wines have long been some of Argentina's best sellers. Bodegas Chandon is less than a 10-minute drive from Terrazas (one of the few distances the mapmaker got right) and is one of Mendoza's most touristed wineries. It's easy to understand why. In addition to a visitor's center that resembles Versailles's Trianon châteaus, it has a Napa-style tasting room (with an un-Napa-like cigarette machine) and a gift shop—a rare Mendoza amenity. A restaurant is said to be in the works.

When Chandon acquired Terrazas, the property was being used as a brandy distillery; it had become unprofitable during one of the country's many economic crises. Indeed, the specter of economic disaster is never far from the minds of Argentines. Most recently they've had to deal with the devaluation of the peso two and a half years ago (which Argentines call simply "The Crisis"), when the peso was no longer pegged to the dollar. And while this resulted in the near collapse of the banking system as well as high unemployment (not to mention the decimation of the middle class) it created opportunity for investment in wine. Vineyard land dropped precipitously in value, and panicked landholders began selling off parcels at fire-sale prices. The winegrowers who remained reoriented themselves away from the domestic market, refined their product and entered the international fray. As a result, Argentina's wine business is doing better than the country as a whole.

The Terrazas label is fairly new; although the winery building itself is over 100 years old, the first vintage of Terrazas debuted just five years ago. Terrazas makes a range of wines and varietals, but its old-vine Gran Malbec is unquestionably the star. The head of winemaking at Terrazas is Roberto de la Mota, a reserved, soft-spoken man. He told me, "Much of Argentina's success is thanks to the French." (Not a bad sentiment considering his employer.) But De la Mota's no corporate cipher; he comes from a distinguished Argentinean winemaking family—his father, Raul, was the most famous winemaker in Mendoza when he worked for Bodega Weinert.

Michel Rolland is Much in Argentina

I considered De la Mota's contention. The roll call of French names was certainly impressive: the Lurtons from Bordeaux, the Rothschilds and of course, Michel Rolland, the globe-trotting wine consultant from Bordeaux. Rolland has been a regular presence in Argentina for more than 16 years. In fact, so frequent are his visits that Rolland even said of himself, "Michel Rolland is much in Argentina." (A sure sign of success: referring to yourself in the third person.)

Rolland has consulted for many Argentinean wineries over the years (his first was Bodegas Etchart), but he only recently began to invest his own money in projects, including Clos de los Siete, or Vineyard of the Seven. This elite all-French consortium includes Rolland and his wife Dany as well as Catherine Péré-Vergé (Pomerol-based Château Montviel), the D'Aulans (former owners of Piper Heidsieck) and Laurent Dassault (Château Dassault). Each will make wine in a separate facility. Rolland's label, Val de Flores, just appeared on the market.

The owners of Lafite teamed up with Argentine Nicolás Catena at Bodegas Caro to produce an elegant if somewhat anonymous-seeming Malbec-Cabernet blend. But even if the wine itself is not yet memorable, the winery's location certainly is, next door to the only famous restaurant in Mendoza: Francis Mallmann's 1884. Patagonian-born Mallmann is a culinary deity in Argentina, and his restaurant draws diners from all over the world. Housed in a Romanesque former winery, 1884 is an eclectic place: The waitstaff wear Asian-style tunics, while the menu runs to various pizzas, goat (served several ways) and (very good) empanadas.

Roberto de la Mota has a French partner too, Pierre Lurton, of the legendary Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. Their wine, Cheval des Andes, has only just been released (the 2001 vintage is their first to be sold) but it may be the best modern wine in Argentina to date. A blend of Malbec and Cabernet, it's a gorgeous synthesis of Bordeaux finesse with Argentinean power and fruit.

Banging on the Winery Gate

Of course, the French aren't the only ones who have contributed money and expertise to Mendoza. Plenty of Italians have done so too. As have several natives, or in the case of Santiago Achával, of Achával-Ferrer, near-natives. Achával, whose winery was next on my list to visit, was born in the U.S. but grew up in Argentina. He returned to the States for his MBA, but when he got "the wine bug," he went back to Argentina. He bought much of his vineyard land around the time of The Crisis. "Everyone was panicking," Achával recalled. "They were afraid the dollar would suddenly be worth 100 pesos. We bought all the land we could. We bought a Malbec vineyard that had been planted in 1910 for $6,000 an acre."

It certainly seemed like a wise investment; the Malbecs I tasted (single-vineyard wines, still in barrel) were extraordinarily rich and intense. The 2003 Finca Bella Vista was a particular standout. ("Almost half of the wine will go to the States," said Achával, which I was happy to hear.) Achával's wines have already won praise: Wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., gave his 1999 Merlot-Malbec a score of 91 and called it "complex, nuanced and extremely refined." Such success doesn't appear to have affected the modest Achával or, for that matter, his winery—an unglamorous building hidden behind a graffitied wall inside the town of Luján de Cuyo. Visitors, allowed in by appointment, may have to (as I did) bang on a metal gate to get in.

My next stop, Bodegas Salentein, was even farther away from the city of Mendoza, nearly a two-hour drive into the Andes. The winery had been the inspiration of a Dutch investor. This Dutchman (who would not be named) had fallen in love with Mendoza and taken an Argentine, Carlos Pulenta (whose family once owned Trapiche), as his business partner. Bodegas Salentein is located in a part of Mendoza known as Tupungato, in the Andes foothills. Many wealthy Mendozans have weekend homes, or posadas, there, and quite a few wineries, such as Terrazas, maintain vineyards—which are said to be some of the highest in the world (at up to 5,500 feet high).

Although the Salentein winery itself was the work of two local architects, it looked like they had borrowed their blueprints from NASA: It rose out of the vineyards like a docked spaceship, the enormous stone building serving as evidence of the unnamed owner's considerable ambition. (Though only established six years ago, Salentein already produces three lines of wine, which include a wide range of varietals: Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and even Pinot Noir. The Primus Pinot Noir, to my mind, is their best wine so far.) More to my taste than the modernist winery was Salentein's rustic guesthouse set off in the vineyards. Available by the week or the day, it includes meals made by Salentein's chef, the talented Marita Montivero, as well as the company of her numerous roosters and hens.

A Mayan Temple to Malbec

The final stop on my Mendoza tour was Bodega Catena Zapata, probably Argentina's best-known winery today. Although it too is an architectural oddity (a pyramid mimicking the look of a Mayan temple), it seems somehow at home in the landscape.

This wasn't surprising, as its owner, the visionary Nicolás Catena, has spent decades integrating unlikely combinations of old and new. Though born to an Argentinean family with a long winemaking history, Catena has always looked to the outside world for inspiration. He studied in the States (acquiring a Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University) and has worked with famous outsiders like Frenchman Jacques Lurton and the highly regarded American winemaker Paul Hobbs—who has since gone on to an acclaimed Argentinean venture of his own. Catena is currently hoping to bring some Australian winemakers to Argentina, to hear what they think of his wine. "We've had the Americans, now we need the Australians," he said.

Catena's daughter, Laura, is a doctor in the United States, but she happened to be visiting the day I was there. (She also makes very good wine under her own label, Luca.) Laura gave me a tour of the winery that began with a walk around the top of the pyramid and concluded with a tasting of Catena's full range of wines.

Nicolás Catena joined us for lunch. When I asked him what he thought about all the foreigners in Mendoza, Catena, true to form, tried to turn the question back on me. But eventually he replied: "They are coming with the intention of producing high-quality wines. If they're successful, they will help the image of the region." He paused, and added with a laugh, "And of course, I will receive the benefit of that prestige."

On the plane back to Buenos Aires, I thought about the view from atop Catena's pyramid: the well-tended, symmetrical vines that ran down the road into the wilder greens and browns of the valley below, and up into the very mountains, it seemed. I thought of how Mendoza must have looked to those winemakers from so long ago: a land of great difficulty (those earthquakes! that hail!) but at the same time a place of great promise—its true potential perhaps only now fully realized.

Published May 2004
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