Photo © Fredrika Stjärne
With a gaucho by her side, F&W 's Megan Krigbaum explores Argentina's Uco Valley, a once-overlooked region that now offers spectacular wines, fantastic resorts and seven different ways to cook with fire.
A lot of promises are made in midtown Manhattan office buildings, but after the words "Sure, I'll ride a horse" jumped out of my mouth (knowing full well that I'd not saddled up in at least 15 years), they stayed in my brain and echoed around for a good couple of months, until one early morning in Argentina. At which point, I was so transfixed by the 4:30 a.m. Mendoza sky—where not only a jaw-dropping concentration of stars but truly the entire Milky Way spilled out above me—that I hardly noticed being boosted up onto my perfectly slow (if not a tad reluctant) steed.
I was part of a cavalcade from The Vines of Mendoza winery and resort, in the Uco Valley, and we were heading up a mountain to see the sunrise. When we reached the peak, someone pulled biscuits, chicharrónes and a carafe of coffee from a backpack and began filling espresso cups for the group. But Michael Evans, The Vines' co-owner, was too busy for breakfast. He was there to photograph the sun as it inched up the Andes, turning the sky and everything beneath it pumpkin orange. This is precisely what made him move to Argentina from Los Angeles 10 years ago and cofound The Vines with Pablo Gimenez Riili, a Mendoza native.
Their concept for The Vines of Mendoza was novel: allowing ordinary people to buy parcels of land on the property to make wine. These owners select a plot and choose the grape varieties, and The Vines does everything else under the supervision of consulting winemaker Santiago Achával (who has his own highly respected Mendoza winery, Achával-Ferrer, as well as a couple of other projects, even one in California). During my week in Argentina, I met several owners—including a pet cremator from Missouri, no less—who were there to weigh in on the blending of their wines.
The world generally thinks of Malbec, and only Malbec, when it comes to Argentinean wines. Yet The Vines property is planted with 20 different kinds of grapes, from Cabernet Franc to Chardonnay. This diversity reflects a bigger and really exciting change in the Uco Valley. I'd traveled to Argentina to get a better sense of that change, to see how winemakers are taking advantage of the extraordinary growing conditions to produce wines from seemingly countless grape varieties. The Uco Valley has really only come into its own in the last 15 years or so, making it a very young wine region. Back in New York, I'd tasted a range of Uco wines—vibrant, concentrated, distinct. I wanted the chance to taste these wines in the place where they were made.
At the same time that Uco wines are becoming more enticing, so is the region as a travel destination. Some of its best wineries, like Sophenia and Clos de los Siete, only recently opened tasting rooms to the public. And now there are incredible resorts with star chefs—including The Vines, with a restaurant by grilling legend Francis Mallmann. Another resort and winery, Casa de Uco, just opened this spring, with a restaurant by talented Mendoza chef Pablo del Rio.
Also onboard at Casa de Uco is world-renowned wine consultant Alberto Antonini. When I asked him why he decided to come to Uco, he spoke of the region as if it were almost mythical. "The Uco Valley has the best terroir in Mendoza," he said. "It has warm days and cool nights. I have so much energy when I'm here—it's sunny and dry and makes me feel so fresh."
When I first pulled through the gate at The Vines of Mendoza, I thought I'd been tricked. There was no building in sight. The 10-minute drive down a bumpy dirt road from the entrance to the lodge is lined with enormous boulders that snake through the desert into row after row of lush grapevines, and just at the moment when I was sure I'd been kidnapped, there was the resort. The place defines a sort of gaucho glamour: Most of its 22 villas come with indoor and outdoor fireplaces and fully stocked kitchens (though why would one want to cook when Mallmann's restaurant is only yards away?). Everything is situated with a view of the magnetic Andes Mountains. The place is unobtrusively luxurious, down to the bright red hand-knit wool pouf cushions from Indias Argentina and the delicious Fueguia 1833 soaps from Patagonia.
One of the more amazing parts of staying at The Vines is that every guest is assigned a gaucho. By definition, gauchos are cowboys who live in the countryside or pampas, but colloquially, a gaucho is just a straight-up good guy. In Argentina, when you do someone a gauchada, it means you've done them a favor. My gaucho, Matias Soria, a slender, big-eyed and big-hearted Mendoza native, embodies everything a gaucho ought to. I was completely taken care of. He gave me a cell phone to call him whenever, kept my fridge stocked with sparkling water and set me up in front of the fireplace in the lodge with a glass of late-harvest Torrontés. He even arranged for me to plant a couple of Malbec vines with vineyard manager Francisco Evangelista.
Matias also rode along with me to the top of the mountain on our sunrise horseback trek, naming all of the surrounding peaks along the way. We tried to spot Tupungato though the clouds; it's the tallest mountain in the valley, and everyone spoke of it as if it were a loyal friend. They all promised I'd see it during my visit. That was not to be.
Later, Matias set up a tasting and blending session with The Vines' generous, knowledgeable wine director, Mariana Onofri. We sat outside and tasted through more than a dozen owners' barrels and bottles, while watching an intense thunderstorm roll in over the desert. She was checking on how the wines were coming along. The young Malbecs were still quite juicy and fruity, while those with age had taken on structure and depth. The Vines bottles its own wines, too, and exports them to the US, including a crisp, fragrant Torrontés and its signature Malbec, a ripe, black cherry–scented wine.
There seems to be a lot of talk in Mendoza about how not to go down the same path with Malbec as Australia did with Shiraz—where the wines had become homogenous and predictable, with the expectation of low prices to match. Based on the Malbecs I tasted in the Uco Valley, there's little risk of that. The region is actually composed of many subregions, each of which has its own influence on the Malbec grape, depending on proximity to the Andes.
One producer, Familia Marguery, is making a Malbec unlike any I've had before. I was joined at The Vines lodge one afternoon by Marguery's owner, Guillermo Donnerstag, who spends his days as a philosophy professor at a university in Mendoza. He applies a philosophical approach to his wines, focusing on the subregions rather than the region as a whole. His Casa Malbec, a blend of Uco and Luján de Cuyo fruits, was structured and grassy, and tasted like tea leaves, different from the floral or fruity flavors I'd found in other Malbecs. His single-vineyard Familia Marguery Malbec, from Uco's La Consulta subregion, went in another direction, with spice and dense, dark fruit. These two bottlings alone show the extreme diversity of the terroir.
The next phase of The Vines is a winemakers' village, where 12 up-and-coming winemakers have purchased land and are growing grapes. They'll each have their own winery and tasting room. I spent an afternoon spitting wine off a brick wall with Luis Reginato, one of the winemakers involved in the project. "There's not another place in the world where, within walking distance, you can find 12 wineries with 12 different winemakers telling their own stories," Reginato said. "I like that." His plan is to plant varieties never grown in the region before, to see if there might be a future for them.
Blue-eyed, red-haired Reginato came off as quite soft-spoken when we first met, but after spending the better part of an afternoon in a truck with him, I realized he was just thinking a lot. He is the director of viticulture for Bodega Catena Zapata, one of Argentina's best-known producers. The Adrianna vineyard, where our tasting took place, is the source for many Catena Zapata wines, the most interesting of which are two Chardonnays—White Bones and White Stones—named for the different types of soil from which they come. Reginato had dug big holes in each plot (just rows away from one another) so that I could see the surprising variations. "We don't think terroir is a picture," Reginato told me. "It's a movie." I could taste the movie of this place in the wines, too. The White Bones is savory and ripe, the White Stones crisp and powerful.
One morning I went even farther afield and drove out to the Ruca Malen winery, located in Mendoza's Luján de Cuyo region, though it sources about 60 percent of its grapes from the Uco Valley. "We discovered the quality potential in the Uco Valley," winemaker Pablo Cuneo told me as we tasted samples straight from the barrel. "The cold nights and warm days concentrate all of the colors, flavors and aromas in the grapes." This was certainly true of his intensely fragrant Reserva Malbec from Vista Flores. The wine was so vibrantly magenta that I could make out the spectacular color even in the poorly lit cellar.
Back at The Vines, Matias set up a cooking lesson for me with Francis Mallmann. Evans said he courted the idiosyncratic chef for months before he agreed to open Siete Fuegos ("Seven Fires") at The Vines. The cooking gear in his outdoor kitchen ranges from a plancha to an enormous wood-fired oven to a fire pit with medieval-looking metal structures for roasting whole animals. "When you're cooking with fire," Mallmann said, "you have to have a strategy; you have to be calm with a good plan. You don't have to rush. It's like a day off."
Mallmann's idea of a day off is different from mine. He moved quickly, paying not one bit of attention to the flies that also turned up for the lesson. Nearby were his sweet one-year-old daughter, Heloisa (it was her birthday), and his girlfriend, Vanina Chimeno, a chef at her own restaurant, María Antonieta, in the city of Mendoza. Although Mallmann took frequent breaks to tickle the baby, somehow, within hours, he and his head chef Diego Irrera prepared charred gaucho steaks (p. 118) and trays of beef-and-onion empanadas (p. 130). He created a stunning zucchini salad with mint and toasted hazelnuts (p. 115) to serve right on a gorgeous butcher block. And he made the loveliest crêpes (p. 131), with ribbons of dulce de leche, in the wood-fired oven. "Dulce de leche really is just a cry of happiness," he said.
On a whim, he decided to make what he calls a mason's steak. "If you go to any construction site in Argentina, you will find a grill," he said. "The workers bring thin cuts of meat with them because they cook fast." I had a hard time believing any construction worker would bring to a job site avocados, bacon, tomatoes, thinly sliced sweet potatoes and cilantro, but that's what Mallmann deftly rolled up in the hugest sirloin I'd ever seen, resulting in a delicious monstrosity. "I love meat," Mallmann said. "I eat meat every day."
I'd also been eating meat every day—not my norm. So in my last hours at The Vines, rather than confronting yet another steak, I sat with my feet in the pool, with a bottle of Uco Sauvignon Blanc, and tried to spot Tupungato one last time. It wasn't there.