In Salta, a band of gauchos sing songs of loss and loneliness upon grasslands as vast as any sea and just as unforgiving. Festive families sing along and sometimes take to the floor to dance to the gauchos’ rhythm. The four of us share a bottle of wine and grow closer in the soft lights, festive sounds, and rich smells of the dining hall. Valhalla itself could not be so convivial.
Wine is officially Argentina’s national drink. Although Argentine wines travel the globe, the overwhelming majority come from Mendoza, a smallish place in the heart of Argentina’s wine producing region. But what wines await in the rest of this expansive region? Fueled by curiosity and our shared love of wine, we determined to drive from Salta to the Valle de Uco to discover the Argentine wines that don’t make it to our shelves back home.
A cork pops and a current of Malbec ferries us south across El Cuyo, The Burning Lands, from whose dry earth a red sea of wine surges yearly, to the rising wine mecca of Cafayate.
An affable sommelier at Bodega Nanni pours me my first taste of Tannat and I finally understand the word terroir, as I experience the fertile and sun-blessed valley through the medium of its wine. A prim and stern-faced woman at our table dutifully takes one sip from each wine offered, spits it into a metal tureen and purses her lips, leaving the remainder of each pour untouched. Through furtive glances, we communicate a desire to rescue her wine from not being drunk.
A pathetically hopeful dog follows us on an 8km uphill bike ride in the midday heat to Bodega Domingo Molino. There, we rehydrate ourselves with a carousel of fine wines, running from a refreshing Malbec rosé to a rich and earthy Tannat and ending with a rather celebratory sparkling Torrontés.
From our shaded picnic table, we gaze across a pastoral valley torn from the canvas of a French impressionist. I turn to our sommelier.
“What was this place before it became vineyards?”
“It was waiting to become vineyards.”
Just downhill, Bodega Piatelli affects a more upscale ambiance, complete with an ostentatious building design and a highly rated restaurant. Trouble ensues when the Maitresse d’, a serious young woman named Guadalupe, refuses to seat us on account of the dog, which still follows us.
“You can’t enter with your dog,” she says.
“It’s not our dog.”
“It followed you.”
“This can’t be the first time that has happened.”
“You have to kick these dogs, or throw rocks at them,” interjects a young man behind the counter, in an effort to be helpful.
“Then are we being punished for not being abusive?”
Guadalupe glares but seats us and we do our best to keep the dog, who we name Fleabag, at arm’s length.
Buttery ravioli and a steak that falls apart at the touch of a knife arrive to accompany a velvety Cabernet Malbec and debate ensues as to whether the steak is more full-bodied than the wine or vice-versa. There are no losers in this contest.
Bellies full and livers hard at work, we careen downhill towards the day’s third and final tasting.
They say you get what you pay for and the tasting at Bodega la Vasija Secreta is free. A large woman carefully meters out a few drops of sweet Torrontés and Malbec to each of us. Cats adorn the bottles’ labels.
“What’s the story with the cats,” I ask?
“It’s a label.”
“Yes, but why the cats?”
“It’s just a label. Other bottles have other labels.”
I drop the issue and ask about prices. The woman quotes large numbers, so we thank her and leave.
That night, Cafayate’s wine museum hosts a festival of the local fares. Vintners display their creations on plastic tables, interspersed with food and handicrafts. One elderly vintner tries emphatically to convince us that wine, real wine, should not be filtered in any way. He pours us tastes of a caramel colored liquid, whose flavor rests somewhere between musk and raisins left too long in the sun.
One of our group, Gab, takes a liking to the plastic wine glasses that the museum hands out at the entrance and hides several of them amongst pockets and assorted curves of her body.
“Gab,” we say, “you can’t steal these. It’s not possible. No one wants them back.”
“Act natural,” Gab commands and slips past the man at the entrance, who notices nothing out of the ordinary.
No sign advertises Las Arcas de Tolombón. Even with it programmed into our GPS, we nearly miss it. We swerve abruptly off the highway and bounce over a dirt track until stopping in front of a building that might look more at home on the African savannah.
Having arrived right at the beginning of the infamously long Argentinian siesta, the bodega stands utterly deserted and we wander the building on a self-guided tour.
A young woman finally materializes and after some initial surprise at finding guests in the bodega, proceeds to pour us generous tastings of the winery’s offerings. One Cabernet Malbec, in particular, coats my tongue with earthy spices and leaves a lingering aroma of summer in my nose.
“We don’t get many visitors,” the sommelier says. “We’re still a new vineyard and only recently began making wine for foreign tastes. People here like their wine sweet, but that’s been changing and so we change as well.”
If the selection that we tasted represents a mere beginning, then Las Arcas de Tolombón will soon become a force to be reckoned with in this region and beyond.
Mendoza, the El Dorado of Argentinian wine, occupies El Cuyo’s southern extreme. The city itself serves as a portal to the neighboring southern wine regions of Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and the Valle de Uco. Each beat of this powerhouse’s viniferous heart pumps rich antipodean wine to the rest of the world.
From the tree-shaded streets along which family bodegas abound, however, one hears no churning machinery of industry.
Once more on bicycles and having empirically determined that three is the maximum safe number of tastings in one day, we set off to explore. At Bodega Mevi, a Malbec infuses us with a warmth that stands at odds with the nearby and snow-shrouded Andes. At Bodega Tempus Alba, we take our tasting with a gourmet lunch overlooking a field of vines and debate the pros and cons of ever leaving this place.
At Viña el Cerno, a vivacious woman who introduces herself as Doña Vino Tinto Cabernet Malbec pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a taste as she fills our glasses. Doña Malbec’s family has operated this vineyard for three generations and the tasting takes place on comfortable sofas in a living room that has only been half-converted into a tasting room. The earthy tones of her Argentine wines pair with the smell of the wooden beams above us, with the dusty books lining rough-hewn shelves along the walls, and with the heavy gold of the slow-moving sunset.
A hedge opens to reveal Bodega Carinae, a small bodega founded by Brigitte and Phillipe, an elderly French couple with a love for astronomy and for the constellation carinae, in particular.
The tasting room is part family kitchen, part café. Artwork hangs on the walls and light spills through open windows and doors. But for the counter opposite the kitchen with bottles arrayed on display behind it, we may have just strolled into a reunion with a family that we forgot we had.
Maria Victoria Mermoz, a poet who moonlights as a sommelier “because wine is also poetry,” guides us through a constellation of fine wines. Although a relatively young winery, Carinae produces some very big wines. The Syrah from their Harmonie line is Prozac for my soul.
While buying a Sauvignon Blanc, Brigitte leans on the counter and says “It’s a beautiful day out. If you want, buy a chilled bottle and go make a picnic in the vines.”
Do you know the feeling of getting exactly what you want? As we drink wine under the soft green shade of grape leaves on a perfect spring day, we lack nothing. Life will not always be this pleasant, but in this moment, we are fulfilled.
In the end, we couldn’t leave Mendoza without splurging on one of the high-end wineries and so we manage to book an afternoon reservation at O. Fournier, at a friend’s recommendation. We arrive an hour early to wander the grounds and view the building itself, which is an architectural work of art.
Our friend did not make clear that O. Fournier is not really the place to just wander the grounds, no matter how beautiful they may be. A cherry-faced young executive quickly corners us and tries to find a way to keep us occupied until our tasting time.
“Can we just go to the restaurant while we wait,” we ask?
“Ahh….it’s complicated…Let me check with the girls in the kitchen.”
The spacious dining room is empty save for a Brazilian family and an elderly American couple. Moments pass and the executive emerges from the kitchen smiling.
“Ok, we can seat you.”
We manage to combine our tasting with lunch and discover that again, our friend left us with a description lacking in details.
“You should eat lunch there,” he had said. “It’s good.”
O. Fournier’s cooks are good at making food like Lionel Messi is good at playing soccer. The wine isn’t bad, either.
It is not too much to say, in fact, that Alfa Crux and Beta Crux, O. Fournier’s flagship wines, are two of the best wines that I have ever tasted. From the depths of my wallet, my credit cries out to be abused.
The tour of the cellars also does not disappoint. Fine art decorates fermentation tanks and adorns cellar walls.
“Why hang art down here,” I ask?
“People play music to their plants. Why not hang art over our barrels?”
In an act of ironclad willpower, we manage to stay within our means at the bottle shop. We stroll contentedly back to the parking lot, where to the south, dark clouds spill over the Andes and columns of rain quench the Burning Lands’ heat.
That night, we raise our glasses to unforgettable Argentine wines drunk in good company as the jagged teeth of the Andes take one last bite of the dying sun.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
RSVP Endurance Stemless Wine Glasses: All but unbreakable and able to hold just over 2/3 of a bottle per cup (532mLs), these cups are ideal for both camping and general travel.
The Boomerang Wine Opener: If you’re planning to buy wine, then at some point, you’ll need a plan for opening your wine. Unfortunately, traveling wine enthusiasts like myself were left out of planning sessions when the US decided to overreact to the possibilities of airborne threats and now we can’t bring wine openers onto airplanes like civilized people. That’s where the Boomerang steps in. Despite being named after another object that you cannot board an airplane with, this Boomerang uses tiny wheels rather than a cutting blade and has met with success in passing TSA scrutiny. Could an agent still decide to take the law into their own hands and rule against your onboard possession of the Boomerang? Hey, anything is possible in our new dystopian world. Maybe that’s why you need a wine vacation.
The Vivino Wine App: The number of wines out there can boggle the imagination and they only get harder to recall after the day’s third tasting. Keep track of your favorites and hang onto a database of useful wine information that’ll have you casually dropping wine terms like you grew up in Napa.