On the Gaucho Trail

Keith Hoffman takes us on a two-part tour of South America’s wine (and dine) country. This month, we explore the best of Argentina.


s you wake up from an afternoon nap, the only things you want passing your lips are another helping of freshly grilled medium-rare to rare beef and more velvety, local wine. Welcome to your South American wine and meat journey. On arrival, my advice for Buenos Aires is simple. Forget your normal sleep-rise-eat cycles. Round one of wine tasting can be completed by your normal dinnertime. After which, you should go to your hotel, take a nap, and wake up in time for round two of wine tasting and dinner (which can occur anytime between 10pm and 3am). The next morning you must wake up and eat meat–period. After two great nights in Buenos Aires, the next several were spent in the actual birthplace of the purple nectar—the genuine dirt and vineyards of Argentine wine country. We flew into Mendoza City and our car was almost engulfed by vines. About 40 minutes later, we arrived at Cavas Wine Lodge (www. cavaswinelodge.com), a dream resort with 14 striking villas seamlessly woven into the fabric of a working vineyard. The marriage of elegant accommodations and ripening grapes was uniquely calming and rich. The staff is second to none, with knowledgeable sommeliers and charming concierges.

The food and wine selections were spectacular as well as affordable—a rarity in top-drawer resorts. Tip: Don’t miss the Cavas Eggs for breakfast. And dinners in the wine cellar, or on your private roof top overlooking the vines, are simply wonderful. Baby goat, Patagonia lamb, fish wrapped in parchment, salmon and trout in flawless saffron cream sauces and beets carpeted in melted cheese are all top notch. All the food seems to pair heavenly with a Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Torrontes— a beautiful remedy from Chardonnay fatigue— or red blend from one of the dozens of wineries that surround the lodge. We went to two complimentary wine-tasting events in the Cavas cellar, which offered invaluable knowledge nuggets. Wines of ArgentinA Argentina is the fifth largest global producer of wine; France, Italy, Spain and USA still lead. Even more impressively, though, Argentina is the world’s third largest consumer. In 1554, the first European vines were planted in Argentina. European influences in Argentina are everywhere, from the wines, the vineyard practices, the blends and the people. In fact, 98 percent of Argentines can trace their heritage back to Europe.

Today, however, she is but a fresh entry onto the world stage of wine. So new, in fact, that the first foreign investments and a muchneeded modernisation of viticulture techniques have been in place only since the early 1990s. Argentina now has over 700 wineries, and continues to mature as a wine powerhouse. Her wines are already dazzling the global stage, and things look set to only get better with time. Malbec vines were brought from France in the 1850s, before the Phylloxera epidemic (an aphid that kills vines by eating their roots) that almost wiped European vineyards entirely off the map. In Bordeaux, Malbec is known as Côt or Pressac, while in the Alsace and Cahors regions of France it goes by the name Auxerrois. Malbec remains one of the six grape varieties approved for making red blends in Bordeaux, but it usually comprises only a small percentage of the wine. The varietal is quite vulnerable to mildew and other wet rots. Accordingly, it is on the steady decline in Europe, and is often dismissed as too difficult to bother growing. Malbec, however, in combination with the radiant sun of Argentina, the almost totally dry growing season (offering an environment free of wet skins), and the practiced hands of the wine producers in Mendoza, can be coaxed into producing beautifully structured

wines. In fact, Malbec grows better in Argentina than anywhere else in the world. Additionally, the skin of this grape can be as much as five times thicker when grown high on a chilly Andean mountainside, versus the same grape raised on a nearby valley floor. The degree of temperature fluctuation from night to day is the key, with the mountain areas offering a larger flux. These climate dynamics trigger the vines to adapt and protect their grapes via increased insulation. For winemakers, the result of this reaction is hardy skins, lusciously burdened with rich tannins and complex flavour components. Argentina also does well with other red varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Verdot. The GOM Melier’s TOp ChOiCes Bodega Vina Cobos in Mendoza produces about 35,000 cases per year by raising some of their own crop, but they mostly get their grapes from 10 select growers. They have four different levels of wine aimed at different consumer groups. In order from most affordable to not-at-all-affordable: Felino, Bramare, Cobos Bramare and simply Cobos. Their top wine goes by just “Nico” in honor of the founder of Cobos. It has among the highest price tags in a South American wine, and, as it is on the Paul Hobbs mailing list, is very hard to find. The winery building is a stark, utilitarian statement reaching up forcibly through fertile soil. Inside lies a very nice and tidy production and storage facility, and a cheerful staff. The Felino Chardonnay is a brilliant yellow tinge with a nose of green hay, a tad Sauvignon Blanc, late crème brûlée, and the most delightfully visceral whiffs of candy floss. Her taste was smooth, butter, fully round, toasted oak (but not too much), with a long finish. The Felino Malbec has an almost otherworldly purple hue, a nose of slightly damp cherry and a round taste right out of the freshly opened bottle. She starts slightly harsh but then her tannins form liquid velvet laced with dirt and cherry notes. Her only fault is a tad too much cherry. The Cobos Bramare Malbec 2005 was a black purple delight with a layered tobacco notes. Her taste was of round, cherry-infused earth, incredibly soft tannins


A mere sampling of the 35,000 cases produced annually at the Bodega Vina Cobos in Mendoza. hand, had a nose of cherry and dark plum, and offered all that Mirador did, while being even smoother and rounder. Her structure will be fantastic when she grows up. Quimera is their delicious blend of 40percent Malbec, 30-percent Merlot, 20-percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10-percent Cabernet Franc. The 2006 was in barrel for 13 months, and bottle-aged for one year before release. It had easy, supple tannins, with a refined cherry taste laced with hints of chocolate, smoke and mint. When we tasted the 2008, it had been in barrel for only six months, yet, while young, she showed beautiful structure, tannins that certainly would mellow with time. Ruca Malen is also a must see. The Yauquen is a 2007 Chardonnay that is, thankfully, oakless. The folks at Ruca Malen school you with this one by demonstrating how a good food pairing can, and should, work. The fresh cheese terrine with olive oil and citrus gel and granny smith apple was in perfect harmony with the wine. Try this at home with an unoaked Chardonnay, some olive oil, apple, and a light cheese will suffice (if you lack “citrus gel” in your larder). The 2007 Yauquen Malbec had a nose of dark cherry, violet, leather and cassis. The taste was of round black plums and cherries, with supple tannins that make it eminently drinkable. A very good intro to Malbec wine, that, to be great, would need more layers and structure. The Ruca Malen 2007 Petite Verdot had a flat nose of serious blackness, with dried plums, late cherry and polite sweat. Her taste was more blackness, with a gaminess of medium-rare beef and lamb, aged cherries and a great structure. A massive wine. The 2003 “Ruca Malen” Cabernet Sauvignon had a nose of deep cherry, plum, brick and late violet. The taste was too tannic, but offered up pure, powerful green bell pepper in a way I’d never witnessed. There was some regular pepper as well, and light cherry.

of black velvet, and mushroom. This is a wine you want to eat as much as you want to drink it. Take a big bite of this round marvel. Bodega Catena Zapata is a legend in Mendoza wine country, controlling five vineyards over 450 acres. They buy 3,000 new, premium barrels a year for aging, with an oak makeup of 80-percent French and 20-percent American, and their production floor has a high density of small, stainless steel vats for R&D. In what has to be one of the world’s most envious jobs, the cellars also have a large section devoted to the great wines of the globe: the Grand Crus of France, the Harlans and Opus of Napa, etc., which are used to compare with the higher-end Zapata offerings. The Saint Felcien Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot 2005 blend had a nose of cherry water and dry earth. Her taste was that of a true Cabernet, but had a bit too much jam from the Merlot, and a slightly tannic finish. The Saint Felcien 2006 Malbec had a complex nose of pepper, cloying candle wax and light cloves. Her taste was a smooth, thick red brick and cherry mix, with late chocolate and a long finish of aged cherry. Bodega Achaval Ferrer is a do not miss. AF has different vineyards noted by their very different altitudes and some of their wines use one or multiple plants for one bottle. Their process has a unique element as they use concrete vats for fermentation. The winemakers take the progression up to 34 degrees for eight days. The higher-temperature process produces a wine of 16- to 17-percent alcohol, forcing them to utilise air fans to evaporate some of the ethanol to make it a more drinkable product. The Mirador 2008 Malbec was still in barrel (eight months and counting), and she showed the standard Malbec nose notes with earthy, red dirt aromas. Her taste was black, deep plum, cherry and late pepper. Juvenile tannins were already getting their bearings. The Altamira 2008 Malbec, on the other