The Malbec Diaries

Getting sideways in Argentina's upside-down


wine country

I could have been zipping through California wine country on a brisk autumn morning if it hadn’t been for a few minor details. It was late March, for one. The familiar scenes to my right—vineyards, a Wal-Mart, a rushing river, dry hills—were backdropped by snowcapped peaks, as if the Sierra Nevada towered directly over the Napa Valley. I turned my rented Volkswagen onto Cobos Road, somewhere along which I had a 10am winery appointment. Here was a picturesque adobe winery, but it was in ruins. Some miles farther on, a uniformed guard let me past a gate, and I drove between acres of neatly trellised vines toward a distant . . . Mayan pyramid?

I was lost in “upside-down wine country,” hard on the trail of Argentina’s best wines. Although Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer, until recently it has been rare indeed to encounter that wine on North American shelves. In the past decade or so, Argentina’s modernizing industry has vinted itself from obscurity and is poised to become the next Australia. The chief wine region, Mendoza, is being likened to Napa of 30 years ago. The world is taking notice. But will this anticipated renaissance forever be a day or two away? I traveled to this far-flung land to boldly ford wild rivers of wine and find out.

As in California, Spanish missionaries with a thirst for sacrament brought the grape. The price of wine in Buenos Aires, carried by oxcart from Mendoza, was regulated as far back as 1620. In 1885, the railroad usurped the oxcart, and it’s been boom and bust ever since. By some accident, an obscure French cultivar became the second most planted red grape. Malbec plays a minor role in Bordeaux, and it’s a principal in Cahors, but many believe that it only really shines in the New World as a success reminiscent of Zinfandel. As Argentina reinvents itself as a debutante in the premium export market, Malbec has emerged as its signature varietal.

My first Malbec was a $2.99 La Boca from Trader Joe’s. Named for a famously colorful neighborhood in Buenos Aires, it was an uncomplicated, juicy dollop of purple fruit. Since Malbec is promising on the bottom shelf, does it attain heights of finesse on its home turf? Is it, indeed, akin to Zinfandel—the few exports of which don’t begin to address the rich variety of powerful wines that we enjoy in California? To answer that question, I began my investigation in Buenos Aires.

A once wealthy nation, Argentina fell into a half-century slump. Then in 2001, the peso, which had been pegged to the value of the dollar, crashed, and in the ensuing crises, the country went through presidents like talk shows go through callers. The Néstor Kirchner administration achieved some stability; in 2007, he was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernández (as Argentina’s first elected female president, she’s more Hillary than Evita). The nation recently observed the 30-year anniversary of the military coup that lead to a brutal repression called the Dirty War; “disappeared persons” stared out from political posters throughout the country.

Six years after the meltdown, word is still getting out about affordable Buenos Aires. Often called the most “European” Latin American city, it’s a bustling, exhaust-choked, cosmopolitan metropolis where stray dogs defecate on deteriorating sidewalks in front of preciously hip new restaurants. In wine shops, I could only find domestic wines, even in ritzy Recoleta. Of course, that’s just what I was looking for: Argentina’s best, floor to ceiling. Many top-shelf wines are priced not more than $10; everyday vino can be less than $2. The peso’s mischance has been a boon for export wines, and more and more are showing up on U.S. shelves.

Buenos Aires is rife with wine bars—at least in the guide-books. To do some serious winetasting, I had to go 600 miles inland, where the desert meets the mountains and whitewater rivers churn down arid canyons: Mendoza province. To get there, I chose from dozens of bus companies (Argentina’s excellent rail system was dismantled in favor of free-market chaos). But contrary to a common American misconception that Argentineans would find mortifying, bus travel does not involve sharing a seat with caged chickens.

The city of San Juan’s tree-shaded, tiled sidewalks are bordered by two-foot deep canals that would be a source of endless personal injury lawsuits in the States, but which are this city’s life source. A bus ride to the dusty outskirts reveals that the real environment is desert. I visited Cavas de Zonda, a sparkling-wine facility gouged out of a solid rock mountain like the secret lair of a James Bond villain, and the organic microwinery Anahata, where the vineyard is tilled by mule and plough.

While wandering a few kilometers lost in the gentle countryside, I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. Here, cheap wine was for sale in the pump island, right next to the oil, in big demijohns like those that Jack London wrote about in his epic drinking stories of a century ago. It’s domestic consumption on this scale that is responsible for Argentina’s fifth-largest-producer status.

But what about that 10am appointment? It was 100 miles south of San Juan, where the Rio Mendoza cuts a gravelly swath eastward. Then Highway 7, the main route to Chile, winds toward the mountains for several miles past the austere, modern wineries Séptima and Ruca Malen, until the vineyards end abruptly in desert scrub at the foot of the Andes.

No wonder I couldn’t find Viña Cobos (and found the Catena Zapata pyramid instead). There was no sign, no address, and it’s out in the middle of an orchard with a few grazing horses. A tall, freckled woman wearing a Paul Hobbs baseball cap met me at the unfinished winery. Mariana, public-relations manager for Cobos, told me they had just started their first crush. My 40-minute detour wasn’t a problem, as presently a taxi carrying a family from Sebastopol arrived for the tour. We watched as a battery of workers scrutinized each grape that bounced down a conveyer belt. I heard a familiar voice when one worker replied in English to a question, and stared for a minute in disbelief—she was a friend of mine from Occidental. “Small country, isn’t it?” I ventured.

It wasn’t exactly a one-in-a-million coincidence. Sebastopol’s Paul Hobbs has been making the Sonoma-Mendoza circuit since he consulted for Nicolás Catena in 1988. He shares the Cobos venture with winemakers Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori. Their $150 signature wine is stunningly dear for Argentina; they also produce an entry-level line called Nativo. The playful, mythical-animal label of El Felino Malbec was created by a leading Santa Rosa graphic designer. While the tasting room was not up and running, the wines can be found in California.

North of Cobos is Lujan de Cuyo. With its green central square, Lujan de Cuyo is a mirror image of a wine country town like Sonoma. However, instead of teeming with tourists, it’s a sleepy town where the best I could do for lunch was pizza and a Coke. Here, the fancy action is not in the country; the provincial capital Mendoza is the place for fine dining, shopping and jumping-off points for adventure tourism. As in San Juan, burbling canals bring snowmelt throughout the streets, an irrigation network begun a thousand years ago by the Huarpe Indians.

While hiking across town, I accidentally stumbled upon Mendoza’s greatest resource for the wino abroad. The Vines of Mendoza offers winetasting flights in its lounge, and in an adjacent office, English-speaking staff help visitors set up tours and appointments. Several Americans founded the Vines in 2004, cannily anticipating that growing numbers of wine tourists would confront a daunting task if they thought they could get by on their high school Spanish. The Vines’ Acequia wine club ships direct from Napa, and its ambitious plans include “fantasy winemaking” packages in which customers vint up a barrel while staying at a planned resort and spa, and even purchase a personal parcel of vineyards in development in the Uco Valley.

At the modish tasting bar, lit from underneath with frosty white light, I eagerly checked out the introductory flight of Classic Malbecs. I quickly found that their enthusiastic tasting notes diverged somewhat from mine. “Seductive flavors of boysenberry and raspberry” became “light and plummy.” These were fine, structured clarets, but not the Malbec I was expecting. I thought that Mendoza’s finest would be similar to that rough, fruity La Boca, but more nuanced and complex. Was this bright-cherry incarnation the real thing, are winemakers trying too hard to tame a brazen grape or had I bombed my palate out with Quilmes beer?

Finally, I agreed that the 2003 Enrique Foster Riserva was rich with notes of chocolate and plum. Of course, I could have ponied up 100 pesos ($30) for the reserve tasting, but by that time in a trip rich with $3 lunches and $1 wine, I was happy to peg my budget to the peso.

Wine tourism elsewhere in Mendoza is not the predictable, belly-up-to-the-bar model as in California. Experiences can run the gamut, from a tour of the “wine museum” and labyrinthine cellars of Bodega La Rural and a grudging pour of the house red to a personal tank-tasting at family winery Hacienda del Plata, followed by a home-cooked lunch of empanadas, grilled steak, chorizo and even more steak. Silver-haired Carmelo Patti is so enthusiastic about sharing his wine with visitors that he doesn’t bother selling it on the premises.

In the flat plain east of Mendoza, the vineyards of Familia Zuccardi are trained to the traditional South American arbor called the “parral. ” The vines form a roof, and grapes hang down in dappled sunlight. I was drawn to Zuccardi because of its organic wine I’d found at Whole Foods, and because they are experimenting with Zinfandel (too bad it was not bottled yet), among offering other unusual varietals. Zuccardi puts out several premium brands, but after the obligatory tour of tank farms, all that was poured was the uninspiring Santa Julia brand, both red and white. After several excellent tasting-only experiences, here was wine for sale but not for tasting. Did I mention that this was upside-down wine country?

Time to revisit that pyramid of Perdriel, Bodega Catena Zapata. Wishing to create a unique monument to the new wave of Argentine wine, Nicolás Catena decided on a Mayan pyramid styled on historic examples in Mexico. Constructed of locally quarried stone, it is solemn and impressive. A bouquet of aging wine wafts up from a center pit that’s reminiscent of some temple from an Indiana Jones movie.

Catena took his place in a generations-old family wine business, but he was inspired by Robert Mondavi during a visiting professorship in California. When Catena returned, he turned his bulk-wine-oriented business upside down, and became known as the “Mondavi of Argentina.” Opus One&–like mystique has certainly not been lost on him, but the winery impressed me for its immaculate equipment and tricked-out tanks. After marveling at the stainless steel wonders and taking in views from the balcony, the tour group was ushered into a parlor grandly detailed with native woods.

After one taste of the entry-level Alamos, Catena charges up to 24 pesos ($8) a pour. That’s big pesos by local standards—and not exactly the Napa of 30 years ago. The 2005 Alamos Malbec was bright, with light tannins, and characteristic cherry notes. The 2002 Angelica Zapata “Alta” Malbec was smoother, more structured, and . . . there it was again. That unmistakable burnt cherry, candied rubber tire taste. Like it or not, from Perdriel to Paso Robles, this seems to be Malbec’s distinctive characteristic. Finding the ultimate in Malbec, if this was not it, would take more than a week of diligent research. (Or it might profit from blending, after all.) Perhaps the real secret is to drink it with heaps of grass-fed, grilled beef.

One afternoon, I took a joyride to Villavicencio, the namesake of a popular spring water. The road shot through a flat stretch of desert, then cut into jagged purple mountains. The little VW chugged above the clouds on a narrow road etched into the mountain and alarmingly strewn with boulders. A herd of long-necked guanacos grazed in the mist; signposts randomly predicted a scenic viewpoint yet another few twisting kilometers further. Finally, the promised mirador, amid a desolate landscape. Alas, Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, was totally obscured in clouds. In a howling silence, I stared into the mist.

Did I glimpse the cumbre, the apex of premium Argentine Malbec? It proves plentiful yet elusive, even with centuries of tradition and gleaming new facilities pumping out wine for export. A wide-ranging survey effort was stymied by the antique local model of wine tourism, while progress made through selecting from enticingly stocked wine shops was slowed, despite the long nights, by the limits of decorum. It would be grandiloquent to say that Argentina is still waking from its nightmares—of vast quantities of plonk. The boom has just begun, and Malbec is ready for a breakout. If not today, maybe tomorrow.

Locally Available Malbec

Catena Zapata 2004 Alamos Malbec ($7.49) Full bodied, dry like the wind from high desert mountains, notes of rubber chicken on a grill.

Catena Zapata 2005 Malbec ($20) More intense than what I tasted in Mendoza; viscous, ruby-violet with aroma of lingonberry syrup and new wine. Chalky tannin, piquant acidity.

La Boca 2007 Malbec ($2.99) Vintages vary in quality, not bad for the price. 2007 is a great improvement, medium-bodied, with a Petite Sirah&–like artist’s paint bouquet and sticky but not rough tannins. Structurally, a contender with some of the better-priced.

Melipal 2004 Malbec Mendoza ($15) Round, tannic, cherry cordials dipped in tar.

Tapiz 2004 Malbec, Mendoza ($15) Deep ruby, rhubarb pie, licorice, black currant, tire tread.

Viña Cobos 2006 El Felino Malbec ($20) A departure from the sour cherry and plum of 2005; this inky purple, full bodied and velvety wine is also reminiscent of Petite Sirah.

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