It was easy to be seduced by Mendoza, Argentina's wine capital
By Natalie Gallagher
Posted: 04/22/2012 12:01:00 AM CDT
There is a violent sunset, bruising the sky purple and slashing it with bright orange and red, the color of crushed poppies. It is almost startling, the contrast of the sky against the stillness of the grapevines.
The bodegas are orderly, spread out over the landscape, flush against the mountains, and the bus carrying me from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina rolls past them.
I had been waiting for this part of the trip since I started traveling through South America in January. I'm an enthusiastic wine lover, and I have always succumbed willingly to the romance of a vineyard and the profession of winemaking. To finally be in Mendoza, Argentina's famed wine capital - producing more than 70 percent of the country's wine - already felt so sweet.
Mendoza is the capital city in the Mendoza province nestled just outside the Andes Mountains. The province is the largest wine-producing region in South America. The most widely produced varietal is the Malbec, but the story doesn't end there. Besides the vast abundance of libations, Mendoza is a dreamscape for the adventure traveler.
It is near Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, and the most important skiing resort in Argentina, and it boasts a dazzling array of activities from skydiving to rafting to horseback riding through vineyard country at sunset. Or you can spend your days lazing about, biking from bodega to bodega, lounging in hammocks and enjoying the grapes of the region, falling in
and out of love with everyone and everything around you - especially with good wine.
Hundreds of rows of vines are spread out before me, dark-purple grapes hanging heavily from the nets. I can feel the dry heat of the sun on my face, the pebble grains of dirt filling in the edges of my sandals. It is the first of my numerous vineyard tours, and I am fascinated and thrilled to be doing this.
MORE THAN MALBEC
My first visit is with the small family-run bodega Monte Quieto, where the
Tastings at Lagarde focus on three tiers of the family grapes. ( Natalie Gallagher)
owners, Augustin and Mathilde Casabal, give me a warm welcome.
"We like to say we met through a bottle of wine," says Mathilde, smiling at her husband across the immense wood table at their outdoor dining room. "We were at a party, and I saw him across the room, this handsome guy. He had a bottle of wine, which was lucky. I made my way over with an empty glass, and here we are."
Augustin and Mathilde are not typical bodega owners. They were not born into viticulture, and neither has had a formal education in winemaking. The great majority of vineyards in Mendoza have been around for decades and are large-production offerings bearing the family name.
The Casabals have been in business only since 2001, when they purchased the estate
Storage at the Lagarde vineyard features wine barrels piled high and arching doors. ( Natalie Gallagher)
in Agrelo, Lujan de Cuyo, near Mendoza. Their first wine was produced in 2005, a blend, not a Malbec.
"We are not just focused on Malbec," says Vincent over a lunch of homemade beef empanadas and fruit. "We do have a 100 percent Malbec grape, but it's not the heart of our range; it's not what we like to do. We do blends. We've got a little of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, two grapes from Bordeaux, and from those we blend. We want to say, 'Look, Argentina and Mendoza are able to make other wines than just Malbec, wines with complexity and depth and a lot of things that the pure Malbec doesn't have. And that's the philosophy of Monte Quieto."
"The popularity of Malbecs is a good thing for Argentina, but it's also a risk," explains Vincent, our guide. "What we are doing here in Monte Quieto is for taste, obviously, but also because we believe it's the future of Argentinean wines. It's a very interesting time to be here now, because the wine culture is changing and evolving very quickly. That happened in Europe 115 years ago. Here, you have the liberty and the space. The opportunities are here."
Opportunities, indeed. As I look out at the world Mathilde and Augustin have created - the sprawling ranch-style house set at the end of a dirt road, surrounded by acres of vines they have lovingly planted and tended, the shouts of two of the four Casabal children from within the home, the vinification facilities mere steps away, the cloudy mountains in the distance - I feel
Olive trees line the narrow paths between grapevines at Lagarde vineyard in Mendoza. ( Natalie Gallagher)
I am just starting to understand this dry, desert region and the boundless future smiling in the creases of soil.
The principal vineyard of Lagarde stands in sharp contrast to the small production and quaintness of Monte Quieto. Just a stone's throw away, right in the middle of the city of Lujan de Cuyo, the immense holdings of Lagarde spread out.
With romantic patios and a sunny, cool courtyard, rustic stone-washed architecture and rows of vines more than 100 years old, Lagarde is the place everyone pictures when they hear the phrase "Argentinean bodega."
Founded in 1897, the 325 hectares (approximately 803 acres) at Lagarde hold Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon grapes, and five more vineyards throughout Mendoza round out the Lagarde holdings with additional varietals.
Lagarde is one of the oldest vineyards in the country, with a broad selection of wines and extensive holdings - but this is still Argentina, and I have not forgotten my conversation about the newness of wine culture with my friends at Monte Quieto. It will be interesting, I think, to compare the attitudes of the two.
I arrive at Lagarde on a perfectly sunny afternoon, the vineyard pleasantly buzzing with the excitement of harvest season. There is no mistaking the musky smell of ripe grapes that hangs in the air.
I am greeted by Sebastian Barbazo, the regional manager for Lagarde, and he ushers me on a leisurely walk through the grounds and buildings.
We amble through the winery, surrounded by stainless-steel tanks, wood casks and French oak barrels. Sebastian leads me over to an ornately stunning wood cask, which he explains was discovered by new vineyard owners in the 1970s. The cask, Sebastian tells me, contains a 1942 Semillon.
"The oldest white wine in South America," he says, with a grin. "Half a century of Lagarde in one bottle. It's good."
Then I'm led through a storage room, lined floor to high ceiling with oak barrels, and through wide arched wood doors, which open to the vineyard. As we walk the delicate dirt paths, Sebastian points out the thin lines of water running on either side - a natural irrigation system - and explains that the rows of vines are so narrow they are still horse-tilled.
The ambience is romantic, peaceful. And I am struck by how, only a few yards behind me, beyond the heavy black Lagarde gate I entered, the world is busy and loud.
"Look at this," says Sebastian, smiling softly. He opens his arms to the dirt path leading between the delicate branches of olive trees, framed by symmetrical rows of vines. "This is perfect."
Then there are the tastings. When I ask Sebastian where he thinks the strengths are, I expect to hear Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon - after all, those grapes were part of the original plot a century ago. Instead, Sebastian points me toward the Viognier.
"No oak, fruit forward, very aromatic," ticks off Sebastian, swirling his glass with pleasure. I smell roses and peaches and taste bright apricot and melon. "This grape comes from France, and we - Lagarde - were the first winery in Argentina to plant it."
We transition to a generous lunch of gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and grilled pork, and I elect to take the bottle of Viognier with us. Sebastian contributes to the discussion I began at Monte Quieto, on the prevalence of Malbec in Mendoza and what it means for Argentina's burgeoning wine culture.
"All I've been hearing since I got here is that there's more to Mendoza than Malbec," I say to Sebastian with a laugh. "What do you think? Besides the Malbec, what's the most important thing about Mendoza? What do you want people to remember?"
The corners of Sebastian's mouth turned upward in a knowing grin. "Well, you are reaching for a glass of Viogner at this moment, and you are in Mendoza," he tells me without hesitation. "I think that is the answer to that question."
Natalie Gallagher is a freelance journalist with a passion for travel, food, wine and adventure. You can keep up with her travels at twincities.com/travel or on her blog at nataliaabroad.tumblr.com. If you have any feedback or questions, feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.