Monday, February 1, 2010

Wine tasting in the land of Malbecs

I selected to do a fine wine tour on Sunday, the day the town of Mendoza sleeps (shuts down). I arranged a tour with Trout and Wine to visit four wineries including a 5 course gourmet meal for a full day event. I was picked up at my motel at 9am by Charles, my British guide), the driver and one other client from England, Matthew. Matthew is currently living in Columbia so his spanish is quite good, thankfully for me the tour took place in english. We made it to our first winery, Alto Vista, at about 9:45am. We start with a tour of the facility where I learn that here Malbecs are made in concrete tanks. After viewing the tanks, barrel room and the crushing room I was amazed at how spotless everything was, sparkling clean in fact. Harvest season doesn´t start for a couple more weeks so things are still calm. Most everyone here uses French oak barrels for storage, not a cheap choice at $1000 per barrel even though they can be used up to 4 or 5 times. This particular faclilty uses 80% French and 20% American. All the top end reds go into the concrete tanks and then are moved to the French barrels (1st use). Here typically only a rose or white sees the inside of a stainless steel tank. By 10:20am we were sitting down to our first tasting of the day. Charles started by reviewing the proper way to taste wine which I appreciated grately being the novice that I am. We tasted four wines starting with three reds, a Malbec, a Cab, and another Malbec blended from grapes from 4 different vineyards in the regiĆ³n, all located at different altitudes. The most unique was the Torrontes, a white wine known for its dryness. The nose on the Torrontes is fruity and very sweet, upon the first sip one quickly learns why this variatal is commonly referred to as the ¨liar¨. This was the dryest white I´ve ever tasted, even more suprising after smelling such a sweet treat on the nose. The Torrontes is actually grown a bit north of Mendoza in Cafayate, near Salta. Good thing I´m heading that way after Mendoza. After finishing off our first four wines of the day Charles explained that due to the climate here, all Argentine wines have low tannin levels and are on the dry side. At this point I´m starting to get really excited about the rest of the day. I´ve also realized it wil be all I can do to not get wasted by the time lunch is finished.
The second stop proved to be the most educational of the the day. Belasco de Baquedano, a very young winery has an aroma room. After first touring the facility we made our way to the much anticipated aroma room. As I stepped inside a dimly lit room I noticed the majority of the space was empty but aroud the circumference were 45 sniff boxes with a light above each one. The idea is to smell your way around the room in a clockwise motion trying to identify each smell. There were three categories (primary, secondary, and tertiary including 4 boxes with the aromas of defects). Fortunately above each sniff box was a description of the smell in both English and Spanish. Matthew and I slowly made our way around the room, testing our noses as we went. After completion we moved to the next room where 4 single sniff boxes stood. This time there were no descriptions, it was our final test. Charles had warned us that if we only guessed one, we only got to taste one wine… if we guessed 3 then we could taste three wines, etc. I´m still not sure if he was joking or not but we managed to guess all 4 correctly. Off to the tasting we went. We started with a rose and moved through four different reds. All were very plesant, smooth and dry; in my mind they were very easy to drink and could have easily gotten me into trouble. At this point I´ve noticed that we are getting the top shelf premier wines at each stop, not a bad day at all. Finally, around 1pm, and 9 glasses of wine later we departed and headed off toward our third winery for lunch.
We stopped at Ruca Malen for our gormet lunch with wine paring, another 5 wines to go. Ruca Malen is roughly translated to be ¨the house of the young girl¨ in Mapuche. We were seated in the dining room with splendid views of the grape vines outside and started into our meal. Charles had phoned head to warn them of my issues with gluten so the chef had made some slight alterations for me. The first appetizer was carmelized leek and carrot on a skewer with a citrus emulsion paired with a Sauvignon Blanc from 08. 100% Sauvingon Blanc. I´ll take this opportunity to digress for a moment. Due to the climate here and the fact that Argentina has a long harvest season (about 11 weeks) they have the pleasure of not picking the grapes until they are absolutely ready. As a result they are able to have varietals of each type of grape without blending to cover up grapes that weren´t ready or to get the desired outcome. Compared to a place like France where they only get 5 weeks for harvest, 11 weeks is a long harvest. Now back to my meal, the second appetizer was a sweet and sour pork empanada with roasted onions and rasins. Mine was served sans the dough and was instead presented on grilled zucchini accompanied by a Cabernet Sauvingion 02, 100% Cab. Next was a smoked pumpkin pure with sundried tomatoes, merlot sediments and plums paired with Ruca Malen Merlot 05 (85% Merlot and 13% Tempranillo). The main course was a beef tenderloin medallion with baked potatoes, and zucchini on a cheese and almond pesto with the Ruca Malen Cab. Sauvingion 06 and a Kinien Malbec 07. Pre-desert we devoured a chardonnay, lemon and Rosemary granittee and then polished off a dulce de leche panna cotta with fresh fruit. After a cup of coffee I was feeling sober enough for the last stop of the day.
The phrase last but not least was certainly fitting for the last winery. Carinae is the smallest operation we visited that day which only further emphasized the romatic story behind it. Carinae came into existance in 2004 by a french couple who were in Mendoza for work. Upon being called back to Paris for work they decided they didn´t want to leave. They found a vineyard to buy but the previous spanish owner had passed away 30 years ago and his family had let the grounds go to waste with the exception of the vines. They had kept harvesting grapes and sold them to another winery in town so at least the new owners didn´t have to start that part from scratch. All that remained of the winery were the old concrete tanks and a steel french press. After rebuilding around the old concrete tanks and consulting with winemaker Michel Rolland the new owners were ready to rock and roll. This is a small artisanal botique winery where the entire process is from the temperature testing and regulation of the tanks, bottling and even labeling are done by hand. We sat to taste our final four wines of the day and were treated to the company of the owner, Philip. The last wine I tasted was the Prestige which I loved enough to buy a bottle of; my next overnight bus ride will be done with style! By 5:30pm (and 18 wines later) I was more than ready for my siesta. Amazingly enough, I wasn´t even slurring my words! Truly a spectacular day in Mendoza wine country with some wonderful company. If you get the chance to go to Argentina, book a tour with Trout and Wine, hopefully you´ll be lucky enough to get Charles to share some of the amazing stories of things he has seen and done in his life. Trust me, you won´t be disappointed.


  1. What a great post! You've got me wanting to go on a wine tour!