The night before I had retired early, leaving husband and brother to the casino, to draw myself a bath at our lovely hotel. After months of showering with a water hose and a day of hectic travel failings, this little indulgence made me feel like my old self again. Travel is all about discovering new things, and therefore new parts of yourself, but it’s nice sometimes to indulge in old comforts. This theme continued the next day, when we awoke early to set out for a full day of exploring Mendoza’s wine country. When it comes to travel, anything wine-oriented is my ultimate indulgence, so I was truly in heaven.I was particularly excited to be experiencing Mendoza with my brother who (along with my sister-in-law who sadly couldn’t be there) is the reason I learned to love wine as much as I do, by treating me to bottles I could never have afforded as a poor college kid, taking me to wine tastings in Oklahoma City and just being cooler than me to the point that I wanted to be just like them.
After doing some research, we enlisted the help of Uncorking Argentina, based on great reviews and their willingness to create a custom itinerary based on our wishes. They offer private tours with knowledgeable drivers, and the company will set up all of your tastings and lunches in advance, something I’ve heard can be complicated if you go it on your own, since all bodegas (wineries) in Mendoza require advance reservations for tastings.
During the tour, our driver explained that the Uncorking Argentina was started by an American woman who fell in love with Argentina after traveling there many years ago. Not long after her visit, she returned, bought property in Mendoza and started the company out of her garage. What started out as a modest operation has continued to grow. I was really happy to know we were supporting a woman-owned small business, all while doing something we love.
Although our first day’s activities had to be cancelled due to our flight trouble, our tour guide still met us at the airport to drive us to our hotel, with a gift bag of jams, a corkscrew and our itinerary for the next day. With such great service right off the bat, we knew we were in good hands.
Over the course of the day, we visited four different wineries, which was quite ambitious but Uncorking Mendoza went out of their way to help us make up for our lost day.
Our first stop of the day was Mendel Wines in the Lujan de Cuyo growing region. Mendel is an unassuming boutique winery that packs an award-winning punch. Built on an old, abandoned estate, Mendel has capitalized on the 87-year-old(!) Malbec vines they found when they bought the property. Since we visited during winer, the vines were all dormant (making them slightly less photogenic). But you can still see how thick they are from years of producing.
They have two additional vineyards at varying altitudes allowing them to grow several quality grapes, such as Torrontés, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Sémillon.
For our private tasting (all of the day’s tastings were private and intimate), we sampled a 2014 Torrontés, 2013 Malbek, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Unus, a Bordeaux-style blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot.
The Torrontés was fruity and sweet on the nose, but with dry, floral and complex finish. Our tasting guide, Mariela, told us that Torrontés is often nicknamed “The Liar” because its nose indicates that it will be a sweet wine, but it certainly is not, at least not if it’s done correctly. She also explained that Torrontés should be drunk young, within two years, to make sure you’re able to fully experience the intricacies and expression of the wine, which will dull over time.
The Unus is everything you want in a big red, a lot of structure while still being refined, balanced and silky on the finish. This wine routinely receives over 90 points from Wine Spectator, and I can see why. The 2012 vintage was actually pretty affordable in the tasting room, so we bought a bottle as well as a bottle of the Torrontés (both of which have already been consumed).
Unfortunately, Mendoza bodegas are unable to ship wine to customers’ homes, which meant we didn’t get to buy nearly as much as we would have liked. Sometimes it is possible to ship, but the cost is often more than quadruple the price of the wine, so it’s not really worth it. They do distribute to wine shops in North and South America, so if you ever spot a bottle, I definitely recommend buying it.
After our tasting, we did a quick tour of the property. They’ve kept the original buildings, like this processing and storage facility with terra-cotta insulation and old-style tanks which are now used to store bottled wine, instead of fermenting wine. Although not incredibly impressive to look at, I’m always impressed when wineries with simple processing equipment are able to make such sophisticated wine. It was quite cold, and we were there early in the morning to try to maximize our day, so we wrapped up the tour quickly to get back on the road to our next stop.
Domaine St. Diego Winery
Up next was Domaine St. Diego Winery, even smaller than Mendel, but with one of the most interesting and informative vineyard tours I’ve ever been on. Like Mendel, Domaine St. Diego capitalizes on inherited vines of Malbec, and also Chardonnay. This family-run winery is led by Angel Mendoza, once the winemaker at famous Trapiche, who considers himself a “wine grower” not just a winemaker.
In addition to their old vines, they’ve planted a newer vineyard up on a hill to allow for better drainage and sun exposure.
Angel’s daughter, Maria, walked us through both vineyards lovingly explaining how they care for their plants. Domaine St. Diego also produces high quality olive oil, with old, inherited 400-year-old olive trees growing amidst the grape vines.
David had noted on our driver earlier that it had been a good year in the Andes, with lots of snow, which meant that water would be plentiful for the vineyards this coming harvest. That made sense in passing, but I didn’t realize how intricately linked the mountain’s rain amounts and the wine industry were until Maria explained a bit further.
In Mendoza, the water is controlled by the government, and each vineyard only gets a certain amount each year as determined by the size of their vineyards, and other factors. All of the vineyards have irrigation canals, like the one pictured above, dug into their properties and when it is their turn to receive water (the government informs them of these times in advance) it flows down these canals and can either be immediately distributed to the vines, or held in reserve to be used as drip irrigation.
It sounds like a lot of work to me, but it seems that viticulturists in Mendoza have the process down to a science, with the extremely high quality of wine coming out of the area.
After the tour, during which time I was dreaming of a heavier coat, we had a private olive oil and wine tasting in a beautiful sunroom overlooking the vines.
This was a great tasting. The olive oil was tasty, but to be honest I can never really tell the difference in olive oils. Our favorite wine of the tasting was the Pura Sangre (meaning pure blood), which is made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the old vines on the property. This wine was sumptuous and classic, but Domaine St. Diego is also experimenting with its Paradigma line, of which we tasted a red blend aged entirely in steel. Had I not known this, I would have thought this wine was aged traditionally in oak, but Maria explained that the grapes were sourced from the vineyards on the hill and grown in such a way that their flavor profile is bold enough to hold up without oak aging.
A family-run, micro boutique winery taking risks in their winemaking technique? So impressive. This winery is definitely a must visit if you’re in Mendoza, especially if you’re interested in learning more about viticulture.
El Enemigo Wines
Mendel brought the show-stopping wines, Domaine St. Diego brought the passion, and our next stop, El Enemigo, brought both.
El Enemigo is a new, collaborative concept still under construction.
Although the winery is only newly open to the public at the time of our visit, El Enemigo’s has already established a reputation for excellence. Our experience started out with a makeshift tour of the in-progress facility. The passion project was conceived by historian Adrianna Catena and renowned winemaker Alejandro Vigil.
El Enemigo is designed to be a collaboration between many neighboring families in the area, who provide many different services from homemade artisanal cheese, to sausages and jam. As part of this vision, they offer a traditional Argentine-style asado lunch featuring ingredients from many of their neighbors/partners.
We were happy to sample this traditional lunch, paired with generous pours of El Enemigo wines. And I’ll be honest with you, this is the point where visiting four wineries begins to limit your ability for storytelling. But I can tell you that the wines were delicious, the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc especially. The food was abundant. I think they have a few tweaks to make in regards to portion sizes (too much food and too many ingredients on a plate). But it’s an incredibly interesting idea with great local flavorst. Alejandro himself even popped in at one point to ask about our experience, a nice personal touch.
Domino del Plata Winery
As we continued on, we finally spotted the Andes mountains! You can see mountains from Mendoza city, but David explained that these were only the pre-Andes, and that we’d have to wait for the main event. I thought the pre-Andes were pretty damn impressive myself, but indeed, the real thing was even better.
David was pretty candid when it came to giving our opinion of the wineries we were visiting. For Dominio del Plata, he provided a caveat: these may not be the best wines we’d taste during the course of the day, but the views would be worth it.
Dominio del Plata was definitely the largest and least personal winery we visited, but it was not without its charm. When we arrived, we were told there was a short wait for the next tour, but we could have a glass of wine if we wanted.
This was the first time we had to wait, or that we toured with other people, which goes to show how seriously Uncorking Argentina took our request for a very personal and intimate day of wine tasting. Since my brother, Tom and I already know a decent amount about wine, our goal was to delve a little bit deeper into Mendoza’s wine story, and we definitely got that over the course of the day.
Now it was time for a bit of silliness, as we posed in front of the mountains and discussed all that we’d seen and tasted so far.
It was a bit of a bummer that our views were obscured by those dead, skinny trees. I would have loved to have had time to get even closer to the mountains, or spend a day there on another one of Uncorking’s tours. Someday.
Eventually, it was time for our tour, which was pretty standard. It was interesting to hear about the owner, Susana Balbo, dubbed the First Woman of Wine by Travel + Leisure. Coming up in a time when the Argentine wine industry was still male-dominated, Susana made a name for herself among top winemakers and in 1999 opened Dominio del Plata, which includes the popular Crios line of wines that you can most anywhere in the U.S. and of course South America. Although our tour was with another family, we were treated to a private tasting afterwards in a downstairs wine cellar.
As David, predicted, these were not our favorite wines. We started out with a Torrontés that was decent, although aged in oak which is a bit of a no-no when it comes to Torrontés. The cabernet Sauvignon that was too jammy for my taste, but there was a Malbec and a blend that were both very nice and easy to drink. However, after four wineries, your taste buds are pretty much shot anyway so who knows how we would have felt about the wines had this been our first tasting.
We weren’t quite ready to leave the gorgeous views, so we hung out in the upstairs tasting room for a while until the sun started to dip.
Such a perfect, beautiful day, and one of my favorite’s of my time in South America. It’s common when visiting a beautiful place to talk about returning “someday”. But with Mendoza I am certain that I will be back, sooner rather than later. I fell in love with this place, and did not have nearly enough time to take it all in.
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