The wine-ding road (2)

DSCF5127Of course, this being Argentina, the world’s eighth-largest country with a surface of 2.73 million sq km, there’s little need for roads to be winding.

Roundabouts are quite the novelty too. Hiring a car in Mendoza, the first thing I told chauffeuse Bella was to stop on the roundabout, rather than giving way like we do in the UK. Needless to say, the only time we stumbled across one, the complete opposite happened, although we continued on our merry way incident-free.

Packing in plenty of action over three days despite getting lost almost every time we set off for a new destination, I say this: hire the bloody GPS for 35 pesos. It’ll be worth every centavo. Despite the cursing, we had a lovely time U-turning and reversing our way around narrow country lanes but for every charming mendocino giving us directions, a lack of signposts let the side down. It was literally “turn left by the fruit and veg store, and carry on until you see the olive tree. Do a right there.”

When on the sacred grape turf of Mendoza, a few wine tastings are naturally on the cards. On previous occasions, when hostelling it has been the order of the day in this neck of the vines, it’s perfectly straightforward to get a friendly receptionist to book a seat on a minibus. Whizzed around various wineries to try good fermented grapes and bad fermented grapes, you might even strike gold and undertake an olive-oil tasting as well. The minibus experience takes the pain out of U-turns and worry about being arrested, although you might not be visiting the best wineries around.

The three tastings Bella and I got involved with differed across all levels and once you’ve done a few, first, you’ll probably know that you don’t need to see another fermentation tank ever again, and second, it will be a genetic-defining moment as to whether you prefer a sit-down or walkabout type of cata. I’ve checked out quite a lot of tanks over the years and while it isn’t the most thrilling part of the bodega tour, it’s where all the action happens so respect where respect is due.

At Tapiz, we were invited on a tank tasting – literally, doing the round of tanks, twisting some knobs and topping up glasses with some works in progress. Obviously these smell and taste like a work in progress, but it’s certainly fascinating to start picking out classic Malbec nose or a floral Torrontés mouth, and ruminate as to what these grapes will eventually become. Leaving the echoing technical area behind, we then sampled the finished bottled goods – this was very useful as we pieced the jigsaw together.

Tank-tasting wines aren’t for drinking but rather spitting. Whenever I’ve been to really swanky tastings, I’ve always felt like a fraud, given away by my poor spitting technique. But at Tapiz, given that you’re tasting in the very place where the action is slowly taking place, you have no option but to release it all into the drains. After several spits per glass, my aim was much improved and I now feel prepared to take on the poshest of all tastings although my bucal swishing and bubbling still leaves much to be desired. Reader tip: Tapiz tastings are free if you dine at Club Tapiz some 20km away.

One winery whose tour is absolutely worth the wander is Catena Zapata. Although many large bodegas keep day-to-day business separate from visitors (and increasingly so, if the story about the tourist who fell into a tank and died is to be believed – what a way to go), a trip to the Mayan-inspired pyramid in Agrelo is unmissable. Security exists on most estates but on receiving the all-clear, pottering up the main drive, vines to all sides, to approach this architectural behemoth on the horizon is quite breathtaking. Bizarre, yet breathtaking.

Starting off in the basement, where hundreds of barrels are stored in perfect temperatures, work your way up through this Mendoza Mecca via metal stairways crossing the centre of this pyramid – it’s a bit like walking on air.

Eventually, you’ll emerge from a Dalek-shaped pinnacle onto a terrace whose Andean views, with just a light breeze for company, are simply stunning. Working up a wine appetite, tastings are usually held in small groups in a relaxed living room space on a sofa, or round a large communal table in the private room. It’s certainly no mean feat to be trying six generous samples of Catena Zapata wines, including the fabulous Malbec Argentino, with a modicum of knowledge as to how much work Nicolás Catena has put into making them, at 10.30 in the morning.

Relative new kids on the block, The Vines of Mendoza, have been working hard and keeping their noses clean since arriving in the province in 2005. And these are the fruits of their loins: a private vineyard estate, wine-making facilities, a city tasting room, a Francis Mallmann-led restaurant, a Resort & Spa due to open this September and a wine club.

As mentioned in last week’s Herald, The Vines’ purpose-built tasting arena in downtown Mendoza includes a blending parlour, a private tasting room and a public space. The project, whose motto is “Anything is possible,” has grown so substantially that some plot owners’ wines are now receiving valuable Wine Advocate points for their work.

Recuerdo is one such 90-pointer, a 2011 Malbec which is jammy and full of blueberries. Further dissection reveals a minerally base with black cherry, essentially a classic Mendoza Malbec. Although the Malbec Rosé didn’t really get me going, The Vines’ Chardonnay did – and surprisingly so given that I’m not a fan of this varietal. Buttery and filled with toffee on the nose, those flavours translated over into the mouth, and this 2011 white was my surprise find of the day.

Those who are interested in snapping up some vines of their own – and this is one of many such projects in the area – should take advantage of a day out in Valle de Uco, which the company organises. With a Mallmann-inspired barbecue served up for lunch, this is an ideal way to get a taste of the land while tasting the land’s offerings, while of course sampling some more owners’ produce.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on March 10, 2013.

Check out part one here.

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