That being said, it was fascinating spending time in Argentina. Here's a quick off the top of my head list of things I learned while I was on vacation:
- It is almost always cheaper to buy Argentine wine in North America. Apparently the tax regime is so bad it causes local produce to cost far more than if you ship it to North America. Go figure. This really, really sucked.
- All of the big names in Argentine wine are foreign these days. Norton? Austrian owned. Terrazas? Lurton? Clos de los Siete? Monteviejo? French. Salentein? Dutch. There are a few locals: Dominio del Plata, Dolium, Catena - but not too many.
- Wine tourism sucks ass in Argentina. There are no signs; roads are bad; everyone requires a reservation; there is no transparency in pricing; maps are poor. We did well to hire an Argentine travel agency to make reservations for us, but even then there were real consistency problems.
- The best overall winery experience was at Altus, aka Grupo Vitivinicola de Tupungato. This is a smaller winery I'd never heard of and which I didn't plan on visiting; our travel agency slipped this one in as a substitute for somewhere else. This was hands down the single best thing to happen to us in Mendoza. The visit began with a friendly greeting from their New York-born PR and marketing person, who put us right at ease. Unlike other, more obviously touristy places, this winery's facilities consisted of an apple storage barn repurposed as a winery [shades of Washington state!] and a single sharecropper's cottage recently remade into a very small restaurant and visitor's center. To give you an idea of size, the cottage felt about as big as the upstairs of our house. Tiny! The visit started off which a quick walk over to the apple shed; we couldn't look inside as it was being repainted, but then we were surprised by two men on horseback who had been hired to show off Argentine horse riding techniques. At first I was appalled by this - I mean, it seemed so touristy and cliché - but it turned out to be a lot of fun and a welcome surprise. I did ask them what the horse's name was using my rusty Spanish - and I think it was Sepultura, which I guess translates as "gravedigger."
- Then, after the horse show, we went into the cottage and hung out with their resident chef over a series of small bites of different things. Avocado and grapefruit. Foie gras and blue cheese. Tomato foam. It was very Alinea-ish and very, very good; plus, standing in front of a wood-burning stove cooking fresh empanadas while enjoying a glass of cold Torrontés is, well, more fun than I usually have at lunchtime. We then sat down outside in the Argentine sun and kicked back with some more good food for the rest of the afternoon and a glass of Tempranillo. Ahhhh. I'd go back again in a minute just to do that all over again. Folks, bear in mind: if you ever get to Mendoza, be sure to call up Altus and set up a lunch date with them. Yum.
- Salentein winery is phenomenally overdesigned. Think a huge, dark temple/cave with the world's most expensive spittoons. Yes, they actually are built on little towers next to their tables with drains that go directly into the floor. As far as the wines go: not so good. Everything tasted of very little but oak. The sauvignon blanc was good, though, and the first Argentine one I ever tasted.
- I first tasted Clos de los 7, Michel Rolland's project in Mendoza, at a spiffy wine bar in Buenos Aires. It tasted predictably delicious - and at the same time it had absolutely no sense of place. I wonder if it's just me, or of a lot of other wine drinkers can't help but be disappointed when they taste something like that. It's like having sex with a prostitute: you know you're going to get off, but at the same time you feel empty inside. We did visit the winery where it was made, and enjoyed a lovely tour as well as a tasting with the Andes mountains looking in the background. The winery's only three years old, but it's already falling down around the edges: shades of Mexico, I'd say, without (hopefully) sounding too prejudiced. I preferred the Petit Fleur, which is made by one of the 7 vineyard owners. At the airport duty free, I picked up a bottle of their grand vin; I'll open that in a few years and pass final judgement. In the meantime, all I can say is that the Clos de Los Siete is worth $16, is delicious, and has no personality whatsoever.
- Jacques et François Lurton winery was a hoot. It's a big, industrial-feeling French winery with huge concrete tanks; we were led around by a friendly man named Marco. Unlike most winery tours, he was easy-going and - more importantly - the second he figured out we weren't just tourists but wine drinkers he changed everything to take us behind the scenes, drawing wine out of tanks and dipping into vats of unreleased premium single vineyard Malbec. Even if I didn't like the wines - too French (they all tasted of unripe fruit and high acidity) - the experience was memorable. I would probably buy their Piedra Negra malbec given the chance; we tasted it from barrel, and my nose wasn't really working, but I suspect it'd be really good.
- Tapiz winery wouldn't let us in the front gate as we didn't have a reservation. This seemed pretty typical, and very frustrating.
- I spent most of our lunch at Chandon trying not to feel sick. It didn't work. The food was probably delicious but was lost on me at that point. I was annoyed that they only served cheap wines [the bargain basement Charmat sparkling wine, plus a low end tempranillo blend] and that they wouldn't alter their tour to show us anything interesting. Still, we had their Baron B rosé earlier in the week and it was decent enough. I wish I had bought a bottle of their zero dosage wine, but then again, $50 is too much to pay and we didn't have a cool place to store it.
- Dolium winery laid on by far the best tasting for us, and I was totally incapable of smelling a damned thing. Frustrating.
- Speaking of Dolium, I just noticed that Paul Hobbs [we had a bottle of his wine with kingfuraday about a year ago] has raised his prices to ridiculously obscene heights with the release of the 2003 vintage. The craptastic El Felino malbec went from $8 to $25; the Cobos we shared with Brian is now $160, up from $70. Fuck that.
- At Terrazas de los Andes, we really enjoyed chatting about wine industry biz with Gaston, who had moved back to Argentina after five years working at Eberle in Paso Robles. Sadly, I still couldn't taste anything much, but it struck me that, although Argentina is known for Malbec, the cabernets are really where it's at.
- Interestingly enough, I learned that Susana Balbo / Dominio del Plata really don't do anything at all on the domestic market. The whole operation was carefully planned and conceived largely as an export-only venture, and they're only just now taking first steps to any sort of domestic tourism. This is fine. They were also the only winery to cop to using inner staves, and I respect them for their honesty. Ultimately, though, the proof was in the pudding: their 2003 BenMarco cabernet was probably the best wine I tasted on the trip, and at $20 a bottle [at K&L in San Francisco] it's very affordable.
- Another interesting find was Bodega Lopez. I ordered a bottle of their Montchenot the first night in town only because it was the only thing on the wine list that was more than 3 years old. Turns out they're very old school: they don't use barrels, they don't use new wood, they don't do any of that stuff. They use huge, ancient oak uprights, leave the wine there for many, many years, and then put down the bottled wine for a few more years before releasing it. I liked it very, very much; we stopped by the winery briefly and ogled their incredibly arcane production methods. If it works, don't break it. I'd be sad if they sold out to an international company and started making wine just like everybody else.
- Another interesting find was Rutini brut nature sparkling wine. I thought it'd be ass - their $7 varietal wines are all over the market here in Washington, and they're pretty bad. But this stuff was far, far better. Even so, though, I don't think it holds a candle to Oregon sparkling wine, and it costs about the same.
- Finally, I'd like to take a minute and explain why Catena Zapata can kiss my ass. In Buenos Aires, we picked up something called Alamos Malbec Maceracion Atenuada at a hoity-toity wine shop in the most expensive shopping mall in the Microcentro. It was delicious. At the winery, I asked for more information about the wine, and they told me that I must be wrong, that no such wine existed, that perhaps someone had ripped me off. Um, really? Is that why I saw ads for it in the most recent edition of Argentina's biggest wine magazine? Worse yet, the tour they gave us afterwards was snippy, perfunctual, and shared with two Americans from Minnesota who had no idea whatsoever about wine [but who were very friendly]. To top it all off, they showed us the tasting room - and then told us we couldn't taste anything there. Instead, we had to march back upstairs to the entry hall and settle for one small taste of their cheapest red wine. So: Catena Zapata, fuck off. Your wine may be pretty good, but after that experience I'm not planning on buying it again.
- Instead, I'd buy these:
Christopher Pratt's top ten Argentina wines
1. Dominio del Plata BenMarco cabernet sauvignon
2. Bodegas Lopez Montchenot
And that's it - remember, I couldn't taste a damned thing most of the time. Them's the breaks.