Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Unique Vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina

I would like to conclude this review of my wine trip to Mendoza, Argentina with an overview of the vineyards (see previous postings for winery details). In all my travels to the wine regions of the world, I have come to recognize that the soul of a wine is within the vineyard. It is the source of all great wines, and each place on earth is quite different and special. This is also true of Argentina -- especially Mendoza with its desert-like climate, sandy soils, and reliance on the snow in the Andes for water.

During our welcome orientation, we were informed that in 2009 Argentina produced 1.6 million tons of grapes with 220,000 hectares of vineyards, but that 80% of all Argentine wine comes from Mendoza. The Mendoza region includes three major areas: 1) Maipu near the city of Mendoza; 2) Lujan de Cuyo (the first and only DOC in Argentina) and the Uco Valley to the south of Mendoza; and 3) San Rafael to the far south. Since this is the Southern Hemisphere the further south you go, the colder the climate.

Vineyard altitude in the Mendoza region ranges from 1800 to 3300 feet above sea level. The soil is sandy with some clay. Climate is continental.

Malbec is the main varietal in Mendoza, but they also produce Bonarda (called Charbono in the US), Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Chardonnay/Pinot Noir for sparkling. A small amount of Torrentes is grown here, but most is imported from Salta. Finally, they still grow a large amount of the bulk wine grapes, Cereza and Criolla Grande.

In the vineyard there is no one rootstock or clone that has been deemed the best. Instead everyone appears to be experimenting with different types. They also use different trellis and spacing systems – the most common being VSP with cane pruning for malbec on 4x8 feet spacing. However, some still use the traditional pergola (very high trellis), and a few were using tightly spaced guyot. Others preferred VSP with cordon.

They are in the midst of pruning now since it is winter, and I was intrigued with the light brown plant fiber they used to tie the vines – instead of the ugly plastic green tape we use in the States. I was told a side industry has started to produce these ties which are made from river tule and is biodegradable (see photo).

The other unique thing about their vineyards is the yards of hail netting used (see photo). At first I thought it was bird netting and couldn’t understand why they had it up during the winter. However they informed me that they often have hail storms in the spring and summer and so they leave the netting up most of the time. Luis told me that they often have hail the size of baseballs, and that it can destroy a vineyard in a few minutes of they do not use netting.

Irrigation is either flood or drip. Jimena told me that for her 3 hectare vineyard she is allotted 45 minutes of water every 10 days. The water is very precious and comes from the snow in the Andes (see photo). Larger more modern vineyards use drip irrigation, and newer ones have had to dig wells, but high salinity in the water can be an issue.

What I didn’t realize until I arrived in Mendoza is that it is actually a desert. Grapes could not survive here without water. In fact when they’ve experimented with dry farming, the vines die because there is no water retention in the sandy soil. The whole landscape reminded me of Albuquerque, New Mexico with the high mountains and desert. It was also similar to the ancient grape city of Turpan in China that I visited last year where they had to bring water from the mountains in underground canals.

Since I was here in September, which is very early Spring (some buds were just forming on the cherry and willow trees), harvest is usually in February/March. Almost all vineyards are hand-harvested, and there is very little mechanization. Workers currently are recruited from Bolivia and Northern Argentina. It is a law that all wineries must provide worker housing – which is more progressive than US law. Though I asked if they were concerned about loss or reduction of their workforce to more attractive jobs, they said no. Indeed the low cost of labor here is one of the reasons they are able to keep their wine prices so low. I was told by Jimena that there are many poor people in Argentina, and that often the locals will also help with harvest and pruning.

Lunch at Bodega Ruca Malen, Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 4, 2010)We had an appointment for a winery tour and lunch at Ruca Malen Winery, but when we arrived the hospitality manager recommended we have lunch first because the dining room was filling up quickly. In fact the restaurant is so popular they were completely booked for the weekend, and had reservations through next April 2011.

Once we were seated, I could see why it was so popular. The dining room was small, but is located inside a glass room in the vineyards with a view of the Andes. Once again the menu was amazing – a 5 course meal with 2 ounce wine pairings for $150 pesos (approx. $35 US). They only do lunch – no dinner, because they want people to have the magnificent view.

I was intrigued with the name of the winery, which is actually in the ancient language of the original people who settled in Argentina. It means “Home of Women.” Indeed their logo is a woman with her head thrown back (see photo). Very memorable. I did ask where the native people lived, and the response was that many had moved to Northern Argentina. Some are apparently decedents of the Incas, whereas others are separate tribes. Like California, there do not seem to be many of the original habitants still living in the area.

The first course was quinoa with lemon citric mousse paired with Yauquen Chardonnay 2009. The appetizer was exquisite and also lovely to look at (see photo); whereas the wine was very refreshing. It is an unoaked chardonnay with subtle green apple fruit, crisp acid and a dry finish. We were told that “Yauquen” means “sharing” in the native language.

The second course was a spicy meat brochette with pumpkin and walnut empanada and chimichurri sauce. It was paired with the Yauquen Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – an interesting choice because the wine was so young that it wasn’t that recognizable as a cab. It was very fruity and fresh, and needed more time in bottle.

Third course was fresh cheese, leek and olive terrine with pine mushrooms. It was served with the Ruca Malen Merlot 2005. In a blind tasting, I would have placed the merlot in Chile because it had the same sweet edge with herbal notes.

The main course was steak - -a grilled tenderloin with cassis sauce. This was served with my two favorite wines of the day: 1) the Ruca Malen Malbec 2007 – a very satisfying dark berry malbec with velvety texture and moderate oak. Simple, but very pleasing; and 2) Kinien Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 – excellent with fine-grained tannins, dark dried fruit, med+ acidity, well –integrated French oak and a long finish. The manager informed us that this course was a permanent fixture on the menu, whereas the chefs had freedom to change the other courses to suit their whim.

Dessert again included two stages. The first was called a pre-dessert and was a delightful chardonnay, lemon and rosemary granitee. This was followed by a banana wrapped in crepe with white chocolate sauce. They served this with a delightful Ruca Malen Chardonnay 2007 with a sweet finish. We concluded with espresso, and discovered that we had run out of time to tour the winery. If we didn’t leave then, I would miss my flight.

We raced back to Club Tapiz to finish packing, and after a flurry of hugs and kisses, I said good-bye and stepped into a taxi. The flight time home was 23 hours from departing Mendoza at 5:30pm and arriving in San Francisco the next day at 12:30 pm (a four hour time difference.) This included a transfer in Santiago again with a 2.5 hour layover; then 9 hours to Miami (arriving at 4:30am – ugh!); a 4 hour layover, and then 5 hours more of flying. It was not enjoyable, but the time in Argentina was absolutely delightful.

Visiting Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 4, 2010) The next day (my last day) dawned bright and sunny – of course! After a late and leisurely breakfast, I went into the spa and did a few exercises before checking in for my 9:30 massage. Both Patricia and Angelica had encouraged me to schedule one, and I was very pleased I did. The masseuse was excellent, with very soothing long strokes, and the cost was amazing at 150 pesos, or $35 US.

At 11am, Jimena and her finance arrived to take Isabelle and I to Bodega Catena Zapata. Neither of us had ever visited this very famous winery – akin to Mondavi/Opus One in reputation. It is also part of the largest wine group, Esmeralda, in Argentina. It was about a 30 minute drive from Club Tapiz and we stopped to take several pictures of vineyards with the snow-capped Andes in the background.

Probably the most amazing thing about Bodega Catena Zapata is the architecture. It is a 3 level pyramid shaped adobe building, which looks similar to Santa Fe buildings. Some people say it is based on Inca design – regardless, it is beautiful to behold. The approach is also impressive, with a long dirt road leading through vast vineyards with the winery at the end (see photo).

We did not have time for a tour, so instead we wandered around inside and climbed the stairs to the top level to view the vineyards and Andes (see photo from top level). The barrel room was also impressive, set up in a semi-circle and reminiscent of Opus One’s barrel room. We did not taste any wine, but I have attended a private tasting of their wines in San Francisco hosted by the daughter, Laura. The wines are excellent and sophisticated, with multiple brands. Probably the most well know in the US market is Alamos Malbec.

One point I wanted to mention about Mendoza wineries, is that you are required to schedule an advance appointment before you visit. In this way, they are similar to France. However, what is different are the large security gates with guards that block the entrance to each winery. When I asked why this was the case, I was told that they had problems in the past with tourists being robbed by poor people entering the winery grounds. Therefore, no one is allowed access to any of the large famous wineries without an appointment.

Dinner at Club Tapiz Restaurant, Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 3, 2010) After my 90 minute nap, I hit the gym and hot tub at Club Tapiz before getting ready for dinner. We had dinner reservations at 1884 in Mendoza, but everyone was so full from finishing lunch at 5:30 that we cancelled and scheduled a 9:30 dinner at the Club Tapiz Restaurant instead. Four of us attended (Yerco from Chile, Isabel from Spain, Nelson from Buenos Aires and me). As you can imagine, not speaking Spanish was an issue, but they were all kind enough to include me in the conversation and speak a combination of English and Spanish.

I had heard great things about the restaurant from others who had eaten lunch and dinner there before, but this was my first meal besides breakfast. All of the good reviews were correct, because my food was excellent. I started with a glass of sparkling wine from Chandon Argentina (extra brut again!), and had this with a fresh green salad which was excellent. For the main course, I decided to order a steak again – because, after all, I was in Argentina, the land of beef; and I was flying home the next day. Yerco also ordered steak. We paired this with the Mendell Malbec 2007, which was excellent (see earlier review).

Nelson and Isabelle ordered dessert, but I decided to try Fernet instead (see photo), which Gonzalo had told me was all the rage in Argentina. Many young people drink it in nightclubs mixed with coca-cola. It is similar to Yagermeister in that it is made from herbs and is a digestive. Nelson insisted they pour me a large glass (no coke) so that we could all taste it. I was expecting it to taste bitter, and therefore was pleasantly surprised when I found it to be a good after dinner drink. We also tried a “Liquor de Pomelo,” which was like a grapefruit lemoncello. It was very delicious. Wish I could have brought a bottle home.

Tour and Lunch at O. Fournier Winery in Uco Valley, Argentina

(Sept. 3, 2010) The Uco Valley is 120 kilometers south of Mendoza. After driving for about 90 minutes, we turned down a dirt road and eventually arrived at the large and impressive gates of O. Fournier Winery. Beyond the gate was one of the most impressive and unusual wineries I have ever seen in terms of architecture. It looked like a spaceship landing site in the middle of the desert with the soaring Andes rising behind as a backdrop. The winery was started in 2000 by Jose Manuel Ortega and his wife. They are originally from Spain, and also have a winery there in Ribera del Duero as well as one in Chile.

As we drove up the large ramp to the top of the 8 story winery (6 stories buried below the ground in a gravity flow design), Jose came forward to meet us. He is a delightful man with an incredible amount of energy, vision, and a great sense of humor. By the end of the visit, we were all in love with him.

He led us on an hour tour of the winery, starting with the labs and experimental blending tanks on the top floor underneath the amazing flat roof. It was from there that we could gaze out across the vineyards in which he is experimenting with different types of rootstocks, clones, varietals, and training systems. He said they have 263 hectares with very poor sandy soil. They have to dig very deep water wells in order to avoid salinity problems. He said the biggest impact on wine quality is the weather and altitude; they are cooler in temperature and higher in altitude than Mendoza.

We then descended to the next level of the winery which was the grape arrival platform where the grapes were destemmed and crushed 50%. The must then flows downwards to the 3rd level and 4th levels into fermentation tanks, which are below ground. O. Fournier has a large number of the modern conical stainless tanks you see in Bordeaux, as well as large wooden foudres and cement tanks. Jose said they have a 1.2 million liter capacity, but only produce 600,000 liters per year. He says he prefers to keep the wine in tank or barrel 6 months before release because he believes it stays fresher. Definitely not a champion of bottle aging.

With all of the levels we used an elevator to descend, but since the floors were made of see-through grates in some places, you could easily get vertigo if you looked straight down. Descending to the barrel room, museum, and gift shop level was exciting. The barrel room looked like a work of art, and did indeed include art on the walls as part of the art museum. A large red “x” was on the floor in the barrel room (see photo) to signify the Southern Cross, which is also part of their logo on the wing of an ostrich.

Jose told us that the winery was designed to be eco-friendly, and that was why it was 80% underground to save energy. The gravity flow design also helped with this. He was clever enough to have it built during the Argentina financial crisis in the early 2000’s, which allowed him to build it for a mere $4 million. He also used fairly unknown Argentinean architects – who are now well-known—which saved costs at the time.

Around 3:30 we arrived (with stomachs growling and toes frozen) in the impressive dining room with tables looking across a pond to a stunning view of the Andes. The sun was just starting to poke out of the clouds and as we enjoyed our two hour lunch, the sky cleared and became blue. Apparently many wineries in Argentina have beautiful restaurants, and the Urban de O. Fournier Restaurant is quite famous. Jose’s wife is the chef, and is known for her innovative dishes. Unfortunately she could not be there that afternoon, so we did not meet her.

We were treated to an incredible 4 course lunch with 2 ounce wine pairings -- starting with two appetizers of causas (potatoes) and philo pastry with blue cheese in malbec puree. Jose poured two sauvignon blancs, one from his Chilean winery in Talca (which had an intense asparagus nose) and the B Crux Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from the Uco Valley which was fruity and floral. We also had the Urban Sauvignon Blanc 2010, which was lighter and fruiter.

The next course was sliced eggplant with salmorejo, croutons and eggs. This was paired with the Urban Torrentes 2010 from Salta. This wine jumped out of the glass with fragrant white flowers, peach, and a crisp acidity. I was amazed when Jose told me I could buy it for $7 at Cost Plus. This was one of the most delightful Torrentes I have tasted – quite exquisite, and I will be looking to buy a case in the States.

The third course was Argentina beef steak with potatoes. This, of course, was paired with malbec. We started with the Urban Malbec 2008, which was filled with ripe berries and soft tannins – very approachable. Next was the Alfa Crux Malbec 2008, which also was filled with ripe fruit, but had more complexity and spicy oak. Third was the higher-end O.Fournier Malbec-Syrah 2007, which spent 17 months in both French and American oak (20%). This was a big, chewy jammy wine with lots of spicy and depth. I should mention that the steak I had here was the best on the trip (and I had 3!). It was the most tender with lots of flavor.

The dessert course started with a torrentes sorbet, which was not only very refreshing but extremely novel. It was followed by a brownie with coffee ice-cream and red fruit. Of course, we had more malbec with this. In addition, Jose opened a bottle of his Ribera del Duero at our request. It was primarily tempranillo with much ripe fruit, but a touch of the earthiness and higher acidity of the old world. Very enjoyable.

We finished lunch at 5:30, and said a fond farewell to Jose. The visit was wonderful, and we shall all treasure the afternoon as a special memory. On the drive back to Mendoza, I fell asleep in the back of the van and didn’t wake up until we arrived back at the resort at 7pm.

The Pleasant Custom of Drinking Mate in Argentina

(Sept. 3, 2010) We departed Tapiz around12:30 and drove south to the Uco Valley passing many vineyards and small towns. During the drive, Gonzalo introduced us to the custom of drinking mate. He filled his mate (small cup made of a gourd with silver rim and a silver straw – see photo) with a dried green substance that looked like tea. Indeed it is similar tasting to green tea, but has a smoky edge and high caffeine.

He filled the cup almost to the top with the green mate mixture, and then poured a small amount (perhaps ¼ cup) of hot water into it. After a minute, he sipped from the silver straw and then passed it to the next person. That person also sipped, and then passed it around the circle. The straw had a small sieve on the bottom that prevented the mate leaves from going in your mouth. It was also refilled every few sips with more hot water.

At first I was a little appalled at the germs we were all sharing, but Gonzalo explained that it was part of the experience, and that drinking mate brought you closer together. He said that Argentineans would say “let’s go get a mate,” as we might say, “let’s go get a coffee.” It is a chance to talk and get to know people better.

The taste was not great, but I can see how it could grow on you. I did enjoy having a hot drink after freezing in the vineyard, and it was a fun experience. We were all given a beautiful mate with a silver grape leaf as a speaker gift. I’m looking forward to trying it at home.

Llamas in the Vineyard at Bodega Tapiz, Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 3, 2010) After a filling breakfast of coffee, eggs, and croissants at the Club Tapiz Resort, we climbed into the van and drove a short distance to the modern Bodega Tapiz winery. It was a very cold and cloudy morning, but the 8 of us were quite excited because it was a winery fieldtrip day.

Arriving at Club Tapiz, we were greeted by the hospitality manager and invited to go on a horse-carriage ride through the vineyards. Four of us climbed aboard and covered up with blankets made of llama wool. We were able to view the malbec vines up close and see the cane pruning with the tule ties on VSP trellis. We also found cabernet sauvignon in a traditional cordon.

Soon we saw the actual herd of about 15 llamas in the vineyard (see photo). Our guide told us that the llamas ate the grass and weeds and also provided fertilizer. However they have to be moved to a separate pasture once the vines produce leaves and grapes, because they eat them. Bodega Tapiz sells llama wool, shawls, and blankets in the winery gift shop. Knitting of the products also provides jobs for some of the local people.

Next was a tour of the 120,000 case winery. It was very modern and we were able to taste sauvignon blanc and torrentes from tank. They are using Lallemand yeast for both varieties, but we didn’t receive a specific number or name of the yeast. Both wines were incredibly fruity and fresh. We also tasted a young malbec from Lujan de Cuyo in tank that would be blended with malbec in barrel. It was ripe and jammy with raspberry and big tannins – an obvious baby which needed more time. Even more structured with grippy tannins was the Uco Valley malbec, which is further south – meaning from a cooler climate in the Southern Hemisphere.

After tank tasting, we were escorted into a beautiful private tasting room with large windows overlooking the tank room. Patricia, the President and Owner, was there to greet us and invited us to sit down to a very elegant tasting of 3 special malbecs. The first was the 2007 Bodega Tapiz Reserve Malbec which had spent 14 months in French oak. It was classic with big velvety tannins and ripe blackberry fruit.

Next was a special bottle of Tapiz Bicentennial 2008 made to celebrate Argentina’s 200 years. It was a very interesting blend of 60% malbec, 30% Bonarda (charbonno), and 10% Torrentes. They were using the Torrentes in the same manner that they use viognier with syrah in the Northern Rhone – in order to provide a floral lift and intensify the color. It was very elegant with more subdued fruit and a nice acid structure.

We concluded with the Tapiz Black Tears 2006 ($30-35 in US). This was a huge, chewy intense malbec with dark berry, anise, spicy oak and velvety tannins. It had spent 24 months in 75% new French oak. This is the kind of malbec that many Americans really enjoy – a huge mouthful of flavor that does not disappoint. Our visit to Bodega Tapiz was wonderful, and we felt very welcomed with the special treatment including a horse carriage ride through the vineyard for llama viewing.

Tapas Dinner and 1974 Malbec at Bodega Norton, Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 2, 2010) After the forum, we had time for a 45 minute break at Club Tapiz Resort, and then we climbed back into the van for the short drive to Bodega Norton. I was very much looking forward to this dinner, because Bodega Norton produces my husband’s favorite malbec – the Bodega Norton Malbec Reserve. He has been buying it for the last couple of years at Costco and is very impressed with the taste, price point ($13), and high scores it receives.

We arrived at Bodega Norton around 9:30pm and were immediately greeted with a glass of sparkling chardonnay, extra brut called Bodega Norton Cosecha Especial NV. It was delicious and set off the evening with a nice festive mood. Luis, the CEO, then escorted us on a winery tour through the cellars and barrel room. The winery is quite large – usually ranked 4th or 5th largest in Argentina. Founded in 1895 by an Englishman named Norton, it is now owned by the Swarovski family in Austria (producer of the famous crystals). I was impressed by the custom stainless steel tanks which Luis had designed to match those used by Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux –with the split tanks.

The tour ended in a hospitality suite with a long bar, comfortable chairs and low tables to relax and eat. This dinner was less formal and with fewer people, since many of us were tired after the long day at the forum. However, the mood soon became more festive as wine flowed and food was brought to the table. We started with the Bodega Norton Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (amazing to think 2010 wines are already on the market, since we haven’t even harvested our 2010 grapes in the Northern Hemisphere). It was like drinking a delightful glass of grapefruit juice – very fruity with a cleansing acid, but none of the gooseberry, grassy style you find in Chile or New Zealand. Actually all of the sauv blancs I tasted in Argentina were more similar to the California style.

The first tray of tapas was the traditional meat and cheese selection with many different types of salamis and prosciuttos. Next came some tasty empanadas filled with spinach and spicy meat. There were small bowls of fish chowder, mozzarella balls, and later chocolate petite fours. We paired all of these with a series of malbecs, starting with the Reserva, then moving onto the more distinctive Bodega Norton Malbec DOC 2008. The winery is actually in the center of Argentina’s only DOC, the Lujan de Cuyo region. The wine that really blew me away was the Bodega Norton Gernot Langes Cosecha 2003. It reminded me of a 2nd growth Bordeaux with excellent balance and complexity, as well as elegance with its fine-grained tannins and very long finish.

However the highlight of the evening was when Luis pulled out two dusty old bottles of malbec from the cellar. They were 1974 Bodega Norton vintage and not labeled. He wanted to prove to us that malbec does age well, and by the end of the evening we all agreed with him. However, it took about 10 minutes to open the bottle with two people attempting it (see video at: The cork was nearly all black when it finally came out to loud applause and cheers. We all savored the spicy, earthy flavor with a hint of dried berry and leather – almost all secondary and tertiary notes. It was more delicate than modern day malbecs, with excellent acid and smooth tannins. Again, it reminded me of drinking old Bordeaux. It was a perfect conclusion to a very wonderful and special experience at Bodega Norton.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Secret to Making Great Malbec Wine

(Sept. 2, 2010) During one of the breaks I was fortunate to be introduced to one of Argentina’s most famous winemakers, Roberto De La Mota. He produces a high-end brand called Mendel Malbec ($24, 90+ ratings), which I tasted on my last night in town. It was a very elegant malbec with fine-grained tannins; an excellent balance of ripe fruit, moderate French oak, med+ acid and 14% alcohol, and a long finish.

I asked Roberto the secret of making great malbec, and he said it had to do with two things: picking the grapes at the right time and ensuring the tannins are velvety and not harsh. In order to accomplish this he spends much time in the vineyard and said there was only a 3 to 5 day window in which to harvest malbec. If you missed it, the wine would not be as good.

Once harvested, he sorts it with a sorting table, destems, and then partially crushes the berries. He immediately inoculates with 1118 yeast (in fact everyone I talked to used commercial rather than natural yeast), and ferments in very small cement and stainless tanks at 25 to 26C. Once the ferment starts, he performs pigeage (gentle hand punching) every day, stating that this was the method to get the seeds to the bottom of the tank gently so they didn’t impart harsh tannins in the wine. He added that color was not an issue with malbec, because it was easily achieved due to dark purple skins.

Fermentation lasts 3 to 4 weeks. He said it was important to encourage a slower ferment in order to develop the “texture” and mouth feel for which malbec is so famous. He gently presses with a pneumatic press and ages free run and pressed wine separately. He said ML usually occurred in barrel the next spring. Elevage includes 12 months in 100% new French oak.

Roberto said he prefers to source his grapes from older malbec vineyards, and I was impressed with how many 80+ year old vineyards they have near Mendoza. He believes the older vines produce a higher quality wine.

I should mention that Yerco, an expert viticulturist from Chile, told the group that no other country in the world has been able to duplicate the unique taste of Mendoza malbec. He believes this is because the combination of sandy soil and dry winters/ springs, which cause the berries to stay small. Elsewhere they are usually larger, which results in less velvety texture and less intense flavors. Cahors, the birthplace of malbec in France, produces some wonderful malbecs, but they are quite different from Mendoza malbecs – with more tannin and higher acid. Yerco said that malbec from the USA and Chile is also not as distinctive as that from Argentina. Therefore, he believes they have a unique competitive advantage with their terrior.

6th International Wine Forum & Lunch at La Marchigiana

We arrived back at the resort around 11:30 and several of us decided to share a bottle of Argentine bubbly in the sitting room near the fire. It was 100% chardonnay with an Extra Brut dosage, making it sweeter than I prefer, but I noticed that many of their sparklings were like this. Apparently they sell almost 100% of the sparkling wine to their domestic market and export very little of it.

After only 5 hours of sleep, it was time to get ready and depart for the 6th International Wine Forum to which all of us had been invited to speak. Breakfast was at 7am, and we arrived in downtown Mendoza at the conference center around 8:30am for a 9am start. All of the presentations went well, but it ended up being a very long day as we didn’t finish until 7:30pm.

I did have a lovely lunch with Gonzalo at Restaurant La Marchiagiana downtown. It is famous for both Italian and Argentinean food, so I ordered a local dish of Cordero al Malbec con pure, which is lamb cooked in Malbec. I started with a salad made of local greens, which was excellent. The lamb was very tasty, but a bit tough.

Gonzalo asked me if I wanted to try a traditional wine from Argentina to go with the food. I asked him what he meant, and he said that the newer style is made for the export market, but that many older people prefer a style which is less fruity. Of course I was intrigued, so we ordered a half bottle of Bodega Lopez 2005 Rincon Famoso, which was an intriguing blend of sangiovese, merlot and malbec. It was the color of an older pinot noir – light garnet, with a nose and palate of dried fruit with a port-like taste. It reminded me of an old Reserva from Spain, with the slightly oxidized note that added complexity to the wine.

Impressive Tapas Dinner with Tango at Nieto Senetiner Winery

(Sept. 1, 2010) After another short rest we were transported to Nieto Senetiner Winery for what the Argentineans refer to as a “Cocktail” dinner, but which is actually a stand-up affair with many small dishes (tapas) served over the course of the evening with plentiful wine. Dress was formal so I wore the one black cocktail dress I had brought on the trip. As we climbed into the van that was sent to collect us, it started to snow very softly.

It was dark when we reached the winery around 9pm, but the large reception room was warm and bright with a blazing fire in the fireplace and flickering candles. Waiters served trays of Nieto Senetiner malbec rose, a chardonnay/viognier blend, and the entry level malbec. Later in the evening, they brought out the Nieto Senetiner Malbec Reserva, and eventually the icon wine called Cadus. All three malbecs were excellent with ripe blackberry and velvety tannins, but Cadus had more complexity and a long finish.

There were around 100 people in attendance mingling and talking in shifting groups. A four-piece orchestra played soft tango music in the background. Along one side of the long room a wall of windows looked out on an 80 year old malbec vineyard that was lighted to show-off the ancient twisting vines which seemed like sculptures. Fire pits blazed near the vines, and for a while I thought they were going to have a BBQ, until someone explained to me that the dinner would be composed completely of tapas. These ranged from huge platters of salami and cheese to small dishes of prawns, salads, and other tasty treats. The media was in full attendance taking many photos.

Around 10pm, two tango dancers arrived to delight the group with intricate and sexy tango moves (see video: They also danced an older version of the tango called “criollo,” which I was told was the original dance in which the man wears a hat. A man standing near me said that tango was born from a combination of African and Spanish dances, and that over the years it evolved into the sensuous moves we see today. It was truly a wonderful experience – and a perfect welcome to Argentina.

Staying at Lovely Club Tapiz Resort, Argentina

(Sept. 1, 2010) Club Tapiz is both a winery and a resort which is set in the middle of vineyards with a stunning view of the snow-capped Andes. It is a charming adobe building with 7 rooms which open onto a central courtyard (see photo). Complete with gourmet restaurant, swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, exercise room and a spa where they give great massages for $150 Argentina pesos (about $38 US); it was a wonderful place to stay for 3 nights. Luis helped us to our rooms, encouraged us to rest, and said he would see us at dinner that evening.

I quickly unpacked so that I could be ready for the car and driver that arrived 30 minutes later to transport me back to downtown Mendoza. We arrived at a hotel meeting room where I met Jimena who had organized all of my travel arrangements and was the event coordinator for the conference. She introduced me to the 15 people from Wines of Argentina who were present for the afternoon meeting. After a working lunch of sandwiches, I gave my presentation and we discussed wine export strategy.

I was transported back to Club Tapiz by the president of the winery, Patricia, who entertained me with tales of brand management. She described how she had created the very successful wine brand, Zolo, for the US market because she was so busy as a winery executive that she never saw her husband. The terms “Zolo” means both “solo and lonely,” and so the label shows a lonely man. Patricia says the man represents her husband, and now when she travels, she can take him with her as the wine bottle. The story is so unique that it has captivated distributors and retailers in the US who repeat it to their customers, and now the wine is a huge hit.

After a quick rest in my nice room at Club Tapiz, the 8 of us who had been asked to speak at the Forum were asked to a 5pm meeting to hear an overview presentation on the Argentinean wine industry and receive gifts. We were invited to relax in a living room with a blazing fire, have coffee or wine (I chose wine!) and listen to the presentation. A very gracious welcome.

The City of Mendoza, Argentina

(Sept. 1, 2010) I arrived in Mendoza safely and was met by Luis, CEO of Norton Winery. He also collected Yerco, a viticulture professor from Chile, at the same time and then drove us to our hotel, Club Tapiz. Luis was incredibly charming and welcomed us both to Argentina with much interesting information on the wine industry.

As we departed the airport, I realized it was quite small, with only one terminal. It was a cloudy winter day in the mid-50 degrees with rain in the forecast. Mendoza has approximately 600,000 people and is nestled at the base of the Andes Mountains. They tower over the city with impressive snow-capped peaks, with the largest being Aconcagua at 22,841 feet!

The city of Mendoza, like many large cities, is not as impressive in the winter. It also has many poor sections with shanty houses and graffiti. However, downtown there are many modern buildings with tree lined streets. Many streets are also lined with canals on both sides that bring the water from the Andes. What I didn’t realize is that Mendoza is actually in the high desert, and without the water from the Andes, there were would no wine industry here. The other large industry is petroleum.

After a 30 minute drive south through the city, we arrived in the outskirts of Mendoza in Lujan de Cuyo where many of the famous wineries are located. The vineyards surrounded us – looking impressive in their winter wardrobe of sculptured wood. Most of the vines had been cane pruned and were tied to VSP trellising with tan-colored strips which turned out to be a plant material made from bulrush which was biodegradable and safe for the environment. It looked much nicer than the plastic green tape we use in California.

From San Francisco to Peru, Chile and Argentina in One Day

(Aug. 31, 2010) It’s an extremely long trip from San Francisco to Mendoza, Argentina, and there doesn’t seem to be any quick way to arrive. Most every connection that was affordable included changing planes 3 times. As it turned out, I was not given a choice on which airline or route to follow as my tickets were purchased by my hosts. Therefore I ended up on a LAN 9-hour flight from SFO to Lima, Peru that landed a little after midnight (3 hour time change from the West Coast). It was my first time to fly LAN—the airline of South America -- and I found that the plane was new and every seat had a TV. The food was decent and they served San Pedro sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. The staff was professional and efficient, but not overly friendly.

Once in Lima, I only had 30 minutes to change planes and go through another security check before I was on another LAN flight to Santiago, Chile which landed at 5:30am – a 3 hour interval during which I slept. Once in Santiago I had a 3.5 hour layover and was completely exhausted because it was 2:30am California time. Fortunately I stumbled across a lounge called Mistral which allowed me access at a day pass rate of $30. They had comfortable leather chairs, and I immediately fell asleep for another hour and a half before having two cups of cappuccino and macaroons. Best of all was the shower, which included all amenities and was very hot. If you ever get stuck in a long layover in Santiago, I would recommend paying the $30 to go to this lounge.

The bad news was when I came out of the shower, someone had taken my coat. I assumed an employee had hung it up, but after inquiring at the front desk and encountering much rapid Spanish discourse amongst several employees, I discovered that someone had stolen it. Security tracked them down using video cameras, and it turns out that a woman who was seated next to me took my coat and stuffed it in her backpack. They tracked her down to my flight to Mendoza, and a group of around 7 LAN employees and security people escorted her off the plane and made her give my coat back. The whole thing was rather embarrassing. I just pretended that she had mistakenly taken it. However, since it is winter in Mendoza with thick snow in the Andes, I definitely need my coat!

So now I am on the third leg of my trip, which is a short 50 minute flight from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina over the Andes. They are completely covered in snow and are very impressive (see photo). My flight departed at 9am and I will arrive in Mendoza at 11am, because there is another 1 hour time change – which puts Mendoza at 4 hours later than California. Once I land, I’m supposed to attend a lunch and do a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation, so I guess I should stop writing now and review what I’m going to say. Let’s just hope some of the fog and fatigue that are filling my brain will fade away by the time I have to talk.