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Mendoza Beyond Malbec

Argentina’s Mendoza region discovered an economic and reputational winner a decade ago when it introduced American drinkers and eaters to its delicious Malbec wines and their matching beef-based asado cuisine.  Both Malbec and asado are still growing in popularity on this side of the equator, so Mendoza is not about to let up on its continued development of its two best-known proprietary brands.

Yet on a visit to Mendoza last week as guest of the Catena family and its wineries, I could begin to see how much more the region has to offer American consumers as it develops its wine, culinary and tourism industries.  Much like America’s Napa Valley, Mendoza has a rich wine heritage dating back to the mid-1800s, fueled my about equal populations of Spanish and Italian settlers who brought their knowledge and vine cuttings with them.

But unlike Napa, Mendoza is geographically isolated on the eastern edge of the Andes, far away from the ocean-centric population centers.  While it did export wines and produce to Buenos Aires and beyond, it still remained culturally isolated and focused on its domestic markets.  The economic crash of 2001, which unfortunately is still widely felt, forced Mendoza to look outside its borders for money.  Americans, obsessed with varietal wines and always on the outlook for something new – but not too new – immediately embraced Malbec.  It appealed to their palates trained on other Bordeaux grape varieties, it was new and it was affordable.  If weather conditions can create a perfect storm, these conditions created the perfect cuvée.

Along with a small group of other journalists, I had dinner one evening with Ernesto Catena, president of Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón, and his winemaker, Ernesto Bajda, and on another evening with his sister, Laura Catena, managing director for Wines of Catena (which includes Alamos), her winemaker, Felipe Stahlschmidt, and her experienced and talented director of wine education, Jimena Turner.  We visited the high-altitude vineyards of both wineries, did a marvelous cooking seminar on regional foods put together by Turner and American-trained chef Lucas Bustos, and barely had time left over for a polo match and a getaway stop in Buenos Aires. (I have a notebook full of stories to write.)

While the continued development of Malbec wines is impressive – better vine age, clonal selection, vineyard development and winery practices – visits to Gascón historic winery established in 1884 and then Gascón’s modern winery at Agrelo convinced me that a look at Mendoza’s past might give a clue to its next stage of wine development – red blends that will be more sophisticated and complicated that Malbec served “neat.”

“Until recently, Mendoza wines were just red blends,” winemaker Bajda explained, “and the varietal was seldom mentioned.”  Now that Malbec has caught the world’s attention, Bajda, Stahlschmidt and other local winemakers are revisting the potential of Malbec-dominated blends made more interesting by splashes of the local favorite, Bonarda, the Cabernets, Petit Verdot, even Syrah.  Be on the lookout for wines labeled “Mendoza red blend.”

Mendoza’s cuisine has a strong base in that you can feast on freshly-grilled beef and lard-based pastry for a couple of evenings, but it needs more chefs like Bustos to take local ingredients – such as the amazing, very spicy arugula that grows wild in the dessert – and give them a sophisticated French twist in translating them to the table.

Finally, Mendoza is developing its hospitality business.  Food and wine aficionados are beginning to flock to the region, and Mendoza is slowly responding with a network of small inns, informal but sophisticated eateries, shopping oases and sporting activities in the wine belt south of the city.

Along with Bordeaux, Florence, San Francisco, Bilbao and other cities in or near the prime wine-growing regions, Mendoza is a proud member of the Great Wine Capitals commercial group and is proving itself to be one of the more-fascinating ones as it develops its repertoire beyond its starter base of Malbec and asado.

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