I like wine. A lot. I’d say I’m exceptionally fond of it. Wine is the cheer at the end of a dismal day and the joy at the end of a good one. It brings close friends closer together and it makes being alone seem a little less solitary.
An average wine makes bad food better and a great wine makes good food exceptional. There is a wine for every course, every mood and every occasion. Wine is one of nature’s greatest gifts and, as an appreciative devotee, I try to partake of it as frequently as possible.
The Catholics had the right idea. When they sailed to the New World, Jesuit priests realised to their horror that they had only limited amount of wine with which to perform the Eucharist and quench their thirst after long days spent burning uncooperative natives.
They imported vines from Spain and planted South America’s first vineyards in Cusco and Ica, on the southern Peruvian coast. The vines took well to the Pacific Coast terroir, and Ica became the winemaking capital of Latin America, exporting its wines to Chile and Bolivia, as well as Spain.
In a bid to protect the Spanish winemaking industry from very successful New World winemakers, the crown put heavy restrictions on the amount that could be exported from Peru, and the winemaking industry migrated south to Chile and Argentina. The vines flourished in the volcanic soil at the foot of the Andes in Argentina, and five hundred years later, the wines of Mendoza are among the best in the world.
Mendoza exploded onto the global wine stage little over a decade ago, with a little known grape called Malbec. Mendozan Malbecs have been praised for their full-bodied, dark fruity flavours and, like many New World wines, are incredibly affordable. Now, after a decade of demonstrating their abilities with Malbec, Mendoza’s winemakers are allowing themselves the luxury of a little experimentation, both with new grapes and with Malbec blends.
The Valle de Uco (Uco Valley) is the youngest winemaking region in Mendoza Province, earning just attention for its state-of-the-art wineries, entrepreneurial winemakers and superb wines. As well as its Mendozan rivals, Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo, the Uco Valley is competing with exceptional Argentine wines from the north (Salta) and south (Patagonia), which are all clamouring for attention on the global stage.
In order to learn more about the new enfant terrible of Argentina’s winemaking business, the Señorita and I set out on a full-day tour of the Uco Valley with a local tour operator called Trout and Wine to visit three different vineyards: Pulenta Estate, La Azul and Andeluna, which differ wildly in terms of size and production.
At Pulenta, we wandered around the boutique winery with a glass of refreshing Sauvignon Blanc in hand, before sitting down to a open-air tasting session. Before any wine was poured, we were subjected to a scent test, as wine glasses containing ingredients with different aromas were handed around the blindfolded group.
Getting the day off to a rambunctious start, we sampled three of the estate's wines, all 2011 vintages: a Malbec, a Grand Cabernet Franc and a Gran Corte made of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Tannat grapes, the crown of the Pulenta Estate offering. The latter was enough to convince me early on that Malbec blends are the future in Mendoza.
At Bodega La Azul, a much smaller vineyard that makes limited production wines at a commercial winery, we sampled a young, un-aged Malbec as well as a triumphant Reserva, a blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, which was aged for 15 months in French and American oak barrels.
Wine tours when travelling require much discipline, or a vast baggage allowance/bank balance, but the Azul Reserva was irresistible, so we bought a bottle for later.
The final stop was Andeluna, a large-production winery that makes 13 different wines across three brands: 1300, Altitud and Pasionado. Here we were seated at a dining table covered in a sea of wine-glasses, which were each filled, drained and refreshed multiple times during a five-course lunch accompanied by a dizzying array of vintages across all three brands, which, by this stage in the day, were starting to blur into one.
The following day, we returned to the Uco Valley independently and spent a glorious morning wandering around the sun-kissed vineyards of Finca Ambrosia, a vineyard which supplies grapes to big-name wineries like Trapiche, and makes a limited quantity of its own single-vineyard Malbec, which was perhaps the best we sampled in Mendoza.
Wandering around the vineyard at harvest time, as migrant workers flood the fields to pluck the plump grapes, is a rare and rewarding experience. It’s a time when vineyard and winery owners put all their faith in the winemakers, who determine the precise day on which to pick the grapes for the best flavour. A day early and the grapes will be tart; a couple of days too late and the y will be overripe.
Mendoza has come an awfully long way from its colonial beginnings, and it has now rightfully earned its place among the great winemaking regions of the world. Look out for single-grape Cabernet Francs, and Malbec-heavy red blends from any Mendoza winemaker this year, and you’re in for a treat.
But for this season’s high quality Malbecs and blends, we won’t know the outcome until 2018, so for now, we’re content to return home, uncork the La Azul Reserva from earlier and toast the 2015 harvest. Salad!