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Destination: Argentina

Tasting the good life in Mendoza

On a tour through the country's main wine region, expect superb vintages, unbelievable values and the familial intimacy of small vineyards.

November 10, 2002|Andrew Bakalar | Special to The Times

Mendoza, Argentina — My Argentine friend, Carolina Fuller, and I took a detour down a dirt road. A whitewashed warehouse with a tangerine-colored roof rose above rows of leafy vines. In front of massive wood doors stood Federico Cassone, owner and winemaker at Finca la Florencia's winery. Behind him wine, crackers and cheese were laid out on a rustic wood table.

After hearing of my enthusiasm for his family's wine, his father, Eduardo, led me to an adjacent gallery of oak casks and withdrew wine from one.

Federico's mother provided a glass. Eduardo filled it and urged me to try a Gran Reserve Malbec 2000. I took a sip. Pondered. Then reached for my wallet, offering him all the cash I had. Everyone laughed.

It felt as if I were in the home of old friends.

I found the warm intimacy of my tasting experience at Finca la Florencia over and over again on my trip last January to the Mendoza wine country, spread before the foothills of the Andes, about 350 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. I sipped wine with vineyard owners, took tours led by winemakers and tasted some startlingly fine wines for rock-bottom prices. The region is only now gearing up for tourists, and therein lies its charm. Tours and tastings here tend to be informal and personal, often led by the winemakers themselves. Bistros and winery gift shops are just starting to pop up.

Mendoza produces three-quarters of Argentina's wine, and until recently most of it was consumed domestically. Argentina's per capita wine consumption is third in the world, behind Italy and France; the country is fifth in wine production.

Summer days here are hot and humid, and winters are cool, making the region ideal for growing wine grapes, especially the intense malbec, Mendoza's signature varietal. This black grape, brought from France decades ago, was considered second-rate there, but Argentines have cultivated it to a level unequaled by the French. On Wine Spectator magazine's 100-point scale, 24 Argentine bottlings are ranked 90 or above.

But it's not only the quality that makes Argentine wines so attractive. It's also their low price, and that's due partly to Argentina's economic crisis and the recent devaluation of its peso.

After I planned my trip, my third vacation there in eight years, Argentina's economy tumbled, and riots broke out in some cities. But Argentine friends assured me Mendoza was calm and safe, so last December I flew from Los Angeles into Santiago, Chile, about 200 miles west of Mendoza and closer than the capital of Buenos Aires. I then took a 45-minute flight over the Andes to Mendoza.

On the advice of those same friends, I bypassed the city of Mendoza in favor of a spa hotel tucked into the mountains to the south. I followed Route 7 out of the city, weaving across flatlands that reminded me of southern France. After 18 miles, the road led into a mountain pass and the Hotel Termas de Cacheuta. It was out of the way for winery visits, but for peace and relaxation it had no equal. My double room cost 96 pesos per person -- now about $27 -- including meals and access to the hotel's spa complex, with its stone-grotto sauna, volcanic mud baths, hydro-massage, thermal pools and professional masseurs.

On my first morning I prepared for four days of winery visits. Most of the local wineries, or bodegas, are clustered around two suburbs of Mendoza: Maipu, about eight miles southeast of downtown, and Lujan, about 10 miles south.

One can visit wineries on bus tours, which generally stop at vineyards along the "wine route," devised by wineries and the local government to guide visitors through the area's 100-plus bodegas. Another option is to hire an English-speaking guide. But I preferred to tour in a rented car at my own pace.

I relied on the suggestions of guidebooks and locals to choose the wineries I would visit. Of the 16 I saw, 10 were suggestions from locals and only two were disappointments.

First on my list was Fabre Montmayou, a medium-size establishment purchased eight years ago by French winemakers. Soledad Guevara, Fabre's English-speaking tour guide, led me through the facility, a handsome redbrick and terra-cotta structure. We ended at the tasting bar, which is in the warehouse amid crates and bottling machines.

Fabre makes an excellent, earthy 1999 Malbec, although I preferred its 2000 Chardonnay, among the best whites I had in Argentina.

Next was Bodegas Leoncio Arizu, a family-owned winery a mile north of Lujan's main plaza; its wines are marketed under the name Luigi Bosca. One of the owners, Gustavo Arizu, who spoke fluent English, led me on a tour, ending at a third-floor tasting room in a majestic tower, where I sampled the '99 Malbec -- for me, the winery's finest.

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