Well, it’s been several days without a blog, so I’m feeling the need to write again. Maddy and I were recently in Chile, following our stay in Mendoza. Neither of us realized that electrical outlets in Chile are different than in Argentina, and so we had no adaptors with us. Conserving battery power for five days does cause a certain “laptop withdrawal”, but believe me that’s a good thing for both Maddy and I.
Prior to Chile, we spent our last two days in Mendoza traveling the area and tasting wine. The first viticulture practices were probably brought to Mendoza by Jesuit missionaries as early as the 17th century, and then Italian immigrants arriving at the end of the 19th century. Most wine produced prior to 1990, however, was considered to be poor quality and sold domestically as table wine. Mendoza’s reputation as one of the top wine regions of the world has really come about just in the last ten years. In the late 1980s, Michel Rolland, a well-known Bordeaux-based owner, cellar master and wine consultant, recognized the ideal growing conditions in Mendoza, and began to work with local growers to improve the quality of Mendoza wine. While many continued to produce primarily table wines, others began to develop premium lines for international export. With the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina, European and North American investors began to buy great properties at bargain prices, and brought both financial investment as well as viticulture experience from France, Italy, and California.
Mendoza is divided into four wine regions, and Maddy and I spent a day each in two of these regions: Lujan de Cuyo, and Valle de Uco. Lujan de Cuyo is the area in which vines were first grown in Mendoza, and is known as the Primera Zone because of the prestige of wines from this area. Vines here are grown at between 2000 and 3500 feet above sea level. Grapes are the Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay. Valle de Uco is located at the foot of the Andes. Conditions in this area are arid and semi-desert, and represent the highest altitudes (up to 5600 feet above sea level) at which wines are produced in Mendoza.
So that’s the background. But how can wine be truly enjoyed without others?
We were lucky to have individuals both happy in life and companionable for each of our trips. Felipe, our driver and guide, is a former rugby athlete who played for several years in the United States, blew out one of his knees, and then returned to his home town of Mendoza. He brought with him a knowledge of the English language, as well as his 1998 Chevrolet Suburban (probably the only Suburban we saw in Argentina), a perfect vehicle for transporting inebriated tourists. Felipe and Maddy went back and forth discussing sports injuries and practicing both English and Spanish. We also met Sonia and Mehdi, a young couple from Paris on their honeymoon. While honeymooning couples can be excused for having eyes only for each other, that was not the case with Sonia and Mehdi. We made a great foursome, collaborated in introducing Maddy to a bit of Norton Grappa, with Felipe keeping us all on schedule and under control. Several hours after the last tour, Sonia and Mehdi were off by bus to Cordoba, with email addresses exchanged and invitations for future visits extended.
We visited a total of six wineries or bodegas. I was frankly surprised and impressed by the quality of wine from this region, especially some of the red blends (Malbec, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc). Whether wine-tasting or having a glass of wine with a meal, we never tasted a “bad” wine. Some were better than others, but the quality of reds was uniformly high, from wineries with very different business models and philosophies. The contrasts in running a business were striking, but the wine was always great.
DOMAINE ST. DIEGO
This bodega was our first winery visited. A small, family-run bodega, they produce no more than 35,000 liters annually. Angel Mendoza is the owner of Domaine St. Diego, and has been a well-known producer of Mendoza wines for years. After having worked with Michel Rolland at Trapiche, one of the largest wineries in the area, he was finally able to realize his life’s dream by buying a small vineyard and bringing his family together to work with him. His sons manage the vineyards, his daughter Laura (our guide) manages tours and sales, and his wife manages the business affairs. There is no need for distribution, since they sell only at the winery or to local restaurants and resorts in Mendoza. While the surroundings are modest, you can feel the joy within this family, working together to produce great wine.
NORTON AND SALENTEIN
We also visited two of the largest wineries in the area, Norton and Salentein. Both of these are large-scale operations with global distribution networks. Both actively promote the idea of “wine tourism”, and have the facilities to provide a great wine experience for tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Norton is owned by the Swarovski family of Austria (yes, Swarovski crystal), and is one of the largest wineries in Argentina. Norton wines are distributed in 60 countries around the world. Our visit included an initial stop in the reception center, tour of the wine production facilities, tasting in their underground cellar room, and lunch at the La Vid restaurant.
Salentein is also one of the largest producers in Argentina, again with excellent wines. As with Norton, the owner is European (Dutch). The Salentein property provides the most options for visitors, with facilities including a reception center, restaurant, gift shop, wine production facilities, chapel, a 16-room inn and gourmet restaurant, and even a museum showcasing the owner’s art.
We talked with Felipe, Sonia and Mehdi about the contrasts between wineries we’d visited. Norton and Salentein were impressive; they distribute world-wide, and therefore emphasize the relationship with consumers, distributors and critics. Our visit to Domaine St. Diego was the most enjoyable, though. We all agreed that there is no substitute for experiencing the strong commitment and pure joy of a family dedicated to doing what they love – simply making great wine. The wines of Domaine St. Diego were the best of our trip.