I was lucky enough to be invited by an organisation called Wines of Argentina to visit the country and see for myself the wineries (“bodegas”), meet the winemakers and taste copious amounts of wine – a tough job, as you can imagine.
My five excellent companions and I flew out to Buenos Aires on 21st September, Argentina’s official first day of Spring, where we began the most incredible week of visiting countless bodegas, wine tasting, gourmet dining (who said they only eat beef in Argentina?) and sightseeing.
After some rapid sightseeing and wine tasting around the city and barely catching our breath, a day later we flew south to the city of Neuquén in the northern part of Patagonia in order to visit some wineries near the city and in the Rio Negro province. Until now, this area was best known for its fruit production of apples and pears. In the last decade, however, a number of wineries have sprung up, thanks in part to large investment from the government, and some with the most amazing 21st century architecture.
We visited a good range, from giants such as Bodega del Fin del Mundo (“Winery From The End of the World”), who are responsible for 50% (10 million bottles) of all Patagonian wine produced, to the 104-year-old Bodega Humberto Canale in Rio Negro, where we were treated to the national dish “asado”. This is the Argentinian equivalent of the barbecue, a variety of meats that are cooked on a grill called a “parrilla” or open fire, and what all families gather together for on a Sunday afternoon. An overriding memory that will remain with me forever will be the simple joy of standing in glorious sunshine, holding a delicious “empañada” (the Argentinian equivalent to our Cornish pasty) in one hand and a glass of fresh, juicy Malbec in the other!
An overnight bus – first class and fairly comfortable, but the journey marred somewhat by extremely loud snoring from a portly gentleman passenger – took us to the city of Mendoza, the capital of the Mendoza province. Here we had a glimpse in to how “the other half” live, by staying at the fabulous five-star Hotel Diplomatico. For someone who only ever has a black coffee for breakfast, my alarm clock was deliberately set half an hour early each morning so I could indulge in the magnificent extravaganza of a breakfast that this hotel offered. However, tempting though it was, I (reluctantly!) felt I had to draw the line when offered a “Mimosa” (sparkling wine and freshly squeezed orange juice) at 8am in the morning.
Mendoza, with its backdrop of the magnificent and snow-capped Andes mountains, is the heartland of Argentinian winemaking. We spent the next few days visiting a variety of wineries, from the 127-year-old Bodega Escorihuela in the city itself, where we were made to wear hairnets in the warehouse (really?), to various others located in Lujan de Cuyo and the stunning Uco Valley in the foothills of the Andes.
What really struck me was the wonderful relationship between the Argentinian winemakers themselves. We had so many delicious meals at various restaurants, often within the wineries, where winemakers from neighbouring bodegas would come and join in, showcase their wines, and catch up with their friends and neighbours, swapping tips and gossip. Our delightful host Marcelo Marasco at Bodega Séptima explained that as a lot of the industry is still in its infancy, there is no competition or secrecy, just a willingness to support and help one another, which is very refreshing.
So many bodegas offered us such wonderful hospitality that to list them all here would make this article twice as long. Suffice to say that our guides, particularly Sofía and Leo, and the representatives from each and every winery, made us feel so welcome that I think we will all return at some point.
An important impression made though is that, economic problems aside, the Argentinian wine industry will go from strength to strength. And the next big thing after Malbec? According to the majority of winemakers, possibly Cabernet Franc (look out for Pulenta Estate’s Gran Cabernet Franc 2008 – a superb example) and other Bordeaux varietals. Interestingly, although Bonarda is beginning to feature more heavily as a single varietal and there are some excellent examples out there, it was not considered to be a serious contender for the “next big thing”.
All in all, a wonderful and memorable trip. “Hasta la proxima vez!” (Until the next time!)