An Unforgettable Trip to Mendoza – Tasting and Touring Argentina’s Wine Capital
After spending respectively five and seven years on the beautiful Emerald Island, it wasn’t an easy call for us to leave it. We had been feeling the lust for adventure for a while and eventually, it took a bottle of wine (the second one) by the fireplace last June to take the big step. We had saved for a house and a mortgage, and it appeared to us that we might as well blow it all on a one year trip around the world, meeting all the great people behind our two biggest passions in life: food and wine.
Soon after that, we had purchased a camper van, drew an itinerary through three continents, launched our website foodvinebrations.com and left our jobs. So, here we are now, on the road with no home of ours, and here is our travelogue.
We’ll start with one of the highlights of our trip to South America: Mendoza, Argentina. With our background in wine and olive oil, the region already started pretty well from afar, but it’s only when we got there that we truly fell in love with it! Let’s go back to the very beginning: how did we get there?
We took a 19 hour bus from the colourful city of Buenos Aires, which is quite common while travelling through such a huge continent as South America.
A long-haired skater-looking guy in his early 20’s asked us what had brought us to his city. He was a very proud Mendocino named Gustavo. We spoke about food and wine and shared a taxi. We had asked for some advice on where to eat good cheap food on a Sunday and he took our number down for further thoughts.
About an hour later, we received a message from him saying “I thought a lot about what you asked and I honestly think that there’s no better Sunday lunch than my dad’s.” This is how we met the Cortis family, with whom we ended up eating with three times that week!
One note, Mendoza is a very large region so if you go, make room in your budget for a rental car or for a private chauffeur. Since our plan was to go wine tasting and my license had been stolen (this is another story), we opted for the second option.
What Makes Mendoza Special
From a historical point of view, the many influences that Mendoza received make it an unbelievable place to visit. Wine wise, the first plantings occurred with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, however, for the delicious vino we drink today, we have to thank the massive Italian immigration of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Back in the day, Argentina was craving for Europe to recognise it as one of its kind, bringing top architects to design the little Paris of South America in Buenos Aires. With Bordeaux proclaiming its top crus in the famous 1855 classification, there was nothing more obvious than to create the little Bordeaux of South America! Here comes the last great influence of Mendoza: the French! Bordeaux varietals were planted: both Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc), some Merlot and a nearly extinct one that would become the country’s flagship: Malbec.
Olive, the little sister of the vine, doesn’t have to be jealous. In fact, Argentina is the only country in the world to produce olive oil from a varietal that’s not Native to Europe. Arauco (that’s its name) is a bit like the Phoenix, it was born from the ashes of the failed destruction of all Argentine olives.
The cultivation spread at the end of the 16th century, but at the start of the 17th century, Charles III, King of Spain ordered to cut off all the olive trees to stop production to protect Spanish production.
The story goes that some farmers, were allowed to keep one or two trees for their own consumption. With centuries of natural crossings, a new varietal was born, perfectly suited to the Argentine arid climate: Arauco.
First stop: Pulenta Estate
Pulenta Estate is located in Lujan de Cuyo, the historical top terroir of Mendoza. It was founded by the former owner of Trapiche, historical producer in Argentina and is a state-of-the-art, quality-driven winery run by two brothers. The single vineyard surrounds the modern winery, with a tasting room overlooking the jaw-dropping Andes mountains.
The whole bodega is a pure jewel, from the perfectly aligned rows of vines that run miles away towards the Andes to the pristine equipment surrounded by two brand new Porsche engines, the family’s second hobby.
The wines were just spotless. Our favourites were Gran Malbec X, with a deep complexity and seductive notes of dry spice, chocolate, violet and plum, and the Gran Cabernet Franc XI, a spicy winter warmer packed with hints of cinnamon and clove, opening to touches of black olive and soy sauce.
Next: the Familia Cassone
Full disclosure here: I got to know the wines of the Familia Cassone by working for their Irish importer back in the day. They are one of the many Italian families that had settled down in Argentina and planted vines on the fantastic soils of Lujan de Cuyo, in a small town called Mayor Drummond.
Still to this day, the wines are produced from 90+ year-old vines and taste like passion and commitment. From the second you enter the Bodega, these ancient witchcraft-looking vines stare at you, guarded by old olive trees.
Once again, the biggest player here is Malbec, followed by the traditional Bordeaux varietals. The winery here is not as shiny as Pulenta and much more traditional. Old concrete vats filled with the fruits of the last harvest overlook the previous year’s wines maturing in oak barrels. It feels more artistic than scientific, but the results are clean and very well-balanced.
The range is broken down into four lines: Siete Cuchillos Malbec, their entry level fruit-bomb with soft juicy tannins; Finca la Florencia Malbec, a mid-range, gently oaked red with a velvety mouthfeel; Obra Prima Reserva, two masterpieces -a Malbec and a Cabernet- both aged for at least 12 months in both American and French oak; and Obra Prima Gran Reserva a chocolatey Malbec that also floral and dark-berried with layer after layer of oak complexity.
Mendoza’s Hidden Gems
The other days spent there were the occasion to visit other terroirs of Mendoza, apart from the famous Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu to the East is another great area with more boutique wineries. The organic Cecchin can be found there with a delicious Methode Ancestrale off-dry sparkling wine (which isn’t my type usually).
We particularly loved the smaller Bodega Carinae, owned by a French couple who fell in love with the area and settled down a few years ago. The wines are elegant and with a great balance, definitively one well worth a visit.
Exploring the Mysterious Arauco
Our second mission in the Mendoza was to sample this mysterious Arauco olive and meet the people who turn it into an award-winning product. We had booked visits with 3 Internationally recognised producers: Olio Lagomaggiore, Familia Zuccardi and Bodega Tapiz.
Today, Argentina’s olive oil production is only recovering from a 20th century filled with ups and downs, led by quality-driven producers such as Jorge Piuzzi, our first encounter. He showed us around the region and drove us to the mill where his olives get crushed. Jorge’s “thing”, he says, is to harvest the olives the day the first black dot appears.
Let me explain, olives are all green at the start and eventually, they “turn” black. A dot announces the change, wait a little longer, and you’ll get black olives. Green olives are very high in polyphenols and anti-oxidants but their taste is very pungent and bitter. Black olives would have lost most of their polyphenols and gained a banana-like sweeter aroma.
Top olive oils are best consumed young and fresh, but that day Jorge gave us a bottle of his 7-year-old harvest. We tried it when we got back home and were amazed at how fresh it still was! The polyphenol content was so high, it had kept perfectly through the years. The production of Olio Lagomaggiore is tiny, but the quality is very high.
Then we headed to Familia Zuccardi, famous worldwide for their wine production, and with a story that started in Italy. The engineer grand-father Alberto started to plant vines in 1963, purchasing top fields in Maipu. Eventually, his son Jose Alberto took over, followed by his three children who still run it today: Sebastian for the wine, Miguel for the olive oil and Julia in tourism.
We were invited to meet with Miguel in Finca Maipu, headquarter of the olive oil production with 80 hectares of organically grown olive trees.
We first met the incredible Horacio, the man in charge of the organic gardens. You know a genius when you meet one: He explained that in Mendoza being an arid desert, the top soils were almost instantly dried out under the sun. However,there’s some underground water. He planted a naturally salty weed native from the area that would suck the water up, and covered the ground with seaweed to keep it cool. The result? An increase in water content with no irrigation! The man was literally turning the desert into a fertile land, just using local plants!
Miguel said that the understanding of their land would take generations, while we all sat down in the tasting room afterwards, getting to try the now famous Arauco and others varietals like Frantoio and Changlot. All so fresh, zippy, clean… It could be done, the production of large enough amounts of olive oil with a respect of both the environment and the produce!
We had to zoom in to the process and go look at a smaller Finca again, a premium one too, so we headed to Club Tapiz.
It belongs to the Bodega Tapiz, with a fine dining restaurant and a luxury hotel resort on site. Since we were on a budget, we decided to stay at a nearby romantic guesthouse, lost in the middle of the vineyards, called Casa Andante.
The couple who run it are the nicest people on Earth, she’s German and he’s Argentine, with their young son Milo. The craft beer lovers will love the little bar set-up in the garden, pouring only local brews and making pizza.
In Club Tapiz (forget the budget!), we decided to treat ourselves for an incredible tasting menu with wines at lunch time. On the expensive side for the area, it still represents a really good value for what you get. But the most incredible thing there was to meet with Sebastian Correa, the guy behind the world-famous Tapiz olive oil.
He explained how he had to process the olives between 2 and 24 hours after harvest to make sure he was getting the best. Another very humble artist producer, who introduced himself commenting that “unlike winemakers make wine, I don’t make olive oil. The olive tree makes it, my job is to take it out and try to ruin it as little as possible”.
We fell in love with Mendoza, there’s no other word! We can’t recommend it enough to all the foodies out there! Whether you want to stay in a Hostal (budget hotel with access to a kitchen), a hostel or a luxury hotel, there’s a bit of everything in there. And if you’re feeling thirsty after all your tastings, the local craft beer scene is to die for, they even have machines to seal it in cans from the draught and let you take them home… a real paradise!
Originally from France, Solene and Maxime met in Ireland, where they both lived for 5 and 7 years. Solene decided to move there to improve her English and eventually fell in love with the island. Working for an Irish food importer as their sourcing manager, she got the opportunity to travel the world and meet producers. With a diploma from the International Olive Oil Council, she decided to focus particularly on this subject.
Maxime first arrived in Ireland to work as a trainee in a restaurant. A few years later, after finalising his studies in Restaurant Management at the Ferrandi school in Paris, he decided to go back and take on a management position at the Dublin Wine Rooms. Eventually moving to work for a wine importer as their wine educator, he travelled the country to train restaurant and hotel staff for a couple of years.
Pushed by their passion for Food and Wine, Solene and Max founded foodvinebrations.com 2016. Partners in the real life as well as online, they are both travelling the World from South America to Asia and Europe to discover the traditional foods, cooking techniques, wines and cultures of the globe!