It was late November when the van from Amparo Tours pulled up to my guesthouse, the B&B Plaza Italia, a little before 9 am. I was standing outside enjoying the warm spring sunshine. As the van stopped, Jose, the tour guide for the day, stepped out and greeted me. Inside the vehicle, I said hello to a lady who introduced herself as being from New York City. After picking up a couple from Australia, the five of us plus our driver, were on the road headed for the start of our wine-tasting tour of three wineries.
Upon the advice of Javier, one of the B&B Plaza Italia owners, I decided to book two all-day tours with Amparo at 160 USD per day. It wasn’t cheap; however, I wanted a small group atmosphere with a quality experience. For most of my adult life, I was primarily a white wine drinker. I didn’t have a taste for the reds, which was probably due to some bad experiences in my early twenties with cheap red wine. I hoped that might change with my visit to Mendoza. I had tried a Malbec prior to my trip and enjoyed it. In fact, I had two glasses.
Being primarily a beer drinker, I enjoyed white wine on a casual basis. For the most part, my purchases consisted of Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling with an occasional Pinot Grigio. I had grown tired of the strong taste of the California Chardonnays. Being just a casual drinker, I never acquired much knowledge about wines or wineries. I was looking to become better educated. As a result, I selected Amparo Tours upon the advice of Javier – which turned out to be a very good choice.
As we headed down the highway to the first bodega, we got to know a little about each other’s backgrounds. Jose seemed to be very personable and spoke very good English. On top of that, we learned over the next two days that he knew wines very well and turned out to be an excellent guide. Believe me, I asked him a lot of questions. Jose took the time in the van to give us a background into wine making in the Mendoza region and the Uco Valley – our destination today.
There are two main wine growing regions in Argentina – Mendoza, which is on the western side of the country in the foothills of the Andes (also just a stone’s throw from Chile) and Salta, which is in the northwest of the country not too far from the Bolivian border. In the 1970s, domestic consumption of wine was about 100 liters per capita, which meant there was very little remaining for exporting outside the country. In recent years, the consumption decreased to 24 liters per capita. This drop necessitated a need to look for foreign markets. Argentine wines, especially Malbec, seem to be making good headway into the international market.
The wine growing cycle, in Mendoza, starts with the annual winter pruning, which takes place in July in the Southern Hemisphere. The vines start to sprout in September and harvesting starts in March, in the lower valleys, and April/May in the upper valleys. Most vineyards are handpicked (about 75%); however, it’s getting harder to find enough workers so some vineyards are switching to machine harvesting. Law requires bottling to be done on the bodega’s property. Some of the larger wineries have their own bottling process; whereas, some of the smaller ones have a mobile service that comes in and bottles for them. One of the benefits of this region to wine-making is its dryness, which keeps bugs, plagues and diseases from impacting the grapes.
The Mendoza region produces about 70% of Argentina’s wine. Wineries, or bodegas as they are known, are located in three main Mendoza areas – Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo (our destination for day #2) and the Uco Valley (our destination on the first day).
It was just about 15 years ago that wineries started production in the 3,000 to 4,000 foot elevation of the Uco Valley. Production started as an experiment to see the impact to grapes grown at a higher altitude. In fact, some of the top European wineries are present to see for themselves. The warmer days are offset by colder nights, which allows for a slower ripening period. As a result, the grapes develop thicker skins, stronger tannins and produce balanced sugars and acidity. Malbecs, Chardonnays and Torrontes do very well in the Uco Valley along with Cabernet Sauvignon and a few others. Local law requires that a drip irrigation system be in place. At Bodega Atamisque, our first stop of the day, the drip irrigation is based on a humidity system that provides as much water as the vines require.
After an hour heading south from Mendoza, we came to our first stop of the day – Bodega Atamisque. After an overview of the bodega’s vineyards and growing process, we headed inside to a warehouse containing incredibly large stainless steel containers where the wine is initially stored. Our first taste was directly from the huge stainless steel container for their Cabernet Franc red wine – a type of grape I had never heard of previously. Each of us poured a few ounces into a long-stemmed wine glass. After tipping the glass to observe the color, swirling the wine and taking a quick sniff and then tasting a small amount, we started to form our own opinions about this red wine that’s not at a maturation point yet. We all agreed. It’s very tasty at this point in its development.
We then proceeded into a tasting room where, with a glass of water and some crackers ready to clear our palates, we begin to taste four different wines including a sparkling wine comprised of Chardonnay, Torrontes and Pinot Noir. I asked how the sparkling wine can be clear with the Pinot Noir grape included. The bodega’s host informed us the grape skin is removed prior to the fermentation process. It’s then that I learned it’s the skin of the grape that gives the red color to red wines. By removing the skin, the wine will be a light, clear color. We, also, discover that the sparkling wine goes through a 2nd fermentation process.
In addition to their winery, Atamisque, has a six-room lodge, golf and horseback riding for guests who would like a little more than just a tour of the winery. Many bodegas have similar arrangements after seeing an opportunity for other revenue streams for their large properties.
Some bodegas have created a program, where an individual can purchase a plot of land that has its own vines. The bodega will harvest the vines and produce wines with the individual’s own label on the bottle.
On our tour of the Uco Valley, we visited a total of three bodegas:
- Bodega Atamisque – with a 70 year old vineyard planted at an elevation of 4,430 feet, this uniquely designed new winery is located in a big and traditional estancia, a green oasis at the entrance of the Uco Valley
- Gimenez Rilli – gets it name from its actual owners, Eduardo Gimenez and Susana Riili – a couple whose tradition in wine comes from their Italian and Spanish families who arrived in Mendoza at the beginning of the XX century to settle and work in wine.
- Bodega O’Fournier – gourmet lunch was served at this futuristic winery
The next day, in Lujan de Cuyo, we visited four:
- Dominio del Plata – this visionary project of precise winemaking was started in in 1999 by Susana Balboa considered to be the most influential female enologist in Argentina
- Bodega Pulenta Estate – a beautifully designed boutique winery that combines the know-how of one of the most reputable winemaking families in Argentina with ultra high-tech winemaking facilities
- Bodega Dante Robino – owned and operated by a family with over 90 years experience devoted to the making of medium and high quality wines, both still and sparkling
- Casarena Bodega – a state of the art winery which combines the best of traditional processes with the latest technological innovations
At each one, we were provided a brief tour of the winery including their storage areas, given an overview of their wine production and storage process and then tasted about four of their red and white wines – including an entry-level, one or two reserve-level wines and also a premium. I could clearly taste the difference going from the entry level to the better quality wines. I learned an incredible amount over the two days while I diligently took copious notes in the Notes app of my iPhone. At the last stop each day, a gourmet lunch was provided. Each course was paired with a selected wine from that bodega.
The wineries have very similar processes; however, there are slight differences, which came out during our tours. I found the wine storage at each bodega to be very interesting.
- Stainless steel containers – most wine, red and white, will be fermented and initially stored in large stainless steel containers for a certain period of time. The containers have a spout on the side so the winemaker can taste at any time. During the fermenting process, since the temperature can be quickly adjusted, these containers are especially effective for white wines, which require lower heat for a longer period.
- Cement containers – were primarily used in the past before the stainless steel ones became popular. Some of the wineries still have these on property and use them in addition to the stainless steel ones. Unlike stainless steel, the temperature in these cement containers cannot be quickly adjusted; therefore, they are used, primarily, for red wines during the fermenting process since they require higher heat for a shorter period of time.
- Oak containers – were the most interesting of the storage containers. The wineries we visited seemed to be evenly split between using oak produced in France and California. The oak is toasted to a light, medium or strong level, which adds flavor to the wine. The oak containers lose their effectiveness quickly and are therefore used no more than three or four times. This is one reason why the premium wines are priced much higher in order to cover the cost of the oak barrels. Usually, the first use of an oak barrel will only be for the premium wine. The subsequent uses of the barrel will be for the reserve or other wines.
Most of the bodegas produce at least three levels of wines –
- Entry-level wines are produced in large quantities and sell for the lowest prices. The vines used for these wines are not cutback, during the season, thereby maximixing the number of grapes produced per vine. Wine quality suffers a little; however, wine production is maximized. These wines require less storage time and are stored primarily in the stainless steel containers.
- Reserve-level wines require more storage time and will usually be transferred from the stainless steel containers, at a certain point, to the oak containers for their remaining storage period.
- Premium-level wines require the best grapes, which is accomplished by using the oldest, more mature, vines (some are approaching a hundred years old) or by cutting the vines back thus reducing the amount of grapes per vine and increasing the quality of the grapes remaining. The goal is to keep these grapes small; thus, allowing for a greater concentration of flavors. These wines will usually be stored in oak for a longer period of time. Sometimes, they will be stored for half the time in new (never used before) oak barrels and then transferred to another set of new oak barrels for the remaining 50% of the time. These wines are the best quality and sell for the highest prices.
I found it interesting how many bodegas purchase grapes from other vineyards and then develop the wine themselves. One of the bodegas we visited in the Mendoza region, purchases some of its grapes from a vineyard in Salta.
In Argentina, a wine must be at least 85% from one grape in order to be named that grape. For instance, to be called a Malbec, the wine’s composition must be at least 85% from the Malbec grape. It can be comprised of other grapes as long as they do not exceed 15% of the wine’s composition. This wine is called a varietal. This is a more stringent rule than wines produced in both the USA and Europe. If the wine does not have any grape comprising at least 85% of it, then it is called a blend with the wine’s grapes listed on the bottle.
I do have to admit that sitting outside on the patio of the Bodega Casarena, on a warm, sunny spring day in Mendoza, looking out across the vineyards with the Andes in the background, sipping various wines while eating a delicious gourmet lunch was definitely an enjoyable afternoon.
What were my favorites? I really enjoyed the Malbecs – both the reserves and the premiums. I definitely think my taste for red wine became much stronger after two days of learning about wines and obviously the wine-tasting that we all enjoyed. As for the whites, the biggest surprise to me was how good the Chardonnays were. I had grown tired of the strong California Chardonnays. The Mendoza-produced ones were much smoother with a higher quality taste. When I commented about this, the bodega hosts and Jose, our tour guide, felt that it was the fact that Chardonnays, in Mendoza, are stored in oak barrels, unlike the California ones, and stored for a longer period of time. In addition, I learned that I liked two wines that I had never heard of before – Torrontes, a white wine, and Cabernet Franc, a red wine.
While I was in Mendoza, I stopped at The Vines of Mendoza, essentially a tasting room with many of the local wines available. I just happened by there on a Saturday evening between 7 pm and 9 pm – which turned out to be one of two happy hours they have during the week. The other is on Tuesday evening. Prices, for a full pour, are 50% off the regular price. I had four glasses of different wines for roughly $14 USD. In addition, you can purchase flights of wines if you just want to sample different ones.
As I look back, I feel that the time spent these two days becoming educated and learning how to taste wine has made me a more appreciative and knowledgeable wine drinker. I seem to enjoy drinking different types of wine now more than ever.