The Best Vines in Argentina: Malbec and Cabernet Franc

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The serenity in the air buzzes with an undercurrent of excitement.  We are in the small hamlet of Chacras de Coria, located just 20 miles south of Mendoza and nestled right in the heart of Argentina’s most prominent and burgeoning wine country.  Best known for the magic they spin with the malbec grape, it takes very little time to discover that there is so much more to Mendoza than Malbec.
Don’t misunderstand.  There is an ethereal quality to their deep-ruby-red golden child.  But as we set out for our five days in Argentinian paradise we were met with such enthusiasm, such grace and an eagerness to share this culture, the backbone of which is food and wine, that we knew we had stumbled upon a place that is only beginning to make it’s mark on the world.  Humble savants, the people of Mendoza are everything you’d look for in a friend.  And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they have such amazing and artful food and wine to share…

 

Our cottage at Casa Glebinias

 

Our time in Mendoza would not have been the same without the hospitality and warm embrace of Alberto and Maria, the owners of a small collection of cottages set upon beautiful and lush grounds, a canopy of trees offering welcome shade from the summer sun.  Casa Glebinias was outstanding.  It is the one place in the world where I most wish to return.

 

Casa Glebinias

 

Maria and Alberto offer peace and tranquility in a variety of forms.  The fruit studded trees throughout the property made for delicious homemade jams, delivered to our room every morning, quietly and discreetly, with a mug of hot coffee, fresh breads and tea.  Lounging by the pool was the perfect activity after a day of wine touring and tasting and we met our few fellow guests (it houses, at the most, 20 lucky visitors) two couples from New York and a small group of friends from Denmark.

 

Casa Glebinias

 

We divided our time in Chacras de Coria and Mendoza between two full days of wine tours and leisurely walks through the city streets, easily settling into the relaxing pace of life.  Mendoza is medium in size and bustling.  A large park sits in the center of the town, the perimeter dotted with locals selling their wares.

Like Buenos Aires, there are trees everywhere – tall, lush and gracious trees which thrive due to the extensive irrigation system winding through the city.  We would find these canals running the length of the main street in Chacras as well and we learned they were constructed to ensure the trees would flourish and that the grapes for their beloved wine would be treated to the optimum conditions.  It left me a bit unsure of my footing from time to time and there may or may not have been an incident where Z fell into a four-foot deep canal… needless to say, we quickly learned to keep alert.

 

Irrigation canals in Mendoza’s city center

As a preview of what was to come during our wine excursions, we stopped off at the Vines of Mendoza tasting room, located in Mendoza’s city center.  We sampled a flight of Malbecs and a flight of other varietals.  I adore tasting wines side by side and I find there is no better way to detect distinct flavors and qualities than when contrasting one wine against another.  Their tasting room was absolutely idyllic and I highly recommend a stop when you plan your Mendoza adventure.

The Vines of Mendoza tasting room

 

With Mendoza a twenty minute drive from our home at Casa Glebinias, we spent the majority of our time exploring the tiny village of Chacras, a quiet community known as a foodie-haven and an ideal base for wine country adventures.  A short, irrigation-canal-lined stroll from Casa Glebinias would bring us to a lightly populated center of town, restaurants and bars humming, drawing you in with the promise of beautifully prepared local food served with elegant wine from the town’s own vines.  A far cry from the big-city nightlife of Buenos Aires, Chacras allowed us to take our relaxed, peaceful mentality built by the calm days, into the night.  As quiet as it was however they didn’t stray from the tradition of eating late and you would be hard pressed to find anyone, local at least, beginning dinner before 10pm. For us that translated to more exploring, starting off around seven or eight with cocktails and small bites at one restaurant and then moving on to dinner at the local’s hour.

 

Curried Apple Soup with Carrot Foam – Nadia O.F., Chacras de Coria

 

Our most memorable dinner in Chacras de Coria was courtesy of Nadia O.F.  Affiliated with the O.Fournier Winery (you may be familiar with their line of Urban Uco wines), Nadia’s menu changes with the season and we were treated to a five course meal with wine pairings under a canopy of Mendoza stars (make sure you ask to sit on the back patio – it is a beautiful experience).  We began with a curried apple soup topped with carrot foam, complex yet light, a delightful way to kick our tastebuds into gear.  It was followed by a powerfully delicate beef tartar, mustard seeds bringing punch to the silky beef.  This was one of my favorite bites of our entire Argentina adventure.  A delight.

 

Beef Tartar – Nadia O.F., Chacras de Coria

 

Braised oxtail ravioli in a malbec reduction made up my entree course and I couldn’t have been happier with the selection, the concentrated flavors of the malbec sauce pairing perfectly with the tender, rich oxtail meat.  Nadia’s was fantastic from start to finish and an incredible value at only $35 USD/each TOTAL, including our wine pairings.  I almost felt guilty paying so little for such an experience.  I can’t wait to dine on Nadia’s patio again someday.

 

Braised Oxtail Ravioli in a Malbec Reduction – Nadia O.F.. Chacras de Coria

 

Mendoza the city is beautiful and full of life.  Chacras de Coria is quaint and straight from a storybook. You never want to leave.  But what had truly called us to this very specific corner of the world was WINE.  Do you need a better reason?  Malbec is the grape most associated with Argentina and rightfully so… it flourishes here, all of the stars aligning to transform this fruit into Malbec at it’s very, very best.  But do not make the mistake of assuming that Malbec is born of Argentina.  It is actually one of the five primary grapes of Bordeaux, France.  These antique vines were brought to Mendoza by the French and took quick root.  You have a sense that, as long as they have been making wine here, the process of refining it is still a relatively new concept in comparison to the ancient viniculture of the French, Italians and Spaniards.  The people of Argentina, Mendoza specifically, have embraced their land and the grapes they are growing with a strong, lasting grasp.  This passion and excitement has resulted in world-class wine and we couldn’t wait to get lost in it all.

 

Tasting wine at Mendel

 

We had arranged for two full days of wine tours and had signed on with Trout and Wine, a local tour company specializing in vineyard experiences, to make sure we had a varied and well-rounded itinerary.  Both days spent with Trout and Wine and our fellow travelers were more than we could have hoped.  Our guides were both born and raised in Mendoza and knew their culture and wine through and through.

 

Every bottle at Mendel is labeled by hand

 

Our very first stop was at Mendel, the morning sun just hitting it’s resting point, a low breeze whisking through the vines.  Our tour guide from Mendel kicked things off with a walk through the grapes, painting us a picture in terms so eloquent, so beautiful, that I wish I had them on record.  She told us about their belief that the vines are mothers, the large and expansive leaves embracing and protecting the baby grapes.  Our guide plucked a plum red grape from the vine and gently squeezed it between her fingers, a clear and glistening juice running down her hand.  “All wine is clear, it is the contact with the skin of the grape that gives it the color.”  I know this may seem like an entirely obvious item of note but, for me, it was eye opening.  It was here that I understood what ‘Blanc de Noir’ meant – white from black… a term associated with Champagne.  We all have ‘aha’ moments and this was one of mine.  Mendel’s methods proved to be highly traditional and on a small scale, every grape hand picked from the vine, each bottle labeled with care.  It was the perfect introduction to wine country.

 

Tasting the wine of Bodega Terrazas

 

The day moved right along from there with stops at Terrazas and Benegas.  Terrazas sat in stark contrast to Mendel, dwarfing their small-scale production with a large distribution facility filled with the latest and greatest in viniculture equipment.  Terrazas can be found in many large liquor stores as well as on restaurant menus throughout the US, a solid ‘go-to’ option for me in many instances.  Benegas is known not for their Malbec but for their Cabernet Franc, the grapes for this wine growing on 80 year old vines.  The family of Benegas is credited with bringing the first French grapes to Argentina and their collection of Argentinian wine artifacts was beautiful.

 

Seviche at Club Tapiz

 

The highlight of the day – and one of the highlights of my trip – came at lunch.  We pulled up to Club Tapiz and were allowed a chance to wander their grounds before we were treated to a tasting of their olive oil and a tour of their olive house.  Our hunger sparked, we moved to a second level terrace, a long feasting table awaiting our arrival.  Four courses with wine pairings followed, every single bite and sip pure bliss.  The seviche course was gentle but acidic, the crunch of the peppers adding just the right kick of texture.  It was the porterhouse steak that stole my heart however, leading me to proclaim without any hesitation that this was THE BEST steak I had EVER had… Z had met his in Buenos Aires and mine had been waiting for me in Mendoza.  It was rich, tender and cooked exactly to my liking.  A dream.

 

The BEST STEAK EVER at Club Tapiz
A day of serenity by the pool at Casa Glebinias coupled with a leisurely stroll to the center of Chacras and a healthy dose of traditional Argentinian fare, left us well rested and prepared for a second day on the Mendoza wine trail.  We had stayed relatively close to the Mendoza heartland during our first venture with Trout and Wine but today we planned to head toward the Andes and a region of Mendoza known as the Uco Valley.  Sitting at the foot of the Andes, the Uco Valley is visually stunning, a panoramic scene offering a view vast and varied, the jagged peaks of the mountain a backdrop of enormous proportions.

We began the day at Pulenta, an elegant and relatively modern winery, where they treated us to a tasting  that explored all of our senses.  Upon seating we were quickly blindfolded, small glasses of unknown objects placed in our hands.  We were instructed to identify the items by smell alone, a warm up for our palates and a great exercise in defining specific scents and fragrances generally associated with wine.  Pulenta’s Malbec was among my favorite sips of our trip and our walk through their open-air production line was beautiful.

 

La Azul, a garagista winery in Mendoza’s Uco Valley

 

Twenty minutes later we would find ourselves that much closer to the mountains, a small box of a building set against the sky.  Bodega Azul falls into the category of ‘garagista winery’, literally translating to ‘garage winery.’  It looked like little else than that until you walked in this humble but great abode, a very limited number of oak barrels lining the walls.  From the sorting of the grapes to the sealing of the cork, every step of making Azul’s wine takes place under this small roof.  The wine, particularly their Malbec, was thoughtful and rich.  Our guide from Bodega Azul was shy, a blush splashing over his face as he talked about the traditional French techniques they use when making their wine (like adding egg whites during the aging process to remove impurities).  He watched us with a quiet intensity as we tasted his wine, highly interested in our thoughts on his creation.  “He cares only for what the every-day person thinks of his wine” said our friend from Trout and Wine “He is making wine for us to love, not to win awards.”  His intentions and his show of love were evident with every sip.

Our final stop on our final day in Mendoza was at Bodega Salentein, a large and vast vineyard with contemporary sculptures dotting the landscape.  We tasted several wines by Salentein, sitting amongst hundreds of barrels in a vaulted, circular room, before moving outdoors for a multi-course feast.  We ate food from the gardens that surrounded us and shared wine-filled laughter with our guide and new-found friends.  A toast was raised and we gave thanks for the bounty Mendoza had provided us.
A bunch of grapes at Bodega Salentein

As we drove away from Bodega Salentein I gazed out of the window, watching the rays of the sun slice through the sky, cutting into the earth with the precision of a knife.  Our time in Mendoza left me feeling deeply connected to the land, the bounty it offered us over this five day span a treasure I will never, ever forget.  I left Mendoza energized, thrilled, and bursting with fulfillment and gratitude for it’s people and for this country.

Nothing in my travels has effected me as intensely and I am hard pressed to imagine ever feeling this strongly connected to any other place.  The drive and love for travel that Argentina instilled in Z and I will continue to propel us forward, living life to what we believe to be the fullest.  The next stop?  Croatia and Slovenia!  I can hardly wait.

Lindsey McClave
Lindsey McClave has a deep love for food, wine and travel. While she has no intentions of becoming a chef or a sommelier and doesn't consider herself an expert in any culinary area, she is obsessed with learning.

She says, "the one thing I've taken away from my wine travels is that wine is meant for everyone - rich, poor, and everywhere in-between.” Whatever cooking becomes to you, she encourages you to find that foodie place, embrace it and run with it.
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