Insider Argentina: Where to Sip Wine in Mendoza, Salta & More

Not only is Argentina a country full of dramatic terrain that, north to south, spans nearly the same width of the United States, it's home to some spectacular wines, too. And while most of us think of South American vino as "New World," it's a place full of old-world influence -- it's famous grape, Malbec, hails from Bordeaux -- where tending vines dates all the way back to the 16th century.
Argentina is also a place that's been big on my hit-list for travel this year. I was lucky enough to sit down with Laura Catena, a fourth-generation owner of the great Argentine producer, Bodega Catena Zapata ( Catena poured out a whole magnum's worth of insider tips on what to sip, see, and savor there. Catena also just came out with a book on the topic: Vino Argentino, part travelogue and part Argentine wine-primer.

Q:  When a lot of imbibers think of Argentina, they think of Mendoza as the heart of wine country there. But it seems like there's a lot beyond that to explore. How can a first-time traveler to Argentina narrow down all the great possibilities for vineyard hopping?

A: Mendoza produces 70% of all the wine made in Argentina and has several different regions, which are hours apart.  Remember -- the province of Mendoza is half the size of Italy and there are over 1,000 wineries in Mendoza province alone.  

Another confusing fact: the capital city of every province in Argentina has the same name as the province. That is why when people refer to Mendoza, they could mean either the whole province or the city of Mendoza. You could easily spend several weeks just getting to know the different regions within Mendoza province.

I would probably go to Mendoza (City) for a whole week and stay downtown for 2-3 days, where there's a great flea market on Sundays. Ask your hotel to hire you a car with a driver -- it costs the same as renting a car, about $100 per day.  Then, you could go for a two- to three-night stay in Chacras de Coria, a suburb about 20 minutes from downtown Mendoza where there's some really wonderful B&Bs with swimming pools. Finca Adalgisa is one of my favorites.  

From Chacras de Coria, you are close to all the wineries in Lujan de Cuyo, which include Catena Zapata, Dominio del Plata, Cheval des Andes, Achaval Ferrer, Norton, etc, as well as to the wineries in Vistalba: Alta Vista, Vistalba (great restaurant at this winery, very fancy, called La Bourgogne). Then you can head to Tupungato and visit a few wineries on your way to La Consulta further south, where [you should] spend one to two days visiting the area wineries and hanging out in the very quaint towns of La Consulta or the bigger Tupungato (almost no foreigners in these towns). 

Another option is to go to Mendoza for a week. Head back to Buenos Aires and from there, fly to Salta province in the north (about a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Buenos Aires).  It's a long drive -- four hours -- from downtown Salta city to Cafayate, the city center of the most famous wine producing region here, but there are buses several times a day.  And Salta is a gorgeous colonial town with interesting museums, parks and fantastic food.

When you get to Salta, I would recommend staying two days in Salta city, then renting a car and driving down to Cafayate for two days (staying at the luxurious Patios de Cafayate), tasting at the nearby wineries, and then heading up north to Donald Hess' Colome winery, which has a museum, a luxury lodge, a wonderful restaurant and a solar-heated swimming pool on premises. Be prepared to drive in tiny roads filled with potholes. Then you've got about a four-hour drive back to Salta city so this whole itinerary would take about six days.

Patagonia is also an option, but the variety of things to see in the wine country -- restaurants, wineries and hotels -- is much greater in Mendoza and Salta.  This is because the wine country in Patagonia is in the middle of nowhere, a four- to six-hour drive from the snow-capped Andes Mountains.

Q:  Argentina is really well known for its Malbec, but what other varietals grown there do you think people should seek out?

A: In Mendoza, the two main varietals are Malbec and Bonarda.  Bonarda is a very fruit forward red grape with nice acidity; reminds me of a Dolcetto [from Piedmont, Italy], but a little denser. There's not a lot of Bonarda exported, so it's a fun grape to get to know while you are in Argentina. I would highly recommend my brother's wine, Tikal Patriota, which is a Malbec-Bonarda blend.  

Another shining star, especially in Mendoza, is Cabernet Sauvignon. The U.S. is so focused on Malbec from Argentina right now that few people know that Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in Argentina for over 150 years and that some of Argentina's top wines are Cabernet Sauvignon-based. Chardonnay from Argentina is made in a highly aromatic and mineral style that is derived from the high altitude; if you are a Chardonnay drinker and you haven't tried Argentine Chardonnay before, you will be pleasantly surprised. For Argentina's native varietal, try the Torrontes from Salta, which is floral, almost Riesling-like, but dry. You will become addicted!  I always have a chilled bottle of Torrontes in the fridge, because when I want it no other wine can replace the craving.

Q:  Do tasting rooms generally charge a fee?

A: Some do, some don't.  But the better wineries usually do tours by appointment (schedule it a few weeks in advance if you are going to Argentina in February-March). I would recommend doing the paid visit because you will taste much better wines for a small fee.

Q:  What food experiences should a visitor absolutely not miss in Argentina? Where are some of the best spots to experience these things? What's your favorite Argentine-centric wine and food pairing?

A: In Mendoza, I wouldn't miss Francis Mallmann's 1884 restaurant. The outdoor patio is my favorite place to eat at in the world. But the most exciting food in Argentina is in Buenos Aires. You can check my book for a list of favorites or take a look at a website that I made to help out friends and friends of friends going to Argentina:   

The foods that I wouldn't miss are:

-- A full asado with the whole grill laid in front of you. Don't skip the black blood sausage and the Argentine chorizo. You can have this at any of the parrilla steakhouses in Buenos Aires; try Las Lilas or La Dorita.  My recommended wine pairing is Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec.

-- Empanadas. There are places called empanaderias that are the empanada equivalent of a pizzeria, with multiple flavors of empanadas offered.  My favorites are meat empanadas (try with Bonarda), roquefort empanadas (with Chardonnay), corn empanadas (with Torrontes), ham and cheese empanadas (with sparkling Malbec; Alma Negra sparkling rose is a favorite of mine).

-- Panqueques de dulce de leche (dulce de leche pancakes) -- the best dessert in the world; try with a sparkling white or the Rutini Sauternes-style vin doux.

-- Pasta. Argentines are 60% of Italian descent, so the pasta in Argentina is extraordinary.  Il Matterello in La Boca is a great pasta place; make sure you have a reservation.

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