Flying from Santiago to Mendoza during their springtime is a short but picturesque and memorable flight. Imagine coasting along above the scenic Andes Mountains, still lustrously adorned with snow. Stepping off the plane takes you to a different place, when a blast of heat from the brightly shining sun above caresses your skin and draws you closer to their warmth of place, people and engaging world of wine:
Bodegas Melipal: This stunning, family owned winery is located just outside the city of Mendoza in the Lujan du Cujo wine region. Their site boasts inspiring, expansive views of the Andes Mountains; and this is just the beginning of the impressive property. With their elevation at 958 meters above sea level, they benefit from the sun’s intensity and deeply rooted vines (some up to 86 years old). They control every aspect of winemaking meticulously, from the dense planting of the fruit, to the management of the vines, to the hand picking of the berries in the vineyard, through the sorting, bottling and labeling the finished product by hand as well. Melipal comes from the Mapuche Indian language and represents the name of the constellation characterizing the Southern Hemisphere: The Southern Cross (“4 stars, 4 points of light that guides us” can be seen throughout the winery. Here are some of my favorites:
Melipal 2008 Malbec Rose: Here is a dazzling example of a dry rose full of character and pizzazz. Cranberry and pomegranate on the nose, with the fruitiness carrying through on the palate alongside loads of depth and acidity bringing it into full balance. Irresistible!
Melipal 2006 Malbec: Juicy plumy aromas greet the nose, followed by dark chocolate, plum and black raspberry notes expanding on the palate. Well balanced with a playful kick of oak from the six months of American oak aging adding to its charm.
Melipal 2006 Malbec Reserva: Hold onto your hats, this is a whopper of a wine. Blackberry cordial fills the nose with accompanying hints of leather; and dense blackberry and creme de cassis unfold boldly with alluring spices and pretty oak notes interweaving seductively on the palate. Complexity and firmly structured tannins clearly suggest age worthiness. For full enjoyment, decant if you can’t wait!
Bodegas Salentein: In the Uco Valley at the foot of the Andes you will find this winery, perched at about 1200 meters above sea level. Prior to a walk among well groomed vineyards with vast views of the Andes which lead to the winery, you must take time to appreciate the eye-catching gallery and spectacular art collection displayed here. Moving on to the winery, which also boasts magnificent architecture, you’ll find a dramatic design in the shape of a cross, which allows minimal distances for the wine to be moved during their scrupulous winemaking processes. Each of the extensions of the cross have two levels allowing grapes to be gently treated utilizing a gravity fed system. The upper level contains the stainless steel tanks and French wooden vats for fermentation and storage; and an artfully presented underground level showcases the oak barrels for aging the wine and fills your senses with ever so wonderful barrel room aromas. They also have eight welcoming guest rooms inside two original countryside houses, truly a spectacular property. Now about the excellent wines:
Salentein 2008 El Portillo Malbec Rose: Inviting raspberry and strawberry fill the nose and the flavors prevail on the palate surrounded by a nice citrus, lime peel accent. Bright and impeccably balanced, and so easy to quaff.
Salentein 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: Black olive essence on the nose, with intense flavors of cassis, herbs, red currant, a splash of coffee and a nice texture filling the mouth. A firm tannic backbone and a persistent finish that caps it off beautifully.
Salentein 2006 Malbec Reserve: Brooding with dark black fruits and a touch of iron greeting the nose. A bit restrained right now, with blackberry and plums at the core that interplay with notes of steely minerality and dustiness. I expect this well crafted Malbec to open up more fully with a few years additional aging.
Salentein 2004 Pinot Noir: Alluring smokiness and dried cherry in the nose beg you to take the first sip; and you will be glad you did. Ethereal on the palate with cherry, cola, licorice weaving a delectable combination of flavors. Nice acidity too; exquisitely balanced.
Salentein 2004 Numina: This handsomely structured blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Merlot bursts of dense blueberries in the nose and upon entry; and continues to broaden on mid palate with flavors of plums, black pepper, coffee laced with spices and a distinctive thread of minerality. Deeply layered and complex with firm tannins; this wine is drinking beautifully now, and promises to age gracefully through the years.
Bodegas Altus is located in Tupungato, where the lush vineyards are framed by the beautiful Andes mountain range. Their exclusive bistro serves deliciously prepared regional dishes paired beautifully with their Altus line of wines:
Altus 2006 Chardonnay: Stony, mineral characteristics and lively citrus fruit in the nose (reminiscent of Chablis), this wine aged in 30% new American oak spends two months on the lees, and showcases a lovely purity of fresh crisp apple fruitiness and a dash of spice from start to finish. Clean, fresh and balanced; a lovely food pairing wine.
Altus 2006 Torrontes: Lovely floral aromas and a nice minerality to this bright, clean, 100% stainless steel crafted Torrontes. The florality persists across the palate, with a core of stone fruit and honeysuckle. Fresh and ever so expressive with a satisfying finish.
Altus 2004 Syrah: This spot on Syrah opens with distinctive roasted meaty aromas, then unfolds onto the palate with dense, dark berries and a pleasurable earthiness sharing the limelight on the palate. Nicely balanced with judicious use of French oak that adds complexity and depth. Gripping tannins speak volumes to this wine’s ageability.
Altus 2007 Malbec: Aromas of freshly crushed blackberries tease the nose and lead to a round mouthful of juicy, spice infused black and red berries. The purity of fruit nestled alongside the smooth velvety tannins really shines through. Finishes clean with a nice oak accent.
Vina Cobos: An ultra modern, state of the art facility in Tupangato, Vina Cobos is the creation of Andrea Marchiori, Luis Barraud and Paul Hobbs. They combine their passion, and enology experience to create their vision in a glass. Their goal is to achieve the purest, most genuine expression of the vineyards; and one of the ways they achieve this is by limiting the yield for maximum concentration and complexity. My favorites include:
El Felino 2007 Chardonnay: Enticing buttered toast dominates the nose; followed by baked, spiced pear and oak notes on the palate. The malolactic fermentation gives this Chard a creamy, butter quality from entry through the lingering finish.
2005 Bramare Lujan 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Lujan de Cujo appellation reveals licorice and dried herbs on the nose. The palate shows off firm tannins framing spice, cassis and wild berries. Characteristic coconut overtones from American oak aging add another dimension to this full bodied Cabernet.
2005 Bramare MV Marchiori Cabernet Sauvignon: Port-like aromatics waft from the glass, and ripe, concentrated fruit, spicy cloves and inviting coffee nuances swirl about enticingly on the palate. Firmly structured with muscular tannins suggesting a long life ahead.
2005 Vina Cobos Malbec Marchiori Vineyard 100% Malbec: Their top of the line wine at Vina Cobos is an impressive Malbec aged in 100% new French oak. It exhibits a dark inky hue and tantalizing aromas full of blackberries and forest floor nuances. Lush and full bodied on the palate with layers of dense wild berries, licorice and spice. Rich and smooth with perfectly integrated oak and an everlasting finish.
Bodegas Benegas: Juliette, our energetic and knowledgeable tour guide here in the Lujan de Cujo region provided fascinating insight into the passion of the Benegas family. Owner Frederico Benegas Lynch (fourth generation) was born here, and returned to the property in 1998, buying 40 hectares of Finca Libertad (an old Benegas family property). Their property, known as El Trapiche, was founded by Tibarcio Benegas in 1883. The winery is one of the few historic relics remaining from the “old” Mendoza. The adobe building is adorned with furnishings and decor that reflect the history here, including one of the largest poncho collections in the country. The winery comprises a stone underground cave where the naturally controlled environment keeps the temperature stable year round; ideal for storing casks, barrels and bottles of wine. Their Libertad vineyard is located at the slopes of the Andes Mountains in the Maipu region, adjacent to the Upper Mendoza River at the southeast corner of Cruz de Piedra. The Benegas family realized the climate and soil were perfectly suited for cultivating grape vines; which now range in age from 20 to 80 years old. Here is a peak of a few of their remarkable wines:
Benegas 2005 Reserve Malbec: this stunning 100% Malbec opens with beckoning aromas of black cherry, blackberry and herbs and leads assuredly into a rich, expansive mouthful of plumy, berry, cherry compote accented with spice, herbs and a nice thread of oak. Well crafted with round sweet tannins and a lengthy finish.
Benegas 2005 Cabernet Franc: From 85 year old vines, here is a classic Cabernet Franc. The earthy, green pepper nose is followed by minerality, dark berry, eucalyptus and herbaceous notes that create a beautiful mosaic of flavors. Bold, chalky tannins suggest excellent ageability as well.
Benegas 2005 Meritage: A beautifully crafted blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 5% Petite Verdot begins with bell pepper and currants on the nose and gains depth and complexity on the palate with raspberry, cassis, brown spices and chocolate notes blending harmoniously. This luscious wine will continue to age gracefully, if you can manage to put it down!
Finca Decero: Approaching the property a traditional exterior comes into view; and upon entry, a striking modern facility was unveiled. Eugenia provided a warm and inviting welcome, as she shared thoughtful details about the winery and the dedicated focus and passion of the owners and staff. At Finca Decero their motto is “single vineyard wines crafted from scratch.” With their uncompromising winemaking practices and their amano (by hand) approach, along with their respect and care for each and every vine, their success shines clearly in their wines:
Finca Decero 2006 Reserve Malbec: Greeting the nose is an abundance of freshly crushed blackberries with a hint of oak meandering through the decadent fruitiness. Flavors of black cherry, dense blackberry, spices and subtle oak notes follow through seamlessly on the palate. Full bodied, well balanced and fresh with soft silky tannins and a memorable finish; everything you look for in a polished Argentina Malbec – a beauty!
Finca Decero 2006 Reserve Merlot: Welcoming aromas of clove, berry and black olive lead to decadent, concentrated fruit. Essence of warm blueberry pie laced with plenty of spice broadens fully and expressively on the palate. Exceedingly elegant with pleasing, velvety tannins.
Finca Decero 2006 Reserve Petite Verdot: More often used as a blending grape, here is a shining example of a stand alone Petite Verdot. Beautiful florality in the nose temptingly beckons you into the glass, and wow, it does not disappoint. Richly textured with black fruits, soy and anise notes that spin deliciously on the palate. Clean and balanced with an opulence that persists through the pretty finish.
Mendel Winery, located in the Lujan de Cujo, Mendoza, Argentina, was established in 2003 by Roberto de la Mota and the Sielecki family. Winemakers Roberto de la Mota and Santiago Boaknin focus their passion on Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are meticulously made here from ancient 80 year old vines that are tended to by hand with great care, and yield a low 2 tons per hectare. Our knowledgeable tour guide Stephie added that as sandy soils can result in a high reflection of the sun, the grassy area between the vines helps to moderate the impact of the sun on the grapes. The adobe building on the property proudly lays claim to plenty of charm and character; and the wines are very impressive:
Mendel 2007 Malbec: This 100% Malbec opens with dense dark blackberries on the nose and expands on the palate with generous rich black fruits accented with spice, anise, a dash of oak, and pretty, approachable tannins. The perfectly ripe fruit creases a beautiful viscosity and texture, and showcases a lovely elegance through the finish.
Mendel 2006 Unus: This suave, polished blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon boasts aromas of licorice and black cherry in the nose; and juicy fruit explodes on the palate. Here again, perfect ripeness is evident capturing optimal flavors (clearly not over-ripe). Sixteen months in new oak adds a pleasing splash of toast and hint of vanilla that nicely accentuate the fruit.
Mendel 2007 Unus: This vintage, again a 70% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon blend, although a bit more restrained aromatically, showcases a nice florality and cassis with aeration. Once it hits your palate, it opens up to a cornucopia of flavors including cassis, black plums, blueberry, eucalyptus and subtle green pepper notes. Intense, complex and beautifully textured with a silky mouth feel, and plenty of tannins to go the distance. Best to age a year or two; but if you cannot resist opening it now, decant this beauty to gain even more appreciation.
Mendel 2006 Finca Remota: This 100% single vineyard Malbec comes from the relatively small Alta Mira Vineyard, and opens with enticing violety floral notes and sweet fruit and a hint of tobacco. On the palate, chocolate and caramel notes weave delectably through the dense juicy layers of dark berry, cherry cordial and raspberry; and a dash of tobacco - screams Argentina Malbec at its best. Intensely structured with firm tannins, this wine promises plenty of ageability; likely beyond 10 years!
Domaine St. Diego: Located in Lunlunta, Maipu (in the province of Mendoza), we were welcomed warmly at Domaine St. Diego, and touched by the history that our host Natalia shared. This closely knit family owned and operated winery was named after family member Diego; who sadly died in his teenage years in an unfortunate mountain accident. The family pays tribute to Diego with passion and love. Their property in Maipu encompasses 25 hectares, producing 35 to 40 thousand bottles each year. Their Malbec vineyard is 100 years old, and they turned the land previously producing berries into Chardonnay vineyards 20 years ago. The eye pleasing retaining walls, made of hand placed stones, are impressively crafted and remind visitors of their labor of love here. In Argentina, irrigation is not totally under the power of the land owner, as the government controls water usage. Depending on what they are allowed, they either irrigate via flooding the vineyard, or by utilizing a drip irrigation system. Natalia explains they typically trip to 20 buds per vine here. Their wines are not exported, 100% of their products are enjoyed locally in Argentina. In addition to their focus on vineyards, they also produce wonderful, intensely flavored olive oil from their Arauco olive trees. Their olive oil is not pressed, explains Natalia, but produced with a centrifugal force process; special indeed! Now onto my favorites here:
San Diego 2008 Rose Elsa Sparkling: A unique sparkling wine made from 100% Malbec grapes. Utilizing the unique RURAL processing (no added sugar is allowed), this crown capped bottle with a vibrant hue of pomegranate juice is beautifully bright and clean. Designed to drink now, here is a very refreshing sipper for warm summer days.
San Diego 2004 Pure Sangre (translated in English as “pure blood”): A delightful blend of 80% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, here is an easy to quaff, well balanced wine with aromas and flavors of vanilla infused fresh berries alongside a nice thread of licorice. Aged in 50% French oak and 50% American oak, this wine is soft and elegant with a subtle touch of oak, and finishes with a burst of berries.
Bodega Cruzat: Hosts Pedro Rosell and Cristian Allamand provided a lively and informative visit to Bodega Cruzat, located in Pedriel in Mendoza, Argentina. We learned this sparkling endeavor also had the creativity of Chilean experts including well known wine professional Pedro Grand, whom we met in Chile recently. Cruzat is producing Natural, Rose and Brut sparkling wines from grapes grown in the Uco Valley. They have an impressive new sparkling wine facility, showcasing very tall tanks which maximize cooling. They leave the wine on the lees for over 1.5 years to gain greater character and complexity – which is illustrated clearly in their elegant sparkling wines:
Natural: This 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay sparkling wine opens with almond paste and brioche notes. Delicious zesty grapefruit and lovely fresh baked bread yeastiness dominate on the palate, well balanced with beautiful acidity.
Rose: From the effusive and enticing strawberries in the nose to the delectable strawberries and cream and notes of stone fruit on the palate, this 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay sparkler has a yummy, creamy texture. With its lower acidity (compared to the brut), it is soft and gentle on the palate, yet quite expressive in its own right. Easy to quaff, with a pleasurable finish.
Brut: Made from 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, this Brut boasts citrus and lime zest and a lovely minerality in the nose. Intensely structured and focused on the palate, lively with tiny bubbles and chalky minerality, citrus, subtle crisp apple notes and a hint of angostura bitters on the finish. Beautiful!
Achaval Ferrer: From their beginning ten years ago; their focus has been to maximize the expression of their terroir; and Malbec continues to be their flagship wine. They also produce Quimera, a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, coming from different regions. Grapes come from vines in cultivated in Lujan, Medrano and the Uco Valley, and they range in age up to 100 years old; which supports the complexity of the wines:
2006 Quimara: This blend of 34% old vine Malbec from Lujan de Cujo, 32% Merlot from Tupungato, 22% old vine Cabernet Sauvignon from Medrano, and 12% Cab Franc from Tupungato greets the nose full of forest floor and wild berries, which continue seamlessly on the palate along with spice and dried berries. Layered and complex, with firmly structured tannins.
A barrel sample of the 2008 Finca Altamura 100% Malbec from old vines in the Uco Valley promises a dense, full bodied wine with plenty of depth and complexity. Herbal notes are showing in the nose, and the palate displays a core of dense dark concentrated berry and spice, surrounded by toasted creme brulee topping and caramel tones. A huge backbone of tannins that have yet to come into harmony, but should do so gloriously in time.
Dolce: Made from 100% Malbec grapes dried in the sun to raisins, this sweet wine is simply delicious. Layer upon layer of chocolate, toffee, mince meat pie, raisin tart, coffee and fresh sweet figs, ending with a delightful orange peel note; wow. Who needs dessert -it’s all here in the glass!
Argentina offers a plethora of joy in the realm of viticulture. You should go see for yourself; it’s more than just impressive Malbec, but even that is enough of a reason to visit.