Walking through a vineyard in Argentina’s Uco Valley near Mendoza one morning, I ran into Michel Rolland, the world’s most renowned and controversial winemaker. Dressed like a rancher in 501’s, boots, and a button-down shirt, a leather hat sheltering his creased face, he was striding between rows of vines as a cadre of supplicants hung on every word. The villain of the polemic movie Mondovino, which portrays him as a formulaic opportunist who ignores the vicissitudes of place, Rolland is a consultant to more than 100 producers across the continents, from Bangalore to Howell Mountain. His wines do tend to have common characteristics—lush fruit, velvety mouthfeel, and a purple-black color like the darkness of a well—but those characteristics are prized by countless consumers, including the oracular Robert Parker.
In Argentina, Rolland is the part-owner and driving force behind Clos de los Siete, a project unlike any I’ve seen. On 2,100 acres of previously unplanted land, he and five partner families have created a vineyard the size of a university. The partners contribute grapes to a million-bottle blend made by Rolland, and they’ve each built signature facilities in the midst of the vines to produce their own brands. These are major names like Rothschild and Dassault, and they’ve invested heavily.
Clos de los Siete is the most striking of the new enterprises springing up around Mendoza, a city of 110,000 nestled against the Andes, but it’s only one of dozens. Wine-making talent and investment money have been streaming in from Europe and beyond, dramatically altering Argentina’s vinous landscape with hundreds of acres of new vineyards, several dozen new wineries, and entire categories of new wines. With that have come ambitious restaurants and stylish hotels, the trappings of a wine region that draws well-heeled travelers. Many are Americans, which shouldn’t be surprising. We’re drinking twice as much Argentinean wine today as we did three years ago, an astonishing rise. And Mendoza, where the dollar carries far more heft than in Margaux or Montalcino, sits just far enough off the beaten path to feel novel but not precarious.
The last time I visited the country, in 1995, the vast majority of its bodegas were making rough, uninteresting wine for the domestic market, and Mendoza felt like an Argentinean version of the Wild West. The winemakers spoke only Spanish, had barely traveled, wore overalls, and stubbornly ignored modern enological techniques. They had even less of a connection with the great wine regions of the world than their wines did.
But Argentina has always had a love affair with Western Europe; you can’t get out of the airport in Buenos Aires without hearing how charmingly European you’re sure to find that city. Returning now, I had the sense that a wine region had been pulled from the Pyrenees or the Dolomites and dropped into this panoramic setting of jagged peaks and cloudless skies. I met with Frenchmen, Italians, and Spaniards, and drank bottle after bottle of the fruits of their labors that I knew would sell well around the world. “Today, you can taste 400 good wines in Argentina,” Rolland told me. “That was hardly the case even 10 years ago. Maybe we [Europeans] helped them go faster.”
Everywhere I went, I saw further evidence of this transcontinental drift. At the baronial complex that houses the Bodega Vistalba winery, I ate the cuisine of renowned Burgundian chef Jean-Paul Bondoux: sautéed sweetbreads, medallions of rabbit, and other standards of his Gallic upbringing. At Cheval des Andes—a spin-off of the celebrated Bordeaux château Cheval Blanc—I toured cellars stocked with Krug and Dom Pérignon. In the Uco Valley, I gaped at a strikingly modern winery complex, Bodegas Salentein, founded by a Dutch tycoon. It includes a lavish art museum and a gift shop that sells a $750 set of wine aromatics in thimble-size vials.
All of these properties have overseas connections and high-end cuvées that sport impressive scores from U.S. critics. None of them had existed when I’d passed through before. Yet in many ways, Mendoza still felt like the same rather primitive mountain town. Sidewalks were punctuated by cracks and potholes. Many roads remained unpaved. As I drove up to the dramatic Bodega Catena Zapata winery, built to resemble a Mayan temple, I was surprised to see cars blanketed by dust, like at a cattle ranch. Then I stepped out of my own car and realized it looked the same.
Remarkably for a city its size, Mendoza has a Park Hyatt—one of just 25 in the world. One night, I dined on the terrace in Plaza Independencia, its Spanish-colonial façade lit from below, and saw the stark dissonance of Mendoza’s past and future play out before me. I’d just arrived when two dozen contestants in Mendoza’s Queen of the Wine Harvest pageant, outfitted in off-white dresses that draped from their shoulders like togas, emerged from the hotel and crossed to the plaza in a blizzard of smiles. Turning to my right, I could have been in the midst of the pampas, watching villagers gather to celebrate their autumn. To my left, I had risotto in pea cream and a bottle of internationally styled Malbec. I paid the bill just as the fair-haired Candela Carrasco was crowned the winner, and an amateurish but gloriously earnest round of fireworks was launched. It was the highlight of the evening.
My hotel, Cavas Wine Lodge, did its best to knit together Mendoza’s disparate halves. Accessible only by a dirt road and set in the midst of a working vineyard, it has contemporary casitas, the walls of which are rounded like mushrooms, and provocative art fills its public spaces. Late one night, I dined alfresco at its restaurant with José Manuel Ortega of Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier, a Spaniard who’d left a New York bank job to build a spaceship of a winery in the Uco Valley. We ate beef empanadas and grilled lamb and drank the Argentinean wines of Italian winemaker Roberto Cipresso, a partner at Achaval Ferrer. It was all new to me—the hotel, the chef, the wines—but I felt a distinct connection to a Mendoza I recognized.
During the previous few days, I’d admired many of the new wines. Still, I had trouble thinking of them as particularly Argentinean. They had delicious fruit and firm structure, but only a few exuded that sense of place that characterizes exceptional wine. Just across the Andes, Chile had made a big mistake by consciously crafting well-made but generic Cabernets and Merlots for the American market: wines that were a notch cheaper than the competition’s but evoked nothing of Chile, or anywhere else. Argentina’s wines used to have an excessive sense of place—you’d pick them out on first whiff, like rotten eggs—but I hoped that the outside influences hadn’t pushed them too far toward that same paucity of soul.
Vistalba’s Carlos Pulenta offered an antidote. Though his winery, laid out like an estancia beside land in the foothills that has been farmed for decades, has Burgundy’s Bondoux as its chef and a European enologist, the wines I drank there were blatantly Argentinean: refined yet bright, pure yet showy, harmonious but still bold. “You may come from France or Italy,” Pulenta said, “but when you come here, you’re here. The grapes are here, the weather is here. So the best wines should taste like here.”
In 1997, Pulenta’s family sold Bodegas Trapiche, one of the world’s largest producers, to that quintessentially American investment firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Longing to make exemplary Argentinean wines, he started Vistalba in 2004. His primary vineyard is half a century old, so its roots have burrowed deep enough to get character into the grapes. But I suspect that his emotional attachment to Argentina is equally responsible. He spends days traveling by motorcycle throughout his country, reveling in the land.
Alone among the new wave of winery owners, Pulenta reminded me of the independent-minded Argentines I’d previously met. Pulling out an iPhone, he flicked through images of a recent trip he’d taken to the wine region of Salta, a turbulent 12-hour drive to the north. “Look at this place,” he said as he scrolled through contrasting images of dun-colored desert and green rows of vines. “Just fantastic!” I knew Salta was being touted as the next Mendoza in terms of wine production, but I was surprised to see it look so different. At 7,000 feet and a day’s drive from the tropics, it seemed rarefied, exotic, on the margins. The slide show confirmed a notion I’d had for a while: I needed to go there. And I knew just whom to take with me.
When I visited Mendoza in 1995, the dollar and the peso were on equal footing. Argentina was consuming all the wine it produced. Only one man I met, Nicolás Catena, believed that the country’s future was in selling to the world. Catena was an economist and entrepreneur with an American pedigree and a global outlook, who had transformed his father’s bulk-wine production into a quality brand. He spoke with pride about his daughter, Laura, who’d attended Harvard and Stanford and become an emergency-room doctor in San Francisco, with an American husband and a growing family. “I never, ever thought I would work with my father,” she now says. As the Catena winery expanded, she made brief trips back home to offer advice. Somewhere along the way, she became indispensable.
These days, she spends a third of each year in Mendoza, helping Catena Zapata stake its claim as Argentina’s premier winery. Because she appears in magazine ads, and because she’s fiercely intelligent and uncompromisingly honest, Laura Catena has become the face of Argentinean wine. She also has an adventurous streak that balances the methodical thinking that drew her to medicine. When I asked about Salta, she barely hesitated.
So we loaded up an SUV and picked up Fernando Buscema, one of the Catena enologists. We drove through La Rioja, then Catamarca and its exotic rock formations and crimson hills. It was only a day’s drive to Cafayate, the heart of Salta’s viticultural area, but it felt like we were leaving a mechanized, industrious South America with visible ties to Europe, and entering the slower-paced land of the Andean altiplano, of coca leaf, native artifacts, and high-pitched Bolivian music.
We hit Cafayate, set in a bowl surrounded by grasshopper-green mountains, as night fell. Our hotel, Patios de Cafayate, was two stories of dark wood and stucco, built around a courtyard and filled with hundred-year-old furniture. We reassembled at midnight for a delicious meal too weighty for the hour, and drank a 12-year-old Catena Zapata Chardonnay that Laura had brought. “I like the idea of drinking this here,” she said. It was living history, connecting Argentinean wines of a previous era to a place that already reminded me of Mendoza back then.
We started visiting wineries the next morning. Finca Las Nubes dates only to 1997, but it looks like the set of an old western. Pushed against a steep, cactus-dotted hill, it consists of a few wooden buildings with barrel-tiled roofs. Owner and enologist José Luis Mounier worked 18 years at Bodegas Etchart, Salta’s largest producer, before planting grapes on a slope he’d cleared. He has Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the brutishly tannic Tannat, but his best wine is white, a floral but flinty Torrontés. It might seem strange that a white grape would thrive near the Tropic of Capricorn, but Salta—as I was to hear often—mitigates its latitude with altitude. Still, its grapes get very ripe, and sugar translates into alcohol. Somehow, Mounier manages to keep his Torrontés balanced and lithe, smelling of rose petals. “Best Torrontés I’ve had,” Laura said. I agreed.
Las Nubes was one of a rash of newer wineries. What had been a compact local industry of Etchart and four small companies has grown to encompass 22, including the cultishly popular San Pedro de Yacochuya. For that property, Arnaldo Etchart—who sold his namesake winery to the Pernod-Ricard conglomerate in 1996—has joined forces with Michel Rolland, of all people, to make an unabashedly rich, potent red wine. Yacochuya hardly felt like the branch office of a globe-trotting winemaker. A trim vineyard was surrounded by a rock wall rimmed by cacti, and the facility took about four minutes to tour. After that, we hiked up a hill to the Etchart family house and sat on a shaded patio with Cafayate before us. The landscape, which ran down a vine-covered hill and into a valley, seemed softer than Mendoza’s, almost ethereal, as if we could wave our hands and it would dissipate into the air.
After we’d tasted the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Yacochuyas, which were as dense as motor oil, Etchart emerged, moving slowly. A hero of the same Mondovino that had excoriated Rolland, he’s in his seventies now, with a mane of snowy hair. Laura, who has met most of the great wine personalities of the world, seemed awestruck at seeing one of the pioneers of her own country’s wine culture. “You know my father,” she said softly. He kissed her on both cheeks—a European gesture, but one that in this setting seemed fundamentally Argentine. Then Etchart disappeared into the house. He returned carrying CD’s of local music and portfolios of poetry. He handed the gifts to Laura and me with gracious words. For Buscema, the enologist, he had a stronger message, wisdom distilled from a career of wine making. “You must read poetry,” he exhorted as Buscema’s eyes widened. “Or your wines will taste like shit.”
What Cafayate is to Mendoza—wilder, less polished, difficult to access—Colomé is to Cafayate. It’s deep in the wilderness, three hours northwest over a path of mud and rocks barely wide enough for a vehicle. But we had to see it, we agreed. Four of its 96,000 acres have been under vine since the 1850’s. And after a recent rebirth, the estate has begun to produce compelling wines. It also has a nine-suite luxury hotel with high ceilings, vivid colors, and cacti in the courtyard.
The place had been in ruins when the Swiss businessman Donald Hess bought the land and everything on it in 2001. He camped out there with his wife, Ursula, until they’d made it not just inhabitable but unforgettable. Nearly three hours after leaving Cafayate, we bumped around a bend and saw it: a patch of green amid the alabaster hills. Hess, 73, was there to greet us, looking country-elegant in a sweater-vest and a tattersall shirt, keeping the wild at bay with the trappings of civility like a Joseph Conrad character.
At nearly 7,500 feet, Colomé sits almost as high as anywhere in the world growing wine grapes. The surroundings are desolate. But its Torrontés, weightier than Mounier’s, is brisk and flavorful, and its two dense Malbecs have the balance and solidity that will keep them improving for a decade. “My theory is, there’s enough wine in the world,” Hess told us over roast chicken and polenta. “So I have to make my own story. I have to go to where there’s nobody. Then, if I can make a good wine, I’ll have a good story.” He paused for a moment, as if to pare the businessman in him from the romantic. “And I love it here,” he said. “We put the lights out and see all the stars.”
The next day, Hess showed us the old vineyard, the state-of-the-art winery, a visitors’ center, and a huge museum he’d built to house the work of the American postmodern artist James Turrell. Though Hess has opened other winery museums in Napa and South Africa, it seems hard to imagine that many people will make the long, difficult journey to Colomé to see room after room of light installations. But I might be wrong. Hess had brought a similar spirit of zealous optimism to the winery and the hotel. I couldn’t quarrel with the success they’d had.
It turned out that Hess isn’t alone in the wilderness. Four miles away is another winery, Bodega Belén de Humanao. It was founded, then sold, by Néstor Ramírez—though Ramírez, a weathered but energetic 76 years old, still runs it. “I can’t bear to leave,” he said when we visited. Humanao has none of Colomé’s amenities. It’s just two rooms of tanks and barrels under a cane roof. But the wines, though dustier and more rustic, bear a fraternal resemblance to Hess’s own. They have a genuineness, a validity, that I admire.
Once I returned home, I knew, most of the Argentinean wine I’d drink would be from Mendoza. My favorites—the best of Achaval Ferrer; Vistalba’s Corte A—share a sense of refinement that only a temperate climate and a mature wine-making culture can produce. But Argentinean wine, I’d realized, is as rich and varied and strong-flavored as the country itself. The best of it is rooted not in export statistics or marketing plans but warm sun and hospitable soil, qualities that have attracted outsiders like Hess and me to places like Argentina since man began to travel. We’d come from distant continents to stand beside Ramírez and sip his Malbec. He was a local, a mile from home.
Mendoza is accessible through Buenos Aires, but many itineraries require a mad dash across the capital from the city’s Ministro Pistarini (Ezeiza) International Airport to the regional Jorge Newberry Aeropark to make a tight connection. The smarter option is to fly through Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza. From there, Cafayate and the wine region of Salta are a full day’s drive over a wide range of roads. You can catch a flight directly to Salta in Buenos Aires. Both regions are best visited from November through April, the Southern Hemisphere’s late spring to early fall.
Patios de Cafayate, A Luxury Collection Hotel & Spa Rutas Nacionales 40 & 68, Cafayate; 54-3868/422-229; luxurycollection.com; doubles from $425, including breakfast.
La Bourgogne Bodega Vistalba, 3531 Calle Roque Saenz Peña, Luján de Cuyo; 54-261/498-9400; dinner for two $120.
La Posada del Jamón Plates of local ham and house-made sausages at an informal roadhouse in the Uco Valley. Km 14, Ruta 92, Vista Flores, Tunuyán; 54-2622/492-053; lunch for two $35.
1884 Francis Mallman High-end adaptations of local cuisine. Bodegas Escorihuela, 1188 Calle Belgrano, Godoy Cruz; 54-261/424-2698; dinner for two $80.
El Restaurante Patios de Cafayate Hotel; 54-3868/422-229; dinner for two $90.
Estancia Colomé Km 20, Ruta Provincial 53, Molinos; 54-3868/494-200; dinner for two $90.
José Balcarce The best restaurant in the city of Salta. Esq. Mitre y Necochea, 54-387/421-1628; dinner for two $50.
Though many of these properties cater to travelers, it’s always best to make an appointment before arriving.
Achaval Ferrer 2061 Calle Cobos, Perdriel, Luján de Cuyo; 54-351/425-3812.
Clos de los Siete Calle Clodomiro Silva, Vista Flores, Tunuyán; 54-261/405-5606.
The Winery A bottle store in a restored mansion. 898 Chile, Mendoza; 54-261/420-2840.
Bring it Back
Only 400 bottles of Bodega Mendel Malbec Mendoza Finca Remota ($93), a firm but gorgeously floral single-vineyard Malbec, are allocated to the U.S. Seek one out in Argentina at Cavas Wine Lodge, which serves as a broker.