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.