Bruce Schoenfeld finds a wave of authenticity in Argentina’s best-loved wine region.

Copyright 2010 Michael H. Evans

The swirl-and-sip set are flocking to Mendoza. They gather in hotel lobbies wearing sandals and gaucho hats, bound for Catena Zapata’s Mayan pyramid of a winery or a polo match at Cheval des Andes. Nearly a dozen wine-tourism companies are operating excursions to the large, important producers. There’s even a continental dining scene striving for global recognition.

But I found another side to Mendoza on a recent visit. While the boom of the early 2000’s was fueled by investments from abroad, this new movement is led by young locals striving to put an Argentine face on Argentine wine. Its scale is small: productions of hundreds of bottles, not hundreds of thousands.

These wineries won’t win any style points, but that’s part of the charm. The tasting table of Matías Riccitelli’s compact spot in Vistalba—where I sampled a Malbec full of bright, unadorned fruit—is a plank laid across empty barrels. And one whiff of the aromatic Torrontés the Michelini brothers make at Zorzal, a glorified warehouse at the base of the Andean foothills, made me wonder why I’d ever want to drink Sauvignon Blanc.

Pablo Gimenez Riili and his brothers inherited a bulk wine business that was cranking out flavorless, generic plonk. Now they make subtle Syrahs at one of several wineries at the just-opened Vines Resort & Spa. Also on site is Siete Fuegos, a restaurant from chef Francis Mallmann, who turns out the grilled meats of his native Patagonia. Dinner there felt like a casual, ongoing party. With my goat slow-cooking in the open kitchen, Gimenez Rilli’s young son scampered between tables delivering toasted marshmallows.

But another dinner was even more emblematic of this emerging, more authentic Mendoza. Like the rest of the region’s new closed-door restaurants, Ituzaingo Restó is located in a private home. Wine lover and aspiring doctor Gonzalo Cuervo loves to entertain in his airy loft. My meal—cornmeal empanadas and trout with pumpkin purée—was simple and undeniably local. And real life was charmingly evident in Cuervo’s neurology textbooks stacked on a side table. You won’t see that from a tour bus.

Bruce Schoenfeld is T+L’s wine and spirits editor.