We’ve landed in the land of Malbec, a place that is familiar and unknown at the same time. Argentina called to us, maybe we never thought we’d actually get here but it happened so fast that we are walking around, eyes wide open, still face-slapped that we are so far south. Okay, let’s roll the film back just a little. My wife has written a bunch of cookbooks and one of them has been translated to Spanish to support the interest from the crowd that watches her cooking program in Latin America. We were invited to visit the big book fair held annually in Buenos Aires as part of the launch and though we should extend the trip by enjoying the wine country of Mendoza. Flying 14 hours south from Toronto, we passed through Santiago, Chile then right across to Buenos Aries for a night before returning west to Mendoza. Why not just hop over to Mendoza from Santiago? I also wondered why but these little things called the Andes got in the way. Anyhoo, we got in last night and spent our first full day in what I can imagine is either now or soon one of the most intriguing wine tourism destinations in the world.
We are no strangers to wine country tourism, having worked the food angle of at least one winery, getting to know the lingo and what people wish or expect to see when they get to the production site. And yes, it is romantic. Bucolic countryside, escaping the freeway to slower roads, witnessing the transformation of an agricultural product to something that has captured the attention and imagination of poets, rock stars and gastonomes the world round. We were lucky enough to make a local contact through an all-star, greatest-hits-album-good-friend Charles Baker. He knows an expert who has been to visit his workplace, Stratus Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake (where he also makes the cult hit Charles Baker Riesling) and has an interest in a winery in Mendoza. Paul Hobbs is a bit of a genius in the Malbec world, a grape whisperer of sorts. I did reach out but he would not be around for our arrival, however he put us in the hands of the hospitality manager of Vina Cobos, the winery to which Paul devotes much of his attention. So, really it was kind of a 3 cousin removed sorta connection but our man Pablo Bustos was very kind to write back and welcome us. If fact, he did mention at one point regarding our last name that he “is a big fan of Anna Olson, the chef, but even if that is not you, I will take good care of you” ha ha, very cool.
Our hotel in Mendoza was very helpful in arranging a remis, a car for hire by the day or half. Quite frankly, it simply made way more sense than renting a car, I mean, driving to do a full day of wine tasting is like starting a diet while touring a potato chip factory, for crying out loud. We only had to ride out for just over half an hour, of course noticing vineyards and other signs of wine biz. Arriving at Vina Cobos, there was a pause to get through the security gate, so different from Canada where you are more likely to be dragged onto property rather than confirming your identity for a visit. The car pulled up and Pablo basically knocked me out of the way in order to introduce himself to Anna, no offence intended. He explained that he had considered being a chef years ago and continues an interest in cooking but is a big fan of watching her shows on television. Too funny, he eventually got around to introducing himself to me but was quite nervous and jumpy. We knew right away that we liked this guy and were in for a wonderful tour. He really made us feel welcome and took on the sense of true hospitality where he was going to make sure that we were well taken care of while under his roof (one of the tenets of Brillat Savarin for those of you who read “The Physiology of Taste”). I digress. We were led on a tour of the production facility and into part of the vineyard for the whole info package. I must say it was a true learning experience as we were shown things that I was not familiar with, like whole berry maceration rather than crushing – the grapes are simply destemmed and allowed to ferment in the whole berry form. The skin contact from this technique pulls colour and flavours from the fruit to a super level. They pump over the must in order to drag the potential our of each grape. After the free run juice is racked off, they press the leftover “cake” and add that super purple juice back into the wine. In short, it was clear that the winery had serious planning behind it, and the team was following through with the doctrine. Even though we never met Paul Hobbs, we felt we got to know his way of thinking by observing the standards of operation in place. Quite a young crew, everyone was very friendly and energetic, a really cool work environment.
The tasting session was well planned out, with a geography and history lesson followed by sequenced roll out of the wines. Of course, Pablo arranged the wines in terms of “casting the net” where the base wines, those from a single varietal and from a variety of vineyards within Mendoza were first shown. Then followed by single vineyard bottlings and finally, the blockbuster cream of the crop example. Honestly, the wines were wonderfully balanced, fresh and delicious, each showing particular aroma or flavours that distinguished them. I might suggest that a snob might jump to the conclusion that the final showstopper wines were in a league of their own and yes, they were as good a wine as I’ve ever tasted however I would admit that I enjoyed the first level wines just as much. Any fool can say they like the most expensive item after all, yet each and every wine I tasted was a winner.
We had so much fun with Pablo that I know we will meet again soon. When you are conversing at a pace that makes time go fast, you know you are in good company. So good in fact that we ran late for our lunch reservation. No problema, I was assured. We were heading just down the road and Pablo called ahead to inform them.
Arriving at Finca Desero, we were greeted at the entrance by Miguel, the restaurant manager. He led us in to a quiet, intimate second floor dining room with stunning views of the vineyard and Andes Mountains. It really, honestly takes your breath away. He offered to tour us but we suggested lunch first in respect to the kitchen as we were running late. There was absolutely never any indication of a rush or that anyone was put out by our tardiness. The restaurant follows a simple, effective approach to lunch where they pour three wines and serve four courses, if you wish more of any particular wine they will top up. It felt more like a private VIP experience than a regular restaurant service. They only do red wines so the pours were recent vintage Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, all excellent. Our first course was a mushroom cappuccino with crisp shrimp, extremely tasty and a surf and turn combination that might not sound red wine friendly on paper but the seasoning was on target and worked like a charm. Second was a plate with a slow poached then seared slab of pork belly on sweet potato puree with plum chutney and an intense wine syrup reduction. Meaty, peppery and great contrasts in texture. Our main was a roasted beef tenderloin, very rare (happy wife) with roasted grapes in mashed potato (yum) and a couple of flavoured purees, including smoked eggplant. These sauces were enhanced by dynamite local olive oil and I commented that there are so many occasions where these bright little swabs and dabs of sauce are form only, each component on the plate was seasoned well and delicious in its’ own right. After a short break on the terrace to gaze at the mountains, we finished off with a chocolate pave with fruits and tasty chocolate ice cream. Whew! Yes it seems like a lot of work but we are willing to take one for the team. We met and visited with the chef, shot the breeze and got the bill in order to continue. Take note, the experience here is one of profound value, less than $100 Canadian for this feast with as much premium wine as you like, really great stuff.
Miguel gave us a tour, actually we asked for a short one and he was clever enough to just spend enough time without going on too much in any one area. The property is spectacularly designed and equipped to the teeth, I think he said they are at the early part of a 20 year master plan to take them to full production. We said adios and sped off with our driver in a hail of gravel dust and heifer hair.
Getting back to our hotel in the city, we decided to take a full rest and book a table at the hotel’s steak house (Asador) for a quiet evening. Normally we eat just after 6 so I felt quite suave asking for a 9:30 p.m. booking, man I usually have my pants off by that time. Lucky for us the restaurant Q had a Tango show so in addition to tasty food, there was a display of a cultural practice that is both athletic and sexy Meow! The dancers stared into each others’ eyes with such intensity that you really felt they did not know there was anyone else in the room. This might sound like a corny experience but I just loved it, I was grinning like a lottery winner. Mind you, sitting there with the love of my life, being treated well with great food and drink and no worries, I guess I am kind of a lottery winner.