They call her Zonda, and it's fair to say she's a tempestuous senorita. All the way from Salta to Mendoza, this fickle Argentinian wind blew off the Andes Mountains, doing a wild tango with the airplane as I white-knuckled it the entire way.
Thankfully, there was wine at the end of the journey. And lots of it.
Mendoza, after all, is the heart and soul of Argentina's wine country. This high-altitude plateau at the foot of the Andes produces nearly three-quarters of the country's wine. In fact, its vineyard acreage is so vast, it's bigger than that of New Zealand and Australia combined.
Yet, Mendoza retains a rustic charm, a unique New-meets-Old-World flavour, and a warm and welcoming hospitality.
And there's no better time to visit than now. It's harvest time in the Southern Hemisphere, and the region is celebrating. With wine, of course.
It's a long way to get there from Canada, but these three quintessential Argentine wine country experiences make it worth the journey. So let the wild winds blow you south.
Home of Malbec
Think Argentina and wine, and you're probably thinking Malbec, the cheap and cheerful red varietal with the intense fruity palate and inky colour that has become such a favourite with Canadians.
Malbec travelled here from its original home in Bordeaux, to find its lushest expression at wineries such as Familia Zuccardi, which makes everything from the inexpensive Fuzion blend to the high-end Icon range (casadelvisitante.com/eng).
"When people speak of Malbec, it is one thing, but it is many things," says José Zuccardi, patriarch of the 150-year-old winery.
He and I are walking around the Zuccardi property in Maipu, a community on the outskirts of Mendoza. It's the smallest of the family's five estates, with a cosy, historic charm. Back in 2001, it was also the first winery visitor's centre to open in Argentina. Even though Argentina has been producing wine since the Spanish arrived in 1557, wine tourism in the region is still new, but evolving rapidly.
Today, the Zuccardi visitor's centre features tours, tastings, a terrific wine and gift shop, and two restaurants -- the more formal Casa del Visitante and the casual tapas joint Pan & Oliva, near the olive press. (The Zuccardis also make exceptional olive oils.) It's probably the best place to start your wine tour of Mendoza, being close to the city and with a huge range of wines to sample.
Among them, of course, are plenty of Malbecs, which love the hot, sunny climate and long growing season of Argentina. Malbec also seems to have an affinity for the Andes.
As Zuccardi says: "The mountains give us the weather, the soil and the water." And that's where we're headed next.
Head to the hills
Along the twisty road to the Uco Valley, every once in a while you'll see a cluster of red rags flapping in the brisk winds that blow off the mountains. They're not, as you might think, strangely monochromatic garbage dumps. They are actually roadside shrines to Gauchito Gil, Argentina's cowboy saint. In the 19th century, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nuez, a.k.a. Gauchito Gil, was a lover, a hero, a cowboy and patriotic soldier who deserted the army rather than be forced to fight his own countrymen.
He became an outlaw, a bandit who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and was eventually killed by a corrupt cop. And then the miracles started. Although the Catholic Church doesn't recognize Gauchito Gil, plenty of Argentines do, especially along the highways where he's said to protect drivers. That's good to know when you're headed to this valley at the foot of the Andes.
My other companion along the drive is the mountain range itself, a wall of jagged white peaks that shimmers across the vine-striped floor of the Uco Valley. It's breathtakingly beautiful -- partly because we're so high up it's actually hard to catch your breath.
Indeed, these are some of the highest altitude vineyards in the world, ranging from almost 900 to 1,200 metres above sea level. The vines are drenched in sunlight more than 250 days a year, with huge temperature ranges between day and night as well as a dry, rocky soil that forces the grapes to work for water.
All of this means the grapes here -- mainly Malbec, Semillon and Bonarda as well as other varietals -- have a particularly lush, intense flavour, making this one of the top wine-growing regions in South America.
The wineries range from the small, traditional houses such as Gouguenheim (gouguenheim.com.ar), considered one of Argentina's best-kept secrets, to the large and ultra-modern ones like O. Fournier, the Argentine property of a giant Spanish wine company (ofournier.com).
A massive building designed to look like the region's symbolic condor taking flight, O. Fournier specializes in ultra-high-end blends and boasts every modern winemaking technique from the high-tech lab to the gravity-fed tanks to the xeriscape gardens that regulate the temperatures of the cellars below. It's also home to a well-appointed visitors centre and wine shop, which offers daily tours that go well beyond most winery visits.
And then there's Urbano, a truly exceptional restaurant where fresh, local, award-winning fare is perfectly paired with O. Fournier's gorgeous Urban, B Crux and Alfa Crux wines. Because, of course, if there's one thing Argentines do as well as wine, it's cooking up terrific food.
Thrill to the grill
Look at the labels of your favourite Argentine wines -- Graffigna, Zuccardi, Pascual Toso, Famiglia Bianchi -- and it's easy to see there's a huge Italian influence here. Nowhere is that more true than in the cuisine. Pizza and pasta joints abound in Mendoza, and are an affordable and soul-satisfying way to dine when you're tasting wine.
But comforting carbs aside, what Argentina is best known for is its meat. This is, after all, ranching country, famous for its flavourful, grass-fed, pasture-raised beef. You'll find different cuts here -- such as "lomo" and "costeleta" -- and the steaks are inevitably grilled over wood, not gas or propane, which gives them a delicate smoky flavour. And then there's the tradition of the asado, or barbecue, but nothing like the North American version. Plenty of restaurants specialize in asado, but people also will host an asado at home for Sunday lunch, which can begin at noon and go on well into the evening. And if you are visiting, at some point your hosts will likely prepare an asado in your honour.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014