Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some traditional Argentine dishes.

More specifically, the dishes here are very typical of the central region of Argentina, from Buenos Aires across to the Cuyo region. In the north and south of the country there are a few fundamentally different dishes found on the table. The cuisine of Argentina in general is heavily influenced by its Spanish and Italian ancestry. But the dishes resembling their European counterparts have been transformed in one way or another into traditionally Argentine creations.

I have skipped the parrillas here... grilled meats are very popular in Argentina, and the keys to a truly Argentine parrilla are to avoid seasoning the meat prior to grilling, to make sure the embers are glowing evenly to ensure even heating, and to choose meats that will maintain their juiciness even when well done (as the Argentines like to serve them). I have also skipped the everpresent pizzas and pastas. The recipes below are other dishes I especially liked during my Argentine adventures.

Puchero con chorizos y repollo. (Chorizo and cabbage pot)

There are many versions of the puchero throughout Argentina. The heritage of this dish is traceable to Spain, where a type of chickpea-based stew (cocido) bears the same name. In the area of the Rio de la Plata, the lack of chickpeas necessitates the use of another ingredient; as beef is quite the local favorite, it serves as a substitute.

This recipe will serve 4.

2 pieces of beef shank (marrow included)
2 pounds beef for boiling
½ pound bacon
4 chorizo sausages
1 sprig parsley
garlic (slightly bruised) to taste… typically 2 or 3 cloves
3 medium or 4 small peeled potatoes
4 small carrots, peeled
2 medium onions
4 leeks
1 2 to 2½ pound cabbage, cut in quarters
1 sprig oregano
salt and pepper to taste

You will need 2 pots for this preparation. In one, put beef bones, beef, half the bacon, half the garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper; cover with water. Simmer for at least an hour. After an hour, put in the second pot the chorizo, the rest of the bacon and garlic, and the cabbage and cover with water; boil gently until the cabbage is done. When the second pot reaches a boil add the rest of the vegetables to the beef pot and cook until the potatoes are done.
Make some rice with the broth from the beef pot. This is used to make the soup, which is served separately from the meats. Serve the soup as a starter, followed by separate dishes of meats and vegetables. Pair this with a lighter wine like Altos las Hormigas’ Bonarda, or Argento’s Malbec.

Empanadas de carne al horno. (Baked meat empanadas)

Empanadas in general origínate in Galicia and Portugal, where they resemble more of a meat pie cut into sections. Of course in that region of the world some of the most popular fillings are codfish and tuna, whereas in Argentina a beef filling is preferred. Empanadas can be served as an appetizer or as a main course.


3 cups flour
1 cup shortening or pork lard
1 egg, beaten
4 tbsp water
salt to taste

Mix shortening or lard with flour and add the egg. This will form a dough after a bit of kneading and gradual adding of water and salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.


1 pound lean ground beef
½ cup butter or lard
1 cup scallions, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley
½ tsp oregano, cumin, and paprika, respectively
1tbsp seedless raisins
2 tbsp chopped green olives
2 or 3 chopped hard boiled eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Boil a small pot of water. Pour boiling water over ground beef in a bowl while stirring; let stand until beef changes color. Discard water (or save as broth). Heat butter in a skillet and fry scallions until they turn bright green. Add tomatoes, pepper, garlic, parsley, and spices. Sauté for a few minutes. Remove from heat and add raisins, olives, and eggs. When the mixture cools add the ground beef and mix well.
Roll out the dough into rounds. Place a few heaping spoonfuls of the mixture on half of the round; fold dough over and seal with fingers. Bake in a hot oven until browned.
Pair these with a sparkling wine such as Bodegas Chandon’s Rosé or Finca Flichman’s Extra Brut.

Carne adobada al horno. (Marinated beef roast)

4-5 pounds roasting beef
marinade (below)
1 cup red wine
1 tbsp cornstarch
salt to taste


2 tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp of one of the following: parsley, oregano, or rosemary

Rub the roast well with marinade, let stand overnight. Place in oven on medium heat in a roasting pan. About 30 minutes before it’s done, pour ½ cup wine over it. When it’s done, let the roast stand while you make a gravy from the pan juices and ½ cup red wine with cornstarch diluted in it. Boil the gravy for a few minutes and pour over the roast. Preferably, slice the roast at the table.
Serve this with a spicy, rich red wine, such as Finca Flichman’s Malbec Reserva or CarinaE’s Reverva Syrah.

Conejo al horno. (Roasted rabbit)

A very popular dish in the Cuyo region. This roasted rabbit is simple and delicious!

1 rabbit
marinade, as in above recipe (bay leaves and thyme work well)
brine solution (strongly salted water with a bit of sugar added)

Rub the rabbit well with marinade and let stand overnight. Place in a roasting pan, and roast on medium heat until the meat begins to separate from the bones. Baste frequently with marinade diluted with ½ cup brine solution. Serve well done with a side of carrots and squash, and a light red such as Argento’s Bonarda or CarinaE’s Rosé.

Milanesas caseras especiales. (Breaded steaks)

The name for this simple dish comes from cotoletta alla milanese. Many different meats can be used, and different preparations can be done. This one is common:

8 thinly sliced steaks (not more than a pound in total)
2 tbsp oil
2 cups flour
3 or 4 eggs, beaten, with a pinch of salt, pepper, and oregano
bread crumbs
lemon wedges

Pound steaks flat. Rub with oil and a little salt and let stand for a few minutes. Dip in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs; fry in oil. Serve with lemon wedges and potatoes. Any fruity red wine will do, but this is also great with a buttery Chardonnay like Catena Zapata’s Angélica Zapata Chardonnay Alta.

Escabeche de pollo. (Chicken Escabeche)

This dish has an ancient relative by the name of al-sikbaj, originally a Persian word. It was brought to Spain via the Moors, and made its way to Argentina from there. Traditionally it uses fish, but now many versions such as the one below are made throughout the world.

1 small (3 pound max) chicken or game hen, cut in serving pieces
3 onions cut in rounds
3 red peppers, seeded and cut in strips
2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 large carrots, thinly sliced
2 bruised garlic cloves
4 bay leaves
1 tbsp peppercorns, whole
1 cup olive oil
1 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
salt to taste

Cover the bottom of a casserole dish with half the onion slices and half the red pepper. Place chicken pieces on top, then cover with the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle bay leaves, peppercorns, and salt over all. Pour the oil, vinegar, and wine into the dish until all chicken pieces are covered. Bake covered for 2 hours on medium-low heat. Let stand 48 hours before serving.
This dish pairs perfectly with a light white wine like CarinaE’s Torrontes or Argento’s Pinot Grigio.

Dulce de Leche.

This filling for pastries and cakes needs no introduction. And it’s incredibly simple to prepare…

¼ gal milk
2 ½ cups sugar
1 vanilla bean

Boil milk and sugar with the vanilla vean and a Little baking soda until the milk begins to change color. Turn the heat down to low and stir frequently to avoid burning until the milk thickens. Some prefer to add a little cornstarch to speed up the thickening process, as it can take sometimes up to 2 hours.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A few more from Mendoza: Bodegas Chandon, Catena Zapata, and O. Fournier.

There is no need for appointments if you want to visit the following wineries. We had a free day with no plans, so we wandered down Acceso Sur from Mendoza to Uco Valley stopping at the must-see wineries of Mendoza. And here they are...

Bodegas Chandon.

Mendoza’s Chandon traces its heritage to the Champagne giant Moёt and Chandon. In the 1800s the company began producing its famous house wine. By the 1950s demand had skyrocketed for sparkling wines; there was simply not enough available grapes in the Champagne region to offer the volumes required for the market. The French oenologist Renaud Poirier was sent to South America by then-president Count Robert Jean de Vogue to seek out land suitable for sparkling wine production.

After two years of observations and experiments, Pourier found Agrelo (in Lújan de Cuyo). He felt it had excellent potential for sparkling wines: its well-drained clay soils and large day-to-night temperature differentials would be perfect for high acidity base wines. In 1959 the winery was built here. This was the first area of international expansion for Moёt and Chandon. Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon followed in 1973, then Australia’s in the 1980s (this decade also saw the creation of the colossal LVMH).

Each Chandon winery produces a similar line of wines, but with its own signature. Argentina’s Chandon Extra Brut, for example, will differ in constitution and aroma/flavor profiles from California’s Extra Brut. This is dependent upon the terroir of the region and the varietals best grown there. Here in Malbec country you can be sure to find hints of the regional bestselling grape in the sparkling wines.

Chandon grows some of its own grapes, but 70% of its production comes from other growers with whom Chandon has long-term contracts. All grapes are hand-picked in 20-kilogram crates. All wine is given a dosage for which only Chardonnay is used.

Bodegas Chandon is an easy 5-minute drive off the highway. The tasting room is open to the public, making it a nice midday stop. Here are the wines we tried with our hostesses Lucia and Carolina:


This is a base wine available for tasting to show visitors how a sparkling wine evolves. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and 5% Semillon (to contribute a roundness to the wine), this extremely high acid wine is reminiscent of apple cider and has very little finish. Some tannins are present due to the touch of Pinot Noir. When it becomes a sparkling wine, however, you will see a deliciously different animal…

Extra Brut

This wine is produced via the Charmat Method from the base wine mentioned above. The goal is a fresh, young product that is easy to drink and refreshing. 4-6 months after the base wine is fermented, a dosage with residual sugar of 10 grams per liter is added. The wine is then aged 8 months in the bottle. It is very floral, with soft rounded notes of peach and citrus.

Brut Fresco

This wine is only available in the Chandon winery. It is produced via the Methode Champenoise with 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 20% Semillon. The dosage used has a slightly higher residual sugar content (14 grams per liter). It has a deeper gold color than the Extra Brut due to a higher percentage of Pinot Noir in the blend. 12 months of lees contact and 2 years in the bottle make this wine quite the production. White and red cherries, rich floral aromas, and a long creamy finish… an astounding wine.

Chandon Rosé

50% Chardonnay, 50% Malbec (of this, 45% is blanc de noirs and 5% is red wine). There is an earthiness present in the rosé, likely from the Malbec. Red fruit shines through. This would make a great accompaniment to salads and appetizers.

For more information, visit Bodegas Chandon’s website.

Catena Zapata.

No visit to Mendoza would be complete without at least a brief stop at the remarkable Catena Zapata tasting room. The story of the Catena family is already written beautifully here, so I find no need to repeat too much.

The Catena family has been extremely influential in turning Argentina into a producer of fine wines recognized worldwide. The family estate had been producing bulk wines since 1902. But in the 1980’s, after Nicolás Catena, son of the Italian immigrant Nicola, taught at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor, he developed the desire to pursue wines that could hold their own against the Bordeauxs and Napa Valley Cabernets of the world. He sought out land on which to grow grapes for high-quality wines, and found it 5000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary in the province of Mendoza. An excellent quote from him says it all: “I felt that the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation, by taking risks.”

The land he chose proved to be perfect for wine grapes. Poor in nutrients, stony and well-drained, with desert conditions, this land offered just the right qualities for ripe grapes with high skin-to-juice ratios. The rich, concentrated wines produced aged nicely and offered true competition throughout the world of wine. Malbec in particular ripened beautifully here. Clone and soil experiments continued in the area until, in 1994, Nicolás felt reasonably assured that the best plots had been identified. In fact, a Catena Zapata Cabernet/Merlot blend from 1997 was compared to Latour, Solaia, and Opus One.

Catena Zapata was instrumental in laying the foundation for the Argentine fine wine industry. Through the continued work of this family, from Nicola to Nicolás to his daughter Laura Catena, the world’s attention has been brought to this once bulk wine producing country. And some excellent wines now come from this winery, though not all are to my liking… here are the wines we tasted at the tasting room:

2004 Angélica Zapata Malbec Alta

This is a 100% Malbec with grapes from 4 vineyards: the Angélica Vineyard in Lunlunta, the La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo, the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary, and the La Consulta Vineyard in La Consulta. Altitudes range from 2850 feet to 4850 feet. 18 months in half new, half used French oak finish it off nicely. Black fruit and flowery notes are spiced up with black pepper and cinnamon. A long silky finish.

2004 Angélica Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon Alta

This is a 100% Cabernet with grapes from 3 vineyards: the La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo, the Domingo Vineyard in Villa Bastías, and the La Consulta Vineyard in La Consulta. Aged 16 months in 85% French oak (30% new) and 15% American oak (for a bit more oak spice). Ripe red cherries and strawberries pack quite a punch, and a round, long finish leaves hints of leathery spice. This was one of my favorites.

2004 Angélica Zapata Chardonnay Alta

All the grapes for this single vineyard Chardonnay are sourced from the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary at 4830 feet altitude. Lots of (not so subtle) oak comes from a 1-year rest in new French oak barrels. Peaches and citrus aromas with buttery vanilla are present, but the oak kind of dominates… for those who love the big oaky Chards, this would be a winner. Not my cup of tea though.

2005 D.V. Catena Malbec Malbec

Malbec for this wine is sourced from the Angélica Vineyard and the La Pirámide Vineyard. The former provides ripe black fruit, and the latter gives a characteristic peppery spice. I preferred this to the previous Malbec.

2003 D.V. Catena Cabernet Cabernet

Cabernet from the La Pirámide and Domingo Vineyards. 2 years in 80% new French oak. Eucalyptus, rich eart, leather, and cassis mingle deliciously with red cherries and plums, and a bit of chocolate notes finish it off… and this was, by far, my favorite of the visit. Very complex and mouthfilling.

2005 D.V. Catena Cabernet Malbec

Cabernet from La Pirámide and Malbec from Angélica. Full of berries and vanilla, with spicy oak at the end. A nice blend, but overpowered by the Cabernet Cabernet.

For more information visit Catena Zapata’s website. For my review of Laura Catena’s recent book, Vino Argentino, click here.

O. Fournier.
Head down Acceso Sur from Mendoza toward San Carlos about an hour and a half, make your way along various stone and dirt roads, and you with luck may arrive at Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier. This winery was founded by the Spanish family Ortega Gil-Fournier in 2000 with the mission of making internationally recognized boutique-style fine wines. Now the estate comprises 286 hectares of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and Syrah.

The ostrich character used as O. Fournier's symbol represents a joining of earth and sky. It is a stylized representation of a Mocovi Indian cave painting from the area. The bird is endangered in the Uco area.
O. Fournier uses grapes from 12 producers under long-term contract. The estate’s own grapes are not deemed quite ready to use (they would prefer 10-15 year old vines), so while the vines are maturing, grapes have been carefully externally sourced. Yields are kept low, and basically organic practices are encouraged though O. Fournier is not currently organically certified. It can get quite cold in Uco Valley, but the large stones in the vineyards provide not only good drainage, but warmth at night too. 

Staying true to tradition, the Tempranillo vines are grown in the “vaso” style (small bushes) typical of Spanish vineyards. Thus far Tempranillo has shown great promise in here Uco Valley. All grapes are hand harvested and treated gently throughout vinification. The winery is designed for gravity processing, and all fermentation is done with whole berries. Underground cellars store the French (80%) and American (20%) barriques used to age the wines.

The family also has a beautiful restaurant on the estate run by Executive Chef Nadia Haron de Ortega.

Here are the wines we tried before our (overpriced) prix fixe lunch in the restaurant:

2009 Urban Uco Torrontes

For more about the Argentine Torrontes grape, click here. This wine was a quite popular seller at the retail shops where I worked in New York and San Francisco. An excellent value! Pear syrup, white peaches, and a ginger ale spice remind me a bit of a simple Gewürztraminer. Great acidity, and a medium finish with some minerality.

2009 β Crux Sauvignon Blanc

This wine had a hint of petillance when we tried it, but I do not remember having detected this in other bottles of it. Round grapefruit, tropical fruits, and a little hay. Very low pyrazine levels.

A note: The β and α Crux wines derive their names from the stars of the Southern Cross, only visible here in the Austral Hemisphere. β Crux wines spend 1 year in 50% new, 50% used oak, while the α Crux wines are aged for 18 months in 100% new oak. Each will spend time in the bottle afterward before its release.

2009 Urban Uco Tempranillo

Blackberry syrup and notes of fruit leather. Very jammy, but with good tannins. I think this will be better in another year or two, but it is a great value once again.

2007 β Crux Vino Tinto

60% Tempranillo, 15% Cabernet, 15% Syrah, and 10% Malbec. A VERY intense nose of blueberries, strawberries, and leather. Some floral notes as well. This wine is great but very big and rich. Pair it with anything with cheese or bacon!

2003 α Crux Vino Tinto

50% Temoranillo, 40% Malbec, and 10% Merlot. There is absolutely no age showing on this 2003. Dark cherry, strawberry, herbs, and a distinct dustiness make this a very complex wine. The complexity is matched on the palate. The tannins here are still dominant enough to age quite a while. This was my favorite by far.

2007 α Crux Malbec

Sweet rich fruit and floral notes burst out of the glass. Some cinnamon spice and leather plays in the background. This wine is worth every penny of its $44 price tag.

For more information, visit O. Fournier’s website.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Finca Flichman.

Finca Flichman was a prerequisite stop for me in Mendoza. I first tasted the wines in the city of Porto with the Sogrape group, which owns Finca Flichman along with some major Port wine producers and a few other wineries in Portugal, Chile, and New Zealand. They made quite an impression on me there, so I vowed to pay a visit when I made it to Argentina. Upon my arrival in Mendoza I made an appointment with Flichman’s winemaker and took a hired car to the winery in Barrancas, where we enjoyed a very thorough (perhaps TOO thorough! I had to take a little nap afterward…) tasting along with a parrilla lunch (parrilla is a type of Argentine asado with a somewhat disturbing namesake).

Here’s a bit of information on the history of Finca Flichman: The winery was founded in 1873 by Jewish immigrant Don Sami Flichman, a native of Lodz, Poland. After arriving in Buenos Aires he made his way to Mendoza during the area’s first wine rush. He invested in a winery and a market which has since been converted to the Harrod’s of Mendoza. He also purchased a piece of property in Barrancas (southern Maipú) and planted vines in these ravines along the Mendoza river. The farmhouse that still stands on the property was first built by Don Sami behind protective walls to ward off attacks by the Huarpe tribe native to the Mendoza area.

In 1910 the estate was renamed Finca Flichman (finca is a Spanish word for a large farm or ranch). The Great Depression of 1939 forced the estate to downsize, but Don Sami kept the Barrancas vineyards. He ran Finca Flichman based on bulk wine production until it was passed into the hands of his son Isaac, who had studied oenology in France and decided to try his hand at making fine wines here in Barrancas. He created Caballero de la Cepa with winemaker Raúl de la Mota, one of Argentina's first fine wines that brought fame and international attention to the region.

In 1998 The estate was acquired by the Sogrape group. Sogrape’s $7 million capital infusion, extensive winemaking experience, and international presence were all great boons that helped Finca Flichman focus on more terroir-driven wines made for export. Winemaker Luís Cabral de Almeida, Portuguese by birth, has made wines with the Sogrape group for decades and has lent his expertise to the Flichman wines for over 10 years. The Flichman wines are now available worldwide (even in Lodz!) and viewed quite favorably.

The grapes for Finca Flichman’s wines come from Barrancas and Tupungato. The grounds in Barrancas (Spanish for “ravines”) are littered with the kaleidoscopic array of colored rocks that wash down from the Andes via the Mendoza River; the Tupungato soils are similarly stony, with sandy alluvium mixed among the rocks.

Large temperature variations typical of the desert climate in both regions help the grapes ripen and achieve the potential for elegance and structure. At about 700 meters altitude, the Barrancas grapes get loads of sunlight and offer jammy fruit, rich earth, and deep color. Tupungato, sitting at 1100 meters, contributes more structure, elegance, and a touch of floral aromas. Finca Flichman’s extensive line of wines shows each region beautifully, both individually and in blends.

All of Finca Flichman’s vines are ungrafted. This makes propagation easy, only requiring a shoot from a neighboring vine as shown in the picture above. Traditional flood channels irrigate parral-style trellising used alongside VSP trellising in the vineyards, and all vines are of course covered by sturdy netting to protect against the dreaded Mendoza hail (click here for more information). There is no threat of phylloxera, little worry about mildew or fungus, and very few natural pests to fear here. Varietals grown include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, Merlot, and Chardonnay, and the estate even produces a delicious sparkling wine.

Here are the wines we tasted with Luís:

Extra Brut Chardonnay/Malbec

This assemblage of 80% Chardonnay, 20% Merlot is created via the Charmat method. Fresh and fruity, but with some yeastiness and an earthy structure, this makes a great aperitif. Though I did not take a bottle with me upon leaving the estate, I did enjoy its refreshing apply character enough to end up buying 3 or 4 bottles throughout my stay in Mendoza.

2010 Malbec Roble

This wine sees a little time in oak, leading to a vanilla spiciness that is atypical of the average young Malbec. Dark fruit and a little violet peer through the oak but are pretty much overpowered. I think this one would be much better off paired with empanadas or a steak.

2009 Misterio Malbec

4 months with oak staves give this wine its slight oaky spice. Lots of chocolate, plums, ripe cherries, and violets. The Misterio finishes off with chocolate covered cherry elegance. This was one of our favorites.

2009 Malbec Reserva

This is a nice example of an Argentine Malbec. Bright red cherry fruit is framed with soft tannins and highlighted with a touch of violet. An excellent food wine.

2009 Gestos Malbec

Made with 50% Malbec from Tupungato and 50% Malbec from Barrancas, this blend gets the ripe plum fruit and rich deep color from one and the structured floral character from the other. 6 months in new oak balance it all out. We took a bottle of this one for sure.

2007 Expresiones Reserva Malbec/Cabernet

Cherries, chocolate, and spice. Very full and heavy mouthfeel. The Cabernet lends a tannic structure that lingers on the finish. This one definitely should not be paired with anything of less substance than a thick juicy steak.

2007 Expresiones Reserva Shiraz/Cabernet

The Syrah character shines through here, with aromas of blackberry and white pepper dominating the blend. There is a hint of wet forest floor and tobacco leaf. The rich fruit is tempered by strong but soft tannins. I actually enjoyed this more than the Malbec blend.

2007 Paisaje de Tupungato

The Paisaje wines are Finca Flichman’s terroir line. Each is carefully crafted to achieve the winemaker’s interpretation of the two regions. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot make up the Tupungato blend. Aged for 12 months in mostly French oak. Roasted coffee spices up the plum and blackcurrant fruit, with a slight touch of chalky and sanguine minerality. An exceptionally long finish. This is a big wine.

2007 Paisaje de Barrancas

My favorite of the day! I had to take some home. Old vine Shiraz (40+ years), Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Blackberries and violets dominate, with a bit of menthol hiding beneath. The full body and soft but powerful tannins won me over instantly.

2006 Dedicado

The Dedicado is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet, and Shiraz made only in the best years. It is aged 12 months in new French oak, followed by 12 more in the bottle. The 2006 is an explosion of berry fruit, smoke, and cedary spice aromas. The palate is meaty and intense, with smooth silky tannins. This is a special wine for a special occasion.

For more information, visit Finca Flichman’s website or send an email.

Friday, January 14, 2011


We happened upon CarinaE while driving on the dusty tree-lined roads of Maipú. This is one of Mendoza’s boutique wineries that encourage vintage expression and traditional quality winemaking. Our host Elena took us through the simple but immaculate winery, showed us the barrel room, and led us through a lengthy tasting, all the while relating the history and philosophy of CarinaE.

CarinaE was founded in 2003 by French immigrants Brigitte and Philippe Subra. After relocating to Mendoza in 1998 and managing an electric company for years, Philippe invested in the old abandoned winery in Cruz de Piedra that would become CarinaE Viñedos y Bodega. Its name derives from Philippe’s favorite pastime as an amateur astronomer: the Carina constellation containing the massive Eta Carinae nebula hovers directly above the vineyard in the summer and fall months. (Side note: Cruz de Piedra is a reference to the stone crosses that follow the pilgrims' road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain)

The main vineyard of the estate is an 80+-year-old, 11 hectare plot of Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The altitude here is around 850 meters and the soil is predominantly alluvial, loam, and loamy clay. The Mendoza River provides plentiful irrigation in this region and the vines rarely suffer drought conditions. Here Bordeaux varietals flourish and the Malbec grapes mature beautifully during the long, slow ripening season. No significant pests or diseases plague the vines, save for a little botrytis in rare years. The wines from the Cruz de Piedra area of Maipú have a rich jammy character, with fruit shining through as the focus, as opposed to the higher-altitude vineyards that highlight more minerality and floral notes.

the old wooden press, still used, sits outside the winery
CarinaE’s winery has a 30,000 case production limit making it truly a boutique winery in this region. An old wooden press sits outside the winery. This is not a prop: this 100-year-old refurbished relic from the old winery is still used during the harvest!

cement tanks
Epoxy-lined concrete vats are used for fermentation, and many of the wines are finished in French oak. Though Brigitte and Philippe comprise the winemaking team, Michel Rolland acts as consulting winemaker through his Mendoza-based crew at Enorolland and conducts biannual tastings. The prerequisite cold maceration and prolonged post-fermentation maceration result in concentrated, rich wines with a strong tannin and acid backbone.

Two brands are produced by CarinaE: Octans and CarinaE. Octans is the southernmost constellation in the night sky of the southern hemisphere which contains the southern polar star. It is an omnipresent fixture in the sky above the vineyard due to its location. This aptly named wine is only available through the winery. CarinaE, on the other hand, is available in many countries throughout the world.

Brigitte Subra at the winery

Here are the wines we tasted with Elena:

2009 CarinaE Reserva Torrontés

This wine is vinified in Maipú with grapes from Cafayate near Salta. It has a round mouthfeel due to the 2.5 grams per liter of residual sugar. A nose of tropical fruits and baking spices with a slight ginger ale feel is followed by a lingering citrusy finish. I would prefer it to be a little less sweet, but it isn’t cloying by any means. Overall quite good.

2010 CarinaE Malbec Rosé

The grapes for this wine hail from the 80-year-old espalier trained vines in the Cruz de Piedra vineyard. Fresh and fruity, this is great on a Mendoza summer day in the park.

2009 CarinaE Malbec

Again from 80-year-old Malbec vines. Unoaked and fresh, this wine is full of ripe red cherries. A good wine for the price, but nothing particularly special.

2008 CarinaE Reserva Malbec

Half of these grapes come from Lújan de Cuyo, the rest come from the Maipú vineyard. It has a distinctly oaky nose due to its 12-month rest in French oak. Plummy and full of jammy red fruit, this is another good wine for the price. Parker gave it 90 points for those interested in scores…

2008 CarinaE Reserva Syrah

This wine is from young vines, grafted 9 years ago in the Cruz de Piedra vineyard and trained in the traditional parral method. A vibrant, rich nose of violets, dark berries, and plums. This wine is enchanting! 12 months in French oak have given it a sturdy frame to complement the vivid fruit. We were sure to take a couple bottles home.

2009 CarinaE Cuvée Brigitte

72% Malbec, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon from 85-year-old vines in Cruz de Piedra. Half the wine was aged in French oak for 9 months. Though is contains almost 15% alcohol, this cuvee maintains some elegance and nice structure. This is a delicious fruity expression of Malbec, meant for drinking soon with a roast or rare steak.

2007 CarinaE Malbec Gran Reserva

3211 bottles made. 15 months in French oak. And a whopping 15% alcohol. Chocolate and espresso waft out of the glass, along with syrupy blackberry and a bit of leather. This was almost too much to drink, but in a fantastic way. The long finish lingered on well after we had tasted, and I almost hated to sip the next wine and eliminate the luxurious tannins and intense fruit of this Malbec. This is a must try.

2007 CarinaE Prestige

79% Malbec, 14% Syrah, 7% Cabernet, but the blend varies year to year. These grapes are a selection of the best CarinaE has to offer. Very dark, filled with caramel and toffee, and astounding. This will last quite a while in the cellar as well. Our favorite (and the most expensive, of course).

To contact CarinaE, visit their website or email Elena.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


There are many different styles of producers in Mendoza. On one end of the spectrum is the boutique winery such as CarinaE where vintage variation adds intrigue and novelty; on the other is the large company that uses branding as a focus. Argento is one of the latter, though this does not make the wines any less interesting or delicious. In fact, a company like Argento can be a boon for the Mendoza wine industry. By providing customers with reliable quality and a consistent wine character year after year these producers boost consumer confidence in a region with which many are unfamiliar.

Argento was founded by a joint venture between Bodega Esmerelda (of Catena Zapata) and Bibendum, the largest private importer in the UK. Bibendum already had a customer base and an idea of a wine style but needed a brand. The style Bibendum’s customers desired was an easy drinking, fruit forward wine with elegance that could be appreciated with or without food. In 2000 this brand was realized.

Argento sources all grapes used to make the wines from vineyards all around the Mendoza area. Long-term contracts with growers ensure that Argento’s staff has intimate interaction with the wines from farming the vines to vinifying in the cellars (Esmerelda’s cellar, to be exact). Blends are made from different vineyards each year to maintain the aroma and flavor profiles and structure of the wines from vintage to vintage. To satisfy the markets in all 50 of the countries where Argento has a presence, even the bottle closures are tailored to market preferences: synthetic closures in Brazil, screwcaps in the US.

Terroir is an interesting subject at Argento. Though the company recognizes that different regions and vineyards offer different potential, Argento is focused on providing a dependable brand for consumers. Thus they are less interested in the optimal expression of a particular plot of land and more interested in how to mix and match flavor and aroma profiles to repeat with precision the Argento wines year after year.

I insisted on visiting Casa Argento while in the Mendoza area. I fell in love with their peachy, crisp Chardonnay while working in a retail shop in San Francisco. I probably consumed on the order of cases myself, and sold a few bottles to customers too. Happily, I was welcomed to the estate by Paula Lucero, Argento’s PR and Hospitality Manager, along with Sebastian San Martin, the winemaker, for a tasting and lomito lunch.

The Casa is located a few minutes out of Mendoza in Chacras de Coria. It is a perfect place for a tasting and lunch or dinner, complete with a guest house and beautiful gardens. Here we tasted through Argento’s wines while Sebastian gave us information about the region, the grapes, and the terroir:

2010 Argento Pinot Grigio

This wine should be called a Pinot Gris, as it is teeming with baking spices, minerality, white and pink flowers, and a little tropical fruit. This grape was brought to Mendoza by accident: in 2000, Lurton ordered Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines to plant in the area but got a palatte of Pinot Grigio instead! And a good thing, too… this was a favorite, and a bottle was, of course, taken home for dinner.

Some informative notes: The winemaker keeps the crisp Pinot Gris style by using a reductive New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc yeast and inert gas during vinification to avoid oxidation, keeping fermentation temperatures around 13-14 Celcius, and clarifying the juice with a cold rest; in the vineyard, the acidity is preserved by avoiding effeuillage and harvesting at night. A creaminess is present due to battonage.

2010 Argento Torrontes

This typical Argentine varietal is always a winner. Loads of white flower and stone fruit aromas (and something I call ginger ale) are followed by great acidity and lemon on the palate. Simple enough to pair up with white meat or shellfish, but with a slight complexity to add some curiosity, this is an easy wine to like.

More informative notes: Argentine Torrontes is not Spanish Torrontes (aka Albillo Mayor), nor the Torrontes that grows on Madeira, but in greatly reduced numbers post-phylloxera (Terrantez). It is actually Criolla (aka Mission) crossed with Muscat de Alexandria. Its thick skin from the Criolla parentage allows it to handle extreme temperature swings and harsh soil conditions (salinity, high pH, low moisture), and gives it some rusticity, while its floral nature comes from the Muscat line. There are three types of Torrontes: Mendocino, San Juanino, and Riojano (decidedly the best; the other two are used for table grapes). To keep the delicate nature of the Muscat contribution and some good acidity, parral trellising is used to protect the grapes from too much sunlight. Careful fermentation must be done: Torrontes’ thick skin can lead to bitterness, so a cool fermentation around 12 degrees Celcius is best.

2009 Argento Bonarda

A very floral, fruity, jammy wine full of plums, blackberry, and raspberry. VERY easy to drink. Even after sitting in the glass for an hour this wine’s floral notes were still present. The soft, silky tannins and nice medium-long finish made it a pleasure.

Some notes: Bonarda is sometimes said to be an Italian varietal, but ampelography has determined that much of the Bonarda found in Argentina is actually a grape from the south of France called Counoise. This Rhone grape is used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends and provides acidity, spice, and not much color in France. In Argentina it makes a darker wine than its counterpart in France.

2009 Argento Malbec

Black fruit and violets dominate, with a very mellow tannin backbone. A light oak influence is imparted by a small quantity of high quality oak staves selected with the same process as barrel selection. The staves (and sometimes chips) come from Carneros company, known for its excellent products. This easygoing version of a Malbec would be a great accompaniment to a hearty tomato-based pasta.

Some winemaking notes: This gets a little technical. Sebastian San Martin prefers to use a long immersion of a small quantity of staves rather than shorter times and larger quantities. This increases the microoxygenation that occurs in the fermented wine. Oxygen bonding with alcohol combines to make acetaldehyde, which acts as a bridging mechanism between tannin molecules and aids in the creation of large tannins. These larger molecules give a softer mouthfeel, and some become so large that they precipitate out. Thus a softer wine can be made.

2009 Argento Malbec Reserva

Less floral notes and more spice than the Malbec. This wine is aged in American and French oak barrels. Its black jammy fruit and heavy body mingles nicely with the vanilla and cinnamon provided by the oak aging. This one is for steak.

2009 Argento Chardonnay Reserva

Though we did not taste the Chardonnay I know and love, we did try the next step up: the Reserva. The Reserva’s slight oak spice, some butter from malolactic fermentation, and delicious stone fruit with crisp acidity almost made me forget the soft peachiness of my familiar Chardonnay. Almost. I now have love for both styles. For those who prefer the California-style Chardonnays, this wine would be perfect.

To contact Argento for more information or to plan a visit, visit their website or email Paula.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Altos las Hormigas.

My first tour in Mendoza took me to Altos las Hormigas in the outskirts of Lújan de Cuyo. The name “heights of the ants” comes from the masses of small ants that filled the vineyard decades ago:

As we refused to poison the ants, and looked for natural ways to deflect their attention, our workers commented that the ants were the ‘real’ owners of the place, free to roam around effortlessly. We liked this novel idea of the ants owning the place, and decided to name our venture after this early situation. As the vines grew taller, the ants moved to other foods.

Antonio Morescalchi and Carlos Vasquez of Altos las Hormigas

We were driven from Mendoza city 45 minutes to Carrizal de Abajo, where the winery resides, on the boundary between Lujan de Cuyo and Barrancas. Malbec is the star here, and no winery represents the vision of Argentina as “the land of Malbec” more than Altos las Hormigas. This estate is the creation of two Italian winemakers from Tuscany: Alberto Antonini, former winemaker at Antinori, and Antonio Morescalchi, current head of marketing and management. The two set out to find an investment opportunity in Argentina in 1995 and bought 216 hectares in Carrizal de Abajo and Uco Valley. Together with three others they founded Altos las Hormigas.

The winery is quite isolated, with the Andes barely visible off to the east. The road to the estate winds though Bonarda vines trained in the traditional parral (a type of pergola) style, a system that keeps direct sunlight off of the grapes to maintain delicacy and acidity. A little further the scenery changes to vertically trained Malbec vines planted amidst the old irrigation channels which are still used. Walking among the vines, no sign of drip irrigation can be seen... flood irrigation is used here. When questioned about this irrigation practice, Antonio Morescalchi explained that it is preferable at the estate as it encourages competition between the vines by forcing the roots to spread further than with drip irrigation. A large reservoir along with a few wells provide water which is pumped out to the vines.

This land is relatively free of pests and diseases. The dry climate, extreme temperatures, and sandy/rocky soil ensures that vectors can’t propagate easily. Phylloxera exists in the soil but doesn’t spread. Some say this is due to a break in the phylloxera life cycle eliminating the flying “winged form,” which spreads eggs rapidly and only emerges in humid climates; others say it is a function of the heat and sandy soil; still others claim the flood irrigation makes an unfriendly habitat for the louse. Whatever the reason may be, lack of organic culprits to damage vines leads to lack of necessity for sprays and pesticides. Because of this many Mendoza wines are pretty much organically produced whether the official stamp appears on the labels or not.

Vineyard manager Carlos Vazquez, previously of Catena Zapata, describes the terroir as nearly perfect… the “nearly” comes into play not due to biological factors, but due to the threats posed by the Zonda. This hot, dry foehn wind originates in the Andes and warms as it blows down the slopes to the vineyards. It picks up dust and speed and tops out at 125 miles per hour. The real issue for the vines is not the force of the wind, however; after the Zonda comes the hail, large as baseballs, that breaks the vines violently and leads to incredible losses. For this reason the vines are propped up with sturdy nets, and this also may be the reason vines growing in this region develop thick trunks that make them appear to be much older than they are.

The wines of Altos las Hormigas are crafted in a serious but approachable style, and represent their respective districts quite well: the Lújan de Cuyo wines are fruity and bright with soft, velvety tannins, and the Uco Valley wines are full of flowers and spice, with a more prominent backbone of ageworthy tannins. Altos las Hormigas produced three wines until 2009: an unoaked Bonarda, an easy drinking Malbec, and a Malbec Reserva from vineyards in Uco Valley. Grapes from different vineyards are vinified separately and blended after vinification. Oak is used judiciously so as not to dominate the wines. We tasted at the estate in a very informal setting along with Antonio Morescalchi and Carlos Vazquez:

2009 Colonia las Liebres Bonarda

This wine’s aroma of bright, ripe raspberry fruit was an immediate attention grabber: the Bonardas I’ve tried before tend toward dark cherries. Its very soft tannins, excellent acidity, and lighter mouthfeel would make it a fantastic wine to pair with a Bolognese sauce or a veal dish.

2009 Altos las Hormigas Malbec

Very fruity! This was a favorite. In fact, I took a bottle home for good measure. Nice tannins back a deliciously juicy red fruit focus. The noticeably long finish made it all the more pleasant. You could pair this wine with a rare steak, as we did, but it’s great on its own as well!

2008 Valle de Uco Malbec Reserva

An intense, floral, spicy wine perfect for aging for 5-8 years. There is a definite minerality that shines through, giving the Reserva a heightened complexity. The tannins are relatively soft now, but should become quite silky with a little aging. This is definitely a red meat wine.

The 2010 vintage will rework the two previous Malbecs and include two new wines representing the terroir of the region as a joint venture with Chile’s infamous terroir consultant Pedro Parra. The Mendoza Clasico is the entry-level Malbec, full of bright fruit and spicy notes due to the combination of Valle de Uco and Lujan de Cuyo fruit. The Valle de Uco Terroir comes only from Uco Valley, showing off the floral backbone with fine fruit overtones characteristic of Valle de Uco. The Valle de Uco Reserva is aged in French oak for 18 months and utilizes the best of the available soils in Uco Valley: the ancient stony riverbeds with excellent drainage. This is a wine meant for aging, potentially 10+ years. And the pièce de résistance? The Vista Flores Single Vineyard, from the best terroir identified at an altitude of 1250 meters. Aged for 36 months in French oak, this wine is an investment piece loaded with complex spices and delicate flowers.

For more information on Altos las Hormigas or to set up a visit, go to their website or send an email.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A brief introduction to Mendoza.

Some geographic and climatic info about Argentina and its wine regions: locations, rainfall, climate (left to right)

Mendoza is a name often seen on the labels of bottles of Argentine Malbec readily available in the US in wine shops, wine bars, and restaurants alike. However I feel to understand this region one must travel there, either literally or through the eyes of someone else. There are intricacies of terroir and producers that are tied to the history of the region, its interesting mix of desert and rivers, and its equally interesting factor of foreign influence that can enlighten one on this new-world region's old-world twist.

Criolla, or Tinta Amarela, grapes

Argentina’s wine industry dates back to Spanish colonization. Cuttings were introduced to Santiago del Estero in 1557 and grown near Buenos Aires. These cuttings failed in the climate, stalling progress until grapes brought from Peru were successfully grown near modern-day Salta in 1542. In 1546 vines were introduced from Chile to Mendoza and San Juan. These were most likely the ancestor of the Criolla grape, which gave rise to Argentine Torrontes (a cross between Criolla and Muscat of Alexandria).

the Argentine railway at its peak

The first vineyard dates to the 1550s, and vineyards in Mendoza were planted shortly thereafter. The first Malbec grapes were brought to the Mendoza area by Miguel Pouget (a French agronomist). As the wine industry developed in the West, an increasing pressure by producers including Tiburcio Benegas, owner of El Trapiche estate, led to the development of the now abandoned Argentine railway (another story in itself… the railway at its peak extended 47,000 miles, but when privatization occurred the railway fell into disrepair).

Consulting winemakers: France's Michel Rolland (left) and California's Paul Hobbs (right)
The phylloxera plague drove many European winemakers to Argentina in the 1800’s. Quantity was the focus rather than quality and the main grape varietals were Cereza and Criolla Grande. This changed in the late 1900s when foreign investment drove producers to switch to fine wine production for the export market. Consulting winemakers from France, California, Australia, and Italy brought new methods and equipment. Now Mendoza and Salta export a large quantity of fine wine to the US, Europe, and Australia, and the wine industry is strengthening rapidly.

The city of Mendoza was established in 1561. Prior to this, the area was occupied by a number of tribes; the Huarpes are credited for the irrigation system that is still present today: fairly deep ditches that run the length of all the city streets, allowing runoff from the Andes to flow in and irrigate the many trees that line the roads. Without these established irrigation channels the immigrants arriving to the Mendoza in the 1500s would have been greeted with a barren desert instead of a flourishing agricultural area. An interesting side note: some of the trees that parade down the streets in Mendoza are platanos, or plane trees, also known as the “trees of Hippocrates” after the legendary tree under which Hippocrates is said to have taught his students the art of medicine; the tree is native to the island of Kos but has been transplanted to nearly every suitable area of the world. 

The Mendoza wine region has a semi-arid desert climate with dry, sandy soils on top of clay intermingled with patches of alluvial deposits due to the rivers snaking through. Very little rainfall characterizes the winegrowing areas. Huge temperature differentials between day and night are common, with daytime highs of 105 degrees Fahrenheit contrasting nighttime temperatures of 50 Fahrenheit. Rivers flowing from the heights of the Andes water five natural oases that allow agricultural development here. The northern oasis is fueled by the Mendoza river and lies underneath part of Maipú and Las Heras. The eastern oasis waters Junin, Rivadavia, San Martín, La Paz, and Santa Rosa, mainly table grape production areas. The Mendoza River itself flows through Maipú and Lújan de Cuyo, arguably the first wine-production regions of Mendoza. Uco Valley encompasses Tupungato, Tunuyán, and San Carlos. And the southernmost oasis covers San Rafael and General Alvear.
hail in Mendoza, courtesy of

Two major climatic issues arise in Mendoza and are inextricably linked: hail and the Zonda. The Zonda is a cool foehn wind that blows over the Andes from Chile, heating and picking up dust as it races down the Argentine side. By the time it reaches the valleys of Mendoza, windspeeds can exceed 40 km/hour. Hail trails a particularly harsh Zonda, sometimes as large as baseballs (hence the rugged netting covering most vines in the afflicted areas). The winds can damage young vines, and the hail can wreak absolute havoc on entire vineyards as, for example, in the 2010 vintage when 50% of the vines were killed. But beside these two pestilent problems few other issues loom in the Mendoza region for vines. Though phylloxera does exist here in the soil it doesn’t create a problem for the vineyards: in this climate the phylloxera louse is incapable of achieving its flying phase, keeping phylloxera attacks limited to one vine at a time. Some producers choose to plant on rootstock while others feel confident enough to use own-rooted vines.
Malbec, from Cahors (left) and Mandoza (right)

The characteristically “Argentine” varietal that most often comes to mind is Malbec. Introduced initially from Cahors, Malbec was once the dominant varietal in Bordeaux. However the grape is very disease-prone, and after a severe frost in 1956 that wiped out most of Bordeaux’s Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in its stead. Phylloxera dealt another rough blow to the vine: planted on American rootstock, the French Malbec would become overly vigorous reducing the concentration of the grapes. Pouget brought Malbec to Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century; these vines have tighter clusters of smaller berries than Malbec in Cahors, suggesting it was perhaps a unique clone now extinct in France. Another common Argentine varietal to find is Bonarda. Bonarda is sometimes said to be an Italian varietal, but ampelography has determined that much of the Bonarda found in Argentina is actually a grape from the south of France called Counoise.

Over the next month I will visit a few representative wineries throughout the main regions of Mendoza in an attempt to clarify some ambiguities of these wines. Hopefully an introduction to producers, their philosophies and backgrounds, and their styles will shed more light on what unites and distinguishes wines of Mendoza.