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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mendoza: We Cannot Stay Away

When we found out that some of our closest friends, the Newhooks, were moving back to the US, we knew that we needed to take one last trip with them before their move date.  The choice was simple, we needed to return to Mendoza.

Since this is our third time to wine country in Argentina, it was easy to decide what kinds of wineries to  visit.  We knew that we wanted to go to the smaller bodegas, and that one day we wanted to venture to the Uca Valley, an area that we had not yet visited.  Considering the sheer amount of wineries in Mendoza, somewhere around 1,100, we still looked to a tour company to help us narrow down the options. 

Our buddy Javier was on vacation for this trip, so we booked through Uncorking Argentina, and they put together a tour that was precisely what we wanted.  We visited 3 wineries each day, all of which are sized between boutique and low production (less than 1 million bottles produced per year). 

We started the trip at Mendel, a winery that we visited back in July and loved.  They have a lower line blend called Lunta that is a great value for your peso and their 100% Malbec is a great Malbec option.  The Malbec vines at this winery are almost 100 years old, and are some of the only vines that haven't been grafted with other varietals to resist a certain bug that ravaged the Malbec plants back in the 1940s.  The property was preserved because it was abandoned by the original owners - and recovered by the current owners after 25 years of disrepair.  The highlight of their wines is a Malbec/Cabernet blend called the Unus. If you see this on a wine list, it is an easy choice.

 They have this great sculpture on the property of a man harvesting grapes, constructed solely of machine parts.  He's a really cool representation of the vineyard.

We had a full tasting this time around, with a recently married couple from the US on my right and an Argentine couple living in Australia on Milena's left.  It turns out that the Argentines have mutual friends with the Newhooks - a very small world indeed.  And the groom was all grins as he posed for this picture.

Our next visit was to a relatively new winery to the area, Piattelli, which is actually owned by an American.  It is an organic vineyard and has one of the only female wine makers in the area.  This was our lunch spot on day one, and the food was very good, though the service was a bit disjointed.  After the winery tour, there was no explanation of the individual wines that we had with lunch, so I don't have much to share on that front.  I really liked their Chardonnay and they served a Rosé of Malbec that was too sweet for my taste.

The lunch was epic, I think we were sitting for over 2 hours. For a portion of the time, they had the sprinklers on right next to us, spraying Milena, which was just strange.  It was as if we had arrived too early for our reservation, though they knew well in advance when we were coming.  Interestingly, they are planning to open a winery in Salta, very close to where we all vacationed in December 2011.

We ended the day with a blending session at Renacer, which might have been the only winery that I would skip next time.  We were given four different pure wine types, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2 others, and we blended our own varietal. None of them were particularly great, but Jon's blend was given the honor of "Grand Reserva".

The following day is when we ventured to the Uca Valley, an area 1.5 hours south of the town of Mendoza. We started the day at Pulenta Estates, which is the maker of some of our favorite wines. The Pulenta Estates bodega is owned by two brothers, who are also related (I think there is a third brother in there) to the owners of Vistalba winery.  It's a funny thing, because the two wineries are both beautiful, and the tours were knowledgable and thorough.  The difference is at Pulenta, you can choose between 3 different tasting levels, each with a difference in price, but all of them consist of the higher quality wines that they produce. At Vistalba, they only offered their lowest level wines, which weren't all that great, and they hope that you will go out on a limb and purchase their higher lines (which aren't cheap at an average of US$50 per bottle).  It seems like a poor marketing move to me - we'll stick with Pulenta.

The next stop was Andeluna, ironically, one of the first wines we tried in Argentina.  They have gone through some changes, they renamed the different lines and changed their labels, but it is still a great, affordable option among Argentinean wines.  We had lunch at Andeluna, which offered a great 5 course pairing lunch.  The tables are set right next to the open kitchen, it was really great to see exactly what the chefs were doing.  They served a gazpacho soup with cucumber that was outstanding.

The last winery on our trip ended up being our favorite new find. La Azul is a boutique bodega that has a whole lotta land.  They sell over 80% of their grapes to other wineries, then they keep the chosen 20% to make their own wines.  They have a Malbec, Cabernet, Azul Reserva and Azul Grand Reserva (both blends).  The prices are on par with Domaine St. Diego, AR$40 for the lower lines and up to AR$120 for the higher lines, and the quality is incredible. Even if you live in Argentina, you won't find this wine very often... yet.  If you do, give it a go, you'll be glad that you did.

During the tour, we tasted the Grand Reserva right out of the barrel, generally a neat thing to do but at this stage, wines are not necessarily ready to drink.  This was smooth and bottle worthy, and it still had some months to mature.  

We had our tasting outside, which was a great place to sit for a drink in the afternoon.  The Uca Valley is much higher in altitude than Mendoza city, so the sun is extremely strong, but they tend to have a nice breeze.

For dinner on our last night in Mendoza, we followed our friend Chef Mun to his new location in the Casarena bodega.  He and Carey have such a great thing going for themselves, the location is beautiful, the dinner is held right in the barrel cellar of the winery, and the food is Asian-Argentine Fusion, not a mix you see every day here.

We had a great time, the dinner was outstanding, as expected, the only sad part is that is no longer have Casa Mun as an option the Capital!  If you are in the Mendoza area, make an effort to get to Mun@Casarena, it is unlike any other meal you will have in Argentina.

It was a great "farewell" trip with our friends.  While we were gone, Gretchen and Talia got together and played - they were having just as much fun at home.  And, even though we were only gone for a weekend, the best part is walking in and seeing this face again!


  1. It all looks awesome! We need to come back and take you all there for YOUR farewell trip :)

  2. Looks like a lovely time, glad you and Jon got a weekend away! Great pictures!