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Top shelf and top nosh in Luján de Cuyo

9am is the new wine o’clock.

My personal rule for drinking is that you shouldn’t have an alcoholic beverage before 12pm. Unless, of course, you have been out all night, in which case drinking in the morning is perfectly acceptable. But if you have had a good night’s sleep and woken up feeling fresh, starting to drink before 12 o’clock – beer o’clock – is stretching into alcoholics territory.

Well, on this day I broke the rules. But with good reason.

A trip to Mendoza will inevitably involve a wine tour of some description. Most people tend to go with the cheap and cheerful bike tours of neighbouring Maipú available on every corner in town. My sister did one of these tours and she really enjoyed it, as did lots of the people I met along the way, but I had been told that you don’t really get to try that much wine on those tours and certainly not the good stuff.

Lonely Planet recommends two companies that offer deluxe wine tours:

“They’re not cheap, but the benefits are obvious – small group sizes … a knowledgeable English-speaking guide … and access to some of the more exclusive (i.e. better quality) vineyards. Winemakers are much more likely to be getting the good stuff down off the top shelf for you on these tours too.”

My Mum had given me £100 for my birthday before I left which I was to save for something special so I decided to splash out on a tour of Luján de Cuyo with Trout and Wine. The tour cost US$165 (£106) which I thought incredibly reasonable given that it included a tasting at three top-end bodegas (wineries) as well a 4 course lunch and matching wines with unlimited top ups at a fourth.

Our first port of call (9am!) was Mendel, “an old historical winery run by one of Argentina's most famous winemakers Roberto de la Motta.” Given they are the oldest of the wineries we visited that day and the most renowned, I have to say that I was the least impressed by their wines in retrospect.

We tried a 2010 and 2009 malbec in that order. The 2010 had a smoky nose which belied the sour cherry flavour; I was expecting something more robust and less acidic. The 2009 had a sweeter nose, smelling of the cherries and berries it tasted of and was much smoother. The Unus 2009, which has received much acclaim from wine connoisseurs, should have been the star of the show but I was disappointed; one of my favourite qualities in a malbec is that it can be so smooth and easy to drink but still have a lot of character. The Unus had the character – full bodied and peppery – but also high tannins which I found rather cloying. Apparently this was because it was not sufficiently mature; they assured me that it would improve with age. 

Things improved markedly at Terrazas de los Andes, where I tried Torrontes – my new favourite white – for the first time. Apricots, peaches and honey on the nose suggested a much sweeter taste than it had. There was some of the apricots and honey on the palate, but it also had some unexpected citrus qualities which took the edge off the sweetness. 



The Reserva Malbec 2008 was the best of the reds at Terrazas. A buttery nose with hints of maple and vanilla was inviting and indicative of the flavour, which was full of plums and spices, but exceptionally velvety, almost creamy. I would name it the red of the day but things started to get a little hazy after the second tasting so I can’t be sure. My notes on it are certainly the most extensive, but this may be because diligence in note-taking is inversely proportional to drunkenness.

I had been to wineries before but I had never had such a thorough induction into the wine making process. I really enjoyed walking through the fermentation rooms and cellars and seeing how and where the wine was processed and stored at various stages, although I have to admit that my interest did wane slightly the more booze I had and the hungrier I got.

Unfortunately for me my group were more eager to learn than I and asked a seemingly endless stream of questions which the winemakers took a considerable time to answer in detail while my belly rumbled on.

Food glorious food!
I was anxious to try it
Four courses and wine
My favourite diet!

Finally our guide, Vicky, decided it was time to round things up so we wouldn’t be too late for lunch and we headed over to Club Tapiz where the lunch was preceded by a tasting of the olive oils also made on the bodega.

The lunch setting could not have been more perfect if you tried. The restaurant was in the old estate built in 1890. Our private dining room was on the first floor flanked by a patio framed in wrought iron and complete with full length windows looking out over the surrounding fields of parched brown soil, eucalypts and vines with the Andes as a backdrop. This photo does not in any way do it justice:

Unfortunately it was so bright up there that none of my other photos came out well enough to share. However, you can get an idea of the view from these shots taken at ground level:

A sudden lull in the chatter round our table drew me back into the dining room . An amuse bouche of chicken escabeche had temporarily silenced everyone.

My notes simply say “tangy, but under seasoned” which is not particularly enlightening and probably indicative of how quickly I wolfed it down. My notes on the ceviche are more illuminating – “a wonderful textural experience, the sole contrasts beautifully with the crisp peppers and onion. Chives and lemon replace the traditional Peruvian lime and coriander for a more subtle flavour and acidity.” That’ll be the wine (wank) taking affect.

The ceviche was paired with a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc (Zolo, 2010) which had all the typical elements of a good NZ sauv – gooseberries, passionfruit, citrus, cat’s piss – but was fruitier than most with less acidity. As someone who once drunk nothing but NZ sauv until finally I could drink it no more, I really appreciated revisiting this grape and finding a new depth I had not thought possible. 

A simple green salad with tomato and parmesan was perfectly pleasant but would have been better served along side the main course, which was steak (of course). And, oh my, what a fine specimen of Argentine steak it was:

In Argentina it is a general rule that you should order steak one notch down from the level of cooking you actually want as they have a tendency to over do it. But here the meat was cooked exactly as ordered (thanks to Vicky for that nugget!) and was as succulent and tender as ever. It was served with some fantastic potatoes which had been parboiled and squashed, peppered with herbs and fried to a crisp in lashings of olive oil, presumably the stuff made on site. The accompanying wines were the Tapiz Malbec 2010 and the Tapiz Syrah 2009. I preferred the Syrah – again packed full of red fruits with a smoky overtone that went well with the chargrilled steak.

Dessert was an eclectic concoction of passion fruit ice cream, meringue, chocolate terrine, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. The passion fruit ice cream was the highlight – rich and delicious and so much like the real thing that I kept expecting to find pulp in it. This was paired with a sparkling rose made from malbec which tasted like under-ripe strawberries. It went very well with the dessert, but it was a strange jump after drinking such a bold red.

By the time we got to Bodega Benegas I was, as you might imagine, rather pissed and so I can’t really remember very much about the wines there. I didn’t take many good photos either, surprise surprise, except for this one of the welcomingly cool and cavernous interior of the old cellars:

It is a pity that my memory fails me because I know we tried some interesting varietals, the Clara Benegas Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and the Benegas Libertad Vineyards Meritage 2006, as well as one of my favourite red grapes, sangiovese. All I can say is that I quaffed them all with not much trouble and the smiley face in my notepad suggests that I enjoyed them ☺

One of the nicest things about this tour, which didn’t occur to me until later when I was trying to convince my Dad to do it, is that because you are paying a premium there is no pressure to buy. My Dad hates going to wineries because, in his words,

“You get a thimble full of plonk and then feel like you have to buy a case of the shite!”

Well, quite apart from the fact that none of the wine on this tour could be termed ‘shite’, I didn’t buy anything and I was never once made to feel guilty. It would just be another thing to lug around in my already overweight backpack and I decided a wine like the Terrazas Torrontes deserved better than to be drunk out of plastic cups in a hostel with fellow backpackers who were likely to be just as happy with a 20 peso bottle from Carrefour.

When we pulled up outside Mendoza backpackers it was dusk and I had just woken from a much needed siesta. I felt remarkably sober and after some water, a shower and a change of clothes I was feeling fresh and ready to start over.

9pm is the new wine o’clock.

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