Photo by Joe Roberts
A South American plane flight that launches you almost directly over the Andes mountains, ascending and descending through cloud-cover, is just as gorgeous but hellishly turbulent as you’d imagine. While pleasing to they eyes, the stunning Andean peaks – dominating, sandy-colored, snow-capped monuments to the unimaginable power of the earthquakes that formed them - make for levels of aeronautic bumpiness that before this flight I’d have told you had to be illegal, never mind possible. This is not what you need if, like me, you’ve contracted the Chilean equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge, and every roller-coaster-like plunge-and-surge is serving you a healthy dose of humble pie, which is about the only thing you can eat without having to have all of your calls forwarded to the restroom (a.k.a. “your new office”).
I’m flying from the bustling, hectic, modern Chilean metropolis of Santiago to its thoroughly more laid-back, rougher-around-the-edges sister city of Mendoza in Argentina. They are both locations intimately connected to the production of wine in South America, but while they share the duty of shouldering the majority of modern wine production for their respective countries, otherwise they are separated by far more than even a forty-five minute plane ride over the mountains might suggest. Chileans are matter-of-fact, pleasant, and speak about as quickly as they eat their stylishly-prepared seafood, which is to say at a velocity that would have made Speedy Gonzales proud. In Argentina, where the Italian influences run deep, their speaking cadence is so slow and melodic you’re more likely to think that someone is singing to you rather than answering your urgent questions about the location of the nearest toilet (which I anticipated I would be needing to do after this flight… a lot…). And that would probably all be happening while spending several hours eating a rustic barbeque lunch, served at a pace that will have wondering when (or if) any work ever gets done in Argentina.
I’m enduring the heady turbulence because I’m on my way to tour some of the major producers and vineyard areas around Mendoza, and I am also quite determined to experience Argentine barbequed splayed goat if it kills me, which based on the way I am feeling, I suspect it just might. It doesn’t help that my petite Chilean guide and interpreter is unable to assist me in my gastrointestinal time of need, as she is deathly afraid of turbulence and is gripping her seat with so much force that she might have created permanent imprints of her hands into the armrests, fingerprints and all. I wonder if she’s in the right business, because she needs to take this flight a lot. I envision this particular airplane eventually carrying her fingerprints on every seat, poor thing.
We survive, though my stomach’s recovery has undoubtedly encountered a severe setback from the flight. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of time during the immigration and customs process in Mendoza to try to keep my mind off the state of my intestines – it takes us over two and half times longer to get from the airplane exit door to our luggage on the other side of the immigration booths than it did to fly hundreds of miles across the Andes. My mind wanders to thoughts of why I’m here (“focus, man… your gut does not feel like parasitic Alien spawn is about to burst out of it…”): to try to find wines with the magic combination of deliciousness and wide U.S. distribution, but that are imbued with real soul – in other words, values with character. Now that Argentina is the fifth-largest wine producer worldwide, this is now a needle-in-the-haystack task (though one could spend their days in far worse circumstances than tasting through obscene amounts of wine in search of the true vinous gems, even on an upset stomach).
Photo by Joe Roberts
The modern South American wine industry is about four hundred and fifty years in the making. Vines were brought south of the border from Europe by Spanish missionaries in the 1530s, mostly for religious purposes but no doubt also to slake the thirst of the local populations. It’s been the gradual reduction of that wine thirst (for example, from over eighty liters of per capita wine consumed each year to less than thirty just in the last twenty-five years in Argentina), and the movement of younger generations of South Americans away from wine and towards beer and soda, that’s spurred a dramatic increase in wine exports from the region. With so much business riding on exports, Argentina needs competitive edges, and one of them is volume: with labor and land costs far below those of its North American competitors, Mendoza producers can pump out millions of liters of wine and sell it at a fraction of what it would take their U.S. counterparts to keep up.
Unfortunately, the side-effect of so much production is so much of that production tasting the same; an ocean of good wine at great prices, but rarely great wine at good prices - a vinous sea of the banal. The trick would be finding the islands of truly expressive, characterful wines among those duller waters. The bulk wine market here in Mendoza (where nearly 400 thousand acres of vines are planted, and eighty percent of the Argentina’s wine is made) might be the lifeblood of the industry, but some producers are trying to cap off their less-interesting wares with more charming, unique, terroir-driven wines. Those are the glasses of vino that I was after - and squeezing in that fabled barbeque, of course, if my tummy could handle it (the Alien parasite seemed to be getting hungry).
After being reunited with my luggage (an experience that is always spiritually uplifting if only because my bags usually contain fine wines and olive oils from my travels - contents that tend to make customs officials apoplectic), I’m treated to the best that Argentina really has to offer: its rustic scenery. While there are a lot of wineries near Mendoza, they’re not clustered neatly together along a tidy strip like you’ll find on Route 29 in Napa Valley, and to get to them you need to plan on a few hours of bumpy car rides. Bad for the tummy, but great for the soul, for few sights in the wine world can compare to the morning sun hitting the peak of Tupungato (a massive stratovolcano dating to Pleistocene times, whose tip sits over twenty-one thousand feet above sea level), gradually changing its colors from a ruddy, burnt orange to a pristine eggshell white. In several cases, the vineyards run right up into the base of these gorgeous Andean mountains. If something like that can’t wake you up in the morning, as they say, then even I can’t recommend a wine that would stir your soul (because your soul might, in fact, be missing).
Photo by Joe Roberts
Familia Zuccardi (in Maipú) is our destination, a massive outfit that pumps out a lot of wine (and olive oil) and exports the vast majority of it, while also hosting about forty thousand visitors a year. Unlike Trivento, however, Zuccardi is a family-run outfit that feels like family-run outfit despite its enormous size. “We want people to have an experience,” their affable and almost childishly-exuberant Director José Alberto Zuccardi tells me during my visit, and I believe him. José’s tells us that his father planted their first vines in the 1960s, mostly to show off an alternative use for the construction irrigation system he designed, but fell in love with winemaking and brought the younger generations into the mix. José was conscripted in `76, and his enthusiasm hasn’t seemed to wane one iota since. His children are now involved in various aspects of the business, such as their tourism and olive oil arms.
But the wines are what seal the deal for me. Zuccardi have 40 hectares of experimental vineyards planted with 38 different grape varieties, and a unique series of test facilities in which to try out the potential of each. The results are, as one might expect, mixed, but Zuccardi are for sure onto something with their savory, tobacco-laden “Q” Tempranillo ($20), a successful graduate of the experimental program (their high-end “Zeta” at $45 also benefits from the Tempranillo, where it’s blended with sixty-plus percent Malbec to produce a leathery, velvety red with died cherry fruit aromas and a ton of aging potential).
We taste through the Malbec wines from different vineyard locations that make up Zuccardi’s signature “Q” Malbec blend (a steal at $20), and my intestinal Alien parasite has been almost totally placated (or at least he isn’t getting any attention, because I’m too busy being beguiled by aromas of spices, violets, black fruits, vanilla, leather and chocolate). Now here are some wines that taste like one of the required ingredients was a drop of winemaker’s soul added to the bottle before the cork went in to cap it off.
Photo by Joe Roberts
After tasting, we head over to Zuccardi’s restaurant for lunch. It’s a barbeque – an epic one at that: it starts with bread and olive oil, then moves on to splayed goat, beef, chicken, and half-a-dozen different preparations of sausages that will probably have me smelling of smoked meat for days. It ends (several hours later) with more than a reasonable amount of dessert courses, and a lesson on the proper method of sharing Yerba Mate tea, Argentina style (in summary: add enough sugar to significantly increase your risk of contracting diabetes and you’ll be getting close to how they do it here).
In other words: mission accomplished! Now if only I didn’t have to bounce back over those mountains…