Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Young and hip and seriously fine wines

In Mendoza, winemakers are breaking with tradition in a big way and using innovative techniques with their Malbecs.

As wines go, many find Argentine Malbecs die-hard traditional. Dry, oaky, full of musky tongue-curling tannins, and quick to stain your lips purple-red, they're built to wash down forkfuls of steak, not to sip.

But what's refreshing about Mendoza, Argentina's wine country a half-hour flight west of Buenos Aires, is the innovation that young, hip but equally serious winemakers are bringing to Malbec.

Mendoza itself is a blissed-out place. It's a walking and biking town: Mellow, tree-arched streets that keep everything delightfully cool radiate from a huge sprawling plaza, set against a backdrop of the striking Andes. At night, cafe culture spills onto the sidewalks, where people

chatter and chink cutlery in the balmy air.

With wine bars, boutiques and nightclubs, it makes a fun base camp for a weekend of wine touring. The surrounding vineyards are miraculous expanses of green, irrigated since pre-Inca times by mountain snowmelt. Dry and sunny by day, cool at night, the climate produces vines heavy with juicy grapes.

Some of the Mendoza region's best bodegas are in Maipu, 9 miles southeast of Mendoza, and Lujan de Cuyo, directly south. But there are thousands of wineries and vineyards in Mendoza; you could explore here for weeks.


At the Melipal winery, every member of the family is involved in the winemaking: Mom designed the landscaping; her daughter, Clarisa, creates the bottle labels; Clarisa's husband, Santiago, is the general manager.

Inside their modern bodega, they mess with tradition in a big way, letting the grape speak for itself by making a fruit-forward, nearly unoaked Malbec -- unheard of in Mendoza. Their first vintage in 2003 was an enormous success, achieving 91 points in Wine Spectator and selling out immediately.

Other bodegas are taking similar risks. Familia Zuccardi has an entire winery devoted to experimentation, featuring worldwide varietals as well as organic wines. New blends are constantly being tested, temperature and time are being tampered with, and wine drinkers -- even savvy Argentine ones -- are taking notice.


With the rise in wine travelers to the region, some Mendoza bodegas are pulling out the aesthetic stops. Carlos Pulenta, for example, painstakingly combines aesthetic and function with a eucalyptus roof and a rosewood floor, obviously with tourists in mind.

Other bodegas, like Melipal, opt to make you feel at home, like being invited into the family's living room. They'll tell you everything you want to know about their vintages, from the exact blend of grapes to the number of days spent in the tank.

Across the region, there are few trade secrets. Vintners often float between vineyards, making suggestions and acting as consultants.

''In the U.S., your neighbor might be a competitor,'' explains Melipal's Santiago, who spent time in California's Napa Valley. ``In Mendoza, we collaborate.''