From the street, it seems like an upscale flower shop. The businesses in this stately Buenos Aires neighbourhood are mostly dark at 10 p.m., but here, a lone shopkeeper burns the midnight oil. We hit the buzzer and she grants us entry, guiding us around tables full of bouquets to the back of the shop. Next to a floor-to-ceiling wall of wine bottles, there’s a heavy steel-trimmed door that resembles a walk-in freezer. We follow her past it and down the rabbit hole—a metal staircase that zigzags deep into the building.
Suddenly, it appears—a dimly lit bar throbbing with locals drinking wine and house-made gin cocktails. As we squeeze our way through the room, the red glow of embers behind the long bar catches my eye. To my amazement, a chef is grilling rib-eye steaks and whole fish over blazing charcoal—underground.
That was at Floreria Atlantico, one of the city’s famous speakeasy-type bars accessed through a hidden entrance. Really, it shouldn’t have surprised me that in Argentina you can dine on a charcoal-grilled steak in the basement of a flower shop. After a week of touring the country’s wine regions, I’d already experienced plenty of things that I’m still trying to get my head around, including the typical Argentine dinner hour, which starts around 9 p.m. and can last through midnight, even when there are children in tow.
While I returned from Argentina with reams of crimson-stained tasting notes, it’s the culture and the landscape behind the bottles that made the biggest impression. Tasting wine in its country of origin is like having dinner with a person you’ve only emailed with: you finally put a place to a name and never look at the wine the same way again.
“Wine is part of our culture,” wine writer and sommelier Alejandro Iglesias emphasized at a tasting in Buenos Aires. He explained that while Argentine wines—particularly Malbec—shot to the world’s attention in the 1990s, the country has been making wine since the 16th century. “We produce wine because we drink wine,” he stated simply. According to Iglesias, Argentines consume 70 percent of the wine they make.
Indeed, I only needed to poke my head into a few grocery stores to see that wine is as widely available as milk is in Canada. I found decent bottles for the equivalent of about US$4, and at one rural corner store, refillable 4.65-litre jugs (of untested quality) went for just $8. Excellent bottles start at as little as US$10. (It helps that the flailing Argentine peso makes everything from wine to hotels to leather belts a bargain for tourists carrying U.S. dollars.)
In Mendoza, the province that produces 80 percent of the country’s wine, María Julia Cahiza laughed when I told her I used to drink milk with dinner while growing up and that my parents drank wine only on special occasions. “For me, that’s like saying I drink milk only on special occasions,” she replied.
Cahiza was representing the Bodega Norton winery at a tasting. She related how when she was a child, her parents and grandparents would enjoy a glass of wine at both lunch and dinner. (Traditionally, lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Argentina, followed by a few hours of siesta.) They would often dilute the wine with sparkling water to make a more refreshing, lower-alcohol beverage.
Regular sparkling wine is also more popular in Argentina than it is in Canada, Cahiza told me. “We drink it all the time,” she said, explaining that it’s not as strongly associated with celebrations as it is in Canada. “You can go out to a club and have a glass of sparkling. Why not?” she asked.
Torrontés is Argentina’s native grape, and during my short time in the country, I fell hard for the aromatic white wine in both its regular and bubbly forms. “When you smell it, you think it’s going to be a sweet wine,” said Juan Ignacio Torre as I tasted one at a restaurant in Mendoza. “But in the mouth, it’s really fresh, dry, and citric. It tricks your tongue.”
Torre, who is a Canadian sales manager for a large group of Argentine wineries, believes that Torrontés will be Argentina’s next Malbec abroad. Already, he said, his group exports more Torrontés than Malbec to Asia, where it pairs well with spicy dishes and sushi. In Argentina, I discovered, a chilled glass of Torrontés goes perfectly with a few empanadas, the ubiquitous half-moon pastries stuffed with ingredients such as meat, cheese, hard-boiled egg, raisins, and olives.
The olives themselves were a pleasant surprise in Argentina. Groves of them grow alongside many vineyards, and the resulting oil I came across was as good as the best I’ve tasted in Italy and Spain. At Familia Zuccardi winery in Maipú, just outside Mendoza city, visitors can not only buy the stellar oil to take home but pick and press their own olives in season.
The northwestern province of Salta, famous for both its empanadas and its Torrontés, was worth a visit for its dramatic scenery alone. The highest wine-growing region in the world is tucked south of Bolivia and east of Chile with vineyards at 1,490 to 3,100 metres above sea level. On the four-hour drive from the capital city of Salta to the winery region of Cafayate, the road wove past jagged red limestone formations, gaping canyons, and cactus-studded desert reminiscent of Arizona. The area’s eerie beauty turned even more surreal as the sun set, splintering the cobalt-blue sky an ethereal pink over the craggy hills.
I didn’t make it down to one of the world’s southernmost wine-growing regions, Patagonia, but I did try Patagonian wines at a tasting in Buenos Aires. The area south of the 39th parallel is a relatively new grape-producing region and is the country’s largest producer of Pinot Noir.
Winery rep Carolina Peter told me that when Familia Schroeder constructed its Patagonian winery in 2002, workers discovered the remains of a titanosaur. “Nobody had touched that land in 75 million years,” she explained. The winery named its Saurus line after the dinosaur, and visitors can now see the fossilized bones on display.
Most wine enthusiasts use the city of Mendoza as a base for exploration, with its excellent restaurants such as Siete Cocinas, which highlights regional Argentine cuisine. The city charmed me with its parks and sidewalk florists selling miniature, colourfully wrapped cacti. But the one place I would return to in a second is the Uco Valley, located about an hour’s drive south of Mendoza city.
A rapidly developing wine region, the valley was just a name on a wine label until I arrived at Bodegas Salentein on a frigid June day. (Since the seasons are the reverse of Canada’s, June is winter in Argentina, with summer in December; March is peak harvest time in Mendoza.) Clouds and rain blocked all traces of the Andes that apparently towered over the vineyards.
But by sunrise the next morning, the clouds had lifted. And there were the Andes, magnificently stretched out along the horizon with a thick pillow of fresh snow. They radiated a kind of prehistoric permanence: I wouldn’t have been surprised to wander in and find God camped out there, or at least the 700-year-old knight from Indiana Jones guarding the Holy Grail.
It was one of those beautiful travel moments that render a camera useless, since it’s the feeling, not the view, you long to capture. The only thing to do is tuck away the camera, breathe it in, and hope it sticks to the only memory card that matters.
If not, there’s always a bottle of wine back home to help bring it all back.