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MENDOZA, ARGENTINA, SOUTH AMERICA`S PERFECT GOURMET GETAWAY
 
(2011 - Fall Issue)

Writer: TORREY PASS, Photos: © LUCIE POULIN



Last year, my wife and I cycled across the Americas.

At the end of the road (literally), we agreed that if we could custom-design our own country, it would look a lot like Argentina, where we spent four months riding the final 5,000 kilometres. And if we were to head back to any place along our route tomorrow, our first pick would be Mendoza.

Why?

For the food and, of course, the wine. That and the laid-back Mediterranean ambience, endless sunshine, jaw-dropping scenery and the perfect pairing between earthiness and cosmopolitan. While a number of things pull us back to Mendoza, food and wine seem to lie at the heart of a perfect system.

Authentic Argentina

At a comfortable 1,000 kilometres west of Buenos Aires, Mendoza manages to conserve both its distinctive character and provincial appeal. Its population of 110,000 makes it the biggest thing on the legendary Ruta 40—the Argentine equivalent of the Alaska-Canada Highway, which connects the Bolivian border in the north to Patagonia in the south. Here all of Argentina’s best-known hallmarks are proudly celebrated: cowboys, wine, barbecue, the siesta, rugged natural splendour and European sophistication.

Mendoza is pleasant. Its wide streets are shaded by huge leafy trees. In the afternoons its sidewalk patios are packed with people enjoying a coffee or a beer with friends. The city is an oasis fed by melting snow from the Andes, which serve as a dramatic backdrop to the west. While Mendoza may be the perfect antidote to the frenetic excitement of Buenos Aires, you’ll find more here than just a relaxed pace. You’ll come in contact with what makes Argentina truly great; amidst the olive groves, fig orchards and vineyards, you’ll meet a proud people who take the time to do things well. Really well. And they want youto know it.

Vino Fino: How it Came to Pass

Mendocinos take their wine seriously. This is partly an occupational hazard; the region’s leading industry produces a whopping 70 per cent of all Argentinean wine. But quantity isn’t the point, at least not anymore. The peso bust in 2002 brought in a huge influx of foreign cash and Old World expertise. Dozens of vineyards under new management began to market for export, tapping the region’s potential to produce excellent wines and utterly transforming local wine culture. Nearly a decade later, Argentina has become South America’s top exporter. Per capita domestic consumption has fallen in terms of litres and soared in terms of calibre. Important business meetings are frequently held at upscale vineyards, called bodegas. A good bottle of wine is the customary gift for all occasions and a standard wager for any (usually soccer-related) bet.

This critical mass of oenologists and agronomists means the general populace is also familiar with the technical side of winemaking along with the finer points of tasting. They talk casually about grapes, soil, irrigation and oak barrels the way Canadians talk about hockey. For those intrigued by the art of winemaking, Mendoza can be an excellent school.

Dining Among the Vines

Where fine wine is served, fine food must accompany, and the country’s emerging role as a global wine producer has happily been matched by a new and vigorous culinary confidence. Mendoza harbours a bevy of options that feature everything from fusion and molecular cuisine to gourmet versions of “peasant fare.” The challenge for foreign foodies is the sheer volume of attractive offerings, from the dozens of high-end wine bars and bistros downtown to the elegant on-site restaurants at the country’s top wineries.

We kicked off our gastronomical adventure with a household name: Familia Zuccardi’s restaurant, Casa del Visitante. Zuccardi makes the Fuzion lineup of acclaimed entry-level wines that have taken Ontario and Québec markets by storm in recent years. Fuzion is not for sale in Argentina, however, Zuccardi has built its reputation as one of the most respected in the country upon its more exclusive elixirs, among them Santa Julia and their eponymous label, Zuccardi.

Unlike a number of the other big outfits owned by holdings groups, here you’re more than likely to meet the Zuccardis in person, as we did. Their five-star restaurant, managed by the young and serene Julia Zuccardi, was one of the first “eat in our vineyard” spots in town when it opened its doors in 2004. While there may be more exclusive places to eat in the Mendoza area, the Casa is a sure value and a standard by which to measure others. The place oozes national pride and elevates the typical to the divine. Their mission is simple: to make you fall in love with Argentina.

Their regional menu features traditional empanadas and barbecue along with salad and desert, and is a deal at $25 (100 Argentine pesos). Basically, you get a gourmet version of what the whole country eats every Sunday when they gather in parks, backyards, or anywhere else where they can light a fire. Succulent cuts of meat are cooked over a wood-fired grill (parrilla de leña) along with a selection of sausages and veggies. We quickly realized that the sumptuous sizzling platters would keep coming to our table until we begged for mercy. Likewise, our wine glasses were never empty; the servers and occasionally the sommelier made regular rounds to make sure we were enjoying our meal with oak-aged Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and (yes, and) Tempranillo varietals, along with a few sneak previews of new wines not yet on the market.

Their tasting menu is a molecular cuisine eight-course extravaganza prepared with local seasonal ingredients. Each dish has been meticulously developed by chef Matias Aldasoro and a team of sommeliers to harmonize with the notes in each of the featured top-shelf wines. We enjoyed this menu for its creativity—one dish featured “sushi” made with vine leaves, quinoa and caramelized beef—as well as the range of flavours augmented and sometimes created by the pairings. When a crew of wine experts spend days dreaming up a dessert to accent the black olive and cherry notes in a sparkling red, it shows. A bargain at $40 (160 pesos).

Practical Information

It only takes one almuerzo (the mid-day meal) to understand why the whole town takes a siesta from noon to five every day; they’re either eating or digesting. You’ll also understand why many restaurants start serving dinner at 10 p.m.; no one is hungry until then. This means, of course, people don’t go to sleep until around two in the morning. Once you sync up with this quirky schedule that seems to have been designed by teenagers, your visit will become infinitely more enjoyable.

The inverted seasons make Argentina a perfect winter getaway. Many southern destinations have relatively short days year-round, which can seem unnatural to Canadians who associate warm weather with long and sunny evenings. While Canada slumbers in darkness, central Argentina enjoys 15 hours of sunshine per day.

 
 
 
 
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