In any trip I have taken, a pleasant surprise always occurs. Whether it’s a hidden photography gem down an alley, the Mom and Pop restaurant, or something you trip over because you were not where you were originally supposed to be. Fate, kismet, dumb luck – I don’t care what you call it, I’ll take it.
After two days on airplanes, John and I were ready to collapse when we arrived a Lares de Chacras, a wonderful boutique hotel just south of Mendoza. As we entered through the massive front door that pivots at a unique angle, we took a quick step back as we realized we were walking across the glass ceiling of their wine cellar. We both smiled as Franco welcomed us and we knew we made an excellent choice in accommodations.
A welcome shower and a two-hour nap are exactly what was needed before joining the other guests in the dining room for our first wonderful dinner in Argentina. We selected an Alta Vista Single Vineyard Serenade 2010 Malbec from the wine cellar to start the evening. Instead of the typical bread, we were presented with addictive warm, melt-in-your-mouth herb biscuits. To start, we enjoyed “wrapped seafood” a delicious mix of seafood and mushrooms wrapped in phyllo, and a wonderful winter soup of pureed pumpkin drizzled with pureed beetroot and touches of green onions and jalapenos. We both could not resist the opportunity to enjoy our first Argentinian beef. While John enjoyed a perfectly grilled filet mignon with chimichurri sauce, I tried the skirt steak. I was very pleased that my steak which can be overcooked at tough at times, was juicy and perfectly medium rare. The simple spices allowed the flavors of the meat to shine. While we didn’t think there was room for dessert, there always is. The caramel, coconut flan was too much for me to resist and it did not disappoint.
The morning arrived and we headed south with the spectacular Andes mountains as a backdrop. A fresh dusting of snow brought them to life, even though another 90-degree day was predicted in the valley. The cold and snow we left behind in Jackson Hole made us smile.
Our first stop was Catena Zapata. A number of years ago I had the honor of meeting Nicholas Catena at a wine dinner and he made me promise if I ever visited Mendoza I would make the winery my first visit. I kept my promise and was not disappointed. The Catena wines have always been one of my favorites and were my entrée into Malbecs years ago. I cannot say enough about the staff at the winery, Tatianna and Mercedes, who were exquisite hosts. They were also a godsend when we had some transportation difficulties and they didn’t even blink before jumping in to assist us.
The winery is designed after a Mayan ruin, paying tribute to the history of the country. But this history of Argentine wines has been built squarely on the shoulders of the Catena family. It was Nicholas who first planted vines at a high altitude (6000+ meters), and while everyone shook their heads and thought he was crazy, it was he who proved them wrong. Today their Adrianna vineyard has generated over 500 Malbec varietals.
Every element of the winery was beautifully designed, from the brass staircase in the center of the building that ascends to the roof, to the 300 barrel wine theater where the best of their wine is aged, to the impressive Catena and European (read – the competition) wine cellars. We so wanted to poke around the European cellar and see what was hiding under the dust covering many of the labels.
While we only tasted the wines available for export during our tasting – wines I have already tried, we were able to enjoy a wonderful DV Catena Malbec 2010 Malbec while we waited for our ride to arrive. Well worth the wait!
My hat is off to Laura Catena who is now in charge of the winery. She is blazing trails for women in the wine industry and is making her Father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather very proud.
Another woman making advances is Susan Balbo – our wonderful, incredible surprise of the day. We didn’t originally have Dominio Del Plata on our radar screen, but thanks to a last-minute recommendation by a Jackson Hole wine rep, we were able to book a visit. We arrived early at the winery and famished, so we asked if we could slip in for lunch at Osadia de Crear. Our hotel manager, in addition to our wine rep, said it was a must.
Osadio only opened in March and it has an amazing future with Chef Jose Cacciavillani at the helm. Osadia de Crear translates to “daring to create” and is the perfect name. While the seating is limited, I have never experienced a restaurant where the chef comes to each table with each serving and provides a description of your meal. Raw talent and creativity are his foundation, and then he intoxicates your palate from there.
I highly recommend the Susan Balbo prefix meal for approximately $80. It includes a starter, entrée and dessert, along with two glasses of wine and coffee or tea. We each ordered different wines so we had the opportunity to try four Signature Balbo wines.
We began with a Signature 2011 Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Malbec was beautiful with strong chocolate and spices. Initially, the Cab was light, more typical of a French Bordeaux, but by the time the entrée arrived, its flavors sang. Again, warm, fresh bread was brought to the table, but accompanied with a light olive oil and very different guacamole that was spiced with coriander and smoked Tabasco. Its flavor was perfect.
I decided to live a little and ordered the blood sausage and quince dumpling for my starter, while John ordered the German sausage, vegetable and fruit fondue. Let me just state here that Chef Jose’s presentations are exquisite. From the brush of balsamic vinegar to the bright colored flowers, each plate is a work of art.
One bite of the blood sausage and quince dumpling and I was a puddle. It truly fits in my highest score – the culinary orgasm. The sweet and tart flavors make your taste buds happier than they have ever been. I could have stopped right there, not had another bite of the meal and died happy. Run, fly, take a train, but you have to try this appetizer.
If I smoked, I would have stepped outside, lit one up and recomposed myself, but our entrees arrived and we had to see what surprise was next. I enjoyed a very simple plate of Patagonia trout, seared with the perfect amount of salt and pepper, and paired with a sweet potato, squash and garlic puree. John’s leg of lamb ratatouille had been slow cooked for 10 hours and fell apart when touched. Enhanced with olive oil and duck fat as it is roasted, the flavors were immense. Both the Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were excellent compliments to the meal.
Dessert, you knew it would be heavenly. While I am not a big sweet wine drinker, the Late Harvest Malbec and Torrentes were perfectly chilled and what can I say, we both giggled after sipping our respective glasses. Paired with a green apple strudel and a crème brulee, we were spent, finished and happy.
This trip was number two on my bucket list and I sometimes worry, what happens if it isn’t as fabulous as you imagine? Any such thought was pushed aside. Our first day in Mendoza was complete and I received my “surprise” the first day.