The huge open spaces of Argentina offer breathtaking views and awe-inspiring wines. In our comprehensive wine tourist's guide to Argentina, JOHN DOWNES MW explores the bodegas of San Juan and mighty Mendoza province, while ANTHONY PEREGRINE visits the smaller wine-growing regions of Salta, La Rioja and Rio Negro

The huge open spaces of Argentina offer breathtaking views and awe-inspiring wines. In our comprehensive wine tourist’s guide to Argentina, JOHN DOWNES MW explores the bodegas of San Juan and mighty Mendoza province, while ANTHONY PEREGRINE visits the smaller wine-growing regions of Salta, La Rioja and Rio Negro

The wineries of Argentina stretch for miles along the vast wall of the Andes, and are well worth exploring – not only for the spectacular views at almost every vineyard, but also for the many exciting wines you can taste along the way. You should start your journey miles away from any vineyard, in Buenos Aires, for this sparkling gateway to South America is one of the world’s most exciting cities. The city-break start to your adventure gives you the chance to sample the vibrancy of the streets, the people and the soul of Argentina. The tango is not a dance, it’s a way of life. Maté is not a refreshing cup of tea but a slice of the Latin lifestyle that passes the European mind by. Take time to drink

in this atmosphere before you immerse yourself in the vineyards and wines of Argentina, because here lifestyle and wine are intertwined.From Buenos Aires, it’s time to step out into the pampas to explore Argentina’s vineyards, and get tasting, starting in the region of San Juan.

The taxi ride from the centre of Buenos Aires to the airport is a short one as the terminal is virtually in the centre of the city. Touch down in San Juan City, in the northerly province of San Juan, famous for its Dinosaur Valley, a dream for all fossil collectors and wine lovers alike.

The hour-and-a-half journey takes you over an awe-inspiring variety of terrain. The Uruguay Delta, which spills its water into the River Plate, gives way to the snow-capped Cordova Mountains, which give way in turn to the parched, rain-starved San Juan plateau. Beyond this, the Andes, never far away, overlook the plains with lofty majesty.

San Juan

The drive to San Juan City takes you past flat plains of vineyards that stretch to the foothills of the Andes. The ‘city’ is low-rise (a necessity in an earthquake zone) and bustles with old-fashioned shops and Buenos Aires-style boutiques. There’s an unexpected buzz of prosperity in the air.

Traditionally the high-volume wine producing region of Argentina, San Juan accounts for almost 30% of the country’s output. For ‘high volume’ read ‘very high volume’, for this is the place that kept the thirsty 95 litres per person per year domestic market quenched for years. But there’s change in the air. As the standard grape varieties of Alexandra Muscat and Pedro Ximenez give way to more than 2,000ha (hectares) of quality varieties, the traditional high-production Bonarda and Barbera vines are taking on a new image as yields are cut drastically. With Bodegas Graffigna among those wineries leading the way, these two Italian beauties are now standing happily besides Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sémillon. The San Juan and Jachal rivers flow down from the mountains, irrigating the clay and sand vineyards, while rocky intrusions towards the mountains and more fertility towards the east inject some complexity into the San Juan terroir.

Bodegas Graffigna, San Juan

Founded in 1869 by Italian immigrant Don Juan Carlos Graffigna, this is one of the San Juan bodegas that’s upping quality levels – two viticulturalists are employed full-time, and global guru Richard Smart also consults.With a production of 1 million cases from its San Juan and southern region San Rafael vineyards, the latest figures show an 85%/15% split in favour of reds. ‘We’re looking to meet the market demand and produce 95% red before too long,’ says export manager Frederico Boxaco. The main quality red grapes grown are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with the latter odds-on to be the future star of a region dominated by 40˚C days and a miserly annual rainfall of 100mm (more rain than this fell in one day during recent UK storms!).The day/night temperature differential, often as much as 15˚C, retains the freshness of aroma and flavour in such a hot climate, as does the cooling of the grapes to 6˚C at reception and the temperature-controlled fermentation vats housed in air-conditioned cellars – expensive, but a must in such an extreme climate.A reflection of Argentina’s commitment to ever-improving quality stands adjacent to Graffigna’s Pocito vineyard, tucked into the lap of the Andes. An office of the INTA, (National Institute of Agricultural Technology), has its finger on the local pulse and carries out an ongoing vineyard experimentation programme, including rootstock, clone and vine research.

Best wine: Syrah Tulum Valley Seleccion 1999 .Easy blackberry fruit with smoky mineral overtones.

Finca Las Moras, San Juan

This land has a long agricultural history. Grapes have been grown here for more than a century but the original inhabitants of the area, the Inca and Huarpe Indian tribes, built highly developed irrigation systems that

created perfect conditions for crop cultivation. Protected from the Pacific ocean by the Andes, the Tulum Valley is a perfect spot for a vineyard and for the wine lover the backdrop of the peak, Sierra Pie de Palo, makes it a stunning location to visit. Grape varieties grown at Finca Las Moras include Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Viognier and Chardonnay.

Mendoza

You can fly from San Juan to Mendoza but if you have time, jump in a car. The three-hour journey down the route nacional with its ‘call my bluff’ crossroads and deathwish dogs may be somewhat hair-raising, but as you travel through the arid landscape it gives you a good feel for the region. Oh, and just a little tip – don’t forget to hire a car with air conditioning!The size of the country dawns on you after about an hour, when you are stopped at the customs and police control post at the border between San Juan Province and Mendoza Province. ‘Remember Mendoza is almost the size of Spain,’ the taxi driver shouts. Throughout the journey the Andes are always on your right and again the contrasts of Argentina come into sharp focus, 40˚C at the roadside, but ice and snow not that far away.As you approach Mendoza City and its environs you notice that trees and greenery become part of the scenery. After a trip through the semi-desert, complete with salt pools, they take you by surprise. The ride reveals what a unique vineyard region you are experiencing. What you don’t realise is that ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’.

Viñas Argentinas, Lavalle, Mendoza

Once again the size of Mendoza and its vineyards hits you. After driving through the gates of Viñas Argentinas, the dusty road cuts through endless plots of vineyard, some high-trained, some low-trained, until you reach the ranch-style house and winery. The drive from the main road takes more than 20 minutes. ‘We have 1,750ha in production and it’s about 17km from one estate gate to the other,’ says production manager, José Pedro Gomez.

Size also takes centre stage in the winery and for those more used to European wine-speak, the zeroes at the end of production figures take some getting used to. ‘We make about 45 million litres a year,’ states Gomez. Viñas Argentinas may be one of the largest traditional producers of table wines for the domestic market, but the mood change to quality that’s racing across the country can be felt here just as much as in smaller

’boutique’ wineries. Viñas Argentinas realises that the export market is as important as its domestic market and has planned accordingly, not only in the vineyards but also in the winery. Or rather wineries, because there are two separate, large production bodegas – ‘One for each market and wine style,’ explains Gomez. Logical.Viewing his vast vineyards Gomez notes that, ‘As well as reducing yields to improve grape quality, we’ve drastically reduced the irrigation to put the vines under stress and have planted low-trained Chardonnay and Syrah.’ However, keeping Viñas Argentinas’ overall aim in focus, he adds: ‘We don’t want to produce the finest wines in the world – just the best value, easy drinking, fruity wines.’

Best wine: Alta Agrelo Malbec 1999

Great, fruity value.

La Agricola, Maipú, Mendoza

A pleasant 25-minute drive from the gates of Viñas Argentinas along dusty, vineyard-lined roads towards Maipú takes you to the impressive winery of La Agricola. The Zuccardi family first became involved with Mendoza viticulture in 1949, when Alberto Zuccardi developed a successful vineyard irrigation system.This introduction to wine led the company to plant vines in Maipú in 1963 and in Santa Rosa, some 60km away, in 1973. The original Maipú winery was built in 1968, but ongoing expansion and investment have ensured that La Agricola has stayed at the forefront of the Argentinian wine industry. Recently named Businessman of the Year in the influential national newspaper Los Andes, president José Alberto Zuccardi is

passionate about his vineyards. ‘We prefer parral training and have adapted this high-training method to give better ventilation to the grapes and a better sun-leaf ratio,’ he explains to me, gesturing towards his land.Pointing out that in such a hygienic climate he only needs to spray twice a year, and never with pesticides and herbicides, Zuccardi says that organic wine production is not a problem. ‘We have 40ha that are purely organic and this year we’re making our first organic wine,’ he explains.

Still family-owned, La Agricola produces about 850,000 cases with its Santa Julia varietal range the most well known in the UK. New kid on the block, Viognier, is also attracting attention and the premium Q range is well worth looking out for.

Best wine: Santa Julia Viognier Reserva 2000 Peaches and creamy mouthfeel.

FeCoVitA Cooperative, Maipú, Mendoza

Are you ready for this? We’re back to mind-boggling size again. This company boasts 37 member cooperatives, 32,000ha and 5,000 growers with a production of 14 million cases a year. These staggering figures account for a massive 15% of national production. ‘We’ve been the second largest exporter of Argentinian wine for the last four years,’ says export manager Frederico Ballester. Some cooperative!Regardless of the statistics, the common message is a determination to improve quality on all fronts. Each coop has its own viticulturalists, but FeCoVitA also has its own dedicated team that tours all the vineyards to check and improve quality. ‘This supports our hi-tech winery that can bottle 18,000 bottles an hour,’ continues Ballester.The wines are exported to the USA, Canada, France, Spain, Germany, UK, Russia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, South Africa, China and Japan, as well as South America. ‘They are generally within the £3.99 to £4.99 range, but we’re planning a premium range for the UK market within the next two years, from our fine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec.’

Best wine: Fecovita Cabernet Sauvignon 2000

Well made, good fruity value

Bodega Navarro Correas, Maipú, Mendoza

One of the oldest vineyards in Argentina, Don Juan de Dios Correas, a 19th-century politician, and mayor of Mendoza, planted his first vines in 1798. Now run by Correas’ direct descendant, Don Edmundo Navarro Correas, the winery is in the process of being thoroughly modernised, and has American consultant winemaker Geoffrey Stanbar on hand to help with the improvements. The wines include the Correas blends, white and red, a Malbec and, currently being improved, Navarro Correas premium range.

Best wine: Torrontes-Chardonnay 2000 .Perfumed, exotic fruit and floral flavours.

Nieto Senetiner, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Climbing south out of Mendoza City, after about 25 minutes you enter Luján de Cuyo and the gates of Bodegas Nieto Senetiner. The drive winds through beautiful gardens before taking you through a stone gateway to the sumptuous house. Across the lush, flower-bedecked garden lies the winery

and beyond that are the vineyards, nestled below the foothills.Nieto Senetiner has produced wines in the premium region of Luján de Cuyo for some 30 years, but its story goes back to the beginning of the century when immigrants built the large house and traditional winery. The estate was bought by the Nieto y Senetiner family at the end of the 1960s, since when it has become one of the most prestigious Argentinian houses.

‘We now have 300ha of vineyard, trained to both parral and low guyot, but we also have long-term contracts with top growers,’ says winemaker Roberto Gonzalez. All the main grape varieties are planted but Gonzalez believes that Malbec and Bonarda perform best in Mendoza.The wines have a definite European edge with crisp acidity and ripe tannins balancing the rich fruit and toasty overtones, which are the result of oak barrique maturation. ‘We only use French oak with a medium-plus toasting of the staves,’ continues Gonzalez. The total production is 700,000 cases, of which about 8% is exported. The premium Cadus range is exceptional.

Best wine: Reserva Syrah 1999

Dense colour, rich blackberry spice, positive, ripe tannins, long liquorice, toasty damson finish.

Lagarde, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Located on the outskirts of tree-lined Luján de Cuyo town, the original Lagarde winery has been modernised but retains its

traditional air. Founded by Angel Peryra in 1897, the estate is now owned by the Pescarmona family who have proudly kept the large, low-trained 1903 vineyard located directly behind the winery. As export manager and winemaker, Ricardo Gonzalez, says: ’40ha right in the middle of town is unusual and exceptional – as is the fruit.’

Lagarde blends its Luján vineyard grapes with grapes from its high Tupungato

vineyards. ‘The blend is important. Tupungato is big on the nose but low on fruit, whereas Luján is big on fruit and low on aroma,’ explains Gonzalez. Low yields – down as low as 42hl/ha for the premium wines – help to consolidate the vineyard’s quality.

The winery builders knew exactly what they were doing when they excavated the ground to build the fermentation tanks, back in 1897. ‘The temperature in the cellar never falls below 17˚C and everything is moved by gravity,’ says Gonzalez. Now upgraded with the latest equipment, the winery has a 2.4 million-litre capacity, which includes 50,000 bottles of sparkling wine made by the

méthode champenoise.

Best wine: Malbec 1997

Good colour and soft style with full berry fruit.

Viniterra, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Walter Bressia was the highly respected winemaker at Nieto Senetiner for 20 years before becoming a director of Viniterra, a new company started in 1997 with the objective of ‘imparting quality and pleasure in every bottle of wine’.Although the company started by buying grapes from Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, this year has seen the purchase of Tupungato vines to boost its premium Viniterra label (the total production of 1 million bottles includes 60,000 bottles of Viniterra).

The second-label wines, under the Terra label, are blends (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), whereas Viniterra wines are French oak-aged single varietal wines, (namely Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot).

To achieve a fine balance of fruit and oak the wines are aged unusually in 5,000-litre barrels. ‘It gives a better and more controlled fusion of the elements,’ explains Bressia. An unusual but delicious sparkling Malbec is also part of the Viniterra portfolio.

Best wine: Viniterra Merlot 1997

Big yet friendly and elegant, chewy plum fruit.

Luigi Bosca, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Just a stone’s throw from Lagarde, the Luigi Bosca winery produces 3.5 million bottles annually with 45% being exported to 29

different countries.Luigi Bosca owns 350ha of vineyard in Luján de Cuyo and Maipú – ‘the former gives aroma, the latter spice,’ notes winemaker Carlos Hernandez Toso. As well as the normal basket of Argentinian varieties, the bodega is also dedicated to Pinot Noir and is experimenting with nine different clones as Toso is confident that Argentina has an ideal terroir for this difficult variety. The 2000 vintage, with its round summer fruit flavours, crisp balance and toasty French oak edge, shows that his confidence in the future is not ill-founded.

Best wine: Malbec 2000

Powerful damson aromas and mouthfilling bramble flavours.

Bodegas Norton, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

The 10km journey from Lagarde to Bodegas Norton takes you over the wide, dry-bedded River Mendoza before you pass the frontage of the 100ha vineyard that surrounds the impressive, white-walled winery. Norton’s total vineyard ownership extends to 1,200ha, of which 680ha are planted. ‘We’re planning to slowly plant the rest with quality stock,’ explains CEO Michael Halstriek.Halstriek confirms that the company also owns 60ha of organic vineyard. ‘If you can’t do it here, you can’t do it anywhere,’ he says confidently. ‘We have a clean climate, low humidity and never use pesticides.’The winery was founded in 1895 by Edmund James Norton, an English engineer employed by the Buenos Aires Al Pacifico Railway Company. Having met and fallen in love with a girl from Mendoza, he had not the slightest intention of returning to Blighty, bought the estate and planted vines which he imported from France. The original winery built by Norton has been restored and has become the cool courtyard offices for today’s modern venture.With a production of 6 million bottles a year, Bodegas Norton has an envious international image and impressive export figures. ‘The name Norton is our brand. We were the number four Argentinian exporter in 2000,’ boasts Halstriek.

Best wine: Syrah 2000

Inky colour, super spiced blackberry nose and palate, with an elegant, ripe fruit finish.

Bodega Terrazas de los Andos, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Taking the old vineyard road, Terrazas is just 4km from Bodegas Norton, but don’t let the name fool you. This is Moët & Chandon’s Argentinian investment. During the 1960s, Moët was the first Champagne name to move outside France when it founded the Argentinian House of Chandon. ‘The head winemaker at the time travelled around the world for three years looking for the best spot before choosing Argentina,’ says French winemaker Hervé Birnie-Scott. Even nearly 50 years ago, experience told him that this area had perfect altitude differences for all the classic varieties.

‘He was right,’ says Birnie-Scott. ‘We get the best possible fruit with Chardonnay at 1,200m, Malbec at 1,070m, Cabernet at 980m and Syrah at 750m.’The new company, Chandon Argentina (owners of Terrazas), bought and rebuilt an old (1898) Spanish winery in Perdrial, Luján de Cuyo. The modern winery overlooks the spectacular Cordon del Plaza Mountains and now has a capacity of four million litres while the cellars hold 2,300 oak barriques.Chandon produces 10 million bottles of Argentinian sparkling wine a year, of which around three million are produced by the

méthode champenoise. Exports to the UK number two million bottles.

Best wine: Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 1999

Soft sweet tannins, ripe blackberry plum fruit, and a tight tannic edge.

Domaine Vistalba, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Back over the Mendoza River, Domaine Vistalba lies high above Mendoza City and offers a magnificent view of the Andes from its pink-painted, verandahed winery.’Vistalba means “view to the sunrise over the Andes”,’ says president Hervé Joyaux Fabre, head of the French group which

decided to apply its considerable Bordeaux winemaking skills to Argentina’s wonderful climate and soils.The wines are sold under the Fabre-Montmayou label and, not surprisingly, the cépage is most definitely French with Chardonnay, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as the main players. The group identified Mendoza as the best viticultural region and bought the domaine for its microclimate, which is 5˚C less than Mendoza City.Unusually, Vistalba uses the traditional French wooden basket press for the reds – ‘it’s still the best, we tried the rest,’ notes Fabre. Elsewhere the latest shiny technology is in use. ‘We certainly haven’t turned our backs on hi-tech and use pneumatic presses for the whites, plus temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats as they give great results,’ explains Fabre. The French connection continues with winemaker Arnaud Meillan, who has joined the domaine from Pomerol, where his family make wine. ‘I have lived with wine all my life and it’s wonderful to bring French expertise into such a magnificent winemaking environment,’ he says.Total annual production is 700,000 bottles, with 70% of that red, and Fabre-Montmayou has recently extended its Argentinian base to the ‘deep south’, having bought vineyards in the up and coming Patagonia region. Wines from this area are sold under the Infinitus label.

Best wine: Cabernet Sauvignon 1997

Good ruby colour, expressive Cabernet black fruit, round palate, blackcurrant finish.

Alta Vista, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Alta Vista winery is owned by Jean-Michel Arcaute, another Frenchman on foreign soil. Arcaute is from Bordeaux and has twice been elected ‘winemaker of the year’ by The Wine Advocate for his work at Château Clinet, La Croix du Casse, Beau Soleil and Château Jonqueyres.

Arcaute was tempted by Argentina’s wine producing potential and renovated a beautiful 19th-century bodega at Luján de Cuyo in 1997, replanting the vineyards with old Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines. The grapes are grown both in the small 7ha Las Compuertas vineyard at 1,100m, and in the 108ha Agrelo vineyard at 1,000m.

Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

This established firm is intent on producing world-class wines and has gone to great lengths to put together the right vine-growing and winemaking team. This is now led by two respected Argentinian wine experts, grower Pedro Luis Marchevsky and maker José Galante. All the grapes typical of the region – Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Chardonnay – are grown, but since the early 1980s Catena Zapata has also conducted detailed research into the microclimates of Mendoza in order to identify the ideal sites for its carefully selected clones. This effort and industry certainly shows up in the wines and in June last year Robert Parker awarded the Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997 (95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec) an impressive 95 points, commenting that it will drink well for two decades. Five ranges are currently exported, including Alta, Alamos and Argento.

Best wine: Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997

Intense cassis, plum and blackcurrant fruit aromas with toast and tobacco notes. Soft mouthfeel. Long finish with ripe, sweet tannins.

Bodegas Salentein, Uco Valley, Mendoza

The nightlife in Mendoza City is surprisingly lively but try not to stay up too late because the next bodega visits involve an early start and a long drive. The journey takes you to the mid-south of Mendoza Province, to the Uco Valley. The busy dual carriageway soon crosses the dry Mendoza River and at this point you may be tempted to divert and follow the signpost to Chile – the six-hour drive takes you through staggeringly beautiful, steep, winding passes and across the Andes – but stay dedicated to the cause and keep driving south, past two types of donkey, the first pulling carts (the braying kind), the second pulling oil out of the desert soils (the nodding kind).Altitude and temperature come into the wine equation as you enter the Uco Valley, as Salentein’s export director, Diego Jordan, confirms: ‘We’re at least 5˚C cooler than Mendoza City here and as you move towards the mountains it gets even cooler still. The

winery stands at 1,250m above sea level.’Salentein’s entrance, a stone structure in the middle of nowhere, heralds vineyards that appear to disappear into the foothills of the Andes. And after driving along the dusty roads for a while, you soon realise that they do! ‘There’s about 26km from gate to gate,’ says Jordan.Opened in 1995, the multi-million dollar investment stands in stunning scenery with the Andes as the backdrop. The 300ha of vineyards are planted with French classic varieties, from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay and from Cabernet Franc to Sauvignon Blanc. The circular fermentation and cellar zones look like something out of Star Wars. The gleaming technology has an impressive capacity of 2.5 million litres, while the film-set cellars house 740,000 litres of wine, slowly maturing in French oak barriques. ‘The winery is at a controlled temperature of 12˚C and humidity is set at 80%,’ says Jordan. That’s even more impressive when you see that the outside thermometer is registering a ‘cool’ 35˚C and rising.

Best wine: Salentein Malbec 1999

Impressive intensity, ripe fruit, tight structure, long liquorice bramble finish.

Tapiz, Uco Valley, Mendoza

In 1996, the Tapiz label was born when Kendall Jackson’s president Jess Jackson bought 942ha in the Uco Valley. In 2000, the Californian giant completed the winery at Agrelo and it is now part of the established Argentinian scene, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Chardonnay.The winery may be complete but KJ is still investing and developing the vineyards. ‘Planting the right clones and ensuring that they are grown where the terroir most suits the variety is the challenge,’ explains winemaker José Antonio Bravo.

Best wine: Tapiz Syrah 1999

A wonderful purity of spiced blackberry fruit.

Finca La Celia, Uco Valley, Mendoza

The hour-long drive south to Finca La Celia takes you across dusty bush (used for military exercises) and the River Tunuyan. Once again you strike trees and bushes growing in a desert environment. The region’s capital, La Consulta, is known as ‘the capital of trees’ and the eucalyptus lining the wide boulevards and providing all-important shade are a monument to man’s ingenuity in overcoming the hostile climate.Driving through in the early afternoon the place is quiet. ‘It’s siesta time, for unlike many towns it’s still part of life here in the San Carlos area of the Uco Valley,’ explains La Celia’s Enzo Mugnani. But although the local population may be sleeping, La Celia most definitely isn’t, thanks to investment from Chilean giant San Pedro. The area is famous for its apples, nuts, garlic and apricots and as you drive into Finca La Celia the air is full of delightful aromas. The new winery building is finally nearing completion and Mugnani expects it to be ready for next year’s harvest. ‘Until now we have been leasing other winery space,’ he explains.The estate is named after the daughter of legendary local inhabitant Eugenio Bustos. He owned large vineyards in the area and in 1964 gave the best to his daughter Celia. There are 250ha planted to vine in an 85%/15% red/white split but under a three-year investment programme, an impressive 1,350ha are due to be planted by 2003. The new multi-million dollar investment by San Pedro incorporates the retention of the original 1902 winery building and a total internal rebuild, with the latest technology providing a total production capacity of 6.28 million litres.

Best wine: Sauvignon Blanc 2000

Ripe, fresh gooseberry fruit. Good value.

Bodegas Lavaque, San Rafael, Mendoza

From the Uco Valley, San Rafael lies about 125km south as the wine trail takes you through flat desert scrub that extends to the toe of Andes’ foothills. A dust plume from a distant car confirms the scale of the panorama and the nature of the desert soils. The road cuts through the landscape like an arrow and as you cross the River Diamante, simple road signs announce your arrival at San Rafael, the bustling low-rise, tree-lined town that is the centre of Mendoza’s southern wine region. The pavement cafes and sophisticated shops come as a surprise after such a lonely drive.In 1870 Joseph Lavaque planted his first vineyards in Cafayate in Salta Province and was soon joined by his son Felix. Later his grandson Gilberto moved to San Rafael to establish Bodegas Lavaque. ‘Our vineyards now cover the Cañada Seca, Barrancas del Atuel and Los Ingleses areas, whose sandy, mineral-rich soils are perfectly suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,’ notes winemaker Daniel Fernandez. ‘The vineyards also include 40ha of organic grapes,’ he adds.Lavaque is aware of the style demanded by the export market and is responding accordingly. ‘Since 1994 our vineyard and winery practices have been geared towards producing new-style lively, fruity wines suited to export markets, rather than the old, aged, more traditinal style.

Interestingly, even the domestic market is showing signs of moving towards this new style,’ says international manager at Lavaque, Victoria Mingo.

The range of Lavaque wines extends from the Selection, Traditional and Finca de Actura labels through to the premium Felix Lavaque.

Best wine: Felix Lavaque Pinot Noir 1996

Full, rounded, farmyard red berry fruits, crisp oak finish. Soft and aged.

Bodegas Balbi, San Rafael, Mendoza

Across town from Bodegas Lavaque stands the small premium winery of Bodegas Balbi, which was founded in 1930 by Juan Balbi. Many years on, in 1992, the bodega and its estates caught the eye of international wine and spirits company Allied Domecq. ‘Argentina, and in particular San Rafael, were enormously appealing,’ notes director Carlos Fernandez. Heavy investment has followed.Balbi owns 100ha of vineyard and has long-term contracts with 40 growers. ‘We have three viticulturists supervising the vineyards at all times to ensure the best grapes,’ says winemaker Pedro Yanez, who has experience in both California and France. Explaining the ‘San Rafael advantage’, he adds: ‘We’re cooler here than the Mendoza City region, which allows the fruit to ripen more slowly to reach excellent ripeness.’Carlos Fernandez proudly announces that Balbi received the international quality assurance certificate ISO 9002 two years ago. However, what is even more impressive is the warm relationship that clearly exists between the office and the winery staff. A woman on the bottling line greets the ‘top banana from Buenos Aires’ with a kiss and this camaraderie obviously gives good results because the wines are excellent.Bodegas Balbi has a total production of 300,000 cases each year, of which about a third are exported to the rest of the world.

Best wine: Barbera 1997

Superb complexity and juicy blackberry fruit.

Bodegas Suter, San Rafael, Mendoza

Proud of its tradition, Suter’s crest includes the words, ‘cien años,’ a reflection of the 100 years the company has been making wine from its San Rafael bodega. ‘Rodolfo Suter and his wife Ana came here from Switzerland in 1900 to make quality wines and we keep that special tradition today,’ says oenologist and director Daniel Suter.

The red wines made include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah, with the premium Privado being a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (40%), Merlot (30%) and Malbec (30%) – this is made with French influence by virtue of French grapes, yeast and French oak ageing.The white wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the intriguing Coto de Pesca, a blend of Sémillon, Chenin Blanc and Torrontés. Sparkling wine is also produced, the Blanc de Noir being made traditionally but unusually from Merlot.

Best wine: Privado 1997

A good balance of French oak on the rich black fruit. A touch of spice to the pleasing damson plum toast finish.

Valentin Bianchi, San Rafael, Mendoza

As you drive south out of the busy town of San Rafael, your eyes are immediately drawn to the left where a mirage of Hollywood is set among the vines. Bright, white concrete ‘film set’ columns are set in front of the glass-fronted winery and fountains play in trimmed, green lawns.

At first you may be surprised to learn that they make wine here, but once you go inside it’s clear that this is a serious business. ‘We produce about 7.5 million litres here, and about 10 million at our original San Rafael bodega. And we export about 16% of this total,’ explains company president Valentin Eduardo Bianchi.The new winery was completed in 1997 at a cost of some $10 million but already more space is needed and work has started on a new barrel cellar. The vineyards, now totalling 345ha, are divided between the Finca Las Parades whose 105ha lie to the west of San Rafael, the 100ha Finca Asti estate and the 140ha Dona Elsa vineyard to the south. All have seen big investment, under the careful eye of the company’s viticulturist, Laura Balbi. The wines cover a wide range and span different price points. ‘We have wines priced from $7 (£5) to $70 (£49) on the domestic market and between £6 and £22 on the export market,’ says Bianchi. Following the popular Argentinian mix, the reds include Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, while the white range incorporates Chardonnay, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, Torrontés, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. As well as still wine, Bianchi also produces approximately one million bot

vintage guide

2001

The general consensus around the vineyards is that this vintage is excellent and the best for years. This was partly the result of advantageous weather conditions – although there were some heavy spring rains in Mendoza, these didn’t have an adverse effect on the harvest – but also because more efficient vineyard practices allowed producers to judge grape maturity more accurately and hence pick at exactly the right time. Although overall volume was slightly down in all winegrowing regions, quality was up for both reds and whites.

2000

Rain in March lowered expectations but the water drained away quickly, the sunshine returned and Argentina’s vineyards recovered fully, making 2000 a very good vintage. The unusually damp conditions did add character to the country’s reds – warm days and cool nights created absolutely perfect conditions to achieve a good maturity, especially in terms of colour and sugar.

1999

Local winemakers regard 1999 as a successful harvest and a good vintage. For example, in Mendoza, an average winter was followed by a good spring and a hot and dry summer which allowed the healthy grapes to mature in ideal circumstances. Across the country, there was a significant 25% increase in volume on 1998.

Written by JOHN DOWNES MW/ANTHONY PEREGRINE