On the Argentine Wine Route

The vast territory known as the Cuyo, writes Mark Rozzo, is often compared to Napa for its near-perfect weather, comfortable lodging, and glorious wines.

The guidebooks will tell you that "Cuyo"—the name given to Argentina's vast winegrowing region, 600 miles west of Buenos Aires—descends from a Huarpe Indian word meaning "sand." But if you're fortunate enough to make the exhilarating 50-minute flight over the Andes from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, the Cuyo's capital, you'll discover a region that hardly resembles the monochrome desert the Huarpes so dismissively named centuries ago. As you crest the majestic Andes, negotiating past Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere's highest peak, the Cuyo unfolds in gentle valleys, snaking rivers, criss-crossing irrigation channels called acequias, and alternating patches of velvet green and earthy ocher. Since the Huarpes knew the Cuyo, it has developed a varied culture and a laid-back, almost Californian atmosphere. The flavors of the Cuyo, with its incessant sunshine, magnificent estancias, and peculiar history, are—like those of the millions of barrels of wine it produces each year—endlessly complex.

Despite recent defaults, devaluations, and revolving-door presidencies, tourism in Argentina is as robust as a pampas-raised steer. The country, which has always prided itself on its European ambiance, relative stability, and stunning natural beauty, has become a Mecca for well-heeled Latin Americans seeking friendly exchange rates. And while the frustrated middle class occasionally takes to the streets of Buenos Aires in protest, the Cuyo remains as mellow and safe as ever. The current crisis, however, has taken a bite out of wine exports. Even so, the Cuyo's inspired vintners have refused to compromise on quality.

The Argentine wine industry—centered around Mendoza, San Juan, and San Rafael, the Cuyo's trinity of big towns—has been undergoing a quiet revolution over the past decade as its Cabernets, Merlots, and Malbecs have begun to reach wine shops around the world. Yet its roots run deep, reaching back to the 1500s, when the Chilean grower Juan Jufré first brought vines through the rugged Uspallata Pass from Santiago, following the path of Spanish settlers at a time when Buenos Aires was barely a dot on the map. Later influxes of Italian and French vintners expanded and improved winemaking in the region (Argentina is now the fourth-largest producer in the world) and made a lasting imprint on the landscape: With its endless vineyards, sunflower fields, and towering álamo (poplar) trees, the Cuyo is a sort of New World Provence, or a Napa without the traffic or tofu. In the Cuyo, you feel as if you can drive from Avignon to Albuquerque in a matter of minutes. But on those outskirts where the ditchlike acequias don't reach, the Cuyo remains a beautiful terra deserta, its immense scale gauged by the ever-present snow-capped Andes that watch over it, and, at night, by an astonishing array of southern stars.

When you mention the word "tupungato" in the Cuyo, you're either talking about Cerro Tupungato, a 22,310-foot volcano that juts ostentatiously from the Andes, or the sleepy farm town of Tupungato, a winegrowing mecca nestled in the mountain's shadow southwest of Mendoza. According to Gabriela Correas Bombal, a descendant of Domingo Bombal Ugarte, an 11-time governor of the Mendoza province in the 1800s, the Quichua word tupungato originally meant "balcony to the stars." It was near Tupungato that, in 1933, Gabriela's grandfather, Domingo Lucas Bombal, built a regal estancia ("country house" or "ranch") called Château d'Ancon, which is itself a balcony to the stars: Standing on its terrace on a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way seems to run through your fingers.

Since 1999, the château, now owned by Gabriela's mother, Lucila Bombal, has welcomed guests seeking refuge from the hustle of Buenos Aires, as well as visitors from abroad who come looking for Argentine glamour and comfort in the heart of the Cuyo. Ancon is a surviving remnant of the wealth that early in the 20th century typified Argentina to the world. The house stands, amid buzzing bees, thriving rosebushes, and colossal pines, on a broad English lawn designed by Carlos Thays, the creator of Buenos Aires' leafy Jardín Botánico. With its prominent balcony, terra-cotta roof, and brooding, vine-covered tower (which summons thoughts of Byron and Shelley), Ancon cuts an impressive figure. Domingo Bombal was a Cambridge man (Gabriela points out a framed photograph of him as a raffish undergraduate standing, in full motoring costume, before an overturned automobile), and he met his wife, a West Virginian debutante named Katherine Harrison West, in Paris. It's no wonder, then, that Ancon is something of a Grand Tour in itself, elegantly combining elements of French château, English country house, Spanish mission, Italian villa, and Hollywood Deco mansion.

Inside Château d'Ancon is a maze of sunny gallerias paved in Carrara marble and several chapel-like alcoves, one of which houses a quattrocento statue of St. Catherine of Siena, hauled back by Gabriela's grandmother from one of her European jaunts. The vast parlor, with brawny oak beams and a Tudor bas-relief fireplace, is dominated by a Gobelins tapestry depicting an enchanted glade full of flowers and kindly exotic animals. It's a reminder that Ancon, for all its splendor, is a working finca, or plantation, where, as you lie around the kidney-shaped pool feeling like a silent-film star, you might hear the lowing of nearby cattle being herded into holding pens. "We have about two thousand head of cattle, Black Angus, and we also have cherries, carrots, potatoes—quite a lot of things," Gabriela says, rattling off Ancon's cornucopia with a hint of delight in her voice. "There are a hundred hectares of walnuts too, and from February to the first day of March we have the grapes."

Gabriela suggests a ride through Ancon's acreage in a horse-drawn sulky. Soon we're bouncing along a country lane in the honeyed light of late afternoon, taking in the estancia's expansive orchards, overgrown fields of purple thistles, and its vineyards, where the Bombal family grows grapes at 4,260 feet above sea level for its fledgling bodega, Estancia Ancon. "We had an older winery in the center of Mendoza," Gabriela says, "but we sold it ten years ago because we only made common wine. Here, we make premier wine, fine wine."

It's a refrain heard up and down the Cuyo, of a powerful yet family-driven wine industry retooling itself to make better wine in smaller batches, to break with its long history of mass-producing jug and table wines. The bodega at Château d'Ancon is an intimate affair: a small collection of stainless-steel elaboration tanks crowded into a refurbished barn and another room for aging Estancia Ancon's three varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Chardonnay. We sample a delicious Cabernet, with hints of raspberry, siphoned directly from a French oak barrel; it's amazingly refreshing, densely fruity yet clean. Gabriela gives credit to Tupungato's peculiar microclimate, which is sought after by nearly every winegrower in Argentina: "There's a special taste in the wine because of the weather here—it's so hot in the day and so cold at night. You can taste it in the wine."

Estancia Ancon wines are available only at select Argentinean outlets and in Great Britain; its limited production reflects, on a miniature scale, the new trend in Argentine wine, one widely credited to an energetic winemaker named Nicolás Catena. Catena is a worldly, scholarly type (he has a Ph.D. from Columbia University) whose family has been making wine in Argentina for a hundred years, but who, after a life-altering visit to Napa in the seventies, would virtually rethink Argentine wine from top to bottom. Before Catena, blended wines known as genéricos (think Burgundy or Bordeaux) were standard fare in Argentina; after Catena, California-style varietals began to take over, including Malbec, a dark grape that has achieved unexpected success in Argentina, becoming the country's signature red. Explaining Malbec's surge to prominence, Catena says, "We have more than a hundred years of experience here with Malbec, and there are more quality vineyards planted to Malbec in Argentina than anywhere else in the world." Catena's own Alta Malbec (from the 60-year-old Angélica Vineyard) is a bright star in Argentine wine and one of the finest Malbecs on the planet. But he is proudest of his Nicolás Catena Zapata, a bold Cabernet Sauvignon with a hint of Malbec that may well be the highest expression of winemaking in South America. Robert Parker has given Catena Zapata a 95 rating, noting that it should drink well for two decades. Such acclaim is welcome news for the Cuyo's wine industry, which, Catena points out, has been described in the international press as "the last great wine frontier."

Catena is the principal owner of Bodega Escorihuela, one of Argentina's most historic wineries, located on the outskirts of Mendoza in the sleepy suburb of Godoy Cruz. Here I tour Escorihuela's mammoth operation (capable of pumping out eight thousand bottles an hour) with guide and public relations director Cristina Gonzalez Villanueva, who proudly tells me about the winegrowing advantages of the Cuyo's unwaveringly sunny climate, about Escorihuela's history (its founder was a guy nicknamed El Loco), and about its role in changing Argentina's attitude toward wine (it started making an increasingly popular alta line in 1997). I continue my bodega-hopping—a favorite pastime in the Cuyo—farther outside town, where a shady alameda surrounded by vineyards leads to a handsome pink adobe bodega named, appropriately, La Rural. Home to the respected wines of the Rutini family, which has been producing them since 1883, La Rural (now owned by Catena) is a dream for pilgrims on Argentina's wine route: A giant oenology museum here—the only one in South America—affords some intimate moments with vintage Fafeur pumps, Gasquet filters, and a collection of weird contraptions called yoles, furry cowhide sacks that were once used for bringing in grape harvests. But as Cecilia, a young purple-clad guide (most of the Cuyo's bodega guides tend to dress like grapes), points out, La Rural is not just an old-fashioned curiosity but a thriving operation capable of holding 2.9 million gallons in elaboration and whose export label, Trumpeter, is available around the world.

If there were such a thing as the Food Network in Argentina, Francis Mallman would own a huge chunk of prime time. He's the most visible chef in Argentina's rising food scene, an energetic fortyish fellow from the Patagonian ski town of Bariloche who seems to have an uncanny knack for getting himself into any conversation about Argentine alta cocina. It says something about the growing self-awareness and marketing élan of Argentina's wine industry that Mallman and Escorihuela teamed up to create 1884, an airy, elegant restaurant in the starlit atrium of Bodega Escorihuela, where I return—at ten o'clock at night, of course, the earliest you'd ever want to set foot in a restaurant in Argentina—for a taste of the Cuyo.

At 1884, as at other Mallman establishments (such as his Rio Negro restaurant in the Uruguayan beach resort Punta del Este and the six-month-old Patagonia West in Westhampton, New York), the chef marries up-to-the-minute fashion with the timeless comforts of home. (In Argentina, comfort food is generally pampas-raised beef, arguably the best in the world.) "I love to go back to those old country dishes and wipe them clean," Mallman says, meaning he likes to spiff up what, in places like the Cuyo and Patagonia, might be considered home-cooking. Indeed, in such imaginatively executed dishes as cordero de Tupungato (succulent stewed lamb), lomo del Albañil ("bricklayer's beef"), and chivito de Bariloche (kid goat), there's a sense of the provincial boy proudly bringing the flavors of the outback to his sophisticated pals in the city.

Mallman's approach is a classic high-low act, as he calls on his training in France and Italy to help him coax out the subtle Incan influences that fascinate him: "I've traveled the high Andes and looked into the Indians' mud ovens—all that magic and the mystery." Mallman points out that the Cuyo is the farthest south the Incas ever got, and that the ever-present acequias (which even run along the sidewalks of downtown Mendoza) are a ghostly reminder that this part of Argentina has its own magic and mystery—and a long history of drawing abundance out of a reluctant earth. I'm reminded again of the barren desert that was the Cuyo centuries ago as Mallman rhapsodizes about the Cuyo's improbable bounty: "The best are the lambs, the goats, the potatoes, the mushrooms, and the pumpkins—all the effort they put into surviving comes out in their flavor."

The same could be said of the wine. As I leave oasislike Mendoza—which despite a metro population of 900,000 feels like an amiable college town—and drive north two hours over a flat, bleached landscape, it's easier to imagine the Cuyo as a backdrop for Riders of the Purple Sage than as the viticulture powerhouse that it is. But as I near San Juan, the Cuyo's tidy desert outpost, billboards pointing the way to bodegas (and roadside stands piled high with watermelons and squash) abound. At San Juan's venerable Bodegas y Viñedos Santiago Graffigna, oenologist Jorge Andres García told me that the local Tulum Valley grapes must be allowed to cool off before elaboration begins. But the dry, hot climate of San Juan (somewhat similar to Australia's Murrumbidgee River region) seems to make it perfect for producing Syrah, which Graffigna does in startling quantity: The bodega is number one in supermarket sales in Argentina, and nearly every restaurant and family gathering in San Juan features an endless supply of Graffigna. As I sip Graffigna's offerings one morning in the bodega's sleek, laboratorylike tasting room, García is anxious to let me know that Graffigna, makers of everyday table wines since 1870, recently won a slew of awards for its Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a supple, seductive character—spicy yet mellow. "Tupungato may be the California of Argentina," García says, "but, you see, San Juan is just as good."

Like most of the oenologists I spoke to, García tended to downplay the differences between the Cuyo's wine towns. But César Aldao Bombal, a cousin of Gabriela Correas, told me flat-out: "San Rafael is the best." Señor Aldao's judgment is undoubtedly leavened by civic pride, but his Falstaffian demeanor and chain-smoker's croak of a voice suggest that he has little actual interest in boosterism. César—who favors gaucho dress and tools around the dusty roads of San Rafael in a white Peugeot pickup—is the sixtysomething patriarch of another wing of the Bombal family whose Finca Los Alamos, a sprawling adobe ranch-fortress built in 1830, is a beloved family seat that started accepting guests nine years ago.

In the 1930s, after decades of neglect, Los Alamos was revived by the writer Susana Bombal, César's aunt. (Domingo Bombal Ugarte bought Los Alamos in 1866.) To this splendid country ranch—which still exudes a fortress ambiance, keeping the pressures of modern life at bay behind a wall of eucalyptus trees—Susana brought touches of Buenos Aires sophistication. The Pink Room, where I slept, safe within two-foot-thick walls, features a giant rose-colored mural by Héctor Basaldúa of a prancing horse pulling a landau, while the sitting room is decorated with a colorful sketch by Raúl Soldi, who painted the exquisite domed ceiling of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Both artists were among the bohemian circle that from the '30s to the '60s made this retreat, 140 miles south of Mendoza, a second home.

A literary kind of luxury prevails at Los Alamos, where an outsized silver samovar perches atop a pile of yellowing Times Literary Supplements from the 1950s and satiric Daumiers line the walls of Susana Bombal's writing room. Yet Los Alamos never feels like a museum. Since my visit was so close to New Year's, I was treated to a houseful of César's nieces and nephews, and the mood was appropriately convivial: Long meals of hearty fare, most of it grown on the estancia's 12,000 acres, were presided over by César, who sat at the end of a sturdy banquet table under a vast burlap tapestry of St. Raphael sewn by Jorge Luis Borges' sister, Norah (both were frequent guests at Los Alamos). Conversation ranged from books to the Internet to fly-fishing (available nearby), polo (César was once a player), and, of course, wine. César, who owns the estancia with his brother Camilo, tends to stock wines from the popular local bodegas Valentín Bianchi and Lávaque, and, as he admires a freshly poured glass of Bianchi Particular, he says, "Blending is the best, you see? We call it genérico. They mix the grapes until the wine is just so." Bianchi Particular is an old-school Argentine wine, one of the best, and as we finish yet another satisfying bottle over a platter of queso y membrillo (an end-of-meal treat of cheese with quince paste), I see that my captivating host has a point.

Los Alamos embodies the deeply familial, historic aura of the Cuyo; this inviting spirit can be found everywhere at the finca, from the ubiquitous naive paintings of Susana's sister, Chí Chí, to the present-day brood of Aldaos, who have opened their home with pride and generosity. During my days here, whether reading by the overflowing courtyard pool, loafing in the Paraguayan rope hammock, strolling the peaceful alamedas, visiting the local bodegas with letters of introduction from César, or admiring the occasional white stallion wandering by (Los Alamos is, after all, a ranch), I felt welcomed in a heartfelt, old-world way.

In the living room's piano nook, a grouping of ornate silk fans framed in glass tells the tragic story of six Bombal women and girls who perished in the devastating Mendoza earthquake of 1861. Sofía Aldao, one of César's nieces, explains that her own great-grandfather survived because the crib he was sleeping in capsized over him. At Los Alamos you get the sense of a Cuyo still intimate with—and continuously renewed by—the past. As Jorge Martel, a young nephew of César's, put it one late night, "This place is full of spirits." Earlier, César regaled us with the story of one roguish Los Alamos spirit who was allegedly able to pick racehorses with startling accuracy.

Before I turn in for the night, with Orion standing on his head and peering down into Los Alamos' still courtyard, I consider how lucky I've been to find this corner of the world, where the sandy earth is watered by ancient acequias and the vineyards, even as they advance into a new century, still connect one generation to the next. A few days earlier, in Susana Bombal's writing room, I came across a small picture frame that contained some lines Manuel Mujica Láinez, the fine Argentine poet, wrote during a 1945 visit to Los Alamos. They capture perfectly the spirit of the Cuyo:

Happy are those who have preserved
the house of their ancestors.
Happy is he who lives like his parents did.
The same stars give guidance in
illuminated skies. . . .
Happy are those who hold the light
their ancestors have lit.

The Cuyo Trail

GETTING THERE LanChile flies from Miami to Santiago, Chile, daily (flight time: eight hours and 25 minutes) and then on to Mendoza twice daily (50 minutes). American Airlines and United fly from Miami to Buenos Aires daily (about nine hours). LAPA flies from Buenos Aires to Mendoza several times a day (one hour 50 minutes).

WHEN TO GO February and March, the end of summer in Argentina, when the wine harvest begins and temperatures only reach the low 70s.

BODEGA ESCORIHUELA The winery boasts the largest French-oak barrel in the province. Belgrano 898, Godoy Cruz, Mendoza; 54-261-424-2282.

BODEGA LA RURAL Makers of the Rutini and Trumpeter wines, La Rural is also home to the extraordinary Museo del Vino. Montecaseros 2625, Coquimbito, Maipú, Mendoza; 54-261-497-2013.

BODEGAS Y VINEDOS SANTIAGO GRAFFIGNA Graffigna isn't packaged for tourists, but its knowledgeable staff is happy to show off the bodega. Colon 1342 Norte, San Juan; 54-264-421-4227.

1884 Francis Mallman serves inspired Cuyo fare under the stars in the courtyard of the historic Escorihuela winery. 54-261-424-2698.

CHATEAU D'ANCON An elegant retreat amid Argentina's choicest vineyards. $ Five double rooms: $320. San José, Tupungato; 54-262-248-8245.

FINCA LOS ALAMOS An 1830 adobe fortress surrounded by vineyards. $ Nine double rooms: $160. Avenida Colon 650, San Rafael; 54-262-744-2350.

RESERVATIONS To stay at Ancon and Los Alamos, call the English-speaking, Buenos Aires-based agent Patricia Acuña. 54-11-4803-7311; pacuna@arnet.com.ar.

Fine Argentines

Six of the best offerings from the Cuyo that are available in the United States:

1997 NICOLAS CATENA ZAPATA, $90. The pride of Catena, this intense, supple Cabernet Sauvignon with five percent Malbec was aged for 22 months in French oak. It's bursting with cassis and plum, and should drink well for two decades.

1997 CATENA ALTA MALBEC, $50. From Catena's premier Malbec vineyard, Argentina's premier Malbec is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro: Its deep purple-black color and brooding aroma provide the backdrop for rich raspberry fruit, fine tannins, and a velvety feel.

1999 TIKAL JUBILO, $50. Made by Catena's son Ernesto, Jubilo ("rejoice") is a celebration in a bottle. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec join in this boisterous, smoky wine built to withstand the carnivorous abandon of a traditional Argentinean asado.

1997 CATENA ALTA CHARDONNAY, $45. A stunning wine made from grapes grown at 5,000 feet. The result is gorgeous, full, and honey-gold, with touches of grapefruit and pear.

1997 FELIPE RUTINI RESERVA MERLOT, $20. A stylish offering from La Rural's Tupungato vineyards, this reserve Merlot has a seductive oaky aroma overlaying delicious black cherry fruit and an unimpeded, juicy finish.

1999 GRAFFIGNA DON SANTIAGO SYRAH, $20. There's a glorious touch of desert sun in this fleshy Syrah with notes of prune and plum. A San Juan favorite, and only 2,000 cases made.

Mark Rozzo writes about books and culture for The Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker.

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