Argentina. It's been too long since I've been back. I have no good reason to procrastinate: the trip was wonderful, and there was much good wine drunk. Without further ado, then, a vinous travelogue of a month in Argentina in April-May 2010.
While Brigid and I did drink some wine during the first week we spent in Buenos Aires, it was not until we traveled to Salta, the northwestern-most province of Argentina, that wine was drunk with attention. Perhaps this in itself is a lovely thing about places like Argentina, where wine is mostly procured in supermarkets and always accompanies a meal. Though there isn't as much recreational drinking of it, wine in these places assumes a vigorous place in the minor and major celebrations of which almost all humans partake. It is there, like air and water, or bread, or sleep, or love.
I will say, however, that we picked up a taste for a concoction that is enjoyed in recreational fashion, Fernet con coca. It's exactly what you'd imagine: a healthy pour of Fernet Branca over rocks, then topped off with Coke. Half and half, basically. The Coke takes on a particularly silky and frothy texture when served this way, and its caffeine provides a good lift for conversations in cafés or impromptu dance parties.
Back to wine, and Salta. Home to Argentina's second-largest wine-growing region (after the well-known Mendoza), Salta has a high desert climate that makes specific, even nervy wines. The specialty is torrontés. Perhaps the best wine I had on the whole trip was Ciclos' late harvest torrontés. It was sweet and light, reminded me of tropical fruits, and gave me a euphoric feeling. Somehow I neglected to get a photo of the bottle, but it was enjoyed at the same table you see in the picture below, on the porch outside our hotel room in Cafayate.
Cafayate is the town around which most of the Salta vineyards are gathered. It's about three hours south of the capital city (also called Salta). We drank a number of other good bottles there, including the Don David torrontés depicted. This was a 'normal' cuvee and cost about $5.00 or $6.00 USD. The Ciclos late harvest wine was 'expensive,' and set us back $15.00. There is fantastic value to be had. I wonder if some of this has to do with the fact that it's almost impossible to fine non-Argentinian wine.
I didn't do any vineyard tours or anything, but we ate good simple food in Cafayate (above) and met some sweet street dogs. There were some vineyards spied from the road. In the photo at the top of the post you can see the desert environs. Said roads take the tourist past incredible scenery: high, plain-covered mountains, candy-colored canyons, and an expansive salt flat, complete with fauna (below).
We spent our last night in Salta at a pleasantly rundown hotel managed by a friendly woman whose son shared my birthday. Out of gas, we ate a terrible pizza in our room and gave it a good friend in a bottle of Nanni tannat. It's made from organic grapes and austerely dry, the way I like a quality table wine. The plastic tablecloth, plastic cups, and wax paper plates were a classy touch.
Back in Buenos Aires, I finally visited Autre Monde (autremonde.com.ar), a self-styled 'boutique de vinos.' This kind of store is rare in Argentina, for the reasons outlined above. But Victor, the owner, is smart about wine and knows a lot about what is being made and drunk in Europe and North America. He too only carries Argentinian bottles, but specializes in artisanally made wine, small-production vineyards, etc.
Above you see three of them: La Madrid, a single-vineyard bonarda from Mendoza; 25/5 Merlot, made in the low desert province of La Pampa, and Jean Rivier tocai, also made in Mendoza. Each was not what you would expect from Argentinian wine.
The bonarda was like no other single-varietal bonarda I have ever had, infinitely richer and more layered. The desert merlot, perhaps the most interesting of these three bottles, was also rich, and rather dirty. The tocai was light, drinkable, and easy to not attach a string of adjectives to: it was for drinking, though more interesting than a lot of the other white wine I bought in supermarkets, and much of the white wine one drinks, period. In this photo the three bottles are posing with the remains of a roast chicken I ate. The Argentinians grill and roast food expertly. I found their diet of meat (really some of the best you will eat) and birds and coffee and beer and Fernet most agreeable. The vegetables were not bad either, nor were the juices.
I didn't drink all of these three bottles at once, but
looking back on the trip it's nice to imagine that I did. Travel is like that. In retrospect it can seem like a happy
blur, a bit extravagant, not a little disorienting, capable of wearing you
out. And looking back at all the
meals and occasions, it's possible to see them as one long feast, punctuated by
toasts. Stuart Krimko