The highlight of any trip to Mendoza is leaving the city and heading out of town to the wineries. When you see the fields of grape vines up against the Andes, you realize that this is why you came all this way.
The province of Mendoza has more than 1,000 wineries and produces 70% of Argentina’s wine. There are several regions within Mendoza that produce different types of wine, ranging from the warm, low-lying El Este area to the cooler Uco Valley in the Andes foothills.
Visiting wineries in Mendoza is not a rush job. The province is immense, and it can take 90 minutes to get between the different vineyards. It’s best to pick one or two a day at the most, leaving time for an extravagant 2-hour lunch. The best guide I found was Vino Argentino, a hardcover guide by Laura Catena, who comes from a winemaking family. It’s a great reference book not only for its descriptions of the country’s different wine regions, but for its look at Argentina’s cuisine and immigrant past.
On my quick trip to Mendoza, we visited several wineries, two of which I’m recommending here for visis Familia Zuccardi and Bodega Catena Zapata (yep, same family of the author I just mentioned above). Both wineries are family run, by descendants of Italian immigrants who came to Argentina to pursue agricultural careers that mimicked those they left behind. Today I’m writing about Familia Zuccardi; I’ll cover Catena Zapata tomorrow.
Familia Zuccardi is known for its experimental vineyard as well as the breadth of its varietals: there are more than 35 types of grapes planted in the fields, including obscure ones such as Caledoc and Ancellota. Sebastian Zuccardi – seen above with his arms in the grapes – runs the research. The winery is known for its “Q” lines of Tempernillo, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as its “Zeta” Malbec/Tempernillo blend. Biggest taste surprise for me, though, was the Zuccardi Bonarda. An Italian varietal, it’s become Argentina’s second most planted red.
Although Familia Zuccardi has estates in several different regions, its main tasting room and storage is in La Este, a warm and sunny region to the east of Mendoza City. While the climate in La Este is mostly arid, the region is also known for ferocious hailstorms that can wipe out a grape crop in less than 15 minutes. To prevent damage, wineries must spend thousands on protective hail netting.
Just as many wineries in California have diversified with other products, so too has Familia Zuccardi. Olives have turned into a lucrative sideline venture, as the winery has the means to produce top quality, unfiltered olive oil that can be served within hours of pressing.
We were encouraged to drink the freshly pressed olive oil, just as we would a fine wine. First, we warmed the glass with our hands to bring the temperature up and release the bouquet. Then we sipped it, without the benefit of bread for dipping. I was surprised at how delicious it tasted on its own.
Almost more than its wine, Familia Zuccardi is known for its restaurant Casa del Visitante, which serves up luxuriant lunches paired with wine from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.. The 3-course regional menu is 160 pesos (about $40 US) or you can splurge on a seven-course tasting menu, complete with six glasses of wine, for 180 pesos (about $45). I recommend the latter, although you’ll definitely want to make sure you have a driver picking you up!
Our lunch, part of the Park Hyatt Masters of Food & Festival, almost seems like a dream in retrospect. Lazy, decadent, full of rich dishes such as wild hare crostini, lamb sirloin and grilled sole over leek and potato tagliatelle, it’s hard to remember one bite from the next. The dessert above is one of the several times I encountered tapioca over the weekend; the dish is called “duet of ‘organic caviar’ with raspberry yolk and eucalyptus ice cream. And I only know that because I still have the menu; at this point, the Familia Zuccardi wines had rendered me incapable of taking notes.
The grounds at Familia Zuccardi are postcard perfect, with picnic tables, sunning nooks and shady tables under hanging vines. You could easily while away half the day here, ordering snacks and sampling some of the wines you just bought. The winery is open for visits daily and while you don’t need a reservation for the tasting room (which does charge a small fee), make one for your lunch.
Just make sure you schedule nothing more strenuous than a nap afterward.
Coming tomorrow: A visit to Bodega Catena Zapata, in the Lujan de Cuyo region.
Thanks to Park Hyatt Masters of Food & Wine, which sponsored this trip.