Our rescue didn’t come by way of a knight in armor. Rather, he was an older gentleman with a big smile, his missing front teeth just adding to his charm–and instead of a horse he had a motor scooter.
We were lost in Mendoza. With only one full day to become acquainted with Argentina’s wine capital, we had no time to spare; precious minutes ticked away as my travel companions and I struggled to find our first winery stop of the day. We drove along tree-lined roads offering glimpses of lush vineyards left and right but the one leading to the driveway of Achaval-Ferrer proved elusive. We finally stopped the car and approached a trio of gentlemen on the side of the road.
Disculpe. ¿Sabe dónde está a Bodega Achaval Ferrer, por favor? Excuse me, do you know where the Achaval Ferrer winery is, please?
Despite our rusty Spanish, the three men nod in understanding as soon as they hear the winery’s name and proceed to give us directions in Spanish. The bodega isn’t far away at all, they said, but rather than sending us on our way, one of the men who happened to be sitting on his little scooter donned his helmet and motioned for us to follow him! With our very own escort we arrived at the entrance of our first stop, leaving us only a few minutes late for our tour. The sweet gentleman who came to our rescue refused a tip and the winery’s tour guide brushed away our apologies for being tardy with understanding. Graciousness reigns supreme in Mendoza and despite our less-than-ideal start, the day turned out to be one of the best of the trip.
Being from San Francisco, it was only natural to find myself comparing Mendoza to the wine country I grew up so close to, Napa Valley. Both share the distinction of being two of the eight World Wine Capitals–I should probably be embarrassed to admit that until just a few years ago I did not know that Argentina was a key player in the wine world. Save for a few special labels I have come to love, I can’t pretend to be comfortable reading a wine list. But I do know what I like and I have enjoyed my fair share of Malbecs along with other French or California favorites so my initial observations were more about place than on product.
What Mendoza might lack (again based on very short visit) by way of Napa Valley’s high-brow streets lined with designed-to-look-old-and-rustic storefronts it more than makes up for with the valley’s breathtaking vistas. Some of the highest peaks in South America like Cerro Aconcagua (22,841 ft, 6962 m, in fact the highest peak), Cerro Tupungato (21, 538 ft, 6565 m) and Pabellón (20,183 ft, 6152 m) can be seen from Argentina’s fourth largest city. And as much as I would have liked a more intimate Andes Mountains experience, our short South America trip allowed only for a brief, wine-centered visit.
If you love wine like my friends and I do, Mendoza will not disappoint. From a small boutique winery like Achaval-Ferrer (started by five friends) whose old-vines yield just roughly 825 cases to century-old Bodega Norton which supplies wine worldwide to over 60 countries, the options are many. While our tours of these two wineries vividly displayed the contrast between individual labeling of wine bottles to a much-larger automated process or managing a two-room wine vat versus a factory-sized one, the verdict was the same: Argentina produces good wine.
The food in Mendoza didn’t fall short of expectations either. We had lunch at Chandon. With no more than 5 or six tables in the restaurant, our break between tours was an intimate affair made special with artfully-prepared food and four varieties of champagne that seemed to be poured from bottomless bottles.
For dinner, my friends and I secured a reservation at Francis Mallman’s 1884. Mr. Mallman, said to be the author of the grilling bible, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, focuses on rustic food. Had I heard of him before this trip? No. Sylvie, our tour guide in Buenos Aires, introduced us to this restaurant but I fell in love with his menu at once. The grilled meats, the house specialty, were spectacular, as were the other courses we enjoyed. However, one dish stayed with me long after our visit to 1884.
We were served an amuse-bouche with burrata and cucumber, soaked in a lemony dressing. What appeared to be an unassuming dish easily became one of my favorites of the evening as soon as I took a bite. The creamy burrata and crisp cucumber dressed in lemon and butter (or was it olive oil?) was simple food at its best. The ingredients are sourced locally so the freshness was unmistakeable. The hors d’oeuvre was delicate and brightly flavored all at once and I should not have been so surprised that such simple ingredients would make such a powerful impact on my palate but this one did.
Since the burrata and cucumber went so well with our wine that night, I could not think of a better dish to share from my visit to Mendoza. I did not have a recipe and recreated the amuse-bouche as a crostini here but I believe I’ve captured the essence of what 1884 stands for.
- 1 cucumber, sliced thinly
- Clarified Butter, about half a stick (or olive oil)
- Fresh emon juice
- Baguette slices
- Feel free to use olive oil for this recipe but if you are using butter, just note that it is better served while the latter is still warm. To clarify it, simmer the butter on the stove over low heat until the foam rises to the top. Simmer for a few minutes until the foam stops forming. Take off the heat and skim the foam with a spoon. To remove the rest of the foam, strain the clarified butter using a cheese cloth arranged on top of a strainer. The clear liquid that is left is the clarified butter.
- Add as much or as little fresh lemon juice until the dressing is to your liking and salt to taste.
- Arrange the burrata and cucumber slices on plate and drizzle with the dressing. Serve with toasted sliced baguettes.