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Source: The Washington Post
By: Erica Johnston

Friends told us. The concierges at the hotel told us. Travel books told us. When you tour the vineyards of Mendoza, hire a driver. It's easier and safer.

Nonetheless, when my friend Jonathan and I set our sights on Lujan de Cuyo, an Argentine wine region that begins just outside the city of Mendoza, we rented a car. After all, it's only a few miles. How hard could it be?

We had just spent a few days in Mendoza, a lovely blend of understated sophistication and truly tempting languor. It's also the capital of the province of the same name. As we enjoyed dinner at a sidewalk cafe one summer evening in December, students celebrated their graduation by cruising through the city -- really more of a big town -- in an open-air bus, singing and cheering. Every night we were there, a different celebration broke out spontaneously.

But we hadn't come for the good-natured gentility of the place. Let's be clear: I came for the wine. My friends came to hike in the Andes, dozens of miles in the distance. If any city has a more majestic backdrop, I've never seen it.

Thanks in part to a Frenchman who, as the story goes, carried sprigs of malbec grapevines to Argentina in the 1800s, Mendoza has in recent years become one of the world's foremost wine regions. It's no longer up-and-coming: It has arrived, and its vineyards reach farther by the day, now extending through much of the province.

Malbec has long been an underachiever in the old country. One of several types of grapes allowed in red Bordeaux, it hardly ever makes the cut. But in the warm, sunny countryside outside Mendoza, tempered by cool Andean nights, the perennial understudy hit the big-time. As a bonus, the weather is so consistent in the "land of sun and wine," as the area likes to call itself, that each vintage is more reliable than those in France, or even California.

Seeing their breakthrough moment on the international stage, many Argentine wineries have shifted gears in the past decade or so, emphasizing quality over quantity after generations of focusing on inexpensive wines for domestic consumption. As millions of investment dollars have flowed in, much of it from Europe and the United States, dozens of new bodegas, or wineries, have put down roots in Mendoza.

So we set out to see for ourselves in Lujan de Cuyo, where Argentine winemakers are convinced that malbec found its true purpose in life. (Cabernet, syrah and chardonnay, along with Argentina's signature white-wine grape, torrontes, are grown in smaller quantities; malbec is the boss, no doubt about it.)

Our hotel has made us appointments, which are usually required for tours. The wineries begin in earnest only about 10 miles outside the city. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out. The city fades fast and a Wild West-with-vineyards landscape soon takes over, with scrubby brush and rows and rows of grapevines. Before long, paved roads and street signs seem strictly optional. But then you catch a full-frontal view of the Andes, a magnificently sculpted wall across the horizon. It's well worth getting lost for. All the same, next time, I'll hire a driver.

After an unintentional detour or two, we're close, really close, to the winery of Carmelo Patti, an old-school Argentine winemaking legend. We know it; we can feel it. We just can't find it.

After inching down a country road and still coming up empty, we turn back, looking for a sign, literally or figuratively. And there it is: The street number hanging from a front door matches the bodega's address. This sprawling old home has to be the place, a renowned winery hiding in plain sight.

A slight older man slips out a side door and extends a hand. Patti, of Italian stock like so many other Argentines -- he was 1 year old when he left Sicily with his family -- has been making wine for almost 40 years.

We realize instantly that we are equally inarticulate in the other's language. It takes a bit longer to understand that it doesn't matter.

Patti doesn't let a little thing like language get in the way of communication. He makes his points with passion and pen and yellow sticky notes, writing down details such as the percentage of various grapes in his signature Gran Assemblage, a Bordeaux-style blend, and the couple of years when hailstorms so damaged the grapes that he didn't make the wine.

After giving us tastes of his current wines, Patti proudly pulls out reviews of older vintages from magazines the world over. But though a small number of his bottles are sold in the United States, his feet have never touched U.S. soil.

How did his life's work come to travel more widely than he has? "Boca a boca," word of mouth, he says, clearly pleased.

Patti doesn't have to give tours to the fans who manage to track him down. He has better things to do. His winery, formally called El Lagar de Carmelo Patti, is essentially a one-man show. But he enjoys talking about his wines almost as much as he loves making them.

"Watch your head," he warns as he leads us past fermentation tanks down into the wine cave, a.k.a. the basement, a chilly respite from the 90-degree-plus temperatures outside. And then he's on to the garage, where the bottles are labeled by hand.

The price for a bottle of all this work? In the United States, about $25 for his entry-level malbec. The Gran Assemblage costs about twice as much.

Next stop: a nearly new winery a few miles away, in a decidedly fancier "Zip code." We didn't call ahead; we just can't help ourselves. We veer off a main road after spying Bodega Melipal, whose malbec Jonathan had enjoyed a couple of nights earlier.

The building looks like it's straight out of Sonoma, sleek, modern and low-slung. It's showy and respectful at the same time, very much at home against the horizon of vines, mountains and blue skies -- almost always blue skies.

No reservations? No problem. After we invite ourselves in, a young woman cheerfully announces that she's not supposed to do this, and then proceeds to lead us on a private tour.

Dipping a long ladle into a stainless-steel tank, she extracts a taste of the bodega's basic malbec, which is fruity and refreshing in its youth. The equivalent wine from the 2005 vintage earned 91 of 100 points ("outstanding") from American critic Robert Parker, only two years after the winery's first bottles rolled off the line.

Farther along, we sample a reserve malbec as it follows its tank aging with a 15-month soak in oak barrels, a kind of finishing school for grapes where the wine gains depth and maturity. Like so many Argentine malbecs, it's a crowd-pleaser, full-bodied and spicy, but with a depth that the entry level lacks.

Another thing about virtually all the Argentine malbecs I've tried: Even though they're lush enough to sip on their own, they all but shout out for meat. Red meat to be specific, and grilled red meat if you're really going for the gusto. If malbec wasn't born in the carnivorous Southern Cone, maybe it should have been.

All of these attributes have brought Argentine wine, and especially malbec, a long way in a short time. U.S. imports have jumped eight-fold in the past decade, making Argentine wines fourth-most popular among foreign wines. Only Italy, Australia and France send us more bottles.

At our final stop before heading back to the city, Ruca Malen, a nearby bodega started about 10 years ago by two Frenchmen, we skip the technicalities altogether.

Bypassing a tour, we head straight to the all-glass dining room out back. If you look closely, you can see the irrigation lines in the vineyards just yards away, a lifeline of snowmelt from the Andes that nourishes the vines in a region that receives only a few inches of rain a year. Grape growers in Argentina have been irrigating like this for hundreds of years. At least one, the founder of Legado (Legacy), traces his family's roots in the vineyards to 1611.

Then the culinary show begins: a five-course tasting menu for lunch, complete with matched wines. A cheese terrine with olive oil, "citrus foam" and apple. Cured beef with malbec and plums. Grilled beef tenderloin. It isn't even 2 p.m. yet. The restaurant's glass walls shelter us only from the searing heat outside; the Andes are so vivid it seems we could walk there.

But dessert, a dulce de leche mousse, is yet to come.

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