MENDOZA – Don’t let the fact that Mendoza airport is closed until the end of November 2016 stop you from visiting anyway. Fly into San Juan or San Rafael to the south where a free bus service is provided, slowly but surely transporting you to Mendoza bus terminal, or even take an overnight coach. Yeah, it’s a pain in the arse, but it’s worth the hassle. Here’s the foodie reason why.
Argentina’s principal wine-producing region has just started springing to life. The visual start of the grape-growing cycle has kicked off (during winter vines might not look like they’re up to much but in fact are sleeping and thinking about the next two coming years) and leafy green carpets are creeping across the land. It’s truly a beautiful moment to visit – not too hot, not too icy – plus you can also take advantage of some much-needed personal photosynthesis after the tedious grey winter.
And, given that visitor numbers are already visibly down since the airport temporarily shut two weeks ago, there are bargains to be had, as wineries, hotels and restaurants are highly anxious about luring in guests. The Vines of Mendoza in Uco Valley is offering free private transfers in from San Rafael as part of its “Vine and Dine” experience, while EntreCielos in Vistalba has slashed room prices by 40 percent until December 7; Casa de Uco, meanwhile, has extended its low season rate until the end of November. You can also check into Casa de Coria B&B in the heart of leafy Chacras de Coria for a well-priced US$120 a night. And, food-wise, a collection of bodegas has joined forces for Maridaje de Bodegas, offering 20 percent off lunch (see box).
One winery of note participating in Maridaje de Bodegas is Lagarde and its recently revamped restaurant Fogón, tucked up next to the 1897-constructed winery’s 20 hectares of Malbec vines that have a similar age to the bodega itself. In the hands of the Pescarmona family since the 1970s, the lunch tasting menu used to be served in the original courtyard, an intimate space oozing history through its adobe walls. But thanks to the design eye of Sofia Pescarmona, Lagarde’s young and dynamic chief executive, the bodega’s dining option has undergone an epic facelift and managed to retain its historical sense of charm despite being a new build.
Dine in or out – I took a table with winemaker Juan Roby under the fully flourishing wisteria trellis, one of Sofia’s many pride and joys around the bodega. (She’s also a fan of trying to capture thirsty bumble bees on camera as they bustle around the violet flowers). A vista across the vineyards, blue skies ahead, the Andes behind to my west, the parrilla and brick oven due south – dine out to make the most of a very special setting.
South African chef Jason O’Brien leads the kitchen at Fogón, an imported find with European experience unearthed by Sofia. (In fact, he lives around the corner, as extremely good fortune would have it.) Winemaker and agronomist Juan has input into wine pairings, and an efficient team of young waitstaff are in place with succinct dish explanations. As I was lucky enough to lunch with Juan (“Let me through, I’m with the winemaker”) we went renegade – Semillón, Viognier, two Chardonnays, Syrah, a spot-on 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon – but the five-course menu (880 pesos) is usually paired with five suitable wines, which this season includes Lagarde Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah, as well as Guarda Malbec DOC and a glass of Dolce bubbles to round off matters.
Fogón’s focus is on small producers that doesn’t stick just to Mendoza but appreciates other regional products too, creating dishes that encompass hearty and delicate in one bite. Step one, Patagonian trout, for example, was livened up with vibrant fennel and crunchy beetroot, the fish’s usually delicate flavour greatly enhanced.
The seasonal tasting menu also visited La Pampa with three lamb textures, each teamed with a different salsa. Baba Ganoush with a small lamb medallion was mouthwatering and a great match; this was followed up with an abundant beef fillet cooked in a cast-iron skillet, teamed with a Malbec salsa and creamy potato mash, plated in such a way it looked like a yin-yang. Homemade mandarin sorbet refreshed the palate so well, I could almost have started over.
Once the great weather kicks off in earnest, part of the kitchen will move outside to make use of the parrilla and clay oven. And, remember, booking ahead and mentioning Maridaje de Bodegas brings your lunch bill down to a little over 700 pesos.