As my friends were putting the final touches on their job resumes, stressing about whether or not they would find work after college, I was purchasing a one way ticket to Argentina.
I decided to travel light. I had no idea how long I would be in Argentina for and the last thing I wanted was to be tied down. I packed a few essential items, a Spanish-English dictionary, a notebook, and corkscrew. This journey wasn’t just about learning Spanish; it was about learning the language of Argentine wine.
After four years of college, I was ready to dive right into the world of wine, and Mendoza was the place to be. As a native Californian, I knew finding work in Napa or Sonoma would not be hard, but I wanted to do more than just pour wine at a tasting bar. I wanted to really work in the industry. I wanted to meet winemakers, get my hands dirty, harvest, learn a new language, and taste lots of new wines.
Over these past three years that is exactly what I have done. I have learned about Argentine wine from the source. I have walked through countless vineyards, tasted grapes as they go through their maturation cycle, and sampled just about every varietal of wine grown in Mendoza, some of my favorites being: Torrontes, Cabernet Franc and the infamous Malbec. At each winery I visited, the winemaker or guide would hand me a glass and ask a similar version of the same question: ¨have you tasted a Mendocinean …(Malbec, Torrontes, you name it).¨ My answer was always no, and with that, another wine was poured into the glass and the conversation continued.
With each glass, I learned something new. Whether it was about a new varietal, aroma or just the basics of how to taste a wine properly, which stemware is used for white vs. red varietals, the ideal serving temperature, or how oak aging affects a wine’s aromas and flavors. I learned how to listen and learn with my palate. It may sound like a hard thing to master, but believe me, I enjoyed every moment. I was like a kid in the candy store, yet instead of the candy store I was in the vineyards, and the wine glass was my treat.
The beauty of wine is that you can never know too much. Every winery, every vineyard, every winemaker has something new to teach you, and Mendoza, Argentina is the perfect classroom. I hope everyone has the chance in their lifetime to visit Mendoza and experience the magic for themselves, but for now – let me take you there myself.
Imagine a vast area divided into 4 distinctive grape growing zones: Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, Eastern Mendoza and the Uco Valley, accounting for over 148,000 hectares of planted vineyards. Vineyard altitudes range from 2,000 - 4,700 feet above sea level, depending on each region´s geographic location. Mendoza is a semi-arid desert located in the western foothills of the Andes Mountains and receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. As you can imagine, that makes grape growing a bit tricky, thus the region relies on an intricate system of irrigation canals as its lifeline. The majority of wineries in Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu and Eastern Mendoza depend on a traditional system known as furrow irrigation. Furrow irrigation floods the vineyards with varying quantities of water, depending on the time of year and stage of the vine´s growing cycle. In the Uco Valley, most vineyards have elaborate drip irrigation systems that use new technology and gently trickle water to the vine´s roots.
As you walk through Mendoza´s vineyards you will notice the diversity of the soil at your feet. Soils range from sandy to clay, but are predominately loamy with excellent drainage. This lends to an ideal environment for producing varietals such as Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
I will never forget the first time I visited Domaine St. Diego winery in Maipu, and was taught about Mendoza´s unique terroir. Maria Laura Mendoza, daughter of head winemaker Angel Mendoza, explained how her family´s 3 hectare property received its water, as well as why they had chosen to work with Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Maria Laura led me through her family´s property, and as we walked past the vines she began collecting leaves from each varietal, explaining the differences between the leaves, varietals, and occasionally grabbing a berry for me to sample. Within minutes she had deconstructed all my previous beliefs. Just seconds after I had met her, she was teaching me things no book had ever been able to do. I learned why Malbec grows so well in loamy soils, why the grape thrives at high altitudes, what gives the varietal a plum/violet complexion. Before long I began to understand why Mendoza is known as the Land of the Malbec, and I could feel the passion locals have for viticulture.
For those looking to experience something new, Mendoza is a destination that never stops sharing. What makes this region unique is the people who call it home. They will take you into their vineyards, through their wineries, explaining each step of the winemaking process. They will open their cellar door and pour you a glass of their favorite vintage, because in teaching they are sharing their passion; a passion that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Mendoza has much to offer, both to temporary travelers and those looking to build a life for themselves.
You may enter Mendoza as a stranger, but you will surely leave with many new friends, and a suitcase full of unforgettable wines.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Molly Hetz has been living in Mendoza, Argentina for the past 2 years, absorbing all there is to know about wine, one glass at a time. When she is not in the vineyards tasting grapes from the vines, she is sharing her knowledge with tourists from all over the world through her work as a concierge for a local tour company, Uncorking Argentina. In her free time she loves to share her passion and knowledge of wine and travel, with others.