To get to Mendoza, the capital city of the Argentinean province of the same name and the nerve center of the country’s vast wine region, you first fly to Santiago, Chile. There, you connect with what I generally describe to friends as my favorite flight. The opening minutes are less like takeoff and more like liftoff, as you rocket skyward at an unusually steep pitch. The pilot is making this precipitous climb because the Andes Mountains are dead ahead, and—sorry to mention it—nobody wants to end up like the Uruguayan rugby team that Piers Paul Read wrote about in his 1974 best-seller, Alive.
Soon enough, you’re up there surrounded by crags and snow and cerulean sky; the jagged tips of the highest peaks in the western hemisphere are just within reach outside your porthole. If you’re on the port side, you’ll glimpse Aconcagua, the king of the Andes, at nearly 23,000 feet.
Then, before you know it, you’re up and over; the wide valleys and snaking foothills surrounding Mendoza now spread out in every direction. Deep irrigation ditches called acequias etch this arid, ocher terrain, where approximately 77 percent of the world’s Malbec wine grapes are grown.
Looking down, you feel like you’re seeing a mash-up of New Mexico and Tuscany, a landscape that alternates between tawny desert and dappled vineyards, with tall poplars—alamos—lining farm lanes.
After barely an hour of flight time, you touch down at El Plumerillo, Mendoza’s airport, which is so small it’s almost cute.
You’ve just traced in the sky the land route that settlers, priests, and conquistadors took in the mid-1500s when, it may be conjectured, the first grapevines were brought from Chile to Mendoza through the rugged Uspallata Pass. In those days, Buenos Aires, 650 miles to the east of Mendoza, was little more than a smudge on the Atlantic coast.
Four Hundred Years of History
I think of Mendoza as a town, but it’s actually a city. More than a million people live in and around Mendoza, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s low-slung, friendly, intimate, and awash in history. In 1817, Argentinean general José de San Martín, the George Washington of South America, set out from Mendoza with his Army of the Andes to liberate a vast swath of the continent from the Spanish; an enormous and suitably gaudy monument to his glory tops a steep hill overlooking the city.
Mendoza is also awash in wine. It is the capital of Argentina’s wine industry, the fifth-largest in the world. Within the city itself, you’ll find wine bars with machines on the street that dispense vintages—an Automat approach to keeping a thirsty population quenched. In Mendoza’s restaurants, such as Azafrán, an ambitious foodie destination inside a handsome old town house, the wine lists are predictably robust: Azafrán’s runs to some 400 entries, most of them local.
Out in the countryside you encounter hand-painted signs reading SE VENDE MALBEC—these are the garagistes of Mendoza, D.I.Y. wine-makers who offer product out of sheds and back doors.
Wineries here are called bodegas, and you can’t drive five minutes in any direction without bumping into one. There are the ruins of abandoned bodegas, brand-new bodegas in mid-construction, bodegas you’ve never heard of that look like they haven’t changed in a century, and bodegas you probably have heard of, whose names—Trapiche, Norton, Salentein—call out from signage inviting you to vineyard tours and tastings of Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons awarded 90-plus points in the pages of wine magazines.
When I visited Mendoza earlier this year, during its gloriously cool, sun-saturated winter, immersing myself in the wine country, I was told there are 1,800 bodegas in the area. I’d set my sights upon the grandest of all Argentinean wine operations, arguably the greatest in South America, if not the entire southern hemisphere: Catena Zapata, the storied, multi-pronged outfit helmed by Dr. Nicolás Catena, a Ph.D.-level economist who is credited with propelling the Argentinean wine industry into the modern era.
The Catena family, with roots in the Italian region of Le Marche, has been making wine in Mendoza since 1902. When Dr. Catena took a teaching post at Berkeley in the 1980s, he became fascinated by the Napa Valley, whose upstart wine-makers pulled off a shocking victory over the best Bordeaux producers in the famed 1976 tasting known as the Judgment of Paris. As Catena spent his off-hours getting to know Napa vintners and absorbing their methods, he plotted an enological revolution in Argentina, where the traditional output was ho-hum jug wine. It was Dr. Catena who dared to believe that Argentinean wine-making, with a fresh infusion of ambition and expertise, could compete on the world stage.
And why not? The Mendoza region, with a wine culture going back more than 400 years, is blessed with intense sunshine, little rain, favorable soils, and, as Dr. Catena came to understand as he surveyed the Andean foothills south of the city, the kind of high elevations that could make some of the best wine on earth.
Mendoza is awash in wine. It is the capital of the fifth-largest wine industry in the world.
And so the professor refocused the family business on single varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and, in particular, Malbec, an ancient French grape favored by Eleanor of Aquitaine that became essential in the creation of Bordeaux’s celebrated blends—until the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century came close to wiping it out. (If you happen to be a wine historian and you’re reading about the wonders of old Bordeaux, you’re probably reading about Malbec.)
But Malbec, with its lush tannins, plum fruit, and deep color (it was once known as the “black wine”), thrived in Argentina; the phylloxera louse, for a variety of reasons, cannot survive there. The grape also creates a complex yet highly drinkable medium-bodied wine that is perfectly suited to Argentina’s carnivorous culinary traditions.
As a tour guide at Bodegas Caro, the lauded winery co-founded by Dr. Catena and Baron Éric de Rothschild of Château Lafite Rothschild, told me, “In Argentina, Malbec at last found its home.”
In the 21st century, it is another Dr. Catena who has become the great champion of Malbec and of Argentinean wine. That is Dr. Laura Catena, Nicolás Catena’s 55-year-old daughter, who holds degrees from Harvard and Stanford and who, until recently, worked as an emergency physician in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the managing director of the family business and the author of a handful of books on wine, the most recent being 2021’s Malbec Mon Amour, a colorful ode to Argentina’s signature grape, written with Catena Zapata’s head wine-maker, Alejandro Vigil.
“This is a varietal that’s been around 2,000 years,” she told me. “Nothing lasts for 2,000 years unless it tastes good!” She urged me to visit her co-author at his restaurant, Casa Vigil, which is nestled amid vineyards just outside of Mendoza city. It’s here that Vigil runs his own bodega, El Enemigo, in partnership with Laura’s younger sister, Adrianna Catena.
Vigil turned out to be a 50-ish bear of a man with outsize charm, voluble opinions, and a precipitous career trajectory. He became Catena’s wine-making director in 2007, earning the first 100-point score ever awarded a South American wine-maker by The Wine Advocate.
His Casa Vigil is wine-country dining at the highest level, where the proprietor himself can be found hopping tables and greeting pilgrims on the Argentinean wine route like they’re extended family. During a five-hour tasting-menu lunch that ran to eight courses, including a beef rib of Flintstones proportions, I lost track of how many times Vigil allowed himself to be corralled into one group photo or another.
In the city, you’ll find wine bars with machines on the street that dispense vintages—an Automat approach to keeping a thirsty population quenched.
I also lost track of the dazzling array of wine pairings, which seemed designed to prove two things: that Argentinean Malbec is probably the best in the world and that there’s way more to Argentinean wine than Malbec. There were bottles of El Enemigo Cabernet Franc, Bonarda, Syrah, Sémillon, and more on the table and on the shelves of the Casa Vigil store, which was doing a robust trade.
There’s a palpable sense of go-for-it initiative throughout Mendoza, something you could say that Nicolás Catena sparked. Vigil told me that working for Catena was the “best education,” meaning that a stint with the company is akin to earning your post-grad degree from a top research university: you emerge with prestige, cutting-edge skill, and a reputation for hard work, making you a desirable candidate at any of the bodegas of Mendoza.
Wineries here are called bodegas, and you can’t drive five minutes in any direction without bumping into one.
The center of the Catena Zapata enterprise is the enormous, eponymous bodega that was completed in 2001 in the style of a Mesoamerican pyramid. It rears up from a flat expanse of vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo district south of Mendoza City in a way that is almost extraterrestrial: behold, the mothership of Argentinean wine.
Here you can tour endless rows of French oak barrels, ascend to a lookout and take in the sweep of miles of vineyards, and descend into a deep cellar to partake of tastings in which Catena vintages are paired with musical selections. You sip, say, the Angélica Zapata Chardonnay Alta, grown at 3,000 feet, while listening to the seductive strains of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” I couldn’t get the song, or the wine, out of my head for the rest of the day.
The music tasting is novel and goofy and fun, yet it’s based on actual research into the impact of aural stimuli on humans’ sense of taste. Wine-making may be an art but it’s also a science, and the Catena Institute of Wine, which Laura Catena founded in 1995, is dedicated to studying the innermost secrets of wine-making. It’s a clearinghouse for the latest scientific knowledge on wine-making that publishes papers in peer-reviewed journals, which can be shared throughout the greater wine world.
One study published last year in Scientific Reports proved, for the first time, the existence of the concept at the very heart of wine-growing: terroir, that mystical French term that describes “the taste of place.” As the institute’s executive director, Fernando Buscema, told me, nobody else had been looking into these issues in quite this intensive way. “And so,” he said, “we had to do it ourselves.”
More than Malbec
Speaking of terroir, there’s a ton of it in Mendoza. “To go from Maipú to Gualtallary,” Laura Catena told me, referencing two vastly different growing areas in Mendoza, “you’d have to go from the southern Rhône to Champagne—seven hours!”
In Mendoza, you can cover that massive shift in terroir in an hour. “We have an incredible variety of soil in Argentina,” she said. “So it’s the perfect place to study terroir.” In fact, as the institute pored over studies of Pinot Noir, the Burgundian grape synonymous with terroir, they found that Malbec expresses terroir—that unique specificity based upon where the grape is grown—even more transparently.
It’s fun to think about terroir, but it’s more fun to experience it, both in a glass and under your feet, as you can do 45 minutes south of Mendoza city at the Cavas Wine Lodge, a Relais & Châteaux property. Here you can stay in your own adobe lodge, complete with a plunge pool, tucked amid vineyards and framed by snowy Andean peaks. (There are 17 lodges, including one that is sized for a family with grown children.)
The cooking at Cavas is refined and regional: the mollejas (sweetbreads) had an Andean bent, accompanied, as they were, by crackly quinoa and scorched tomatoes.
When I last toured the wine region, 21 years ago, there was no such thing as a Cavas Wine Lodge. There were a couple of estancias—those old, family-owned piles, synonymous with Argentina—that took in guests. Booking them was a mysterious process that tended to involve hiring an estancia whisperer out of Buenos Aires.
That changed when Cavas Wine Lodge opened, in 2005; now there are a few more high-end accommodations planted within the vineyards around Mendoza, keeping pace with ever expanding wine tourism—and the expansion of the wine country itself.
After Nicolás Catena’s wine revolution took hold, more and more vineyards were planted south and west of Mendoza, reaching toward the foothills of the Andes, particularly in the Uco Valley, an area so rugged and so elevated that for centuries nobody bothered to plant vines there. It was Catena Zapata that helped lead the way. In their Adrianna Vineyard, in the district of Gualtallary, we spent a morning among Malbec and Chardonnay vines, jumping into soil pits to check out limestone deposits and talk about alluvial fans—the nitty-gritty of terroir. The elevation was about 5,000 feet.
We broke out two of what are considered the greatest wines ever made here—the Chardonnays known as White Stones and White Bones—and, standing around the tailgate of a pickup truck, helped ourselves to a swank liquid breakfast.
Wine-maker and vineyard manager Luis Reginato solicited our opinions on these two austere, elegant, eye-opening wines, which were decidedly not the buttery, oaky, fruity Chardonnays of sorority parties and gallery openings. I was in the White Bones camp, the more stark and mineral of the two, and was amazed to learn that these incredible wines come from parcels that are literally a rock’s throw from each other. In other words, terroir city.
When a fierce zonda—the periodic wind that comes whipping off the Andes and that can wreak havoc—started blowing, we dived into our cars and bumped along further up, to Domaine Nico, a tiny bodega founded by the Catena sisters, which released its first vintages in 2019. As a chef prepared chivito a la cruz, a whole goat roasted outdoors on a crucifix over open flames, we gathered inside around a huge hearth while Domaine Nico’s head wine-maker, Roy Urvieta, poured an array of the winery’s single-parcel Pinot Noirs.
These, Urvieta said, were the highest-elevation Pinot Noirs in the world, thus proving that there’s a lot more happening in Argentina than Malbec. I was struck by the commitment to experimentation and risk, not to mention enological diversity. When I asked Laura Catena about this, she said, “Wine, in terms of its diversity, is an incredible display of where our society can go.” I wondered what surprises I might encounter on my next trip to Mendoza.
Not long ago, Catena told me, her team was shooting a promotional video at Domaine Nico. She insisted that the vineyards’ harvesters join in, sharing a lunch and sampling the wines they had helped to make. It was a scene not unlike the one I’d experienced with the zonda blowing, the goat roasting, and the towering Andes right there in front of us: total Mendoza. One of the harvesters raised a glass to her lips and announced, “I don’t drink wine.” Talk about a conversation ender. Then she tasted it. “But if this is what it is,” she said, “then I do like it!”
Mark Rozzo is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles