Carmello Patti Called Me! Malbec in Mendoza

“Hi Sarah, this is Carmello Patti.  You can come by this afternoon or tomorrow if you want to visit the winery, just stop by and I’ll be here.”  That was the message that Carmello Piatti the winemaker and famous “garagista” left on our voicemail.  Patti is an older Argentine/Italian who is known for making excellent Cabernet Sauvignon out of his run down bodega in the dusty outskirts of Lujan in the Mendoza region of Argentina.  When we stopped by, he was the only one there (his one employee was sick), and he led us around showing us the wine he was bottle-aging (for an impressive 5 years), and poured us generous samples.  As we walked to the bus, a bit tipsy from all of our tastings over the last three days, we thought that this enigmatic winemaker was the perfect last stop in our tour of Mendoza.

Mendoza is a medium sized city located in the desert right next to the Andes.  On the other side of the Andes are Santiago, Chile and the pacific, but this towering mountain range stops all moisture leaving Mendoza dusty and dry, especially in the winter when we visited.  This setup provides the perfect climate for grapes (especially Malbec), and our new friends Romina and her boyfriend.  We spent our days in Mendoza exploring the different wineries any way that we could (bike, bus, or taxi), and our nights getting to know our new friends.

After getting price shock from the organized tours of wineries ($135 a person), we spent some time researching other ways to visit the bodegas.  We’d much prefer to spend our money on wines and tastings rather than lining some tour company’s pockets.  The first method that we used was the well known bike and wine tour.  Basically you take a bus to the outskirts of town where you can rent bikes and peddle between a half dozen wineries, tasting as you go.  The bikes were a great introduction to Mendoza, and we had a fun day peddling through the vineyards, but we wanted to explore some of the better wineries that weren’t on the bike circuit. 

We asked at the local tourism office how to visit the wineries without a car (driving + wine tasting = bad idea), and again got the pitch for an expensive tour.  We talked and talked to the tourist info fellows for 10 minutes asking them in a variety of ways how to visit the wineries on the cheap, and they remained unhelpful.  Finally fed up, I gathered up my maps, and noticed that there was another tourist info center in Lujan, which is the closest town to some of the best wineries.  I asked them how to get to that tourist office once in Lujan (which we could reach by bus.)  Well, that request finally lit a fire under them.  “What do you want to ask them?  Why go to that tourist office?” they suddenly asked me.  "Well, I figured that they’d know better how to reach the wineries,” I replied.  All of the sudden it was like a switch was flicked and our previously unhelpful tourist info guys were like our own travel agency, calling wineries, mapping out bus routes and devising ways for us to visit the wineries that we were interested in.  It’s funny, Argentina is a land of rivalries:  Boca vs. River, Argentina vs. Brazil, Peronists vs. Conservatives, and apparently Mendoza tourist office vs. Lujan tourist office.

It turns out that you can economically visit the top wineries in Mendoza.  With some reservations made ahead of time, a few buses, a pair of cab rides, and steak sandwich lunches in our backpack,  we filled our days with winery visits where all we paid for were the tastings or the wines.  The tours of the top end wineries were definitely worth it, and these are impressive operations with stainless steel fermenting tanks, French oak barrels, and great wine.  We got to taste wine while still fermenting, and learn about the different grape growing and watering techniques.  (Including one winery that uses llamas to keep the weeds from growing between the vines as well as to fertilize!)

Mendoza was an awesome stop, and next time we’re drinking an Argentine Malbec we’ll remember our new friends, the dusty vineyards, and our nemesis in the tourist information office!


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