Friday, 11 June 2010


I know what you're thinking - it's something like this: "Hmmmm, Mendoza? Where do I know that name from?" and you're imagining it being shouted by someone with a gun. I reckon you're probably thinking it's got something to do with 80s TV series, like the A-Team or something. Close. It's the name of The Simpsons' TV hardman McBain's nemesis, Senator Mendoza. You watch too much TV anyway.

It's also the greatest wine region in Argentina. Again, you might be lapsing into some 80s anachronistic thinking - Argentinian wines got a reputation for being awful about 15 years ago. But they ain't.

Here's the angle: the UK is coming into summer, there's football around and a bit of sunshine, and this brings out an awful lot of barbecues and picnics, blokes drinking lager and supermarkets pushing rosé like it had just been invented. But what of the reds? It's a tough one - you certainly don't want something with a body that's too heavy; picnics tend to start as afternoon activities, and with a spot of sun on your head and a slightly chunky shiraz you'll pass straight through being talkative, to garrulousness and red-faced war talk. Cool it.

Similarly, you don't want anything too light. I'm a sucker for a summery Beaujolais, thin, fun, splashy-splashy. But they can get lost among the cabaret of British al-fresco eating - we're a nation that relishes condiments and marinades, strong and spicy flavours dominate barbecues. Beaujolais' Gamay grape can struggle to get a grip.

So here's what I'm talking about: "Get Mendoza".

Where's this coming from? I'm a massive fan of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepé Carvalho series of books. Carvalho is an intense character - a private detective of the classic type (brooding, troubled, ambiguous past, happy to use questionable techniques to get results), with an interesting angle. He's not just a drinker (so many classic detectives are boozers, for my money Inspector Morse takes the cup since his fondness for it took him to diabetes and an early grave). He's a gourmet, a connoisseur, a chef and a gourmand - as was Montalban. Pepé's deepest insights into his cases come when he breaks off engagements with his prosititute-girlfriend, retreats to his house in Vallvidrera (on the hills overlooking Barcelona), lights a roaring fire by burning volumes of his extensive political and philosophical library, and sets about creating an exquisite menu. Montalban describes the recipes in detail - the books encourage the reader to indulge themselves in more ways than one.

In the penultimate book of the series (or, as it may be, ante-penultimate, if Millennium Carvalho ever sees posthumous release), The Beuno-Aires Quintet, our hero ventures to Argentina - a country which means very little to him. What do you know about Argentina? "Tango, Maradona, the Disappeared". In the book he discovers several other important features (and comes to understand two of these three a little better): meat and Mendoza. There are lengthy descriptions of family asados (which appear to be a cross between the British traditional Sunday Roast Ritual and a huge barbecue). Mendoza wines are a continual counterpoint to the beef. Hence this post.

The Mendoza region's first appellation went to Lujan De Cuyo in the early 90s, and its best known variety is their Malbec, which flourishes in their relatively dry climate. While the Malbecs get the most hype, and are probably the most confident among the Mendoza single varietal wines, I think the most unique contribution from the region is its (little known) Bonarda grapes. As I understand it, Argentinian producers are putting their weight behind the Malbec since they think the Bonarda isn't going to hit the mainstream well enough - but I'm all about the underground. It's an interesting grape, that bit lighter than the Malbec (which compares with the medium body of a Pinot Noir, but with the blackberry edge of a Zinfandel), and the Bonarda has more of a cherry flavour. The best Mendozas I've tried have been blends of varieties involving Bonarda - it goes very well with their Shiraz/Syrah grapes.

So what do you get? The classic Mendoza character is slightly on the heavier side of a medium weight, with handsome warm fragrances - cherry, blackcurrant, blackberry, slightly oaky. The density lets it carry two flavours clearly: the top notes are cherry blossoms, vanilla and sweet peppers, and the long, soft finish has a rich plum-and-wood smoothness. It's quaffable without being heady, so you can put it away quite easily and very enjoyably. It seems to have very little acidity compared with similar weighted wines, but this doesn't mean it disappears among stronger flavours. The sweetness and mellowness doesn't cloy - it's lively enough to keep you interested from cork to empty. That's why it's a recommendation for these picnics you're going on. Don't shy away from the blends - the Shiraz, Pinot Noirs and Cabernets are all good, but remember the grapes of note are the Malbec (confident enough to stand alone) and the Bonarda. (Here are two good current tips:

Casa Bonita Bonarda Malbec, 2005
- a blend of two uniquely Mendozan grapes, lighter than many from the region. A great chance to try the Bonarda at work. Red fruit flavours, touch of spice. Incredibly cheap from Morrison's right now (something to do with exchange rates) - priced at £2.99 or £3.99 depending on where you live (postcode lottery?). Get Mendoza!

Sainsbury's Taste The Difference: Argentinian Mendoza Malbec, 2008
- straight up 100% varietal wine, does everything you want a Mendoza to do, and currently on offer (I think this was around £6, down from around £9). It's from the Lujan De Cuyo area although it doesn't carry the DOC. They say: "Lush, violet-scented wine... velvety tannins and long finish". I think lush is good word for things that are green, it doesn't work for me here, but violet-scented is right on the money, and also captures the way the light bounces through it in the glass. Get Mendoza!

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