Just Back From

Mendoza Enchantment

"Don't worry." The figure of the rider in front of me was lost in the darkness. "The horses can see."

Shivering deeper into the sheepskin saddle, I tried to coax my horse (and my thoughts) away from the drop-off to our left. Invisible and yet unmistakable, it hung within a casual slip.

The night was profoundly, terrifically black. The number of Malbec blends I'd tasted at last night's wine-pairing asado gravely exceeded the number of hours I'd slept. I breathed in the weightless air and tasted smoke from the parrilla that had settled into the wool of my poncho. The heroic meal had finally come to an end only a few hours earlier, in a bowl of late summer peaches, griddled black and topped with fresh cream. As a steady flutter of hoofbeats carried us higher into the Andes, I consoled myself with the promise of a late afternoon nap in the sun, one of Mendoza's compulsory rituals.

I'd arrived yesterday on the heels of a rare rain that had rinsed the atmosphere and left the whole valley glistening. Vineyards glowed golden green against jade foothills, and the mountainscape crumpled into violet ridges under a freshly replenished mantle of white. If not for the Andes and their melting glaciers, the Mendoza wine regions, which receive more than 300 days of sun each year and very little rainfall, could never have been. 16th-century Jesuit missionaries produced the valley's first wines (for use during communion) by contriving an elaborate system of aqueducts to nourish their plantings with snowmelt from the mountains. In doing so, they transformed the alpine desert into an unlikely Eden, hospitable not only to grapes, but also to apples, cherries, plums and peaches.

As we'd driven south into the heart of wine country past peach orchards, walnut groves and roadside shrines to the Argentine folk saint Gauchito Gil (a 19th-century Robin Hood whose 21st-century devotees are legion), this year's contestants for harvest queen beamed at us from billboards featuring their promotional glamour shots. The coronation of the reina would be the culminating act of the "Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia", Mendoza's annual grape harvest festival, which was now less than a week away. Earlier in the festival's history, the candidates, in addition to being considered the province's loveliest young women, were actual cosechadoras-reapers. Today the queen serves primarily as a cultural ambassador, but the competition still figures prominently in Mendoza's popular imagination, and young Mendocinas are still told by their doting aunts and grandmothers that one day they will surely be reina de la Vendimia.

Though almost everyone in Mendoza seems to know something about winemaking, it wasn't until the 1990s that Argentine terroir, which had long yielded only cheap table wine for domestic consumption, began to attract international attention. With the enthusiasm of a few intrepid pioneers and an influx of international capital, winemakers in Mendoza began producing vinos de guarda (wines with aging potential)-and at some of the highest elevations in the world.

About 100 kilometers southwest of the city itself, a swathe of fertile uplands at the base of Mount Tupungato has emerged as the most visible theater of 21st-century investment and innovation. Meteorologically, the Uco Valley is characterized by dramatic variations in temperature that serve to concentrate colors and flavors without compromising acidity; architecturally, it is distinguished by the strikingly futuristic designs of its wineries, which seem to vie with each other, and even with the mountains, for the spotlight.

The Vines Resort & Spa was originally conceived as a retreat for the absentee co-owners of its surrounding vineyards, who fly in throughout the year whether to plant new varietals, participate in the harvest or develop a blend with counsel from the property's resident winemaker. The sleek new hotel is mercifully open to owners and oenophiles alike, and it's hard to imagine a more comfortable place to which to retire after a long morning of tastings and a six-course lunch. Its twenty-two freestanding villas are plush and contemporary, done in a quiet wood and stone palette that draws the lush colors of the western skyline inside through massive floor-to-ceiling windows. Given the softly distressed leather sofa, draped in sumptuous textiles from the north, and the fireplace laid with hand-cut stones found on-property, you might actually find yourself rooting for the improbable rainy afternoon. Then again, I could have happily spent my entire stay on the sprawling, sun-soaked deck, which was furnished with every imaginable convenience for outdoor living, not the least of which were an enormous sunset-facing tub and a fire pit where the kitchen's grill masters can choreograph a private asado.

The resort's destination restaurant, Siete Fuegos, was buzzy at dinner despite the considerable journey to this corner of the valley, and with good reason. It is the latest opening from Argentina's beloved pyrophile Francis Mallmann, and his most conceptual restaurant yet. The vegetables we'd eaten at last night's dinner had baked all afternoon inside a wheelbarrow loaded with smoldering rocks, coals and embers. We'd watched, enthralled, as Mallmann's executive chef, Diego Irrera, had unearthed and unwrapped the seething burlap sack filled with beets, potatoes, carrots and fennel. Later he'd invited us to assist him in prepping salt-encrusted chicken al infiernillo ("little hell"), a Mallmann classic that involves packing an entire bird in salt and roasting it slowly on a shelf between two open log fires. Mallmann, who hails from Patagonia, has long championed the heritage cooking methods of the Andes, honed over centuries by gauchos, immigrants and the indigenous tribes who preceded them. At Siete Fuegos, these principles are articulated more explicitly-and pursued more rigorously-than ever. The restaurant's open kitchen is a kind of outdoor theater rigged with all manner of medieval-looking cast iron vessels, where guests can watch the chefs at work by the glow of its seven namesake fires.

There is no shortage of polite tasting menus in Mendoza (many of the wineries have award-winning restaurants of their own), but the kind of frontier cooking on display here seems the truest expression of the destination's wild, masculine heart. Other than fire itself, Diego confides, the most fundamental elements of his recipes are patience and time. If we'd had a bit more of the latter, we might have watched him roast a whole animal al asador (on an iron stake), a sacrament that can take fourteen hours.

Looking at the primitive asador, assembled less than a hundred yards from the postmodern fitness center, I remembered a passage from Mallmann's Siete Fuegos cookbook: "I adore dissonance in food-two tastes fighting each other. It wakes up your palate and surprises you... If you sleep in a very comfortable bed but sometimes take a siesta on the warm ground in the shade of a tree, you know that the experience of the one highlights the virtues of the other." Gradually I realized that it was precisely the close, tense coexistence of old and new, raw and refined, that had made my experience of Mendoza so vivid.

We dismounted (unscathed) on a small plateau, and for the first time all morning, I looked up. Tiny tinsel threads streaked across a richly sequined sky, the southern constellations entwined in a delicate, flickering brocade overhead. It seemed only natural, in a place where stone fruit ripens in mid-February, to find Orion suspended upside down, the tip of his sword pointing upward. Like so many frontier settlers and wayfaring gauchos before us, we passed the mate gourd around the sunrise fogón (bonfire). I had participated in this ritual a handful of times and had always felt like an impostor, blundering the handoff or feigning enjoyment, all the while wishing secretly, desperately for an espresso. But this morning the earthy yerba (pronounced "sherba" in this part of the Latin world) responded to a deeper mandate than my daily caffeine fix. Soon we could see our horses silhouetted against a brightening eastern horizon, and the snowcapped volcanoes behind us caught the sun's first rays, glaciers gleaming with lunar fluorescence.

Published onJune 3, 2014

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