On a trip to Argentina, Patagonia and Mendoza balance each other out perfectly. Or at least they did on mine. After 4 days of strenuous physical exercise – glacier trekking, mountain climbing, horseback riding, lamb eating – nothing felt better than a few days of lounging poolside with sun and cool mountain breeze. In Patagonia one needs to constantly be aware of everything: time (did I miss the last bus back to Calafate?), weather (did I wear enough layers to protect me from the icy chill of glacial wind?), money (did I convert enough dollars [illegally] in BsAs to last me through this week?). In Mendoza, however, I was comfortably numb, blissfully aloof. And nowhere was my utter detachment from everything more pronounced than at the winery of Bodegas Nieto Senetiner.
There are a variety of options when visiting Senetiner. There is a tour of the different vineyards, where guests learn how each terroir is specifically suited for the varietal(s) grown on it. There are day-long excursions that enable visitors to become harvesters and get close to the vines as part of a more hands-on experience of vintage. The ever popular bikes-and-wines tours are encouraged to stop here for a walk through the winery, though I think these are pretty much all the same. And after having been on a few of them, they bore me to death.
My friend and I chose the option that I believe best enables one to really feel the place: lunch at the winery, pairing with each course. There was a quick and painless winery tour as well as a vertical tasting included as a preview. The winery is set on a beautiful bit of land covered in vines with ripe Malbec grapes dangling in the breeze. The snow-capped peaks of the Andes provide the perfect backdrop to a beautiful bodega built by Italian immigrants back in 1890 in a classic countryside style. Sun streams in through the thatched roof, projecting a zebra-striped shadow onto the elegant hard-wood flooring of the outdoor patio. Perhaps the most beautiful item out there is the monumental parrilla lit with burning embers that make the dry air undulate with heat. I approached it slowly, tossing a friendly smile at the asadora handling it. She was already guarding the sizzling meats that were bound for our happy stomachs. Backlit by sunshine, she resembled an angel. Halo and all.
Our meal would be a traditional asado from start to finish, paired with some of the vineyard’s best. It was nice to see the source of our meat with the birthplace of our wine in the background.
Lightly toasted tips smeared with a bit of glossy queso crema, topped with a little bundle of jamón crudo (prosciutto) and a dash of snappy green chives served as a great little amuse-bouche and paired nicely with the Champaña Nieto Senetiner Brut Nature. It’s a Pinot Noir but vivified as a white, the bubbles produced, as with Prosecco, in the Charmat method (secondary fermentation in tanks, bottled under high pressure). The must does have brief contact with the skin, which introduces a very light salmon color to the liquid but very little tannin. A steady, straight flow of fine bubbles circulate the bien helada flute. Dry on the palate with very feint notes of ripe raspberry, but not syrupy or jammy in the least. There’s also nutty toffee, caramelized sugar and buttered toast in there. So, a no-brainer pairing to an open-faced toast sandie. Out came the oven-baked beef empanadas, two to a plate but small enough not to feel too heavy. Flaky, buttery pastry folded meticulously into a neat little bundle. The golden brown crust had gorgeous spots of caramelization and the flat bottom firmed up into a crunchy base that held up against the moisture of the filling. The beef inside was crumbly but juicy, hydrated further by tender bits of onion that had a pleasantly slimy, coked-through texture. As most empanadas de carne in Argentina, these didn’t have quite enough flavor for me and the filling could’ve used a bit of salt even. But texturally they were wonderful and the wine added plenty of flavor.
When presented with Torrontés or Chardonnay as the white pairing, I sprang for the former. This is one of my favorite varietals, deceptively sweet on the nose but actually pretty dry on the palate – the best of both worlds for someone who wishes they could enjoy sweet wines but simply cannot. Plus, it’s pretty much 100% Argentine and they’ve perfected its production. At Nieto Sentiner it’s a new varietal (2010 being it’s first year), but it already measures up to some of the better labels from Salta. It has a medium body, white peach and freshly cut flower stems on the nose. It’s a bit more citrusy in flavor than in aroma, with ruby red grapefruit but still plenty of peachy sweetness. It actually made sense to pair a white with the empanada, despite the hearty beef filling. The acidity cut the butter in the pastry and added a great layer of fresh flavor to the meat.
But then I also kind of wanted a glass of the 100% Chardonnay that I had tried during the tasting an hour before and, surprisingly, loved. “Surprisingly” because I’m an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) type of gal, not because that’s a cool type of gal to be, but because I really do despise the sticky, heavy, over-buttered, fat flavor of California Chardonnays. I do enjoy a nice Chardonnay-based white Burgundy, Chablis in particular. But these don’t come around very often and when they do the varietal is just kind of implied. As our guide explained, Argentine Chardonnays are actually quite light bodied and drier than Californian elaborations. It was still very round with a Cali blonde mane and an ample, fruity bosom but it wasn’t too overwhelming. Taking a little break from our table between courses, we moved to the steps overlooking the vineyard to sit and enjoy our third glass. Our server was very accommodating in coming over to pour for us.
The choice of red was between a good old Mendoza Malbec and something I did not know Argentina was playing with – a Bonarda. Being a curious creature and more familiar with Malbec at this point than I want to be, I chose the Bonarda. And it’s a 100% Bonarda. Part of it is aged for 8 months in 3rd use barrels of French oak. It’s intense and tannic, round and complex. Blood-red cherry, ripe raspberry, a hint of cigar smoke. Apparently, Bonarda is planted pretty widely in Mendoza, under the name Douce noir. It goes very well with pretty much everything plucked off the grill.
Naturally it paired great with the rest of our meal. After the empanadas were cleared off, the table was set for a full asado. Fresh lettuce was brought out with a plate of tomatoes doused with (a little too much) dry oregano. There was also a bowl of shredded carrots with corn kernels mixed in along with some wonderfully smokey eggplants and peppers. The latter was by far my favorite, oily enough to be slippery and rich but not too greasy. It would go very well with the hearty meats coming to the table.
I thoroughly enjoyed the baby morcilla and chorizo that preceded the steaks. The casing on both was wonderfully tight and snapped pleasantly when bitten into. The chorizo was packed with piggy sweetness and licked lightly by smoke from paprika. It was actually a tad spicier than chorizo tends to be in Argentina, though by no means as spicy as the Iberian version. The morcilla was as wonderful as always in this country. Mushy, moist, like a warm meat pudding coating the mouth with its thick, velveteen texture and irony, visceral flavor. They were each small enough to be eaten in two big bites and got me thinking of how awesome it would be if morcilla was made in a bite-size ball shape. A “blood sausage bite” like a plump meatball would be the most lucky thing to run into at the other end of a toothpick. (It might be difficult to grill evenly, though…)
And then the mighty trio of Argentine asado cuts: tiras, vacío, entraña. These three are like the three musketeers and tiras are clearly the Porthos of the group: over-the-top, vain, holding nothing back when it comes to its juicy, crispy, fatty body. These tiras were quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. The meat slid off the bone in a single, juicy chunk with one daft sawing motion of my serrated knife. It was buttery soft and very easy to chew, especially for this cut. The edges had crisped up into a salty, crunchy cap like the caramel ceiling of a meaty crème brûlée. There was plenty of concentrated beef flavor, minimal seasoning and very little smoke. Argentines prefer keeping direct smoke away from the cut in order to preserve the essence of the animal instead of overwhelming it with charcoal. Usually I’m not a fan of this process, but when the meat is so flavorful and so perfectly cooked I do not mind it in the least. The Bonarda stood up nicely to the salty, savory meat and the tannins cut the jiggly bits of silken fat expertly.
Then came vacío, the Athos of the triage – a refined, mature, intelligent hunk of meat. It’s a relatively thick flank cut with a coat of fat left on only one side. The fat crisps up into a golden brown piece of beef toffee, while the moisture from the fat cap hydrates the adjacent flesh. The latter became succulent and tender. Masticating this thing was not strenuous, and it released the flavors locked inside gradually. You know that perfect cut of vacío I mentioned back in my article on Las Cholas? This is the one I meant.
And then, sword swinging, entered the third musketeer. Entraña is the Aramis of the group, probably my favorite cut. Like Aramis, this steak is delicate, beautiful and very impressive. It’s modest in size but packed with flavor. There is only a very thin layer of fat coating the meat and even that melts into a cloud of moisture, which adds extra juice and flavor to the fine grains of meat. This one is also minimally seasoned and not too smoky. It’s definitely the best cut to end with.
The meal was wonderful up until the dessert, which was mediocre at best. The concept of a cheeseboard over some kind of cake was great but the cheeses chosen were not of good quality. There were three little cubes of some sort of cheddar and 2 very hastily chopped pieces of Swiss. They didn’t seem very freshly carved and actually tasted a bit processed. These were served with a few almonds and walnuts that hadn’t even been toasted, along with cubes of maracuyá (passion fruit gelée) and batata (sweet potato gelée). The maracuyá chunks resembled gelatinous cranberry sauce sliding right out of the can, while the batata was starchy and thick, too glossy to have been home-made. It’s a bummer because I’ve had some wonderful home-made cheeses in Argentina. Batata is usually smooth and creamy, packed with the natural dulzor of sweet potato. Maracuyá is usually tart and fruity with a slightly sweet finish. In this case, the latter was just acidic, and even the syrup made from it was elementary in flavor.
Paired with this carelessly assembled bummer of a cheeseboard was an equally clumsy dessert wine. Neither I nor my lunch companion particularly like sweet wines, so maybe we were also a little biased. It was a sickly sweet, syrupy thick Don Nicanor Cosecha Tardia made of 100% Malbec. It was chilled to lighten it a tiny bit, but the flavors were still far too condensed and concentrated for me. Definitely not one I enjoyed, but one I expected not to enjoy. Our server was flexible in pouring both of us more of the dry red we did like, though, so the last sip of the day was of that wonderful Bonarda.
We left full, wobbly and very happy after hours of sitting and staring at the each other, at the beautiful landscape. It was a relaxing day in a peaceful place and I felt beautiful and satisfied sipping my glasses of Senetiner’s best.