Malbec At The End Of The World

by: Susan Simon

photography by: Luisa Zuberbuehler

The Malbec grape is not native to Argentina, but in the past few years Argentina has certainly given the deeply-delicious, fruity red wine new celebrity. A transplant from the southwest of France, Malbec is the starring grape in the great wine of that region, Cahors. It is also one of six grapes allowed in the blend of Bordeaux. While the Malbec varietal is now grown all over the world, it thrives when grown in the warmer climate of Argentina, where its flavors are allowed to develop into what has come to be its signature fruity lushness. This, coupled with the afford- ability of Argentinian Malbecs, has made its popularity soar over the last couple of years.

The largest wine region in Argentina is in the province of Mendoza, nestled on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The city of Mendoza is known as the wine capital of Latin America. This somewhat dry area, situated high up, receives enormous benefits from the Andean melt-water that flows from its eastern slopes. At the same time, the altitude allows more UV light to shine on the grapes, which helps them develop the thicker skins that figure, in no small way, in giving the wine its emblematic flavor and deep garnet color.

Young lamb is stretched across a traditional iron rack and grilled over an open air fire at a picnic site. Accompaniments are roasted vegetables, breadsticks and the wines of Argentina.

Malbec is produced in other provinces of the country, however, most notably Salta in the rather-hot north, even higher up than Mendoza, and in the provinces of Neuquén and Rio Negro in the somewhat cooler, flatter southern region of Patagonia.

Last October I traveled to Argentina, which is a huge country, the eighth largest in the world. It’s bordered by Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia to the north, and then stretches south all the way to Antarctica. To the west lies Chile and the Andes Mountains, and the Atlantic Ocean crashes up against its eastern edge. Because Argentina is in the southern hemisphere, the weather is just the opposite of what we experience in the United States. When it’s springtime here it’s autumn there, and winter for summer.

The same goes for direction. It’s warmer in the northern part of Argentina and cooler in the south.

I flew in to the capital city of Buenos Aires, and then headed south to Patagonia where I stayed in a suite at one of the houses that are part of the stunning group of typically Patagonian residences, collectively called Los Sauces Casas Patagonicas, in the town of El Calafate in the province of Santa Cruz ( the most southern in the country) on the southern shores of the eye-popping turquoise and cream-colored Lago Argentina. While Santa Cruz is not a wine-producing province – the land is too flat and the wind is too strong – you will be offered wines from other Argentinian provinces wherever you go.

There is a good reason to drink Malbec in El Calafate rather than say, in situ, at the vineyards of its origin. The reason is that El Calafate is the gateway to the spectacular Los Glaciares National Park, where half of the 1.7 million-acre park is covered with immense glaciers. The glaciers can be viewed from descending pasarelle, or catwalks, which face them and allow you to get so close that you feel you might be able to touch the 15,000-year-old ice. Occasionally a section of the glacier will calve into the sur- rounding water, crashing in with the loudest roar you’ll ever hear. Your heart may stop beating, but that moment of breathlessness is worth the price of your plane ticket to the other side of the world.

For the intrepid, you can actually trek across the glaciers. I did. Guides will take you across the spongy moraine until you reach the base of the glacier, then show you how to attach crampons to your boots, lead you up and up the glacier walls past pleated ice whose crevasses are the same stunning turquoise as Lago Argentina, across the top, down and up again. Then it’s down again, across a turquoise puddle and around an ice spire until you reach a rustic wooden table sunk into the ice. The table holds rows of glasses. One of the guides uses a pick to chip away at the ancient ice until it fills a bowl. He dumps the chips into the glasses, then fills them with some fine Scotch. Yes, indeed. Visiting the glaciers is just one of the many reasons to visit Patagonia.

One of the guests at Los Sauces was the renowned vintner Camilo Aldao, whose drenched-in-history vineyards in Mendoza,

Bombal y Aldao (, produce four red varietals – Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – and two whites, Chardonnay and Pinot de La Loire.

Camilo invited me, some of the other Los Sauces guests and a few local friends to join him for a lunchtime lamb roast and to sample a vari- ety of Patagonian Malbecs at Las Brasas, one of the hotel’s two restaurants. The casual eating spot, with views of Lago Argentina, the Andes and the every-so-often sighting of a few galloping gauchos followed by their wildly-barking dogs, was the ideal setting for our gathering.

While beef is known as the signature dish of Argentina, in Patagonia, the local lamb is legendary. It’s grassy, sweet flavor marries well with the velvety-smooth, fruity Patagonian Malbec.

For our lunch, Los Sauces’ talented young chef, Marcelo Raitelli, who commands the kitchen not only at Las Brasas but also at the elegant La Comarca located in the hotel’s reception building, prepared a whole lamb, asador-style. Asador is a method for roasting whole animals. Marcelo butterflied the lamb, “massaged” it with the all-purpose Argentine sauce, chimichurri, used hooks and wires to fasten it to an iron cross, then inserted the cross in an opening in the floor near a pile of smoldering logs. As the lamb roasted, Marcelo basted it with more chimichurri and added logs to the fire. About four hours later the lamb was roasted to crispy perfection, ready to serve, and we were ready to taste it, accompanied by Patagonian wines from four different vineyards: Saurus, Bodega Noemia de Patagonia, Postales del Fin del Mundo and Chacra.