By New York Travelin' Gal Maxine Albert
I experienced the true art of wine pairing when I first met Alex LaPratt, who holds the esteemed title “Best Sommelier in America 2011.” I was celebrating a friend’s birthday at DB Bistro Moderne, Daniel Boulud’s chic Manhattan eatery, and gave Alex full rein. This sent me on a sensory journey with wines that enhanced the cuisine andwere justas exciting on their own.
Tutored by the estimable sommelier’s palate, I headed to Argentina and Chile for a vino tourism vacation to explore the terrain and visit wineries while savoring the food, drink and culture. What better way to learn more about the grape and the hot new gal in town- Malbec? What I found was gorgeous landscapes of picturesque vineyards against the backdrop of the majestic Andes and warm people with a Renaissance spirit creating great wine.
MENDOZA, ARGENTINA: The heart of Latin America’s winemaking region still retains its old world flavor. Charming eateries and sidewalk cafes dot the tree-lined streets and promenades. Check out Azafran for amazing tapas, and star chef Francis Mallmann’s delectable cuisine at restaurant ‘1884’ where I had the best steak ever. There’s an expansive plaza with artisan stands and a colorful fountain.The main action here, however, is winery hopping outside the city. Rent a car, explore and get up close and personal with grapes, barrels and vinification equipment. Some vineyards have restaurants or can arrange for delicious meals to go with the wine tastings. Here’s a round up of some of the best.
BODEGA CATENA ZAPATA: The pyramid-shaped main building of the winery was inspired by Mayan architecture. In the 1980’s, Dr. Nicolas Catena, a Columbia University trained economist, pioneered high elevation Malbec cultivation and set the bar for producing wines in Argentina. He put Argentine wines on the world map. Today his daughter Laura Catena continues the family tradition of producing exceptional award winning wines. The author of Vino Argentino, Laura is also a Harvard and Stanford trained doctor. She is beautiful, as are all the men and women I met at the various wineries. This made me wonder about the magical powers of this grape.
Here’s what sommelier Alex LaPratt says: “My favorite Bodega Catena Zapata wine is the Malbec Argentino. It’s full bodied with a silky smooth consistency and well balanced with flavors of mocha, espresso, blackberries, blueberries, tobacco and gravel with a nose full of violets. It’s a powerful wine with great acidity that works well with food.” I totally agree.
ALMA NEGRA: These are the vineyards of Ernesto Catena, son of Nicolas and brother of Laura. A former fashion designer with a focus on biodynamics and a belief in ‘instinct over reason – poetry over logic,’ he’s the Steve Jobs of Argentine winemaking. The sparking Malbec Rose 2011 and Misterio blends with Bonarda were superb.
ZUCCARDI: This winery has a restaurant, art gallery and concert space. There’s also a shop with beauty products made with wine and olives. After using their face cream for just one week, my skin was soft and smooth.
Jose Zuccardi is passionate about his wines and speaks about quality, innovation, sustainability and usefulness to the society. Listening to him is like watching a father talk about his children. My favorites were Zuccardi Q Malbec 2010, Emma Zuccardi Bonarda 2010 and Zuccardi Aluvional La Consulta 2008 – all high quality and lovely.
SANTIAGO, CHILE: A short flight over the mountains landed me in Santiago. The capital is flanked by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Stroll along Barrio Lastarria and Bellavista, peppered with outdoor cafes and street musicians. If you miss the sensational La Mar Restaurant, you can dine at their New York branch. This is the place to buy lapis lazuli jewelry, so shop and then head out to the scenic wine country.
COUSINO- MACUL: This family owned winery is focused on producing superior quality wines. A tour of their enormous gardens was a highlight. Designed by a French landscaper with all varieties of trees, plants and flowers, it looked like a magical paradise.
As for their wines, here’s Alex: “ My favorite, their Antigua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon combines the power and ripeness of New World wine making with the finesse and terroir of Old World Wines. It shows classic flavors for a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon like blackberry, cassis, new leather, tobacco and gravel. It also ages incredibly well and the estate has a library of vintages going back to the beginning.”
VINA LEYDA: High in the mountains with views of the ocean, the vines are planted on slopes here. The colors, the trees, the wildlife – the vista is extraordinary. I favored their superlative Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noir Wines.
Alex: “ I enjoy their Single Vineyard Syrah Canelo, picked in multiple tries to find only the perfectly ripe berries. This 100% Syrah has an inky purple color and hints of black pepper with an intense smoked meat aroma mixed with violets. It is elegant with a bit more body than its Northern Rhone counterparts.”
When I returned to New York, I savored a glass of Malbec with the Best Sommelier in America. Alex is currently Wine Director for celebrated chef Matthew Lightner’s hot Tribeca restaurant ‘Atera.’ A quote from Shakespeare’s Othello came to mind: “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it is well used.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.