The spiritual home of Malbec and why it's Argentina’s answer to Stellenbosch
I’m frequently asked what my finest meal of all time has been, and debating the contenders (usually over a bottle of wine) is a delightfully frivolous endeavour. And there are contenders aplenty but for complete experience; the food, the wine, and the jaw-dropping setting – it’s hard to look past lunch at Ruca Malen.
Ruca Malen is a bodega, or wine estate, just outside the provincial Argentine city of Mendoza. It’s the heart of wine country in Argentina, and by extension, the spiritual home of Malbec, the French grape that has been given its true home in South America.
Mendoza and its wine
It’s also rugby country, and steak country (more on that shortly), and kicks off the route up into the Andes, and through one of the world’s highest border crossings into Chile, a trip I’d highly recommend taking (the spiralling descent into Chile is breathtaking, but not for the faint of heart). But wine is Mendoza’s chief attraction, and Ruca Malen one of its glittering stars.
Let's talk about Malbec
The winery sits down a stretch of road flanked by vineyards and watched over by the Andes, towering snow-capped guardians that frame one of wine’s more arresting views. It’s a view you clearly get used to, or no one would ever get any work done, but for the first-time visitor, the combination of setting and altitude don’t leave much breath left. And that theme extends to the cellar, home to some marvellous examples of Malbec at its very best.
Broadly speaking, Argentina does two styles of Malbec: the bright, cheery, drink immediately fruit bomb, that’s all noise and colour, an uncomplicated wine that picks up on Malbec’s cheerier, less complex side. And then there’s the more serious stuff: Malbec as the long game, wine frequently blended from different blocks to produce that dark red liquid silk that has made Argentina’s best so celebrated around the world. Ruca Malen is home to plenty of the latter fare, and tasting the assorted options is the second best option when you’re there.
Get ready for 5 courses of...steak
The best option, however, includes the aforementioned meat: up on the first floor of the winery, in a dining room that’s mostly glass and anticipation, I sat down to a 5-course steak menu, washed down by Ruca Malen’s finest Malbec, with vineyards stretching about before me, and white-topped mountains above. The view was staggering, the food magnificent, and the wine a lesson in taking a grape from elsewhere, and perfecting it.
You’ll find wonderful steak across Argentina (La Cabrera in Buenos Aires, if you can get in, is a mecca for carnivores), and the country has bodegas aplenty to explore. But for wine and steak combined in a postcard setting, and warm, welcoming Latin hospitality, head to Mendoza, take the short trip out of town, and settle in for thick, rich cuts of red meat, large, swirling glasses of Malbec, and an Argentine attraction to match any footballer or president’s wife.
This week I’m drinking
Speaking of Malbec: we don’t do a huge amount of the grape in South Africa, as it tends to flourish in the more constant conditions that Mendoza can offer, rather than the ebb and flow that gives such variety to South African vintages of other grapes. But there are some notable success stories, amongst them Paul Wallace’s Black Dog Malbec.
Named after the canine companion who accompanied Paul through the vines when he started his wine operation, it has all the smooth, rich, luscious hallmarks of good Malbec, helped by Elgin’s climate and Paul’s own passion for the varietal. And just like Mendoza is rugby territory, so is Paul Wallace Wines: nephews Anton and Chris van Zyl, professional players past and present, are frequent raiders of their uncle’s stock. Throw in a couple of steaks, and you’ve got an appreciable nod to Mendoza – ideal preparation for that pilgrimage to Ruca Malen.
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