Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Argentina: Coppola's Retreat & Rolland's Clos

Act One: Early Sunday morning. The plane drops down through the clouds and roars through the rain as we land at Ministro Pistarini, Buenos Aires' international airport. The warmth tells me that we have switched climates - it's late spring here - but the downpour tells me that the ponies won't be running this afternoon at the international polo matches. Chukker that one off the itinerary.

We are staying today and tonight at Frances Ford Coppola's Jardin Escondido, his townhouse-style retreat in the Palermo Soho district, a low-profile area of city homes and upscale shops. Coppola, who is into commercial lodging these days, still has quarters for the family at the Jardin, but there are also a half-dozen rooms to let, as he slowly tries to turn it into a small hotel that is like staying at someone's residence. And that it is. The rooms are "spartan quaint," with decorating themes of exposed wood, mucho bricks and far-flung cowhides (complete with brands) and area rugs on the floor.

The location is central, and the big living room and enclosed courtyards are for hanging out. The atmosphere is one of feeling welcomes, but not of feeling pampered. A bottle of wine is quickly proffered, and advice on where to wander outside is met with maps and guidebooks. But there are no drinking utensils in the rooms, and the place may be abandoned in the early morning. No matter, go raid the fridge as a couple of other guests and I did.

Act Two: Sunday Evening. We may have missed the polo match, but the tango knows no weather. We are transported by jitney to the Faena Hotel + Universe, an edgy but upscale venue in the city's Art District, where we have dinner reservations before the show. The menu is a pick one of three dishes - a starter and a entree - plus dessert. I have the goat cheese tart and a veal chop, both quite nice, paired with Michel Rolland's 2007 Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc (exotic flavors of ripe gooseberries and whey) and 2007 Pinot Noir (like a Sonoma Coast Pinot, and perhaps the best I have tasted from Argentina).

The show takes place on a relatively small semi-circle of stage in front of our table, but there is nothing small about Rojo Tango, as the show is named. A half-dozen musicians file in first and take their places in a raised orchestra pit off to our right, and, as they warm up, you can tell they are quite good, especially the violinist. Then the dancers appear, several couples, and for the next hour plus we are treated to song and dance. It passes as quickly as the movements of the dancers, who bring tango from its earliest days to its modern incarnations. They are marvelous dancers, moving swiftly and surely, yet, though superb athletes, their legs are not as muscled as ballet dancers.

Rather we are treated to a performance that is like the Lippizaner Stallions meeting Dirty Dancing. Legs snap forward and backward from the knee, left, then right, skimming inches in between the moving legs of their partners. Near the end, a female dancer is suddenly topless, and it is no wardrobe malfunction.

And it's still the first day of our Argentine adventure.

Act Three: South of Mendoza. After raiding the refrig for breakfast (the kitchen staff arrives five minutes before our taxi), we are off to the airport and the flight to Mendoza, the high-and-dry wine mecca literally in the evening shade of the snow-capped Andes.

Our destination is almost two hours south - Vista Flores, the small town that serves as the mailing address for Clos de los Sieta, winegrower and consultant Michel Rolland's magnificent, 10-year-old winery project. In the past decade, Rolland has assembled five French co-partners (a sixth dropped out) with whom he has purchased and planted about a 1,000 acres of irrigated vineyards, built four wineries (his - the fifth - will be completed in 2010) and launched Clos de los Siete Malbec-dominated brand, a delicious and cellarable wine for the bargain price of about $20. Each of the wineries has its own brands and its own enologist, although Rolland does the master blending. Catherine Pere Verge (chateaux Le Gay and La Violette) built the first winery, Monteviejo; next was Benjamin Rothschild and Laurent Dassault (chateaux Clarke and Dassault, respectively) with Flechas de Los Andes; then the Cuvelier family (Chateau Leoville-Poyferre) with Cuvelier Los Andes, and finally DiamAndes (Malartic-Lagraviere), owned by the Bonnie family.

Today and tomorrow we will visit with these partners at their wineries as well as taste and chat with Rolland, arguably the most-influential winemaker in the world - an enlightening and enjoyable assignment!

Act Four: Evenings in the Country. We are staying two nights at the Postales del Plata's Valle de Uco Lodge, and I can't think of a better place to relax and have great food. There is a husband-and-wife team who run the facility, and they are the epitome of attentiveness while allowing guests their privacy. The lodge consists of two low-slung buildings with three or four guest rooms each, a small restaurant and kitchen in another building, and a fourth building with a large lobby and firplace. There is also a vineyard and a swimming pool, and the vegetables are mostly from the lodge's garden (above), irrigated from the melting of the snow caps that loom just behind us. Like most South American facilities of this type, landscaping is not at a premium, but good food and spacious rooms uncompromised.

Tonight, we are eating at the lodge, a dinner of delicious fresh water trout with julienned vegetables prepared in an outdoor clay oven by chef Gladys Bascunan. Later, it's time to wander outside, where a full moon is rising, blotting out by its brightness many of the stars visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Act Five: Getaway Day. On the morning of the last day, we drive north over first gravel and then rutted dirt roads, crossing small rushing streams, in the are northwest of Tupungato. Our destination is Estancia los Chulengos, an ancestral property owned by the Palmas, a family of professionals living in Mendoza. It is somewhat isolated and still a working farm with livestock and potato growing.

There is a beautfully decorated lodge - the mother is an architect and one of the daughters an interior designer - and this would be a fantastic place to cozy in and work on a novel. But we are here just for a few hours. A couple in our party go horseback riding into the foothills, and I opt for a walk along among a stream lined by the late-spring flowers and dessert shrub. Some bleached-out sheep skulls attest to the harshness or the climate and predators.

Lunch is a beautiful, simply prepared fare, featuring (again) magnificent trout and salsa cooked in a clay oven by the couple who maintain the property. We wash it down with a Rolland Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc and a Monteviejo red.

All too soon, we have to saddle up, head for the airport, then the flight to Santiago for the overnight trip home.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

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