Aurelio Montes gestures out the window and toward the mass of granite and ice in the distance.
"That wall," he says with awe, "it is incredible what it can do."
Montes's "wall" is the highest barrier in the Western Hemisphere, the stretch of the Andes Mountains that divides Chile from Argentina and includes Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. The natural obstruction has been a catalyst for all kinds of occurrences, including having an impact on the life one of South America's most distinguished winemakers.
A Chilean, Montes founded his eponymous winery in the 1980s after years as a winemaker in his home country. In the late 1990s, not long after Argentina began exporting wines for the first time, Montes became more curious about what was on the other side of the wall. The continental divide, it turned out, forged a drastically different terroir, and for a winemaker that presented a challenge. In Chile, the cooling breezes from the Pacific and the steep rise from sea level to the mountains created a climate for flavourful whites and lighter-bodied reds, emblematic of Montes Wines. On the other side of the wall, however, were hot temperatures, summers that were long and dry, and land with rocks embedded deep into the ground, lending minerality to the vines and firmer tannin structure to the grapes.
Montes began operations in Argentina in 2002 at one of the nation's oldest wineries, a location where grapes were first planted in the 1920s. He eventually purchased the entire property and dubbed it Kaiken, named after the caiquen -- a bird that migrates back and forth over the Andes, just like Montes.
Kaiken is one of the more than 1,500 wineries in the province of Mendoza, which has three primary viticulture regions: Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. The Andes Mountains make for a dramatic backdrop, and a range of accommodations, restaurants and tours provide amenities to complement the winery operations.
More than 15,000 visitors arrive at Kaiken each year. It was the first of three wineries I visited in May. Here's what I learned from each of them:
When you visit the cellar at Kaiken, you'll be treated to Gregorian chants, which are piped through speakers to tickle the wine and cajole the liquid in the French oak barrels to better enjoy the aging process. It's a method Montes has used in Chile for years, citing scientific studies of the positive effect soothing music has on wine production.
A biodynamic operation, Kaiken is also home to sheep, chicken and a flock of very friendly ducks, one of whom greets guests with affectionate pecks on the leg and proved to be an accomplished photobomber.
Like the approachable duck, Kaiken's products and the craftsmanship will win you over. The best and most expensive of the wines, Mai, is a Malbec blend with complex flavours of fruit, hints of pepper and spice, and a soft texture that gives the quality of elegance that is characteristic of all great wines. It reminded me of Brunellos I have enjoyed, but at about one-third of the price.
Like Montes, Susana Balbo is a pioneer and an innovator. The first female winemaker in Argentina, Balbo has been making internationally acclaimed wines since the 1980s. Many in Argentina credit her for bringing Torrentes, a grape grown in the north of the country, into mass production. A white grape unique to Argentina, Torrentes produces a dry, light-bodied wine that's easy to drink and excellent for pairing with light fare such as salads, pasta and fish.
At the winery, you can sample it -- or one of Balbo's other distinct wines -- with cuisine from the on-site restaurant, Osadia de Crear, which prepares beautiful plates featuring Argentinian favourites, including Patagonian trout and steak.
I visited on the day of an end-of-harvest feast, where Balbo, who is also a politician, oversaw a feast of barbecued fare and took part in discussions about the quality of the winery's products. Notably, Balbo's Crios line of entry-level wines are gaining attention in Canada, thanks in part to strong reviews and a social media-focused marketing campaign targeted at millennial consumers.
A fascinating operation, Salentein is a full-day attraction by itself. Founded in 1992 by Mijndert Pon, a Dutch entrepreneur and automobile industry magnate, Salentein boasts a facility featuring an art gallery that draws visitors all on its own. Pon's collection of Dutch landscapes and Argentinian contemporary art is an odd coupling but it works in a space designed by staff from Buenos Aires' acclaimed MALBA (Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires).
Its airy restaurant overlooking the upper Uco Valley serves gourmet cuisine. Pair a glass of Salentein's Killka Malbec with grilled tenderloin and you'll be overjoyed. The tasting room is often bustling as the winery sees more than 33,000 visitors per year. Luckily there are wide open spaces to linger and a separate winemaking facility to tour.
Salentein also has accommodations at its Posada, where there is also a separate restaurant operation. The rooms are in cottage-style abodes that include contemporary decor.
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