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A Buenos Aires Thanksgiving

Argentina's capital is struggling economically, but Argentina's wines and cuisine are still impressive
Photo by: Bruce Sanderson
Francis Mallmann's Patagonia Sur features refined Patagonian fare and a good wine list to match.

Posted: Nov 30, 2012 12:30pm ET

I spent Thanksgiving week in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was my fourth trip to the federal capital since 2005, yet it had been four years since my last visit. A lot has changed, yet much remains the same.

There is beautiful architecture in B.A., neo-classical, art nouveau and art deco, some of which is reminiscent of Paris, hence its nickname as the Paris of South America. But the sidewalks are broken and many buildings are in a state of disrepair, signs of the struggling economy.

We had barely arrived when there was a threat of a transit strike by workers demanding higher wages, which fortunately did not occur.

Despite a favorable exchange rate of 4.8 pesos to the dollar (compared with 3.25 in 2008), or 6 to 1 if you paid in dollars, inflation is rampant and Buenos Aires has become expensive. Taxi fare to the airport, 250 pesos on our arrival, cost 292 pesos by week's end, an increase of 17 percent.

Inflation is ballooning due to recent changes in government regulations to control the currency and prevent Argentines from protecting their savings by changing pesos to dollars. In addition, businesses must match the value of imported goods with Argentine exports or an equivalent investment in the country, a move implemented by the government to protect a shrinking trade surplus. As a result, tourism is down and many luxury goods retailers, like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Armani have closed up shop or, in the case of Ermenegildo Zegna, streamlined operations.

It is affecting Argentina's wine producers too. Wineries rely on sources outside the country for equipment like presses, bottling lines, barrels and corks. Some wineries are unable to bottle new vintages, or have lost contracts and experienced disruptions in exports and sales because of new regulations.

There were several instances last week when I ordered wines that were out of stock. I accepted that from a local café, but not from a high-end wine program at an international hotel. One restaurant had no Torrontés on the list because they were awaiting the new vintage. These were almost daily occurrences and may be a direct result of the new difficulties facing Argentina's wine industry.

With the exception of the very best restaurants, service was lacking. It was slow, haphazard, and we often poured our own wines despite ordering relatively expensive bottles from the list. There were a few instances when we wanted the check and our server was nowhere to be found. A disappointing trend was wine lists without vintages.

Wines from outside Argentina are expensive and difficult to find. Therefore, the best strategy is to drink Malbec. You will have the widest choice in every price range, though some small boutique wineries were unavailable. Most of the wines by the glass are consistently from big companies: Alamos, Trumpeter, St. Felicien, Trapiche. These entry-level Malbecs are more satisfying than the equivalent whites—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontés or Viognier.

That said, we enjoyed a wonderfully perfumed Bodega Colomé Torrontés Calchaquí Valley 2011 at Sottovoce's outpost in Puerto Madero and a piquant Torrontés 2010 from San Pedro de Yacochuya at a friend's house.

Among the interesting reds was the slightly austere, complex and elegant Bodega Noemía de Patagonia J. Alberto Río Negro Valley 2011, mostly Malbec with a dollop of Merlot. At dinner with friends one night we were able to compare Catena Zapata Estiba Reservada 2001 (available only in Argentina) with the Nicolás Catena Zapata Mendoza 2001. The former is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Malbec, aged 24 months in 100 percent new French oak. The latter is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (52 percent) and Malbec (48 percent) aged 18 months in 100 percent new French oak.

Both were delicious wines. The Estiba showed reserve and a distinctly Old World character with a spicy profile. The Nicolás Catena was unabashedly New World in style, showing more oak and plush, ripe berry fruit.

We had a terrific meal at Aldo's, where sommelier Matias Prezioso's knowledge and service enhanced our experience. Though expensive, Patagonia Sur is a beautiful room and we had the kitchen and Nicolàs Cordeiro, the manager, all to ourselves. He recommended the Finca Decero Amano Remolinos Vineyard Mendoza 2008, a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Tannat. It was delicious with the seven-hour braised lamb and chuck steak we ordered.

Perhaps our best meal was the unpretentious Café San Juan, where we sat at the bar overlooking the young, tattooed kitchen crew man the burners. Simple food with great flavors, like rabbit pâté with plum preserve and fresh basil and anchovies cured in oil on a spreading of green tapenade, both served on crusty bread.

The weather was fabulous, with mostly sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s to mid-80s F. And my girlfriend discovered some great discounts on shoes.

There are plenty of great reasons to visit B.A. But if the economy continues to struggle, higher prices and the challenging infrastructure could drive visitors away.

Florida, USA —  November 30, 2012 5:06pm ET
I was last in Buenos Aires for New Year's Eve 2011. Economically and politically, things are not going well, but my impression was that this was still a (mostly) beautiful city that knows how to throw a good party and have fun!

While not a huge fan of Argentinian Malbec, some of the blends are quite interesting and have been consistently good in recent vintages. My two favorites are the Bodega Norton Privada (around $20) and the Amalaya (around $15) which is now produced by the Hess Family.

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