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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Steak for Dinner, Steak for Lunch: 36 Hours in Buenos Aires

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 28, 2008 10:18am ET

My final visit in Mendoza was with Susana Balbo and Pedro Marchevsky, the husband-and-wife team behind Dominio del Plata. The winery produces the Susana Balbo and BenMarco brands, the former in Balbo’s preferred supple, velvety style and the latter in Marchevsky’s preferred structured and more muscular vein.

Balbo doubles as the head of Wines of Argentina, the winery- and government-funded trade organization that works to promote Argentina’s wineries. It’s an unenviable job since the Argentine wine industry is notoriously competitive within itself—the wineries have been unable to come together consistently to promote themselves as a group, something that the wine industries in Chile and Australia, for example, have done very well. Balbo is passionate about quality and has been trying to impress upon the winemakers and winery owners of Argentina that the nation's wines need to be competitive in the high-quality segment of the wine business. She’s even set up seminars for new wineries (with 100 new wineries in just the past two years, the industry now counts 900 and growing) to help them navigate the intricacies of exporting to the U.S. and other markets. The result was grumbling from some of the larger wineries who complained she was training the smaller wineries to take some of their market share. That narrow and shortsighted approach is exactly what has to change if Argentina wants to take the next step. (Balbo is up for re-election soon.)

As for Marchevsky, he’s one of the most demanding men in the business. He’s all about precision in the vineyards and when it comes to renting parcels, he pays by the hectare as opposed to volume, and then wants the vineyard worked his way. Marchevsky is also grappling with the search for terroir and diversity in Mendoza and notes that one of the big obstacles right now isn’t the terroir factor, but the human factor.

“We’re still figuring out what things are here, and it’s very difficult. Look at any two parcels—the vine rows are usually aligned differently, the irrigation is different, the trellising is different. They could both be in Luján de Cuyo for example, but they will provide two totally different kinds of fruit,” he said.

I tasted through the newest lineup of wines, including the ’06 Crios de Susana Balbo line, the value-priced choice from Dominio del Plata. These wines, from the Cabernet to the Malbec to the fun Syrah-Bonarda blend offer dark colors, juicy textures and seriously tasty fruit. The BenMarco Malbec Mendoza 2006 offers its typically grippy profile with lots of raspberry and spice notes, while the Susana Balbo Malbec Mendoza 2006 is rounder and fleshier, with boysenberry fruit and a long, creamy finish. The top wines here include the BenMarco Expresivo Mendoza 2005, a muscular but polished blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Bonarda and Merlot that has a well-rounded core of currant, plum and blackberry fruit. It’s surprisingly pure despite its heft. We also retried the Nosotros Mendoza 2005, Balbo’s top cuvée made from 90 percent Malbec along with Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a wine she admits to feeling a bit forced to make due to pressure from her importer—apparently on the marketing side of the business, it’s good for wineries to have small-production, high-priced wines. The wine has now settled into itself, with the toast starting to meld into the plum, black cherry, briar and mineral notes. It’s hitting its stride and should drink well over the next few years, consistent with my official review of it.

That led us to a conversation on aging, as I’ve been asking most of the top producers here if they feel their wines should age. Most agree that the top Malbecs show their best over the first five to 10 years of their life, and I’ve been agreeing with them—my reviews on the wines have included drink recommendation that typically stretch out just a few years. That doesn’t mean that the wine falls apart quickly. In a cool cellar, many of these wines will last for quite some time. But I don’t see them necessarily evolving into something so different or so much better that they warrant such cellaring. A wine’s ability to simply endure doesn’t add to its greatness.

Following my stay in Mendoza, I was set to head to Patagonia, a region that has risen from nothing to something in just a few years. In Argentina though, all the domestic flights go through Buenos Aires instead of direct, which gave me a convenient excuse to take in a bit of the nation’s capital. You can get a good feel for the city if you check out my colleague Bruce Sanderson’s story here.

On Saturday night, I headed over to La Brigada’s San Telmo location (there’s a second in the Recoleta neighborhood), the blue-collar bastion of beef. Rickety wooden tables are crammed together and the walls are covered with an array of soccer memorabilia. Waiters in blue shirts rush by with slabs of beef on sizzling platters. The aromas are so enticing, you’ll have a hard time concentrating on the menu. So, do what I did, and skip the menu altogether—just ask for the ojo de bife (rib eye) which comes in a cut that looks different from what we’re used to in the States. At La Brigada it’s rectangular and striated, it looks more like a flank, but my waiter Gustavo assured me, telling me it’s from the top of the rib eye: “This is the star of La Brigada,” he said.

He wasn't joking either. It dripped with sweet juices and a tangy minerality that left me salivating after each bite. I tried to go slowly, but it cut so easily I found myself piling bite on top of bite. Along with a bottle of the Bodega Noemía de Patagonia Río Negro Valley 2003, which has mellowed into a smoky, black licorice and graphite-filled beauty, the match was ideal. I skipped ordering any sides—no need for potatoes here—and just focused on the beef.

For a starter I opted for a heaping bowl of arugula and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Dining alone, I struck up a conversation in my shaky Spanish with Gustavo, who seemed to appreciate the effort—he brought an empanada along with my salad. Before I finish, he brought an enormous link of pork sausage as a middle course. Piercing it with my fork, it sprayed a fine mist onto my shirt, but I couldn’t care less as each bite melted in my mouth. Hints of sweet toast, herbs and pepper all rolled together seamlessly.

The atmosphere at La Brigada is loud and casual and a line quickly formed outside, so be sure to get a reservation if you have plans to visit. It’s a very popular spot with tourists, so expect to hear more English than Spanish in the room. The wine list has all the major players, though the top wines from Achával-Ferrer, Catena Zapata, Noemía and the like carry U.S.-styled price tags. Apparently some guy who covers Argentine wine back in the States has blown it for the rest of us. So my bill at the end wasn’t cheap. But the beef is so good, I’d put the dining experience on a par with the truffles served at La Beaugravière in the Rhône, and you know I like truffles.

The following day was Easter Sunday, and the city was eerily calm. For me, the beauty of grass-fed beef (Argentine cattle graze in the La Pampa region) as opposed to the traditional corn-fed beef in the States is that it digests better. Consequently, a meal like the one at La Brigada doesn’t leave me with a gluttonous hangover. So with the sidewalks almost entirely devoid of people, I walked over to La Cabrera for lunch. Located in the currently-being-gentrified Palermo Soho neighborhood, La Cabrera offers a different take on ojo de bife.

Here the cut is more traditional looking. It’s also over an inch thick and, frankly, enormous, about the size of two hefty lamb shanks. They’ll make a half-portion for you if you want. I had the full portion. At just 47 pesos ($15), it’s a ridiculous buy. And unlike the unadorned version at La Brigada, here the steak comes on a long wooden tray overflowing with additional goodies, themselves overflowing their small bowls; a spicy chick pea puree, marinated olives, lentils, white beans, beets, artichoke hearts with roasted peppers, roasted garlic cloves and more.

The wine list is short, 60-selections, with mostly standard names. For fun, I ordered a Bodegas Lopez Montchenot Mendoza 1997, one of the old-guard wines. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, it’s in the Bodegas y Cavas de Weinert vein: very supple, with brown color and notes of sweet earth, mushroom and dried fruits. Despite its age it was holding together nicely and managed to stand up to the food. Next to a bottle of the Bodega Mendel Unus Mendoza 2005 (I visited Mendel just a few days ago), the contrast is a case study in traditional versus modern wines. The color, aromas and flavors of the Mendel offered more freshness, intensity and clarity. And yes, the Mendel did just fine with the food as well.

While the ojo de bife at La Cabrera is very tasty, well-marbled and has a rich, earthy flavor, I’d say the beef is ultimately better at La Brigada. But with its outdoor seating, La Cabrera is a great spot that offers more local flavor along with more typical Buenos Aires prices, as opposed to the pricier, tourist-dominated La Brigada.

There are plenty of hotel options in Buenos Aires, including large, American-owned hotels such as the Park Hyatt. There’s also a growing cottage industry of small hotels aiming to deliver a hipper experience. Going on a tip, I stayed at Mira Vida Soho, which is so new it wasn’t technically open during my stay.

Owner James Kings, a Toronto ex-pat, plans to have the official opening in April. He’s renovated an old brownstone-style family house on Darragueyra Street, adding an extra floor and roof terrace. There are just six rooms along with a small wine bar on the street level (the 50-selection list offers top wines from Achával-Ferrer and more). Dark wood flooring with chairs, banquets and bedding in metallic gray and charcoal notes are offset by bright and airy lighting for a minimalist-modern feel. If you don’t mind a little street noise, the loft terrace is a cool room, while those on the back of the building offer more sanctuary. Mira Vida Soho is just 10 minutes from the domestic Jorge Newberry airport, 45 from the international airport.

La Brigada
Estados Unidos 465
San Telmo
Buenos Aires
Telephone: 54-11-4361-5557

La Cabrera Grillado & Bar
Cabrera 5099 (esq. Thames)
Palermo Viejo
Buenos Aires
Telephone: 54-11-4831-7002

Mira Vida Soho
Darragueyra 2050
(1425) Capital Federal
Buenos Aires
Telephone: 54-11-4774-6433

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