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A Journey Through Argentina's High-Altitude Wine Country

We talk about the 1999 vintage, and all three of us realize that this trip is not about Malbec vs. Torrontes, Mendoza vs. Salta, but that it is about experiencing the richness of life and the gift of wine, food and good conversation.
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It's January of 2009 and Bruce Schoenfeld, the relentlessly truth-seeking Travel and Leisure wine writer, calls to ask if I would be in Mendoza for Harvest.

"I'm mostly writing a piece on Salta, but I'd like to drop by Catena and ask you about the current state of Argentine wine," he says.

I was already planning a trip north to check out some Torrontés vineyards, so the timing was perfect. Bruce joins myself and Fernando Buscema, Research Director for the Catena Family Vineyards, and we embark on a journey from Mendoza to Salta. At the Mendoza airport, we run into Cecilia Diaz Chuit, owner of the most romantic luxury cabins in the world, Cavas Wine Lodge in Agrelo, Mendoza. With Cecilia in tow, we have our fourth and final passenger.

We rotate seats throughout the 14-hour voyage, depending on who can best tolerate hyper extending the neck to listen in on back seat conversation.

"I am interested in Salta because it hasn't been discovered yet," says Bruce.

"What do you mean Bruce? All I see here are dirt roads, gigantic trees, wild horses, orchards and little adobe houses with clothes hanging on a line," says Cecilia, with an immediate rebuttal. "And we are in Mendoza; there are no shopping centers, no supermarkets - just the Andes and the vineyards!"

We head up north through San Juan (Argentina's second most important wine producing province, after Mendoza) into the town of Chilecito, La Rioja (Argentina has a wine producing region with the same name as the region in Spain). Families on mopeds rule the streets of colonial Chilecito. Our 1998 Jeep seems oddly modern and out of place.

Lunch in Chilecito is a huge platter of meat with chorizo (Argentine sausage), lomo (filet mignon) and rib eye steak with French fries on the side. Argentine fries are made in a thin and crispy style and fried with lard. We make the mistake of starting with deliciously juicy meat empanadas (turnovers filled with chunks of meat) and at the end of the meal we feel full -- too full.

Fernando is driving. Though he says he's not tired, we make him drink a double espresso anyway. Bruce, Cecilia and I open a bottle of 2002 CARO Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon from my family's partnership with Domaines Barons de Rothschild [Lafite]. The wine is still very youthful, with delicate aromas of cassis and tobacco. It is both grainy and velvety. The flavor lasts through our flan with dulce de leche (milk caramel) dessert.

Bruce and I do some stretching exercises in the restaurant's backyard. He's recovering from a knee injury, and that is where the real bonding begins. You see, I'm a doctor, and when the doctor in me is called to duty, I feel the overwhelming need to heal. The Mendoza vs. Salta debate is out the window. Of course, Bruce does not agree with my stretching advice, but I don't mind, because he is the patient. As I like to teach the emergency medicine residents at UCSF, the patient is always right.

We continue north through Catamarca province on long stretches of two-lane asphalt, with brush and desert on each side. At times, we catch a glimpse of the mountains to the west. Bruce insists on paying his portion of the gas, the meals, everything. Lest his impeccable journalist reputation be tarnished by our influence.

We cross the Bienvenidos a Salta (Welcome to Salta) sign and head into the quaint Spanish colonial town of Cafayate, the cradle of Argentine Torrontés. We are staying at the luxed-up Postales del Plata hotel, the refurbished home of the very aristocratic Michel Torino family turned Starwood resort.

There are heavy, engraved wooden closets and Spanish tiles everywhere. We are the only guests at dinner. Bruce doesn't like the salad, and, for once, I agree with him. The humitas (corn mush seasoned with onions and spices and baked in its husk) save the day.

We drink Alamos Torrontes from Salta and Bruce smiles. I can see that he is thinking, "[This is] more proof of the riches of Salta." Torrontés, Argentina's only native white varietal, makes a very aromatic and mineral white wine that grows best in the province of Salta.

We move on to an old vintage of Nicolas Catena Zapata. Cecilia and I look at each other. I can tell by the way she swallows the wine, slowly so that you can see her Adam's apple stand still for a few seconds, that she is as inspired by it as I am. Finally, Bruce puts the salad aside and tastes the wine.

"What is the vintage, Laura?" Bruce asks.

We talk about the 1999 vintage, and all three of us realize that this trip is not about Malbec vs. Torrontes, Mendoza vs. Salta, but that it is about experiencing the richness of life and the gift of wine, food and good conversation.

Now, every time I drink Torrontés, I think of Cecilia and Bruce and of the irrefutable truth that Malbec is from Mendoza and Torrontes is from Salta. Salud!
Vino Argentino, Argentina's first US-published wine country guide by Laura Catena can be found in bookstores throughout the USA and UK, and will soon be on Amazon's Kindle.

The Alamos portfolio of wines (which includes Torrontes, Chardonnay, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon) is available at retailers nationwide at a suggested retail price of $13 per 750ml bottle.