Grapes: Malbec (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%)
Producer: Bodega Tacuil
Source: Vinoteca Autre Monde, Buenos Aires
When we started this challenge at the beginning of January last year, I already knew when and where I was going to propose to Liv. I knew that if she said yes, we would almost certainly get married in the autumn. I knew that we were a few weeks away from moving into a new flat, and I knew that once we’d done so, it wouldn’t be long before we went to the shelter to get cats.
It was enough to fill me with a restless, sit-on-your-hands kind of excitement. So many wonderful things seemed to be waiting just around the corner, and I couldn’t wait to enjoy them, one after the other. Not every year is momentous, nor even especially memorable, but as we unscrewed that first bottle of Austrian Gruner Veltliner, I had no doubt that 2017 was one I’d look back on with great fondness for the rest of my life.
You know the rest of the story, of course. We got engaged on January 17th, just before flying to New York for one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – eclipsed only, perhaps, by the honeymoon that began on December 29th and finished at City Airport on January 15th, thus neatly bookending both the calendar year and our own personal annus mirabilis. In between those two trips, we got married, we adopted cats, we spent more time with our nearest and dearest than either of us have managed for a decade or more, and to our great delight, we found time to drink our way around the world – from Armenia to Azerbaijan, Brazil to Bulgaria, China to the Czech Republic…you get the idea.
At every turn, my expectations weren’t just met, they were elevated to a level I hadn’t dared to dream they might reach. Very rarely in life do things turn out exactly as you hoped they would, and it’s rarer still for an entire year to unfold that way. When those outliers materialise, you have to regard them as such – and treasure them accordingly. 2017 was our (singularly glorious) outlier.
From beginning to end – as Liv wrote in #51 – we were helped out by so many people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, and not just for the wine they bought us. From Hetti taking Liv for brunch (and frankly preying on her occasional gullibility) in order to find out her ring size, through to our friend Carrie’s brilliant home-made wedding/Xmas presents, which arrived from Minneapolis in time to brighten our first week back post-honeymoon, we have a lot of individual kindnesses to pay back. Or indeed to pay forward.
When we started this blog, I wasn’t really sure what we’d end up doing with it. I knew we’d both want to talk about more than just the wines themselves, but it felt like the kind of thing that could easily get swallowed up by our other writing interests, by work, and by the steady attrition – the erosion of enthusiasm – that accompanies most new creative ventures.
Instead it became a somewhat rambling record of our life together, and of the things we care about, both individually and as a couple. Cats, tennis, hockey, dancing, and podcasts. Family, holidays, and family holidays. Love, death, sex, politics, and religion. There’s plenty we haven’t covered, of course, and maybe we’ll get to some of the other stuff in 2018, but in a hugely important year for both of us, I’m glad we decided to keep going, and to expand our focus as the months went by.
That’s a really wanky way of saying that we also owe thanks to everyone who’s read this blog. We’d have carried on writing even if it was just our mums reading it, but the encouragement and feedback we’ve received from a whole host of people has been one of my favourite things about the whole challenge.
As for my favourite wines, that’s a tough one! Going purely by the scores, the award for Best White goes to the Bargylus blend from Syria, which I gave a perfect 10. Best Red is much trickier: looking back now, I apparently thought there were seven different reds that deserved 9/10 – Spain, South Africa, Lebanon, Moldova, Romania, Bolivia, and Kazakhstan – which I’d like to think says more about the quality of the wine we drank in 2017 than it does about the promiscuity of my palate. Of those, I think my scores for Bolivia and Kazakhstan may have been influenced by, respectively, price (the Campos de Solana may well be the best-value wine we drank) and location (a picnic at Somerset House before Summer Screen does funny things to one’s judgement), so that leaves five contenders. I will always carry a soft spot for the Dracula 555, after its producers very kindly sent us six bottles as a wedding present, but I think my personal top three probably has to include South Africa, Spain, and Lebanon, with Lebanon taking top spot by an absolute whisker.
At the other end of the scale, don’t expect Thai, Chinese, or Indian wines to occupy much shelf space when we win the lottery and open up our swanky wine bar, ‘52’. Though we have a bottle of red in the rack at home (courtesy of my cousin Fiona and her husband Varun), which I’ve been assured will make me see Indian wine, at least, in a whole new light.
Many of you will already know that we finished the challenge in Buenos Aires on New Year’s Eve. It was our second night in Argentina, and the first stop on our fortnight-plus of honeymooning miracle and wonder. We’d spent that afternoon in Palermo, a trendy district just west of the city centre, where we found my other if-I-win-the-lottery business: a bookshop-cum-wine merchant. 90%+ of Argentina’s wine production takes place in the province of Mendoza, so it came as a surprise to neither of us that we emerged from the shop 15 minutes later clutching a bottle of red from Salta, several hundred miles to the north – and not one of the areas we were due to visit on our trip.
We drank it in our room at The Savoy, after a quiet dinner in the hotel restaurant. A low-key end to our wine journey, perhaps, but the perfect way to pass the final few hours of 2017, before heading down to the harbour shortly before midnight. We joined a large and excitable crowd of people on the waterfront, and after buying a bottle of champagne from a waiter dispensing them over the balcony of a half-empty bar, we cuddled up to watch the most spectacular (and terrifying) fireworks display I’m ever likely to see. By the end, we were brushing debris out of our hair from rockets let off by hand just metres away from us, and at least one fellow reveller had to be patted down after she briefly caught fire. It was brilliant.
There isn’t space here to tell all our honeymoon stories, but two stand out as emblematic of the trip as a whole. On our last night in the city of Mendoza (capital of Mendoza Province, you’ll be surprised to learn), we were walking back towards our hotel, shortly before midnight, when we heard music coming from a small terrace next to the main road. Back home we wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but on holiday – well, on holiday you’re pretty much obliged to investigate. And I’m glad we did, because it turned out there was a neighbourhood dance in full swing. A single speaker was pumping out Latin beats, people were drinking out of paper cups, and in between the wooden beams we saw a dozen or so couples doing salsa, bachata and kizomba with enviably casual proficiency.
It was the moment all our dance lessons had prepared us for, and we joined in without a moment’s hesitation. It was clear even before we started dancing that we couldn’t hold a candle to some of the couples around us, but neither of us cared about that. All we wanted to do was enjoy the feeling of being outside on a warm summer’s night, doing something fun, spontaneous, and energetic, surrounded by happy people. We stayed there for an hour or so, and I’m not sure I stopped smiling for a single minute of that.
A couple of days later, we left our wine lodge in Tupungato (possibly the most beautiful place either of us have ever stayed) to drive down to San Rafael, a dusty little town three hours south of Mendoza city. Rather than head straight for the highway, we first drove a little further up into the Andes, where we scrambled our way up a big hill (or small mountain, depending on your perspective), and generally tried to keep our lower jaws from dropping all the way to the ground. It was outrageously impressive. On the way down, we decided to stop off at a vineyard, and from the three or four lining the road to Tunuyán, we chose ‘Super Uco’.
The winery at Super Uco was a round, modern building, set in a small clearing among the vines. The walk up from the gravel car park only took 30 seconds, but that was enough to make us both aware of just how hot and still the air had become while we were driving down from the mountains. Without a reservation of any kind, we were kind of expecting to be turned away on sight – or at best to be offered a quick tour, followed by an expensive tasting. Still, we tentatively suggested to the guy behind the outdoor bar that we might like to have lunch, if it was available, and in no time at all we found ourselves seated at the first of a row of empty tables on the terrace.
We waited dutifully for menus to appear, but it didn’t take us long to realise that this wasn’t really that kind of place. No, this was the kind of place where even though we were the only customers, we were treated to an astonishingly good six-course meal, each one accompanied by a different wine from their extensive cellar. I could write another 2,000 words about the menu alone, without really doing justice to the quality of the ingredients or the cooking, so I’ll save that for another time! For now, it’s enough to say that we were both blown away by our good fortune – especially when the bill arrived, and amounted to little more than you’d pay for two courses and a bottle of wine in a half-decent London restaurant.
But that’s not why I’m telling this story. If I remember nothing else about that day 50 years from now, the one memory that will stick till the day I die is that of the old winery dog trotting over to the BBQ pit, where a big, juicy piece of steak was slowly cooking on the grill, and just…grabbing it. This hound basically gave zero shits, and we watched it carry the steak several metres across the walkway before the head barman suddenly realised what was going on. The best bit? After retrieving the meat and sending the dog on its way, he tossed it back on the BBQ and turned to us with a shrug.
“Someone always needs to check and make sure it tastes good.”
(As you can tell, the dog felt really guilty afterwards)
And there you have it: Argentina in a nutshell. Stunning landscapes, friendly people, easy-going lifestyle, great wine, hot weather, cute dogs’n’cats, and wonderful surprises around every corner. It was that rarest of things, a holiday where 95% of the decisions we made turned out to be absolutely perfect. In that respect – in all respects – it was a fitting end to the very best of years.
Now (for the final time!) on to the wine…
From the Bodega Tacuil website:
Due to the characteristics of its soils, climate, mountain slope cultivation and the altitude in which the vines are located (2,597 meters above sea level), fruits are obtained that, although of low yield in their ratio Kg. Per hectare, are compensated by the health and the unbeatable qualities of the grape, that turn it into wines of great personality and quality.
The wine is a blend of Cabernet-Malbec, with its own characteristics and native strain of ungrafted vines, watered by meltwater from the mountains. Its cultivation is totally organic and the wine is bottled manually without purification or filtering. It does not have wood, thus avoiding the influence of the smell and flavor of this product other than the extraordinary and natural characteristics of our grapes.
This was a good, heavy, serious wine with which to finish. Maybe not the kind you’d typically quaff before a night out, nor typically drink without food, but even though we did both those things, I feel like I was still able to appreciate its quality!
We tried a lot of interesting Malbec blends in Argentina, and in this one the Cabernet Sauvignon stripped away some of the Malbec’s natural fruitiness, making for a rich, full-bodied flavour. It was quite inky in colour, and that was reflected in the dark, dry fruits that dominated the palate, and the high alcohol content. It didn’t open up much beyond that, and I’d have maybe liked a little more softness to offset some of the tannins, but those are minor quibbles. I really enjoyed the two glasses I had on New Year’s Eve, and it was still great the following day when we finished it off. All in all, something interesting and different…and very tasty.
I knew that finishing this challenge would be tough. As Chris has written, 2017 was a year like no other and our wine challenge was an ever present part of the most important year of my life (so far?). This bottle of Argentinean wine had a year’s worth of expectation weighing it down – we couldn’t end on an anticlimax!!
Despite this, we ended up taking a bit of a risk. With a honeymoon essentially planned around visiting good vineyards and drinking great wine, we picked one from an area we weren’t going to visit; a wine that wasn’t exported and wasn’t that well known yet. I was persuaded by the wine shop owner that it was wonderful, and it seemed worth trying something we wouldn’t ever have a chance to try again!
And I wasn’t disappointed! This was a great final wine; full-bodied, really drinkable and perfectly walking that fine line between richness and heaviness. It had a complex, interesting flavour that developed on my palate; fruity but non-specifically so! Trying to pick out individual flavours, I drifted over red fruits and plums before settling on sour cherries. There were tannins for depth, more obvious in the smell, but it wasn’t too dry and was a really good, warm red.
Was it the best all year? No. Was it the best we drank in Argentina? Probably not, but it was pretty close and that turned out to be easily good enough!
8+/10, wonderful and complex