Other than vintners and sommeliers, few professionals are as intimate with the blessings of a good wine as a Catholic priest. So it's appropriate that the man today inaugurated Pope Francis hails from Argentina, the world's sixth-largest wine producer.
On a recent visit to Buenos Aires, home base of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, I checked out three wine tastings, each with its own graces and (mostly venial) sins of omission.
Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt
$54 (U.S.) a person. Avenida Alvera 1661; parkhyatt.com; 877-875-4658. Tastings can be booked ahead, but it's recommended that visitors simply show up after 5 p.m., and ask the front desk to direct them.
Palacio Duhau, which occupies a neoclassical palace whose next-door neighbour is the Vatican nunciature (a diplomatic mission of the Holy See), is by far the most reverent in tone. Arriving in the early evening, we are directed by the concierge to a balcony above a gurgling fountain and is overseen in turn by a Tudor revival mansion whose faded splendour firmly genuflects to better days.
Within seconds, a woman in an apron brings us a tray of seven Argentine cheeses from a dimly lit, windowed walk-in fridge that faces onto the balcony. From mildest to raunchiest, they comprise a nutty Lincoln, a grapey embriago, a Camembert, a cheddar, a goaty Pyramide, a ewe's-milk Manchego and a sweaty Reblochon. On the side: fresh bread, marmalades of strawberry and of vanilla-infused pear, plus walnuts, almonds and dried apricots.
Elegant sommelier Leonel then appears. "This is … your first time?" he inquires. It is indeed our first wine tasting, and so we all agree he should curate (as it were). Out comes a white, called Gala 3, a blend of riesling, viognier and chardonnay from Mendoza province. (Argentina's premier wine district, it boasts more vines than Australia and New Zealand combined.) "You'll taste both citron and mineral notes," he told us. We dutifully do so.
Next, he introduces us to a floral Patagonian rosé, called Mainque, and two reds: a plummy bonarda from northern Salta province – "The days there are long; this wine is like having the sun in your mouth," Leonel whispers – and a bacony cab sauvigon/merlot, Luigi Bosca. Leonel then leaves us to sip, sup and count our blessings as the sun sets over tony Recoleta.
Grace: More cheese than you'd eat in a month.
Sin: Not a lot of direction on what to pair with what.
$48 a person. Malabia 1308; anuvawines.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The tasting offered by Anuva Wines in the wildly trendy Palermo 'hood is, by comparison, like a Sunday-school class gone wild. Perhaps because they encourage you to end your tasting by ordering bottles for shipment home (but not to Canada, sadly), the most repeated words during our two hours in Anuva's airy loft are "Who'd like a top-up?" (Our table of eight soon votes to top-up, on principle, every single round.)
Sarah Bons, a tall blond expat from Ohio, starts the tutorial for two dozen tipplers with a sparkling glass of Hom, from Mendoza. "Hom comes from the chant 'om,'" Sarah says, "which is ironic because I don't think Buddhists drink much." Not so we fishers of wine. These first swigs are paired with a yummy bruschetta of pear, arugula and walnuts.
Next up is Carinae – an intriguing Salta white so floral there's an Argentine perfume based on it – served with with two sorbets (and 1.5 refills). A few minutes and much fraternizing later arrive three Mendoza reds: San Gimignano, a malbec aged 12 months in French oak; Mairena, a leathery 2010 bonarda; and a crisp, cedar-wafting blend called Caluna. At some point out come plates of salami and Reggianito cheese (which, in a reverse nod to Francis, originated in Italy but, in this iteration, hailed from Argentina); heaps of dark chocolate; and the cutest little beef empanadas I've ever seen. By the time things wind down, everyone is flush, blabby and so all-embracing we're practically catholic.
Grace: Sarah's ecumenical smile.
Sin: A steep flight of stairs at the end.
$190 for two, with wine, tax and tip. Soler 1158; casacoupage.com.
Across the street from a futuristic Palermo high-rise huddles Casa Coupage, a century-old private home that doubles as a restaurant. We ring the bell, and a nymph-like creature ushers us into one of two dimly lit dining rooms. Narrow windows, topped with transoms, shoot from tabletops to ceiling. Votive candles flicker along plate rails. Collages made of postage stamps climb the walls.
And then appears Santiago, the goateed, impish co-owner (the other is the chef). "Let's play," he says, "a kind of game." We will order the food (from that nymph, a blushing server named Candelaria); he will bring Argentine wine to go with it. Any wine we don't like, we can exchange.
To start: an amuse-bouche of cevice-like tiradito, with a dollop of avocado and mango and a glass of Alta Vista Premium Extra Brut, a pear-happy sparkling chardonnay from Mendoza. I move on to tatin de cebollas (dreamy, sticky shallots), which he pairs with another Mendoza: El Felino Chardonnay, smoky and seductive. My companion chooses a salad of superbly flaky bluefish sided with a quail egg, paired with a white torrontes called Crios – "easy to drink, dangerous," Santiago purrs. He's right: Dry as lavender, it goes down easy.
Much that follows is a votive-lit blur. Basil-roasted wild boar and gnocchi come with a glass of buttery Mendoza malbec. A crispy lamb burger arrives with a perfectly heavy syrah (a.k.a. shiraz), from the Bodega del Desierto vineyard in the La Pampa province of Patagonia. A sabayon of frothed-up dulce de leche is matched with a piquant dessert wine called Las Perdices, grown in the silty soil halfway between the Andes and the eastern plains. Every so often, the buzzer buzzes; people drift in; the room glows glowier. By the end, you want only to say an Act of Contrition and promise to be less gluttonous tomorrow.
Grace: That syrah was heavenly.
Sin: The bill took 30 minutes to arrive.