Taste buds tango
Is there more to life than malbec? After a few days in Argentina, I'm beginning to wonder.
Argentina may be the fifth-largest wine producer in the world, but it is not big on diversity.
Mostly, they make malbec.
This French grape, now virtually unknown in its home country, has been lifted to new heights in Argentina.
I do enjoy the soft, fruity wine but after a few days, I'm ready for something different.
Rachel disagrees. My travel companion, a woman of firm opinions, loves malbec just as much as she detests cabernet sauvignon, and she is enjoying her malbec moment.
Nevertheless, she is willing to come along to a dinner at Casa Coupage, a private wine club that hosts dinners showcasing some of Argentina's best wines.
Located in the chic Palermo neighbourhood, Casa Coupage is an intimate experience: just nine tables, hosted by two bilingual sommeliers. We're being looked after by Santiago who, we learn later, started Casa Coupage with his then-girlfriend.
Santiago has a cheeky smile, fluent English and an encyclopedic knowledge of Argentinian wines.
He's no wine bore, however. He's happy to tell you about the basics of the wine, and let you make up your own mind. However, if you are into hard data - vineyards, altitude, barrel types and so on - he can help with that, too.
Our welcome drink is a sparkling wine from northern Patagonia, one of Argentina's upcoming wine regions.
Santiago tells us it's a real rarity. The winery, Bodega Pattriti, makes just 500 bottles of the lovely bubbly, called Primogenito. Knowing I'd never have stumbled across this wine by myself makes me enjoy it even more.
As we sip the sparkling, Santiago explains the structure of the evening. We'll be served five courses, with a number of choices for entree and main.
Each course will be accompanied by two different wines. The idea is to explore different drops, deciding which go best with the food, and which we enjoy the most.
There are no wrong answers - it's about what works best for us.
Our first course is a salmon marinated in brown sugar with banana and coconut.
Before the food arrives, Santiago asks us to try the two wines he's selected for this course. To Rachel's disappointment and my relief, neither is a straight malbec.
One is a pleasant malbec rose, but we both prefer the white, a torrontes with a flowery, aromatic nose and a clean finish.
When we give them the thumbs up, Santiago pours us a full glass of each. No tasting portions here. We try them both with the salmon when it arrives and agree the torrontes is a better match.
Rachel and I have opted for the same main course - smoked fish with olive pits. Santiago offers us two unusual wine accompaniments, one of which is a very acidic chardonnay.
It's not a wine to savour on its own, but it will probably work well with the smoked fish.
There's also a red, a malbec-cabernet blend, which doesn't appeal to Rachel. Obligingly, Santiago lets her taste another red, which she adores. Santiago then reveals the bottle: it's a cabernet sauvignon. Rachel is astounded.
When the fish arrives, we find the chardonnay is a great match, as is my red. I offer Rachel a sip, and she looks surprised.
"I prefer the cabernet, but this wine is much better with the food," she says, before declaring Santiago a genius. From this point on, she obediently drinks everything he offers.
Over the course of the meal, we sample wines from around the country, from Patagonia to the high-altitude Salta vineyards, 1200 metres above sea level, in styles ranging from Verdelho to rose to, yes, malbec.
We're also impressed by chef Pablo Bolzan's cooking: from braised beef cheeks to hare and ricotta cannelloni with beets and chocolate, it's all delicious.
At the end of the meal I ask Santiago where I can pick up a bottle of the torrontes, my favourite wine of the evening.
"Here," he says happily, and rings up the sale. Rachel decides she wants a souvenir too, and goes home with a bottle of the cabernet sauvignon. Malbec, it seems, has had its moment.
The writer travelled courtesy of LAN airlines and Abercrombie & Kent.
WHERE TO FIND BA'S BEST WINE
878 Behind the grand wooden doors is perhaps BA's hippest wine bar, where the city's sommeliers and chefs gather after work. Order some tasty tapas to savour with your wine. See 878bar.com.ar.
GRAN BAR DANZON Join BA's chic young things as they sip malbec and munch on sushi in this candlelit bar. See granbardanzon.com.ar.
VINOTECA DE PALACIO
The Park Hyatt's celebrated wine bar stocks 7000 bottles of wine, including 200 different malbecs. See buenosaires.park.hyatt.com.
0800-VINO Expat Nigel Tollerman's wine shop specialises in wines from new regions and from limited production bodegas. See 0800-vino.com.
LA BODEGA DEL PINTOR It's not just the wines that are for sale in this San Telmo wine shop: you can also take home the art on the walls and the furnishings. See vinotecalabodegadelpin tor.blogspot.com.
GETTING THERE Fly to Santiago and then to Buenos Aires (2hr). See lan.com.
STAYING THERE The Faena Hotel + Universe is a high-style hotel in the hip new Puerto Madero district. Room rates start at US$500 ($607) a room.
Luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent offers a wide range of privately tailored journeys through South America.
A visit to Casa Coupage can be included on any of its Argentina itineraries.
MORE INFORMATION argentina.travel/en.