San Rafael grew around its wineries, and while some have moved to the outskirts, others are central. On foot or by public transportation, it’s possible to visit four or five in a single day.
Bodega La Abeja
In 1883, two decades before the city’s founding, French immigrant Rodolfo Iselín planted the first vines at what is now Bodega La Abeja (Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen 1900, tel. 02627/439804, www.bodegalaabeja.com.ar). Set back from the road, a distinctive tower atop an aging adobe overlooks what seems at first glance more a wine museum than a modern winery. Nearly all La Abeja’s vintage equipment, such as wooden presses, is still in use, and only in the last few years has it expanded beyond jug wines into fine reds such as cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot, tempranillo, a tempranillo-bonarda blend, and chenin blanc. Informative tours and tasting are available 9:30 a.m.–1 p.m. and 3–7 p.m. Monday–Saturday.
Bodega Jean Rivier e Hijos
Just a few blocks west, founded by a Franco-Swiss family in 1956, is Bodega Jean Rivier e Hijos (Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen 2385, tel. 02627/43-2676, www.jeanrivier.com, 8–11 a.m. and 3–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8–11 a.m. Sat.). Still a small-scale family affair, its spontaneous tours (one-on-one if necessary, in Spanish, or French on request) and generous tasting include its specialty tocai friulano, a varietal of Italo-Hungarian origin. There are also malbec-bonarda and torrontés-chenin blends.
Now a partnership rather than a family business, the Swiss-founded Bodegas Suter (Avenida Hipólito Yrigoyen 2850, tel. 02627/42-1076, www.bodegasuter.com) is a more industrial winery, with large stainless-steel tanks in lieu of epoxy-lined concrete vats. In addition to reds and whites, they are also producing champagne (employees wear eye protection to avoid accidental damage by high-speed corks). Hourly tours (English-speaking guides available) take place at 9:30 a.m. and at 12:30, 1:30, 4:30 and 6 p.m. Monday–Saturday.
Bodega Valentín Bianchi
Having moved operations to the western outskirts of San Rafael, the venerable Bodega Valentín Bianchi (RN 143 and Valentín Bianchi, Las Paredes, tel. 02627/43-5353, www.vbianchi.com) offers guided tours (Spanish, English, and Italian) with tasting 9 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. Monday–Saturday. The facilities, which include a champagne plant, house a state-of-the-art operation—even the rack on which the champagne bottles are rotated to concentrate their sediments is automated—that contrasts dramatically with its original downtown bodega. Something’s been lost in the move, though, as the classic original had a traditional integrity that the neoclassical kitsch of the new winery will never equal—even if the latter’s tasting facilities and grounds, in particular, are far superior.
Algodón Wine Estates
Also on the city’s outskirts, Algodón Wine Estates (RN 44, Km 674, Cuadro Benegas, tel. 02627/42-9020, www.algodonwineestates.com, US$150–200 s or d) is a vineyard wine lodge and restaurant with a nine-holf golf course (due to expand to 18). The winery itself is small but produces boutique amounts of pinot noir and others with modern technology; the lodge consists of a renovated 1920s house and a newer wing with more spacious air-conditioned rooms.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition