With the majestic Andes as a backdrop, a team of young waiters opens the first bottles of Dom Pérignon at 11 a.m., just in time for the arrival of winemaker Nicolas Audebert at his party at Cheval des Andes, the vineyard he runs near Mendoza, Argentina. Audebert, a dashing 33-year-old Frenchman who is dressed for a polo match he will play in later in the day, grabs a crystal flute and saunters through the bright morning sun toward a teak and glass pavilion that rises rather incongruously from the vines.
“You should have seen it here four months ago,” says a beaming Audebert, who has a Tom Cruise smile and a billionaire playboy’s insouciance. “There was nothing. There were just vines.”
Outside the winery’s gates, country lanes are lined with pencil-straight poplar trees—it could almost be Provence in the decades before Peter Mayle got there—but the Loft, as Audebert calls his tasting room, would disappoint old-world wine snobs expecting a cellarful of dusty bottles. Decorated with sleek white leather sofas and Buddha heads, it instead has the vibe of a Buenos Aires nightclub and overlooks a polo field laid out among the vines. Visitors from abroad may be surprised—a polo field at a winery?—but the locals don’t seem to find it odd. Audebert loves to play the sport, and this is Argentina, after all.
The purpose of today’s party is to inaugurate the Loft and to let Audebert’s 150 guests—dignitaries from as far away as China, France and the United States, plus a gaggle of sexy Brazilian girls who flew in from Rio on someone’s private jet—have a first taste of the 2005 vintage of Cheval des Andes. Addressing the group after a lunch of braised Argentine beef, Audebert describes the wine in his French-inflected Spanish as a blend of “two different savoir faires”—a combination of local grapes and Continental know-how. “What we are looking for is a wine that’s 100 percent Argentinean, with a French touch,” he says.
Cheval des Andes winery is itself a project that derives from mixed parentage. Launched in 1996, it’s a collaboration between France’s Château Cheval Blanc—one of the world’s finest wineries, co-owned by LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault—and Argentine producer Terrazas de los Andes. Audebert’s $75-a- bottle brainchild and today’s lavish event are unmistakable signs that South American wines, once synonymous with cheap plonk, are making a bid for connoisseurs’ attention. With the guidance and investment of some of the most venerable winemakers in France, Argentina’s Mendoza area and Chile’s Colchagua Valley are becoming the twin baby Bordeaux of the Southern Hemisphere.