The perfect pairing for Argentinian empanadas is malbec wine; you can enjoy them both while savoring their inspiring history at Maria Empanada, 1298 South Broadway. If you haven’t had one yet, an Argentinian empanada is the scrumptious three-bite pastry that evolved from larger Spanish turnovers filled with savory meats and vegetables or sweet fruit and cream.
What makes Maria Empanada’s delicacies special is chef/owner Lorena Cantarovici, with her beautiful smile and lilting Argentinian accent. With a dream of bringing her childhood cuisine to Denver, Cantarovici started making empanadas in 2010 at home and selling them to a caterer. An accountant and banker by training, Cantarovici had never owned or run a restaurant. She spoke little English and had no funding to start a business. She overcame these challenges and now owns three award-winning empanada cafes, with a fourth on the way.
Among the beverages served at Maria Empanada is another Argentinian specialty: malbec. Argentina produces many great wines but is known for its malbec grapes, most of which are produced in the province of Mendoza. The region’s topography is diverse, and the microclimates bring out different qualities in the grape. Winemakers use this single varietal to make sparkling wines, rosés and reds. Terroir, time on the vine and differences in blending, fermenting and aging at each winery contribute to the wide variation in taste. From deep-purple, complex red wines to light, refreshing pink rosés, Argentina has made malbec an art form.
Traditionally, wineries sold oversized jugs of wine that were difficult to handle at the table. So Argentinians decant their wine into a pingüino, a penguin-shaped pitcher.
A pingüino of malbec goes perfectly with a basket of empanadas. Maria Empanada already serves malbec by the glass or pingüino, but they recently hosted a tasting of rare wines made by Jimena Lopez, another inspiring Argentinian female entrepreneur. Lopez pursued her dream of making wine at the age of eighteen, at a time when there were very few women vintners in Argentina. She worked for other wineries until striking out on her own in 2008. She had no grapes, no equipment, no importer and no customers. But she found a winery and started with just a single tank and a batch of grapes. It wasn’t easy getting a foothold in a primarily male profession. “Instead of breaking me, it made me. Every disadvantage was a challenge,” Lopez told me as we poured another glass of her award-winning wine from the pingüino and nibbled on Cantarovici’s empanadas.
Her persistence paid off. When I met her, she was traveling to American cities to visit shops and restaurants carrying her wines. Seeing her and fellow Argentinian entrepreneur Cantarovici celebrating their hard-won successes was inspiring.
We sampled Lopez’s Bodini rosé of malbec, which went well with a strawberry empanada or one of the chicken pastries. Her Bodini malbec, with its plum nose and clean finish, was perfect with all the empanadas we tasted, but especially with the spices in the chicken chimichurri and the Argentinian chorizo. We saved Lopez’s Graffito for the most savory and spicy pastries, like the steak chimichurri empanada. Made from the grapes of 100-year-old vines, Graffito is wonderfully dark and complex, and will draw out the flavors of the dishes.
If you're looking to create your own pairing of empanadas and Lopez's wines, stop by Applejack Wine & Spirits (3320 Youngfield Street in Wheat Ridge) for a bottle of Bodini or Graffito, then hit Maria Empanada for a box of savory and sweet pastries to go — don't worry, they travel well.
Maria Empanada is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call the cafe at 303-934-2221 or visit the Maria Empanada website for more details and locations.