Back to the Andes and wine tasting in Mendoza

Excited about wine tasting in Mendoza we arrived in the massive bus terminal of Mendoza at 10pm, breaking our usual rule of booking somewhere in advance when we arrive in a new city. This is simply because you have to pay more, so we are pushing our rules to see if it is needed. As a wise man said “if we have a routine we break it“. Continuously breaking your own rules shakes out those that are unnecessary. We saved 5 pesos (almost a tenth of our daily budget) at Savigliano Hostel on a 45 peso room, easily and secured a room quickly and were soon having a bedtime beer on the warm terrace, looking at the small pool in the back of the Spanish colonial building.

The next day was all about exploring the town itself before we were to hire bikes on the advice of a guy we met in Iguazu, who had lived in Mendoza for a few months. The tours to go wine tasting in Mendoza are expensive and it is possible to turn up at the vineyards to taste and take a tour. We knew the first part, but reassured it is possible was enough to secure this method. This would also give more flexibility, which is always key to these situations, especially as this would go under our “activity line” in the budget and so we need to be able to control our spending better. Mendoza is a beautiful leafy town, wide streets, boutique bars and restaurants.  It feels a perfect blend of American and Spanish, but with an Argentinian attitude, that we realise now is not bad as many people make out. People do not care about the Falkland/ Malvinas war anymore and do not hate us for being English as a result. They are smart enough to realise it was a governmental effort that lies in the past.  Wine sellers abound, which we are increasingly excited about.

We ate lunch in a mid class restaurant to get stuck into what we have come for. Laura goes for a fish in parsley sauce and a white wine, Chablis 2008 to be precise. I am all about the Bife de Chorizo with a Malbec.  Seriously soft meat, with a strong, but smoothly oaked red. Beautiful and one of if not the best steak/red combination I have had, for just 52 Pesos (7 pounds for both). It may be hard to leave here! What is interesting though is that bread is a key accompaniment served with all meals, but the steak will only come with a small salad garnish. Meat, wine and bread. Simple but great. We picked up some ingredients from the local supermarket to cook with for the evening and next day, before heading back to the hotel to relax with our terrace view of the Andes.

That evening we met people and enjoyed a bottle of wine and a few drinks, but it was very cold. Colder than Usuaria at the very tip of Argentina felt.  This gave the Andes a still glow in the moonlight, which suddenly felt strange. We had been in South America for almost 6 months and were looking at the same stretch of peaks we traveled through when we started. I had now seen the top, middle and bottom of the Andes range. We had grown fond of and have massive respect for the impact they have on the continent and its people. They are truly impressive and makes you realise that it is no wonder that mountains are so often considered holy.

The next day was hot, which was great. We went to buy the meat for an Asado, as there was Leña (firewood) already there. In Argentina you can only use firewood and never coal. We teamed up with two other guys from Columbia, shared food, beer and good conversation in Spanish, which Laura and I were now fairly adept at. This is the life that dreams are made of and we had more to come.

After a few days in the hostel we packed up our black day bag and I wrapped up a bundle of cooking stuff, tent, sleeping bag and warm clothes for our planned camping/ biking wine tour. We had a few leaflets on where to hire bikes, but decided to head directly to Maipo in the centre of the wine growing area and figure things out from there. Again, the cheapest and most interesting, spontaneous way to do anything when you have the time. We landed in the centre, found the information centre, found a bike hire place for 40 a day instead of 50 we were initially quoted, then negotiated this down to 35 pesos a day for 3 days or more. Done. They gave us the direction of the only campsite outside of town. We set off, after strapping the bundle around the bike down the main road out of town. Down the road is massive and it was actually 10km to the campsite. The cycle was beautiful though. We were cruising through fields of wine groves in perfect lines, held together by black netting, looking at the snow capped mountains in 30C heat.

The campsite we reached was empty, but 20 pesos per day for two of us was perfect, so we set up, wandered around and brought back some firewood for the next few evenings asados. The campsite in Maipo is good, with hot water, electricity and in the high season a pool and tennis courts. We are surrounded by wine groves and open land, so we know the next few days will be spent here. Wine tasting in Mendoza is all that it is cracked up to be!   It turns out that this really was in the middle of nowhere though and that we needed to cycle back to the town for a shop for supplies. We did this via the Tapiz resort. In front of, but really 1/2 km away from the campsite.  As Malbec is the typical Argentine grape I stick with this and am amazed. The difference between this and a standard red wine is vast. Laura tries the Sauvignon Blanc, which is equally outstanding. They are both full bodied and so fruity. It just shows what a premium wine is all about.

Map we used for Maipu and around (click to enlarge)

After a relaxing evening over wood smoke we head out the next day with numerous Bodegas in mind for a visit. Unfortunately my wheel is completely flat and I cannot move. Great. The campsite has no phone. We walked to Tapiz and ordered some wine at 11am before asking to use their phone. Luckily the bike company Tierra Huarpe were quick and it took them just 20 minutes to reach us with a new bike, before we had finished the wine and cheese. Back on track the first step was Ceccin, an organic winery where the unusual grapes Bonarda and Moscatel de Alexandria feature. Each grape handles processing differently and suit different climates and levels of oak. It is surprisingly to learn how many grapes varieties there are considering we drink less than 10. The Bonarda was really fruity and easy to drink with a hint of oak. In Argentina and Chile they tend to barrel oak 50% of the grapes and mix that with 50% unoaked to give a great balance between oak and fruit flavour. In my view much better than the full oak flavour French wines deliver. We paid 35 pesos each for the visit, which was nothing if you bought a bottle of wine. So for 35 pesos (5 pounds) we had a tour, tasting of 5 wines and a bottle of good wine.

Next up was Tommasso the oldest Bodega in Maipo. Here we realised how many foreigners moved to Argentina in the late 1800s and started or bought out Bodegas.  Visiting the cellars and learning the wine production process is really interesting. It is the winemaker that really is key to the business as they will produce the blends, decide whether a crop is bad enough to ditch, which happened in 2002 and 2003 due to floods. These wines were good, but not amazing. Surprisingly though the Shiraz was better than the Malbec and just goes to show that although people often buy their favourite grape variety that a wine you like will be based on the grape and producer as a combination.  The wines we are tasting have all been over 13.5%, including the white, which is strong to what Europeans are used to. This is due to the fact that more sugar is produced when the climate is hot in the day and cold at night.

This is why grapes in the foothills of the Andes are so strong. The greater the temperature difference the greater the sugar content and the greater the alcohol content. The trouble is cheap wines can taste of alcohol too much, but one that is full bodied can give immense flavour that is well balanced.  Our third Bodega is more modern and has steel vats for producing non-oaked wines. Tempus Alba produces over a million bottles, unlike the previous two we have just visited. The tour is free as it is completed by reading panels of info. The wine tasting was expensive. Option 2 was 30 pesos to include a reserve (oaked and sat for at least 1 year in the Bodega) wine, as well as 2 Varietels (a blend that features one variety grape more heavily than the others).  We were not hugely impressed by these wines, as they lacked body and a distinct flavour.

Feeling more and more like wine connoisseurs we headed back to the campsite with another set of steaks and the bottle of Bonarda we bought from Ceccin earlier. I raced back to the Bodega heavy headed from an afternoon of heat and alcohol, but pushed to make it before they closed at 6pm, rattling furiously down the dirt road and passing a small dog having sex with a cat en route. Random and weird, but “that’s travel!” as someone has said to me in the past.

Back at the campsite feeling a combination of informed, relaxed and satisfied not even our mightily small tent, which I am longer than, no sleeping mat and the nights heavy wind and unusual rain that night could dampen. Another bright morning was greeted with a situation. The 20 we were supposed to pay turned into 60 per night. We disagreed with this hike unsurprisingly, but after a long drawn out conversation agreed to pay 60 for 2 nights. This was written down as 1 night for the benefit of the proprietor apparently.  Whatever, we were perhaps going to Lujan de Cuyo anyway and this was the push we needed.

Map we used for Lujan de Cuyo (click to enlarge)

Another beautiful, relaxed village feel, but with amenities and all the vineyards you would need in a lifetime of trying to get through them all. A proposed 15km cycle to the nearest campsite out of town was not appealing however and so we scoped out some flat, unused land instead. After trying one and asking another house if we could stay we rolled up to Bodega

Viamonte as we thought that another day spent cycling after a campsite was eating into tasting time. Their tasting was appointment only though and that was due tomorrow. Pushing our luck I ask if we can camp in their grounds for a night to wait for it.  After consulting the family inside we were delighted with a “yes!”. A surge of excitement and glow from inside quickly follows. We were in the middle of the right area camping at the foothills of the Andes in a Bodega

surrounded by hectares of wine grapes. We set up our tiny tent next to a towering rose bush on the edge of a path and had to sit down to take it in before cycling off for another series of Bodega wine tours.

This time we Lagarde, Alta Vista, and Pulmary. All of these were fantastic. Lagarde gave us a tasting of their “Henry” line, a sweet, white desert wine which costs 200 pesos a bottle from the Bodega and was something else. I did not like sweet wine until this one. like chewing on a fruit basket!  The great thing with visiting many Bodegas and getting a tour from each is that despite the process being the same, the techniques and what is important to each

producer is different and that is what is really interesting to learn. What makes one wine that and another so completely different using the same grape and process.  Alta Vista had slightly spicier Shiraz, while the Lagarde was generally fruitier with a greater balance of oak.

At 7pm we headed out for a relaxing glass without eduction but Pulmary was still open. We found it accidentally and so paid a visit. 3 guys were hanging out tasting wines and turned out to all be friends who worked in the wine industry. We were allowed to join and this time poured a glass straight from the Vat, something new so far. The tour was not a guide around. This was better. We hung out for a good 3 hours trying the different wines of the moment and the Pulmary 2006 Malbec, which was perhaps the best of all. We also tried a sparkling wine from another Bodega owned by the Paulos family, well actually a massive glass as he was pouring mine while talking. We all got along well and were invited to dinner. They were all surprised and told us it was very unusual for tourists to be camping in a Bodega and when Laura cheekily asked “We could stay at yours tomorrow“, Ramiro the winemaker replied “sure, under that Olive tree is fine“, when Manuel offered us his house!  It was all a bit of a whirlwind as we left to cycle back quickly to drop off our bikes before being picked up to join our new friends for beer and lomo (thin beef slice with salad in sandwich). We had gone from sleeping in the rain with condensation on a campsite, to a glorious bodega to a house in 3 days.

We had a great night working on our Spanish where we could as these guys were all fluent in English.  We were back on the local track, which is where we like the most.  I stayed up contemplating our luck and how we go about ending up in amazing situations that will go down in forever’s memory, walked through the wine plants and ate endless amounts of Malbec grapes fresh.

The next day we woke in the perfectly warm, but fresh air. Laura had already had her wine grape breakfast and we set off immediately to take advantage of our location. Guess what? The same tyre of mine was completely flat. So hobbling down the driveway, squishing through the stalks lining the road we asked the Bodega sales house to use their phone and 40 minutes later we had a new bike and were off again. Today we cruised through the smooth roads of Lujan de Cuyo to Clos de Chacras and Cavas de Weinert. Clos de Chacras were turning out excellent food and showed particularly how much wine tourism has grown into big business. Some cheese with a selection of 4 wines is a great touch in modern, fancy setting, half between a chic and farmhouse feel. Cavas de Weinert was a traditional wine maker following French rules and stored their wine for at least a year – 3 years in massive wine barrels. They poked a real punch of oak, not quite to my taste, but certainly smoother in oak than many, which often over runs the taste of fruit. Another completely different set of wines however and we ended up buying Laura the really good Sauvignon Blanc 2010, young and fresh. We headed back to the tent to pack up and make our planned appointment at Viamonte where we were staying, but they were full.

Disappointed we could not try the wines from the place we stayed at we headed to Manuel’s house, where we found him hungover from last night. That evening though we were offered an asado and obviously never to turn that down, we were shown what was a standalone studio with bed for ourselves. The house was beautiful, with pool, large garden, willow tree covering a games area and large BBQ pit. Ace!

We picked up the meat and shared Lauras wine. Soon everyone was turning up. A friend who works as a baker with amazing fresh bread. 2 friends who brought their own wine and Manuel who supplied the meat. What great friends to have!

The recommended meat here is “Entrana”, which is the muscle inside the rib cage, These guys really know how to cook a good asado: medium fire, thick cut meat, salted on the fire.  Custom here is also to applaud the cook when the first chunk of meat is brought to the table, and to make sure the “asadador” always has a drink. The cook brings meat to the table in stages when it is ready and would tend to carve it at the table. A really great way to enjoy the finest food with appreciation. Laura went to bed early but since it was St Patricks day people were in the mood to go out for a few drinks. We set off having introduced the pure cacau we made in Brazil to the party and having drunk at least 5 of the red wine bottles (out of 11) brought over from one guys Bodega headed into Mendoza. The only Irish pub had spilt out onto the street and into the road. With so many people we didn’t fancy it and instead had a few drinks on the high street, including Fernet, a terrible tar black liquor mixed with coke. An Argentine specialty, but not for me for sure.

The next day was hard having gone to bed at around 4:30am, but last night we were invited to a party at Pulmary, Ramirez’s good friends. As we were already on day 5 out of 3 we were feeling urged to not outstay our welcome. Yet eating a pork Milanesa (thin slice of pork covered in breadcrumbs- a truly latin/ Spanish dish) and salad with Manuel’s family, who were all extremely welcoming we were urged to stay one more night, to go to the party and relax today and recover somewhat from last night.

That night we ended up having another asado, but this time around Paulo’s house. Another beautiful house in Mendoza city this time. This was middle class Argentina at its best I thought while eating another fine BBQ with beers and good people. Parties do not really start till after midnight, so after 5 hours drinking and trying to restrain ourselves after the damage incurred last night (failed miserably) last 1:30am we set off to the vineyard. A bouncy castle and a 55,000 litre wine fermentation vat had been filled up to knee height with water and had a

swimming in a wine vat

radiator thrown in to warm it to body temperature. Sweet!  Music, drinks flowing, girls, guys and dancing all in the place that produces the great wine we drink. I had to take a moment to appreciate and realise the situation we had ended up in, in so little time here.  From an expensive campsite in a tent too short for me and an asado for 2, to being housed, fed and watered to the best. The best wine and BBQ meat I have tried asados with loads of friends and a really cool party.

Incidents of burning money (literally) and trying to drive a road asphalting machine were forgotten amongst the haze of the next day and another bitter taste of Fernet in the mouth.  We said our goodbye’s and headed off back the whole distance we had come thus far, around 25-30km.  The heat was strong and so we took it easy, stopping off for 4 empanadas each (a staple breakfast item when available now) and a final glass of wine at Tapiz. We couldn’t resist and when we came to pay we bought a bottle of the Malbec as well. It turns out that after everything we liked the first wines we had tried at Tapiz. These guys in the picture.

I did some research to see if you can buy it in the UK and you can here (we are not affiliated with these guys just love the wine and kind of as a recommendation to our friends and ourselves when we get back to the UK!)  They are young wines, which we decided was better for us as they taste more fruity, than being chewing on a stick. In Mendoza they call this “carpenter wine”.  After our final cycle back to the rental company we were invited in for another glass of wine and discussion about the difference between the UK and Argentina in religion, wine, climate and others in Spanish with relative ease. Our language was getting better and it was good to be able to have a good conversation with people we were meeting on the way in their own language.  People here are so friendly and we were arguing perhaps the most friendly set of people we have met yet.

We landed back to the city of Mendoza feeling the drain of more wine and sun and relaxed all that evening, cooking up the last of our food before we were to cross the boarder into Chile.  The next day we left and stood by the bus station met 2 Romainian guys that I had met on the first night in the first hostel. We were on the same bus to Santiago as we wound through the Andes for the last time.

The mountains reminiscent of further north in Peru, but with a massive lake with windsurfers and locals holiday makers. This was rafting territory. We cruised past “Pont de Inca”, a bridge carved out of solid stone by the Incas between 15th and 16th C and were advised not to go to. The actual place had nothing and so we agreed it was not worth visiting specifically.

We reached the notorious border with Chile, which did not disappoint. Everyone was made to line up, sign a declaration that anything vegetable based, meat based, soil based or anything else (arguably most things). The bus was emptied and all bags put through scanners, while a sniffer dogs was thorough on every bag. Many bags were pulled apart, even ironically a nun’s. While this was happening people were made to stand in line up fashion. You felt guilty even without guilt. With Brazilian chocolate and artifacts from other countries based on all the aforementioned (a lot hanging from my neck), I did feel really guilty.

The good news was that our bags were not searched and nothing found. With a massive sign of relief we were watching the sunset towards our westerly direction and soon were descending towards a large skyline of Santiago.  We arrived at night and the first Chilean we encountered shouted half joking half serious that all gringoes needed to cough up the cash for their bags (tipping is supposed to be optional, especially with no Chilean Pesos!)

Our new Romainian friends had suggested we join them at a hostel they had booked online.  We shared a taxi, who was soon identified as dodgy. Would not put on the meter, told us it was a lot further away than it could be, started getting irritated on questioning. At that point we had our many bags jammed in and stuffed between legs and reluctance was there. The cost to Plaza Brazil from the station was supposed to be 3,000 Chilean Pesos (around 6 pounds at a rate of 732 pesos to the pound). After I ran across the road to ask the hostel owner made it clear I was right and 10,000 was a joke. The guy was irate we me shouting and refusing to pay, but eventually we settled on an extortionate 8,000.  Chile 2 Gringoes 0.

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1 comment

    • Cota on 04/24/2011 at 17:26

    Eagerly waiting for the next episode of “Ramblin’ Gringos”

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