Friday, February 24, 2012

Vines and wines – Say Malbec, you’re in Mendoza!

Thanks for the beautiful Northern Argentina, the amazing Brazilian Carnaval and all the great people I've met I'm again behind on my blog. But no worries, I've used all (well some parts) of the long bus rides to write stuff and organise pictures so I can start making blog posts during all the quiet moments I have - so many fun stories & gorgeous pictures to share!

So --- I’m becoming an expert in long bus rides. Another 19 hours of sitting (with over two hours circling the different terminals in Neuquén) I got myself from Bariloche to Mendoza. Thankfully the bus seats are comfy, there are TVs with crappy movies and if you bring your own snacks, warm clothes (OMG tone down on the air con!) and some light entertainment – like your laptop – you’ll have a somewhat relaxing day ahead.

It was morning when I arrived in Mendoza. I had managed to pick a nice hostel again, this happened to have been voted the best hostel in South America (by hostelworld users, one myself). My bed wasn’t free that early but I got myself all cozied by in a hammock in the garden, frankly I was a bit tired. So after noon I was ready to venture out to the city.

My bible (Lonelyplanet) told me that Mendoza was once been eradicated by an earthquake and after that was built with wider avenues and larger plazas to help clearing out the next disaster – very nice for walking around and people watch. I walked through most of the leafy downtown which I admit was nice but it missed some of the wibe of Buenos Aires. Couldn’t put my finger on it but it wasn’t as interesting.

I headed towards the San Martin park and the sheer size of it just hit me when I arrived. It was something in the scale of Central Park, maybe even bigger, I think the full length was around 5km? So forget about walking through all the park, actually you can drive through the various tree lined streets. Unfortunately the park also lacked all the charm. Just a trees here and there and worn down grass, t didn’t invite you to walk around the green areas, you’d basically just stroll around the streets. The lake was quite pretty and there I found some flowers as well. There was a big tennis club where there was also a pool – that looks like a nice way to spend a hot day and I’m sure that’s where the city people flock during the weekends.

It does get quite hot in Mendoza. It’s in the central Argentina and in the middle of a very dry area. But what it’s most famous of is not the city but the region (also called Mendoza) and its wines! Mendoza region produces 70% of the country’s wines so when you sit down in a restaurant anywhere in the country you’re sure to find a Malbec from Mendoza (at a reasonable price too). It would have been a crime not to visit the wineries there! The hostel arranged me a bike from the nearby village of Charcas de Coria where I headed next morning.

First an hour on the local bus out from the city (thinking about a million times that I’ll never know when I’m on the right stop – which I eventually did find easily) and I was in the middle of the vineyards. I got the bike and a map of the wineries to visit, three altogether. The ride would finish in a liqueur shop - that sounds worse than what it was, an artesan liqueur and whisky distillery where they also make lots of different jams and chocolates. All the stops would include a tour and a tasting, ranging from 10 to 30 Arg. pesos, from 20 minutes to an hour.

Weinert was the first winery on my list. It was a medium size (or small perhaps in the Argentinian scale) winery that was established in the late 1800s. I joined the excellent tour where went through their fermentation and storage areas. They had the largest wooden barrel I’ve seen so far, it contained 44t liters of wine (normally barrels are the size of 2-6000l) – and yes, it was full. The oldest wine in a barrel was from 1997. They have to keep the barrels full or otherwise they will start falling apart. The tour gave the usual briefing of the history, the winemaking processes and general view of the facilities from the point of harvesting to the bottling. They didn’t have any vineyard on that location so it was purely a winery but a rather beautiful one. They’d kept the old colonial style and the cellars 7-8m underground had beautiful high ceilings with arches.

 I got to taste five wines at the end of the tour: white Carrascal Blanco 2011, rosé Montfleury Gran Rosé 2011 and three reds, Carrascal Tinto 2007, Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 and Cavas de Weinert 2004. All different and all very enjoyable – the older reds really would have great with some cheese. I didn’t buy anything but enjoyed the tasting a lot. If it hadn’t been 1 pm I would have enjoyed it a lot more! :D The most expensive wine you could buy was their Estrella line where the bottle price would run up to 3000 pesos (the cheapest of all – and still tasty - was 35 pesos). The tour was the cheapest, just 10 pesos!

The second winery was Pulmary, a small family business. The tour was very brief and more informal. It was quite funny to get a taste from the big concrete containers! They have Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon wines and I tasted three varieties, two of the Reservas. The nice thing about their winery is the (pricey but) lovely outdoor restaurant where I had a glass of their lightly sparkly rosé to complete the tour. My favourite summer wine! Well, right after the champagne :P There’s just a couple people working there and you’ll enjoy the relaxing wibe of the place. But for the price, 30 pesos, the tour was the worst of the bunch. Still quite good in my book but you can skip this one if you’re short on time.

The last winery – and one with an actual vineyard – was the Altavista. It was a massive location with a security man (the most adorable and friendly security man I’ve ever met – nice work Altavista!) meeting you at the gate. You need to reserve the tour ahead, or prepare to wait. I had my reservation so could walk right in and start the tour. This was by far the longest and the most interesting tour.

Altavista was established also in the late 19th century by a Spanish family and was bought by the French d'Aulan family in the 1990s. They also own Tattinger champagnes in France, a tokaji vineyard in Hungary and several other vineyards in Argentina. This vineyard has kept a lot of its old winemaking technology, the bamboo rood that keeps the temperatures low, the over 100 year old fermentation tanks as well but they do have plenty of new metal tanks. The huge doors were made from old barrel metals and their wine boutique where the tasting was is actually a large old concrete wine tank of 300t litres! Nice touches. They’re a medium size winery with about 2 million bottles produced every year, and lots of nice awards for their wines too!

In the tasting there was a white Altavista Premium Torronties 2011 and the reds Altavista Premium Bonards 2009 and Terroir Selection Malbec 2008. Really nice soft flavoured wines. But we also had a real treat, a bottle of their best wine Altavista Alto 2007 had been opened for a standard lab test so we got to taste that too! What a treat! Even though it was the cheapest Alto bottle, only 470 Arg. pesos – the most expensive Alto (1997) goes for 2500 pesos.

The tour was the most complete of them all and I really enjoyed the guide and especially the location. You could walk around in the vineyards that we’re beautifully set with the mountain range behind them. They’d also made a lovely garden with fruit trees, chairs, blankets and pillows for their guests to enjoy. Really a pleasant place to visit! A tip for the wine tourist – leave your car at home!

A la Antigua was the last stop on my wine & bike day. It’s a small shop filled run by the family (the father and his daughters) where they sell their home made jams, preservatives, liqueur and strong alcohols. You can taste about 15 savory preservatives and 20 sweet jams, dulce de leches, marmelades of various types. And they were tasty!! I couldn’t get enough of the aubergine preservative and the green olive & garlic paste. The dulce de leche with coconut was surprisingly good and all the jams were not too sweet, just perfect… for example green apples and chardonnay or zucchini and the forest fruits.

Then after that comes the liquers… cream liqueurs, piña colada, chocolates with various nuts, dulce de leche liqueurs. The best one in the owner’s opinion is his own, 8 year old whiskey. He also makes grappa, absinth and various others. I really liked also the pink rose petal liqueur which they told me they like to drink with dry sparkling wine, especially during Christmas. Sounds lovely! Can't believe I didn't take any pictures there, was just having such a great time tasting all the delicious foods and liqueurs.

It’s a nice idea to make your hobby into a business like they’ve done at A la Antigua, you could really notice the passion they’ve put into it. The oldest products were the jams and the newest were the olive oil and the chocolates. I could have spent the whole day there too just sampling everything, the owner was really nice and we talked a lot about the making jams and all the nice things the Argentinian and Finnish climates offer! The tasting was 15 pesos so well worth it if you like to eat – a lot!

The tour was a great way to spend a day – and don’t plan on trying to do anything after that since you’ll be so tired after cycling in the sun and drinking wine all day. The bike rental company was called Baccus and I’m sure there’s lots of them in the Mendoza region. I think it’s the best way to tour the vineyards if you like to have a nice day sipping some wine. If you’re a wine enthusiast and want to experience it all you can rent a car or take an organized tour, there’s various kinds of tours from the random winos to the more delicate wine palettes.

If you’d like a professional take on the Mendoza wines (and read about other regions as well), take a look at my friend James’ blog!

The next day I took a tour (my last tour for a while, I’m sick of tours by now..) to see Aconcagua and the mountains on the road towards Chile. It was a nice, sunny day but I was a bit tired of touristy stuff. So we were travelling in the route 7 and passed by to see the old route 7 that had basically fallen apart – well no wonder as the roads were carved on the sides of crumbling hills and mountains.

We arrived to a little village – of 7 people – before heading up to the Cristo Redentor de los Andes. It wasn’t nearly as impressive statue as the the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro but getting there was. There was just a rather narrow gravel road that climbed up to 4000m. No rails, it looked a bit scary. Specially on the way down.

Aconcagua - sounds funny
Cristo Redentor - the Andean version

We stopped in the tiny village for lunch and I took a walk around - kind of an eerie place with lots of abandoned buildings and even a train terminal that was falling apart. After that we headed towards the “Inca Bridge”. This used to be a part of the Inca route and there were natural thermal baths under the bridge. The colour of the rock comes from all the different minerals.

Mendoza was nice city – not one the most amazing places but there’s lots of shops and restaurants, plenty of trees and the streets are nice, wide and not crowded (fits with my Finnish “ I need my space” feeling). I think it was a nice stop, and surely could have spent there more time going around the different wineries and vineyards. There’s also a good connection to Santiago de Chile if that’s where you’re heading. But personally, if I would come back, it would be for more wine tastings!

No comments:

Post a Comment