Mendoza has only recently appeared on the global stage for quality winemaking so we thought we should visit to see what all the hype is about. Predominantly a red wine district (which is great for us) their specialty is the Malbec which does far better in Argentina than in France. Mendoza is essentially a desert although the close proximity to the Andes mountain range provides water from the melting snowcaps. This allows the vineyards to control the application of water to the vines with the drip irrigation to ensure optimum harvest conditions. That along with the low humidity and large minimum-maximum temperature swings each day produces an ideal growing environment. Now that we’ve got the theory out of the way, let me tell you what we found.
The cheapest way to tour the wineries is to rent a car and self navigate around the area. We didn’t even bother to price this up because neither of us were interested in being the designated driver. This meant we had to go for the wine tour option which is more expensive, but a far more relaxing affair. Once I started looking into the tours I was surprised by two things: 1. The tours were more expensive than back at home and 2. You only visit 3 or 4 wineries during the day (I’m used to 7 or 8 back at home). Once I looked a little deeper I realised that the tours aren’t the typical cellar door booze buses that we have in Australia. At each winery there’s a full tour of the facilities and a walk through the vineyard, plus there’s a five course degustation lunch with matching wines. So enthused by the itinerary we signed up for two separate tours. Saturday for Lujan de Cuyo and Sunday for the Uco Valley wine regions. Talk about flashpacking!
We were collected promptly on Saturday morning at 8.45am and we were at the first winery, Kaiken, by 9.20am. This worried Anna a little because she thought it was a bit too early to be diving into the wine tastings, but luckily the tour of the vines and winery took a good hour which helped us to acquire a thirst. After sampling some oaky chardonnay (yuk) but then some real solid reds, we were back on the bus for the next stop. Matervini was our next stop and our favourite of the day. This relatively new winery is driven by some of the best winemakers in Argentina and they’re producing great reds from their young vines. They had just finished harvest the day before so the winery floor was full of weary looking employees cleaning down the equipment. The building was very modern and had a lovely deck looking out over the vines where we sat for the tasting. Finca Agostino was our lunch stop but we didn’t tour the winery here, just explored the culinary delights. We had adventurous dishes like cold pumpkin soup with a scoop of pistachio ice cream in the centre and slow braised pork balls deep fried. Each dish was paired with wine which made it even more enjoyable. Our last stop was Carinae which didn’t really excite me too much. The wines were ok but nothing to rave about. Perhaps my opinion was swayed a little because it was owned by a snooty french couple. We noticed that there’s plenty of foreign investment in the area as people are trying to get in before it booms. The tour was very enjoyable but we were exhausted by the end of it. Actually not exhausted… drunk. I always drink the whole taste provided and they weren’t short pours.
The next day we were up early and ready to do it all over again. This time we were surprised though because there was no minibus, just a Toyota Corolla. No one else booked so we ended up with a private tour of Uco Valley. At first we were worried it was going to be a bit cringe but it was ok. I think the wineries would’ve been disappointed because I’m sure couples on private tours normally spend up big, but we can’t afford the crazy shipping prices. First up was Corazon Del Sol (Heart of the Sun) which is owned by an American Cardiovascular surgeon who clearly isn’t struggling for a coin. He has several wineries in Napa Valley and Oregon but decided to get in early with Mendoza. The host gave us a terrific tour of the facilities and we had the opportunity to taste wine from the tanks at different stages of fermentation since they had just finished harvesting. Just down the road is Domaine Bousquet which has been in the area for generations, originally producing table wines but moving towards more reputable wines as the Mendoza name builds. They had some lovely wines, particularly the blends, and it was nice to explore their larger facility to see how they manage larger scale production. After all this activity it was time for lunch at La Azul which is a tiny little winery with a small kitchen that’s half indoor and half outdoor. That didn’t hold them back from creating some wonderful dishes that followed the traditional Argentine themes. Meat empanadas and the slow braised pork were our favourites all accompanied with plenty of wine. Another successful day out.
After two days of winery tours you’d think that we’d be sick of wine but the third day we were up and at it again. This time we caught the train to Maipu which is the original wine district where all the table wine was produced. We didn’t tour the area this time though, we just went to Bodegas Lopez which is the biggest winery for a three hour Sommelier course. Obviously we weren’t going to become aficionados in only three hours but it was a great crash course in the art of wine. This winery was more like a brewery than a winery with their high volume-low quality approach which went against everything that all the other wineries had taught us. For example all the smaller wineries were only using french oak barrels of maximum size 600 litres and they’d only use them three times. The smaller the barrel the more the wine contacted the oak and after three uses the oak wouldn’t provide much in the ageing process. At Bodegas Lopez their largest ageing wine barrel was 57,200 litres! It was a great sight to see but you can imagine that in only six months of ageing most of the wine hasn’t even come into contact with the oak. They also use the same barrels over and over again, but they do scrub the insides every now and then to bring them back to life – not exactly fine wine making. Sometimes it’s necessary to try the crappy stuff to truely appreciate how good the nice stuff is.
We didn’t do too much else in Mendoza except wine related activities and sleep. It was nice to have an AirBnB apartment so we could do some washing and some cooking for a change. We had scrambled eggs every morning and we even cooked some evenings. I think we’re starting to realise that soon we’ll have to start living like proper adults where we do household chores and cook meals. This hotel/restaurant lifestyle can’t last forever!
On Tuesday we had our last long bus ride of our trip from Mendoza to Valparaiso in Chile. I was surprised when I learned that a 250km trip was going to take 8 hours but we had to cross the Andes and endure another land border crossing. The Argentinian side of the Andes was a lovely drive which gradually made its way up the mountain. The Chilean side was a very steep decent with 28 hairpin turns. I could ride up and down that section of road all day on a motorbike, but on a bus it wasn’t that much fun. If anything it was torture for Anna having to listen to me talk about how much fun it would be to ride. I’m really starting to get excited about riding the bikes when I get home!
Before heading to Valparaiso we didn’t do too much research into it, but from what we had heard it was worth visiting. It is a UNESCO world heritage site so it must be worthwhile seeing, right? I imagined that it was going to be like Taormina in Italy which is one of our favourite places of our whole trip – a small town built on the side of a steep hill overlooking the coast. I was right about the coastline and I was right about the steep hills but I was wrong about the small town aspect! We’ve now learned that Valparaiso was a big deal up until 100 years ago because its port was a major hub for ships sailing from Europe and the eastern side of the Americas to the western side of the Americas. This brought a lot of wealth and prosperity to the town which helped it expand rapidly up the steep hills. What happened just over 100 years ago that changed all this??? The Panama Canal.
After the opening of the canal the need for the port reduced dramatically so the town fell into decline and became a pretty rough and grimy port town. In more recent years tourism has picked up primarily driven by UNESCO’s inclusion of the three historic hillside suburbs. Our hotel was right in the middle of the historic area which made it great to explore the different laneways whilst trying to avoid having to huff it up any steep inclines. We decided that a doing a walking tour was going to be the best way to get a feel for the city and to figure out how to get around without having to head up the steep inclines. The tour lasted for 2.5 hours and we made our way from the port right up the side of Cerro Concepcion which is the main historic area. To do this we caught one of the funiculars up the hill but it was a little scary, the thing was over 100 years old! It jolted and shook and occasionally made a banging sound but we did survive. For us it felt like a ride but for the locals that’s how you get home.
I think the main drawcard for Valparaiso is the street art that is found everywhere. Originally the murals were painted as a way of stopping youths from tagging blank walls, but now it has become quite iconic. Anna was in heaven snapping away with her camera as we walked through different laneways. Another thing with the houses is that they’re mostly painted in bright colours which is similar to La Boca in Buenos Aires, because the residents used the left over paint from the shipping yards. Obviously that doesn’t happen now, but the city still encourages it by subsidising any house painting that involves bright colours.
So after three nights in Valparaiso it’s time to move onto Santiago, our final destination of our trip! This time next week we’ll be flying back to Sydney which is scary but exciting at the same time. We do have a week in Santiago though so if we get bored we might do a day trip to a nearby wine region or something like that. At least I’ll have plenty of time to write the blog on the 14 hour flight home!!!
Fail of the Week
Since we did everything perfectly this week nothing really springs to mind. The Argentine pesos are worth noting though because they’re definitely the worst bills we’ve come across in our travels. They’re paper, they seem to never replace them and the largest bill that the ATMs spit out are only worth $8.40. Look at the note that we received this week. It’s worth 17 cents and when we tried to use it the waitress gave it back to us and didn’t ask for a replacement. The hassle of having it is worth more than the bill itself.
Meal of the Week
The two degustation lunches are the stand outs this week. The first was flash and adventurous and the second was well executed local cuisine. I’m getting hungry thinking about it.