Destination: Mendoza, Argentina
Number of Days: 4
Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0 Bus/Minivan - 10 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 1
Where we stayed: Ibis Hotel (part of the Accor family) - 120 pesos/night. Out of town to the east beyond walking distance so we had to take the bus in and out of town everyday. Other than that, not a bad price for a western hotel. Beat most of the hostel prices in town and you get a far nicer room.
Favorite Restaurant: The Central Market Parrilla had a nice menu del dia (lunch special) for about $5 each that included wine/beer/soda, quarter of grilled chicken and fries/salad. Not a place for food, but the Vines of Mendoza offers wines by the glass of virtually every high quality bodega in Argentina. They also have tasting flights available and are a good source of information on wines and the area in general. Lastly, Ferruccio Soppelsa has some seriously good gelato, the flan con dulce de leche is to die for (Tracy had to have it 3 times).
Best of: Amazing wine at bargain prices, seriously, a decent bottle will run you $4 and a good bottle will run you about $15.
Worst of: Public transport to the vineyards is time consuming and really limits what you can see. Renting a car would be the next best thing price wise, but driving around and drinking a lot of wine didn't seem like the best idea.
The road from Santiago to Mendoza takes about eight hours by bus including a seemingly endless stop at the Chilean/Argentinean border. The bus ride itself however, passes through the Andes mountains from one side to the other and offers some beautiful scenes along the way (which explains the "streaks" in the pictures below).
Mendoza is the unofficial capital of the wine region of Argentina. With over 40 Bodegas (vineyards) scattered around the region, your choices of tours, types of wines and types of tastings are mind boggling. By the bottle, by the glass or just go for the flights (a series of tastings of different types of wines) if you can't make your mind up! You have mass producers like Norton that export to over 30 countries and bottle in modern stainless steel facilities, even buying secondary grapes to meet the demand. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Domaine St. Diego which still sells directly to the consumer and cannot be bought in stores (they bottle only 30,000 bottles per year). Most of the bodegas however fall somewhere in the middle and it is worth while if you have the time and money to explore as many as you can.
The main grape produced here is the Malbec and about 90% of the grapes grown here are of the red variety due to the regions unique growing conditions. With the Andes taking most of the brunt of the weather on the Chilean side, the Argentinean side is a desert for most of the growing season. Between the months of November and March, recorded rainfall amounts to less than an inch and nearly everyday is sunny. The water is fed to the entire region through a series of manmade aqueducts. This allows the growers to control the amount of water the grapes receive and thus controlling the sugar content of the grape. So more water gives you a sweeter grape which also increases the alcohol content of the wine. The other major factor in making a good wine is the amount of grapes that are allowed to grow on the vine at a time. Good vintages will keep the clusters small and few to the vine so that all the plants energy goes into producing what few grapes it is left with. In essence, the best wine making grapes are the ones deprived of water, left in the hot summer heat all day and are deprived of having too many friends. All that suffering so that we may enjoy the fruits of their labor.
When we first talked about coming here, we both read about a bike tour through the vineyards (www.bikesandwines.com - $8 for half day rental). We imagined this beautiful countryside with lush green vineyards on either side, birds chirping and getting a little fresh mountain air. Sounds great in theory, but the reality is a little far from that. We rented a couple of crappy bikes, apparently good breaks and actual air in the tires cost extra. You then proceed to peddle down the main highway sharing the road with exhaust belching buses and tons of trucks carrying those little fruits we had came here to enjoy. It's about 12km's from the beginning of the "trail" to the end, but we only considered the last 2 kilometers mildly pleasant. Considering the number of buses that went by as we peddled away, I would bet that it would be easier and cheaper just to take the bus from vineyard to vineyard and walk the little distances from the main road to the entrances.
After huffing and puffing our way down the highway, we did manage to stop at a couple of vineyards before calling it quits. The last Bodega on the tour, Charinae, ended up being our favorite of the lot. It has a nice mix of old and new right down to the way they age the wine between concrete vats, stainless steel and oak barrels depending on the type of wine you wish to make. The machines were small if any existed at all. One lady's job was to label and box up every single bottle of wine that was sold (75,000 bottles per year). They still pick all the grapes by hand and the owners are hands on. The quality of the wine is also excellent, we just wish it was sold in the US!
Our next stop was Tempus Alba and it was quite the contrast to Charinae. Sterile and modern, Tempus was far more cosmopolitan in feeling complete with stainless steel furnishings and a tile patio with vineyard views to consider while trying out their latest vintage. Aside from the vineyards, the trail also has a museum, some restaurants and a distillery...well a very small distillery. It was more like a kitchen with a still, but they had some nice chocolate flavored liquors and our first try of absinthe, can't say we are fans and no we didn't go crazy.
The next day we booked a tour at Domaine St. Diego, one of the boutique vineyards that provides more if an intimate tour experience. As with most of the vineyards outside of the bike trail, reservations are a must. We hopped on the local bus to get there thinking that it couldn't be that far away. 2 1/2 hours later, we arrived about 20 minutes late but not too late to catch most of the tour. Set just on the edge of the valley, St. Diego provided a nice overlook as well as the only terraced vineyard in Argentina. We really enjoyed the quite setting and enjoying our glasses of wine under the shade trees. We highly recommend a visit to this vineyard, their wines are also not sold in the US but they have a fantastic array of affordable blends (35-45 pesos) and our favorite sparkling rose (25 pesos).
Back in Mendoza, we headed over to the Vines of Mendoza for their Wine Maker's Night. Every Wednesday night they invite a local wine maker, in our case Santos Beck, to come and talk about their vineyard, provide info on wine making and of course, sample some of their products. For only 20 pesos (about $6) you got an ample supply of wine (they keep refilling your glass while he talks about the wine!) as well as an appetizers plate of various cheeses, bread and crackers. If you are in Mendoza on a Wednesday, we highly recommend this!
Even if you don't necessarily consider yourself a wine connoisseur, all the bodegas take a sense of pride and passion in their jobs to help educate consumers. We had a lot of fun just learning about all the different types of grapes and what effects all the characteristics of a wine not to mention the aging techniques. I think we both walked away from Mendoza knowing a little more about wine than we did when we came and that's what it's about - broadening your horizons.
Stuffed with wine, and no, I didn't eat the hideous dish pictured above (yes that's TWO hotdog's topped with mayo and french fries), but we had to take a photo of it; we packed our bags and headed south to the Lake region of Patagonia.
To see more photos of Mendoza please click here!