Crossing the entire width of Argentina, from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, we begin by driving head on into a spectacular sunset. As the daylight faded, then the colour, the sky blackened but the darkness that remained was short lived as we continued for the duration of the journey alongside a raging electrical storm. Arriving in Mendoza, at the foot of the Andes mountain range, it was still dark at 8:00am leaving us disorientated when woken by the call for the final stop.
It wasn’t in our plan to be in Mendoza so soon, truth be told. From the comfort of our home, many moons ago, we talked of heading southward, into Patagonia. We imagined trekking the Torres del Paine and further exploring... But plans and schedules have changed along the way and we have found ourselves in the Southern Hemisphere with only a few weeks remaining before temperatures create inhospitable conditions. Still, we agreed to venture further south to visit the town of Bariloche and neighbouring El Bolsen. That was until we priced the bus tickets. At more than £100 per ticket, for a ride in the opposite direction to our route, sadly we couldn’t justify the cost... And that’s
the price you pay for a trip such as this; you can’t have it all and sacrifices must be made. I spoke to my mother recently, who was surprised to see me on her computer screen squashed into the confines of a lower bunk. “Do you need money?” she asked. I told her no, we have enough money for our trip, but only if we make necessary sacrifices such as sleeping in dorms for a while. “I’ll give you some money,” she offered, for which I thanked her but declined the offer, explaining that even if we had twice the remaining budget we’d still be making the same sacrifices, the only difference being that we would travel further (thus being away from home even longer, which was not what she wanted to hear).
Lucky for us, the world’s not going anywhere (though actually, the glacier down there might be...) and we are already talking about our next trip to the south of both Chile and Argentina in better climates. We’ve even discussed the possibility of heading further south into the Antarctic, but for now, let us not get ahead of ourselves...
When I spoke to her on the
phone recently my Nanny said, “Mendoza? I’m sure I’ve heard of that Mendoza. Wasn’t there some trouble there a while ago?” “I don’t think so Nanny,” I said “there was a bad earthquake a while ago but you’ve heard of it because Granddad loves his wine and that’s what Mendoza is famous for.” Now, Chris and I know nothing about wine. It’s not long since we were manky-horrible students and the only wine we came into contact with was that with the lowest-price to highest-percentage ratio. We did however spend a great day in Korea on the “wine train”, but as you’re most likely thinking “I didn’t know Korea even made wine?!” you’ll likely guess that they would be better sticking to the soju. Nonetheless, the wine was drawing us across country.
Upon arrival our first job was to check the weather forecast to choose the perfect day for our tipple. The site asked me to “enter a location”; easier said than done. Meee...Miii...Moww...Mooo... Mehhh... I didn’t have a clue where I was other than the fact that it began with the letter “M”. Mmmmontevideo? Nope; that was
last week. I had to ask Chris after struggling with my brain for long enough that it began to hurt. He thought I was joking. When I told him Dad said, “All this travelling must be catching up with you.” “Probably,” I said.
So, we awoke on the Saturday morning to clear skies but lower temperatures than the weather man had promised. We took bus number 173 out to the wineries which presented us with half an hour free to pull silly faces at the chubby baby girl hanging over her mother’s shoulder in front of us. As per our request, the bus stopped opposite “Mr. Hugo’s” bike shop. Despite his bike’s being a little on the pricey side at £5 each, Mr Hugo was lovely. We even got helmets. The rental shop had been recommended to us be a couple we had met in Foz do Iguacu who reported a bit of a social gathering here at the end of the day with the vino tinto running freely. What we found was a polystyrene cup of orange juice waiting for us, but that was alright, because we were ready for bed by that time anyway!
Our plan of attack was to head to the furthest reaches of the wineries early just in case the weather should have changed for the worst, but most importantly so that we would have less distance to pedal upon our return with an increasing amount of wine consumed. Also, we had done some research beforehand; reading of reviews and what-not, and the wineries that we were most looking forward to visiting were the full 45 minutes ride away. So off we went. It wasn’t quite the idyllic countryside location that we had imagined, but more like dusty, badly maintained roads cutting through simple neighbourhoods and industrial parks. To be fair, it eventually got quite pretty, as spindly trees lined the road, loosing their autumn leaves and behind them we got our first glimpse of the beautiful Andes.
First, we came to CarninaE, 10 acres of mature vines under French ownership since 2003. The owner had combined his passion for astronomy with his newly discovered penchant for wine making and thus he named the estate “CarninaE” after a constellation unique to the Southern Hemisphere through the harvest season, a romantic touch we greatly appreciated. The price of a short but
informative tour with a knowledgeable guide (more than a guide, also an active employee) was $20 (Arg.) which also included a tasting of three wines. We drank a rosé to begin, the Malbec Rosado (2011). Contrary to popular belief, rosé isn’t a combination of red and white... it receives its blush from just a short time (5-7 hours) with the grape skins before continuing its fermentation separately. Since receiving my “big girl taste buds” which have enabled me to enjoy the finer things in life, I have had no desire to drink rosé, although we both found the Malbec Rosado very pleasant in this case.
To accompany the following glasses we indulged in a plate of goat’s cheese with bread and olive oil, also a product of the winery. Next we tried the 2010 Malbec, a “young wine” meaning it went straight to the bottle rather than the barrel (and as such it should be consumed within three years). Traditionally Malbec is a French creation, but it is vastly popular in Argentina and the majority of acreage at CarninaE is dedicated to this particular style of wine. We greatly enjoyed the Malbec, as we had the bottle consumed the
previous night at our hotel as “homework” (such diligent students!)
Next were the “reserve wines” i.e. stored in barrel to acquire taste before bottling. During the tour we were taken into the cellar and it was explained to us the difference between French and American oak used for the barrels, their lifespan and the significant purpose in the taste process. As for the tasting we opted for different samples; Chris took the 2009 Octans (an anniversary recipe created by the owner for his wife and kept in reserve for 8 months), and I the Cuvee Brigitte of the same year, kept a month less in reserve. We both immensely enjoyed our experience at CarninaE where we felt well attended to and, as I hope you can tell, we learned a lot. It was overall our favourite winery which we would recommend wholeheartedly.
Three glasses later we were back on the bikes. Just as Chris remarked on the inconvenient positioning of a plant pot I knocked it over and was duly labelled a drunk, which I contest to this day. We had wondered how this would work out; drinking wine and riding bikes. I did start to worry a
little as we set off for the day and were passed continually by speeding cars, travelling at least five times the speed limit of 20k/per hour. I’ll put your mind at ease by telling you early that other than the plant pot, there were no other incidents this day. If you know us well, then you’re probably as surprised as we were.
Next we visited Familia Di Tommasso, the oldest winery in Mendoza ($25 Arg.). Here the quality of the tour and the attention given to the customers was lacking in comparison to that at CarinaE. We did however get to taste an extra wine although the pour was stingy to say the least. We started with a white (Sauvignon Blanc), followed by a fruity Malbec and then a (too dry) Cabernet Sauvignon. Last up was a dessert wine, which is quite different to the famous “Ice Wine” of Ontario which I tried a few years ago on a visit to Canada. What makes the ice wine unique is the climate of Ontario which freezes the grape creating a sweet taste in a process exclusive to that state; so unique, in fact, that they don’t even produce enough to
export. Here in Argentina, they add raisins instead to create sweetness. This particular desert wine was a recipe of the Grandmother, and monikered a “generous” wine on account of is 18% strength; fitting that it was served in a shot glass! I thought it awful, whereas Chris loved the stuff.
By this time the day was passing us quickly. We had hoped also to visit the Flichman and Rutini estates but they were closed or holding private events as it was a Saturday. With it already being late afternoon we headed back the same way we had came that morning, making a stop at one of Mendoza’s famous Chocolatiers to sample “liqures, chocolates and dulches” for something a little bit different. Regretfully, we should have stuck to the wine, as the size of the offerings here were greatly disappointing for the price. Regardless, we had an amazingly enjoyable day sampling Mendoza’s finest wines and pretending to be much fancier than we really are. Back on the bus returning to the city, with our guise of pretention lifted, we playfully mocked fellow tourists for their insightful questions and shameless exhibitions of upper echelon knowledge, fully aware that next time, with
our newly acquired learning’s, we would be the ones asking fancy questions about enzymes and such...
Other than walking about the town and sitting by the fountain in Plaza Independencia, we spent a welcomed day or two relaxing in our comfortable room, conserving energy and catching up on much needed rest. It is the first private room we have had for some time, and thank goodness, because we’re sick to the back teeth of dorms! Spending the previous five weeks moving from one dorm room to the next we’ve seen it all; from snorers to teeth grinders, the “stinkies” who sleep in the same clothes they live in day after day causing the room to smell like funny cheese, the ones who fail to acknowledge your existence despite the fact that you sleep mere inches away, we’ve had A.C. battles to the death, fighting against the sheer madness of 14 degrees inside when it’s raining outside, and of course we’ve had the plain obnoxious... After a few good night’s sleep I awoke feeling “full of beans” (Chris’ observation) for the first time in a long time. Just as well, as we’ll need that energy for the coming weeks as
we adventure through Chile’s deserts and Bolivia’s salt planes.
So our next destination was to be Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast, only eight hours away by bus, but it meant crossing the Andes in worsening conditions; the roads had been closed just a few days previously. We set off and, as has been the case through South America, we watched the gorgeous countryside pass us by. We passed through Uspallata, the beautiful and arid region where “Seven Years in Tibet” was filmed. Also passing outside our window was Aconcagua (6959m), the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere which we wanted to hike but couldn’t due to the season. We crawled steadily higher and higher, through deserted ski resorts which will soon be filled with activity. The snow grew thicker as we gradually ascended and temperatures dropped. Up in the mountains we reached the border checkpoint at 3200m above sea level. We were lucky, passing through within an hour or so. It’s not unheard of that people are forced to wait up to six hours here in temperatures far below freezing.
With passports stamped it was back on the bus for a speedy descent by way of 30 odd
snake-like bends likely to leave even the bravest onboard holding their breath!
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