Wines of Argentina and Chile - To Mendoza, 2013 Thursday March 14

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March 14th 2013
Published: July 8th 2014
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Casa Bianchi tanksCasa Bianchi tanksCasa Bianchi tanks

Chilly and damp at 9:30 a.m., even with a glass of wine in hand!
Another restless night because the street noise is amplified between the buildings. I went down early to get some hot water to drink in my room – and to collect my newspaper with the headlines about Pope Francis. Martin and the receptionist were very impressed that I wanted the local paper on such a propitious occasion. The first few pages were about his life, and included was a poster. Later at breakfast, an older man getting his breakfast while I was getting mine burst out to me, unable to suppress his joy and pride on behalf of Argentinians. He claimed national possession not only of the Pope, but also the Queen of the Netherlands and Maradona!

Our bus ride to Mendoza hardly got started before we stopped at the Casa Bianchi. Our guide, a quiet young man, took us immediately into the vat fermentation hall and served a young red wine from the 2013 harvest - not to my taste, so I didn’t feel any compunction in setting it aside, especially as the time was 9:30 a.m.

Unfortunately it was rainy and cold, so we couldn’t enjoy the view of the vineyards and the distant Andes. The storage of bottled wine was impressive. The
Wine turnerWine turnerWine turner

Industrial look to a modern invention for turning wine bottles
most unusual was in a round room with a conical ceiling and a skylight in the peak. The wall had cave-like openings in which were stored hundreds of bottles of wine, “nose to toes” style. These were their special wines and the décor of the room was dedicated to the family who owned the winery. We exited into dark long corridors completely lined with wine bottles in large wire crates. Our guide showed us automated turning machines for sparkling wines – essentially a whole pallet of bottles in a cage that is entirely turned a quarter turn every hour, a process that traditionally was done by hand, bottle by bottle. By this time we were glad to rise above ground to the relative warmth of the gift shop and wine tasting. We took moody photos of vines in the fog.

We drove for about two hours in rain and fog through the semi-desert. The ground-cover of small bushes and grasses resembled the prairies. This desert is interrupted by a humid microclimate: in the desert outside San Rafael, between two branches of the river, is the “island”, an arable and lightly populated area. However, it is oddly an impoverished residential
Casa Bianchi owners' roomCasa Bianchi owners' roomCasa Bianchi owners' room

A fabulous tribute to the winery's history
community - the home of the dancers from yesterday. Maria’s life’s work is to save kids from life on the streets, and our guides, Martin and Victor, like to support her.

The next stop was another winery, for lunch. Finca La Celia was named for the daughter of the original 19th century owner. Fortunately the rain had stopped, since our tour here was out in the vineyards. A charming, diffident man led us across the rough lawn to the “school” part of the vineyard, i.e., each row or two had a different variety of grape. He picked various varieties of grape to illustrate the growing and harvesting. He passed the grapes around so we could taste the different flavours, recognizable after we were told the names: Merlot, Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes were tiny (one gram for each grape we later learned), juicy, sweet, full of seeds and with tough skins. For the past twenty years or so, the plants are pruned to produce only low-hanging fruit, which ensures all the grapes get good sun and they can be harvested by machine. The machine, which we saw later, shakes the vines so the individual grapes fall off
Mendoza countrysideMendoza countrysideMendoza countryside

Pampas grass growing wild
into a rubbery floor, and they are carried up on a conveyor into a hopper and into the trucks. In Argentina, the best grapes grow in rows planted close together (shoulder-width and -height), which stresses the roots, producing better, more concentrated juice.

Later we learned that the Ministry of Irrigation imposes tight controls. All Mendoza agriculture (mostly grapes) is made possible by irrigation via canals that thread through the countryside and the cities. What look like deep gutters adjacent to the city sidewalks are in fact small canals for water irrigation. The use of water by the wine estates is controlled through water rights and permissions. Now some newer wineries are using drip irrigation supported by their own reservoirs, in part because they cannot get access to the irrigation system at an acceptable price.

Our “light lunch” was served casually with our first glass of wine. Malbec - deep, red and round. We all sang the praises of the whole-meal, toasted, buttered bread served with cheese and sausage. To our surprise, that wasn’t the end but the beginning. Next came juicy, meaty beef empanadas. Finally came cheese and corn empanadas. Delicious! And filling!

Another couple of hours
Casa BianchiCasa BianchiCasa Bianchi

Imposing entrance, with big bottle!
(or less) brought us to the city of Mendoza, in another oasis. San Rafael was 100,000 in population; Mendoza proper is also, but there are four other nearby cities, raising the population of Greater Mendoza to 800,000. It feels like a city, with larger buildings (no high rises), bigger parks, lots of traffic lights and traffic. Five large squares in the city centre (all near our hotel) were initially built as refuges when earthquakes rattled buildings; however, for decades now the buildings are earthquake resistant.

Immediately after checking-in to our three star, modest hotel, I felt like a good walk. I set off for the craft shop that sells the soft, woven pillow cushions we lounged on while lunching at Finca La Celia. Victor showed me the way on the map. After several blocks of striding along enjoying the evening traffic (so much less intimidating than in Buenos Aires), I realized that the map was in my room. Still the simple instructions were to walk to Independence Square and turn right for six to eight blocks. Seemed easy to keep going and hope to recognize the store. And it was easy, particularly as the road came to T-junction in
Grapes on the vineGrapes on the vineGrapes on the vine

Desirable low-hanging fruit
the same place as the small shopping mall.

None of the pillow covers or table runners was as striking as those at Finca La Celia. Near the bottom of the pile of cushion covers was a vibrant blend of orange, beiges and browns for 120 pesos ($24).

Link to VIDEO of the vineyard school.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Casa Bianchi barrelsCasa Bianchi barrels
Casa Bianchi barrels

So much potential!
La CeliaLa Celia
La Celia

Grey clouds chased away in the vineyards

Good enough to drink!
Pampas GrassPampas Grass
Pampas Grass

Cultivated pampas grass at La Celia is magnificent.

Stressing grapes makes them more flavourful!
Grape pickerGrape picker
Grape picker

The harvester drives so it straddles the vines.
Grape pickerGrape picker
Grape picker

The machine gently shakes the vines and the grapes fall into the rubber cups.

8th July 2014

What was the (relative or absolute) size of this winery? There was lots of mechanization until the boxes coming off the conveyor belt were handled by one guy, working steadily but not frantically. Mind you, I couldn't do that job all day!
14th July 2014

Winery size
What a perceptive question! I never gave that any thought. The wineries varied a lot on how modern/mechanized they were. The Casa Bianchi website says they have 65,000 hectares, which translates into 251 square miles. Seems big to me, and did at the time.

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