Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Argentina for a Week

I woke up early in Valparaiso, Chile on a Sunday morning to catch a bus to Mendoza, a trip that I heard would be spectacular -- straight through a part of the cordillera of the Andes, with a view of the range’s biggest peak, Aconcagua, at 22,840 feet. So I got to the station with what I thought was plenty of time and sat on the bench snacking on empanadas and drinkable yogurt (which is huge in South America) and throwing random bits to a very patient beggar dog at my feet. Eventually I figure I better check in with the man at the desk from whom I bought the ticket the day before since I don’t see a bus with a sign for Mendoza anywhere on the lineup. When I ask him where the bus is, he starts gesturing to the clock and saying it’s not right, then getting it down and changing it to an hour ahead, and then it dawns on me that this is what his serious warning was about yesterday when I bought the ticket, but I didn’t understand him. (In my defense, the Chilean accent isn’t the easiest and they seem to have much different pronunciation of certain words -- the woman at the hostel didn’t know what the heck I was asking for when I requested a “tenedor” with my breakfast. When I finally pointed at a fork she said, “Oh, un tenedon!” Hmmm, last time I checked there is no second ‘n’ in that word!). He hustles me to another ticket stand that has a bus leaving ahorita for Mendoza, where I buy a second $25 ticket (oh well) and me and my bags -- which include 6 bottles of Chilean wine -- are hustled on to a midsized lime-green-and-orange beast.

The 8-hour drive did not disappoint, and I snapped many impressive pictures from my window seat. The border crossing was interesting with the bus pulling into a massive warehouse and us passengers going through first a Chilean exit station and then an Argentine entry point and then a collection taken up -- my best guess was that it was intended to “butter up” the officials so they didn’t thoroughly inspect our luggage stowed under the bus. Guess we had enough because we were subjected to a ridiculously cursory look-through. Despite a similar collection being rounded up on the way back every stowed back was sent through an x-ray machine, but at least we were spared the time-consuming exercise of all hand luggage being inspected as well. I thought perhaps the tally wasn’t sufficient, but I think it was more to do with Chile’s exceedingly strict agricultural laws (don’t even think about sneaking in that uneaten empanada or sandwich upon arrival at the airport). Eventually we arrived in Mendoza where, due to my missing the earlier bus, a driver wasn’t waiting for me so after schlepping my stuff around the terminal trying to figure out the phone system (step 1, buy a card; step 2, try to figure out how to place a call; step 3, try 5 phones before the number goes through; step 4 , finally reach the woman organizing the wine tour and hear that the driver likely isn’t around so make my way to the house) I take a cab to Chacras de Coria, an upscale suburb about 15 minutes away from Mendoza.

I have no idea what to expect from the group I would be with for the next week, but I figured to be able to go for half price (since the arrangement was I would help out), visit around 10 wineries and eat some great food it didn’t really matter who it was with. I was in heaven when I got to the house, a lovely two-story affair in the leafy ‘burb, with a huge backyard I did yoga in, a swimming pool I laid out by (not quite warm enough to take a dip), and not one but two grills that we put to good use hosting an asado (Argentine BBQ) for the owner of the home and other expat wineauxs in the area. After 4 months of roughing it more or less, I was ecstatic to share a smallish room with a stranger -- it had a divinely comfortable bed and pillows, ample closet and shelf space, and even a little ledge that served as a nightstand (a major luxury often not included in budget hostels). The bathroom I used (one of three in the house) was spacious with dependable hot water that came out at a good volume, another rarity in the world of budget travelers in South America. So, even with some strong personalities among our group of six women (one guy was supposed to come but discovered in Houston, thanks to the helpful airline staff, that his passport was expired [!]), I savored every minute of my “vacation from a vacation” -- even when faced with a big stack of dishes to do at the end of almost every night.

We started out our tour with a visit to Achaval-Ferrer, which was started a decade ago by a group of partners including Santiago Achaval, a native Argentino who serves as president of the winery and is an alumnus of my employer, the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The vineyards had two notable features -- olive trees interspersed among the vines (“In the bad years for grapes, the landowners would live off the olives,” our guide, Santiago, explained) and canals, called acequias, cut through the earth to provide irrigation via a flooding system to the vines. Mendoza is well suited to this type of irrigation since the area has consistent weather -- vintners rely on the snow melt from the Andes to provide enough water each year. At Alchaval-Ferrer, like many wineries in the area, the focus is on Malbec, the Bordeaux varietal that is much more famous for its South American stylings than it was as mainly blending grape known as Côt in France. Indeed, the warm, dry weather of Mendoza allows the grape to get riper and richer than in its home region. Santi said the oldest vines in the area are 120 to 140 years old, but it has only been in the last five years that Malbec’s star has shot skyward.

A-F produces 150,000 bottles a year (12,500 cases), with 80% exported. The winery uses all organic grapes, labels and bottles by hand, and uses recycled boxes. They make just six different types of wine -- an entry-level Malbec using grapes from various vineyards; Quimera, a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; 3 vineyard designate Malbecs;and Dolce, a dessert wine made from sun-dried Malbec grapes, The ’07 Malbec, while young, had good minerality and red fruit components along with obvious oak-imparted vanilla and spice notes of the bouquet. The ’07 Quimera had a much more floral and herbaceous nose and cocoa notes on the palate without being very tannic. The Finca Mirador Malbec had big fruit, especially sour cherry, along with herbal notes while the ’08 Dolce had a rich, raisiny sweet flavor. A couple members of the group bought the Quimera to drink at the asado.

We enjoyed A-F, but liked the family vibe at Bressia, our next stop, much better. The winemaker and patriarch, Walter Bressia, was one of the pioneers in the area’s wine history and was known for making the region’s first blend, Profundo, a 50% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Malbec blend. We went on a tour given by his very personable -- and fashionable -- daughter (just 5 people, all family members, work at the winery), then sat down to taste two wines and nosh on a tasty (and unexpected but very welcomed) cheese and salumi plate. We sampled the ’07 Malbec, which spends 18 months in mixed oak and was very peppery with a long finish; drinkable now but needs some more time in the bottle to really shine; and the ’07 Profundo, which spends 12 months in new & used oak and was richer on the nose and palate with a bit of gaminess, notes of currant and herbs and well-integrated tannins. Bressia exports about 70% of the 60,000 bottles (5,000 cases) produced annually.

Our first day of tasting wrapped up with a lunch at Bodega Ruca Malen, where we sat in the outdoor dining area under a tent surrounded by vines on three sides. Nearly every course was superb, with the wine pairings hitting the mark spot on. The citrus notes of ’08 Yauquén Sauvignon Blanc was lovely with the summer squash, fennel and apply ceviche on a fresh cheese mousse; the tannins of the ’08 Yauquén Cabernet Sauvignon were softened by the beetroot capuccino with crunchy sweet potatoes seasoned with black pepper in a balsamic reduction; the soft structure and smooth tannins of the ’05 Ruca Malen Merlot were strengthened by the smoked pumpkin terrine with sun-dried tomatoes, Merlot sediments and plums; while the grilled beef tenderloin medallion with grilled polenta, sautéed vegetables and raisins in a black olive sauce shined with the aromatics of the ’06 Ruca Malen Cabernet Sauvignon. The ’08 Kinién Malbec was also served with the fourth course and showed excellent structure but it was too young; the ’07 was intended to be served but the winery had recently run out of it, their most high-end offering.

We left more than satiated and with many of the members of the group dreaming of a nap, but I, being the youngest of the group, could have hit a couple more wineries! Good thing there were more days of tasting ahead...


Jaz said...

Hostels are very community oriented lodgings, and you'll share everything but your bunk and a locker in fact, it's a little like summer camp without the counselors.

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