Mendoza – wine & wheels

4 Jul

Most people would agree that the idea of touring wineries in sunny weather while surrounded by beautiful scenery would be a heavenly way to spend the day and doing it all by pedal power so everyone can indulge in a healthy sized glass of wine – even better! And that was exactly our prime reason for visiting Mendoza.

This picturesque and relaxed city is at the centre of Argentina’s wine industry with the country’s best vineyards at its finger tips. The city centre has numerous attractive plazas with tree-lined Plaza Independencia at the centre where couples stroll hand in hand watching the pretty dancing water fountain and shopping at the craft market.

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On the West side of the city San Martin park is the inner city’s biggest green space where many locals and tourists can be found picnicking by the side of the lake with a nice bottle of wine being poured.

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The park is home to a surprising array of bird life and we were lucky enough to stumble across this colourful and inquisitive parrot just sitting calmly in the sunshine. “Who’s a pretty boy then!”

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Within the park, Cerro de la Gloria offers panoramic views over Mendoza’s tiled roof tops and out to the countrywide where a blanket of wineries stretches out to the foot of the Andes mountains.

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The Southern Hemisphere’s tallest mountain Aconcagua with an incredible height of 6,959 metres can be found just a few hours drive from the city and its nearby neighbours certainly weren’t lacking in stature either!

Wine is one of the city’s biggest attractions and we certainly intended to indulge whilst we were there. To kick-start our education in local wine production we visited The Vines of Mendoza which is considered by many to be an institute in wine tasting and offers a huge number of local wines by the glass and a selection of food to compliment your tasting. We initially opted for a selection of 5 regional wines – a white, a rose and 3 reds – to whet our taste buds and we ordered a cheese platter to help it down (it would have been rude not to!)

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Our sommelier served the drinks and spent some time with us explaining where the wine was from, what characteristics the wine should have and in what situations we might enjoy the wine. For example, the rose was a young 2012 grape made from a blend of 50% Malbec and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was pink in colour with flavours of raspberry and citrus and had a slight fizz to it. Served chilled, this wine was extremely refreshing on a hot day. Alternatively, the 2011 organic Merlot we tried, which had been aged in oak barrels, had a spicy but smooth taste to it and would have been the perfect accompaniment to a good roast dinner. The cheese platter treated us to tangy Roquefort, Gouda, a hard cheese flavored with black pepper, goats cheese and a selection of fruits and sweet jellies.

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As we sat in our window seat in the bar area we felt like very spoiled travellers and we knew the daily budget would be well and truly blown but we didn’t care and in fact we ordered another round of wines – this time a selection made up purely of Malbecs and Malbec blends, the wine for which Mendoza is becoming very famous for world-wide – and rightly so!

At the end of the evening, and with 10 shared wines under our belts, we felt ready to take on the wineries the following day with just a snippet of inside information and bags of enthusiasm to try anything and everything that came our way.

The following morning we rose early and took a local bus 40 minutes out of the city to a small village called Chacras. There we found an agency (Wine Bike tours by Baccus) who rented mountain bikes and put together route maps to optimise your wine tasting experience. The agency even call to make reservations with the wineries and offer you exact times of where to be and when – fool-proof!

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After a quick bike inspection to make sure the tires weren’t flat and the brakes worked, we got ready to set off. I selected one of the least conspicuous looking helmets I could find and after seeing me in mine, Dan decided against one! He probably didn’t want to mess up his hair!

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Dan took the map and set off in front at a leisurely pace so we could keep one eye on the road (probably with more traffic that we would have hoped for) and one eye on the rows of vines and endless tall mountains. A 30 minute cycle ride took us to the furthest point on our tour and the plan, very sensibly, was to work our way back to the rental shop.

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Our first stop was a small, independent enterprise called Carmelo Patti, after the owner. We parked the bikes in a sunny plant filled courtyard, entered the tasting room and were greeted by Carmelo himself.

A friendly and enthusiastic man in his 60’s who loved his trade and made time for every visitor to his winery.

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He was extremely proud that he now exported a small selection of his wine to Europe and even London. Carmelo offered a free tasting of 2 delicious red wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and a rich Malbec. As we sipped our wine Carmelo told us about the process for making his wine and how his winery had developed from humble beginnings.

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Carmelo had a large fan base and proudly displayed thank you cards from all over the world from visitors who had been charmed by Carmelo and seduced by his wines. He told us that at one time a Russian magazine had rated his Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the top 10 wines in the world and he was visited by a group of Russians who had made it their mission to visit all 10 of these top wineries – tough life! In pride of place on his wall Carmelo displayed a t-shirt the Russians had presented him with which had images from all 10 wineries printed on it – including a picture of Carmelo for the Carmelo Patti winery!

Our second winery of the day called Lagarde was just 5 minutes pedalling up the road and a tour had been booked for us at 12.30pm. Upon arrival we instantly recognised that production was more commercial and on a larger scale as we waited for the large electronic gate to swing open and let us in. Once we had passed security and parked our bikes we were shown through to a large out-door dining area where a delicious smelling BBQ had just got underway. Our guide, who had recently spent 2 years working on the QE2 and spoke perfect English with a South coast twang, gave us a private tour of the grounds and the many delicate processes that go into making the perfect bottle of wine.

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Some of the vines were over 100 years old and they had been painstakingly preserved and nurtured using modern techniques. The harvest had happened throughout March and the grapes were now going through a whole range of processes, some which took months or even years before the fine wines were bottled for sale.

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The smell in the warehouse of the grapes fermenting was fabulous. Back in the tasting room we tried 4 wines each for 50 Argentinian Pesos per person – 1 white and 3 reds. The finest of the reds offered by the winery was called ‘Henry’ and often sells for 500 Argentinian Pesos (93 USD) in a restaurant. The wine was named after the owner of the winery who is usually known by one and all as ‘Hen’ for short and is only called ‘Henry’ by his wife when she’s angry with him. The wine was fruity on the pallet and had warm, spicy notes with hints of vanilla and chocolate to taste. The winery mainly produced wine to be drank in Argentina but also exported a percentage to the United States and Brazil (the latter of whom make none of their own wine) but the winery was keen to expand into Europe. We certainly knew at least two Europeans who would be queuing up to buy their wines!

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By the time we got back on the bikes en-route to our third winery of the day, we were starting to feel a little tipsy and I was pleased I’d brought my attractive helmet with me! We had nearly 20 minutes to ride on the bikes before our next stop and some of the buses and trucks that passed us at close range certainly helped to sober us up.

Our third winery was very different again to the first two and produced solely organic wines. We joined three other female travellers and received a tour from the owner of the winery. Pretty, petit and with long brown hair – her English was perfect with just a slight Argentinian twang, and she explained that her and her husband bought into the business after it had stood empty for several years and started to fall into disrepair. In a short space of time the couple and their grown up children had worked very hard to make the business a thriving success. The winery was quite unique in some of its processing methods, for example, the property had original hundreds of years old concrete vats with walls lined with wax to mature the wines rather than the modern metal containers – one of just a small handful of wineries still using this method around Mendoza. They also believed in tasting the new wines a few times each day to judge how they were maturing and make any adjustments necessary.

A local artist had been inspired by this couple’s story and created some artwork for the winery which now hangs on the walls.

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The caricatured people holding glasses of wine which were almost the size of their heads stared back at us. We were trying to look cultured but starting to guzzle as now on our eighth glass of wine of the day. After tasting a fruity and refreshing white followed by two sumptuous reds, the owner asked if we’d like the special treat of trying the 2013 red which was still fermenting and of course we jumped, or stumbled, at the chance. The 2013 wine was deep purple-red in colour and quite unrefined still with chunks of grapes floating in the liquid but the taste was already very good. We sat in the lush garden at the winery with the three other girls and enjoyed feeling the sun on our face, drinking good wine and being around nice company. The owner said that all the signs were there for 2013 to be their best year yet and we couldn’t agree more.

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Our fourth winery of the day was Alta Vista and only a 10 minute bike ride from the organic oasis. Our tour had been booked for 3,30pm, however after ten tastings and taking our time enjoying ourselves, we were running 40 minutes late and unfortunately we missed our booking. We were still invited into the winery to look around the beautiful grounds and to visit the bar for a tasting. “Thank goodness” we thought, feeling a little parched!!

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Our new-found friends from the organic winery had also made their way here so we all sat together for the tasting on high stools up against a long bar. Some cheese crackers had been provided which were a welcome snack to accompany our wine.

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We tried another excellent selection of wines – one of the most interesting for us was a white wine made from a grape we had never tried before called Torontes. The Torontes grape is grown in the North of Argentina, where the altitude is high and the sun is strong. Torontes has a warm, fruity, almost sweet smell but it’s very dry on the palate which we found to be a great combination. Although…perhaps we were starting to love many things by this point!

Our final stop of the day was a family run business selling home-made olive oil, tapenade, hummus, jam, chocolate and home-brew. After a day of drinking we’d landed in heaven with some delicious specialities to taste.

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We piled our crusty bread high with savoury dips and sweet, sticky jams and groaned with pleasure after each mouthful. We were also offered the chance to sample two of their home-made drinks each – some of which were sweet, creamy and non alcoholic and others which were big, bold and dangerously boozy!

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We tried a liqueur similar to Bailey’s which was very drinkable, a tasty mulled wine with cinnamon and cloves, a warming shot of vodka flavoured with aniseed and the piece-de-resistance a 70% absinthe, prepared with burnt sugar, which simply blew our heads off!!

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After a day of drinking wine, these additional tipples were indeed totally unnecessary but too tempting to refuse. As you can see from the picture below – I’m a true connoisseur!

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We staggered out of the shop laughing and talking loudly – anyone would have thought we were a little bit drunk! Thankfully we only had 5 minutes to ride the bikes back to the rental shop and we arrived safely. We congratulated ourselves on what an excellent day it had been, as only two people who were under the inflence would do, and insisted we’d be back again in the morning to do it all again…

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