Sunday, 30 September 2012

Mendoza - Mountains, Vineyards, and Malbec

Ahh, Mendoza. For years I've dreamed about visiting this wine-producing region as I enjoyed countless bottles of Argentinean Malbec at home in far far away Canada. And on September 8, 2012 I awoke to find that dream had finally become a reality. Groggily stepping off the overnight bus from Cordobá to survey the modern, touristy-looking terminal it was hard to truly believe we'd arrived at a mecca for red wine lovers. It had been too dark to see the vineyards en route but the numerous kiosks proffering wine tours hinted that we were in the right place.

We took a taxi to the home of Karma Apo-Tsang where we'd rented a room for the next 10 days. I'd found Karma's house, aka "Little Tibet", on and thought it sounded like a good place to stay based on the glowing reviews of Karma and his interesting life. Born in India to Tibetan parents, Karma actually served as a special protector (like a body guard) to the Dalai Lama. Years later he began an acting career and had a small role in the movie Seven Years in Tibet, which is how he ended up settling in Mendoza -the movie was filmed near Mendoza due to the similarity between the region's landscape and that of Tibet.

After several failed attempts to wake Karma by ringing the buzzer to the house (it was 6:30 am) we finally woke up Apo, Karma's dog, with a knock to the door. Karma showed us to our room and we dropped our bags exhaustedly, looking forward to getting a little more sleep in a real bed. It smelled like the dorms at hockey camp. Well, at least what I imagine the dorms at hockey camp would smell like. Stale and thick with the stench of sweaty bodies and jockstraps. It wasn't actually a dorm at all - just a huge room with just one double bed in it. The problem was the lack of any ventilation. No windows at all. Although I was seriously nauseous from the smell, fatigue from a restless night on the bus allowed me to sleep for a few hours nonetheless. The next day we aired out the room as best we could while Karma was away for the day. The absence of windows made it a challenge to get any airflow but I achieved some success by opening my umbrella and twirling around in the center of the room... we also bought some air freshener spray and used it liberally.

Karma turned out to be a mixed bag as a host. In some ways he was kind and helpful (taking us to the central market, recommending some activities around Mendoza, helping us use the fireplace grill in the yard - it required a new technique from the bbq'ing we'd already learned) but we also found him to be blatantly self-indulgent (Exhibit A: blown up photos of him with the Dalai Lama and with Brad Pitt hanging in the front room..... Also, within the first hour of meeting us he recounted more than enough details about the demise of a past relationship and how she, the mother of his children, took everything including his restaurant, blah blah blah), needlessly suspicious (e.g. after he realized we planned to use the kitchen rather than going out to eat he literally hid some of the better cooking utensils and pots. He also hid the toilet paper and when I asked him for more he actually told me that he hid it because he was afraid of "people" stealing it - we were the only guests at the time so I guess he meant us), and downright full of shit (e.g. he kept preaching about how he wasn't in it to make money and how he got us a deal by booking a tour through his friend and not taking commission like the hostels do but then we found out that the other guys on our tour had paid the same price as us through their hostel and the tour operator had no idea who Karma was. 

On another occasion Karma was supposed to attend a wedding but was waiting for a couple more guests to arrive so he could get ready and leave. After the guests were more than a few hours late, he announced that he was going to go look for them at the bus terminal and asked if we would be around the house to let them in. I got a phone call from the guests a short while later and managed to have a decent conversation with them in Spanglish, ascertaining that they were on their way. So I called Karma's cell to let him know and he said he'd be home in 10 min. He arrived home with a fresh new haircut... "Oh, there was a place by the terminal so I just decided to get my hair cut while I was there, you know." Uh huh...). The worst was when Karma accused Chris of breaking one of the patio chairs when it was already rusting at the broken joint. They discussed this and we thought it was all good until we read Karma's review of us on I suspect he was retaliating to my less than stellar review of the cleanliness of Little Tibet - our bathroom wasn't very clean when we arrived and I finally just cleaned it myself after 5 days when it became clear that Karma wasn't going to do it. Anyway, I'm focusing on where we stayed way too much. Although staying at Little Tibet proved to be a colorful experience, it wasn't SO bad and it worked out fine as a base for the other activities we did in Mendoza.

So, about those other activities:
One day we took a bus out of town to the Termas de Cacheuta - hot spring pools built into the one hillside of a scrub-covered valley about an hour from Mendoza. The weather hadn't been good for a day or two after we arrived so this excursion was our way of making the most of our time when conditions weren't optimal for touring vineyards, etc. The low clouds lifted and sun broke through just as we left the valley and wound a bit further into the mountains. In fact it turned into a gorgeous day, with blue sky but temperatures still cool enough for us to enjoy the hot pools. We brought a tasty picnic with some wine (malbec, of course) and enjoyed it at a table overlooking the river just below the pools. A lovely day!

The next day we decided it was time to get out to the vineyards. We'd already been in Mendoza for 2 full days and hadn't so much as set foot in a winery. My anxiety was building rapidly, much like what happened  during our delays getting to the falls when we'd first arrived in Puerto Iguazu, except this time it was the weather holding us back. Cloudy, cool, rainy spring days aren't optimal for touring wine country. I'd done a bit of research and figured out which of Mendoza's growing areas I most wanted to visit along with which wineries I thought would be interesting (I prefer boutique or small volume wineries because the experience tends to be more intimate and the wines have more character). There are over 1000 wineries around Mendoza but not all of them are set up to welcome tourists, at least not without reservations. The main areas that tourists can easily visit wineries are Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and Uco Valley.

It turned out that wine tours were very expensive (~US$180 per person to tour and taste at 3-4 wineries, including transportation and lunch). We decided to go with a more economical option - renting bikes. We visited Maipu first, getting to the city in what we thought was Karma's friend's car but, as I mentioned above, was just some tour operator dude. We picked up two young British guys on the way and at first Chris and I were happy that we'd have a bigger group to travel with (safety in numbers). No sooner were we given our bikes and a basic map of the area, the Brits announced that they really had no interest in wine. WTF were they doing on a wine tour then? Who knows. I proposed an itinerary based on the overlap between my picks and the wineries on our map and we all set out for the closest one. When we got there we found out that the next English tour wouldn't be for quite some time so Chris and I decided we'd ride to another area first. The boys were less than enthusiastic and eventually we just decided we'd split up and meet them later at the suggested final stop of the tour: the Beer Gardens. We suspected they wanted to go directly there, maybe stopping at the chocolate factory first...

The rest of our day was excellent. We loved the first winery we visited: Bodega Tempus Alba. A medium sized winery, this family-owned business is a state-of-the-art operation with fancy steel tanks, automated bottling, and temperature controlled cellars. They also have a gorgeous terrace overlooking their vineyard towards the snow-capped Andes. It being early spring in Argentina there wasn't any greenery in the vineyard but it was still a respectable setting in which to sample some of Tempus Alba's vintages. We were impressed with almost everything we tasted but our favorite was their Tempus Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a unique scent and taste punctuated with green pepper and eucalyptus. I tend to favor wines that taste "different" and this one definitely did. We bought a bottle for later.

Rather dry looking vineyard at Tempus Alba.

The wines we tasted at Tempus Alba.
(Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec Rose, Malbec, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Tempus Pleno reserve blend)

The second winery we visited, Bodega Cerno, was also a family business but operating on a much smaller production scale and using more traditional equipment and methods. We tasted 4 wines including a sparkling torrontes. They were good but not spectacular and we were a little disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm from the proprietor to tell us anything about the winery or the wines themselves.

Sampling the wines of Bodega Mevi.

Next stop was just down the road at Bodega Mevi. The owner welcomed us and indicated the various tasting and dining options but didn't offer a tour of the facility. That was okay because really, once you've seen a few wineries, you've seen them all. We parked ourselves on Mevi's terrace, admiring another spectacular view of the mountains until the scorching sun got the better of us and we had to move inside to the air conditioned tasting room. I can't even imagine how hot it must get in Mendoza in the summer if we were already overheating in the spring. Speaking of it being spring, I should mention how nice it was to basically have each winery to ourselves when we visited. There was no doubt it was low season and that was just fine with us. No crowds, no waiting, and no inflated prices. No heat stroke either.

A day of wine-tasting in Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina.
The wines we tasted at Mevi were really good. Their malbec and reserve malbec were fantastic but our favorite ended up being a Syrah - not a varietal that Mendoza is particularly respected for - part of their Barricas del Plata line. We bought a bottle of it. I was also impressed with their bonarda, a varietal I'd never tried before. It was light but with depth of flavor, sort of like a pinot noir. Before malbec stole the limelight, bonarda was the most widely-planted grape in Argentina. We also enjoyed some tasty empanadas from Mevi's kitchen before heading back out on our bikes.

Bodega di Tommaso was our fourth stop. Another family-run business, di Tommaso is a medium-sized winery with a nice selection of wines including a sweet, slightly syrupy white made according to their grandmother's secret recipe. It would make a delicious dessert wine. The malbec and cabernet sauvignon we tried were quite good and it was neat to contrast their torrontes with those we tried a few months ago in Cafayate to the north.


We'd planned to visit a few more wineries but the next batch were quite a ride away and we'd used up most of the day already. We decided to head to the Beer Gardens to close out the day and there we found the two Brits, pleasantly buzzed after an afternoon in the outdoor pub. It was actually a really nice setting and they had good beer. Also of note, one of the proprietors was a tranny. The country folk in Argentina must be significantly more accepting of alternative lifestyles because I'm pretty sure there aren't any trannies living in rural Alberta. All in all it was a great day and we'd highly recommend the self-guided bike tour option.

The next day we went to a sort of seminar/wine tasting at The Vines of Mendoza. I'd found a notice about it in Wine Republic: an online resource for activities in Mendoza and wine industry news. Usually the seminar is themed "Winemaker night" and it's an opportunity to meet an area winemaker, hear the story behind their business development, their perspective on winemaking, and, of course, taste some of their vintage. This time, however, The Vines was featuring three boutique wineries - a great opportunity to learn about the small-scale industry, which I have a personal interest in exploring as a possible future career path (or hobby). Most serendipitously, one of the featured bodegas was Caelum - a winery owned by friends of a friend of my friend Melissa B. I'd hoped to be able to visit Caelum and get some one-on-one time with the winemaker and/or business manager but the winery was closed for expansions until October. I was thrilled to find out I'd still get a chance to taste their wines and meet Constanza, the friend of Melissa's friend (hey, even a distant connection is still a connection!).

Wines we sampled at the wine seminar at "The Vines"

The panel of winemakers at The Vines seminar.

The seminar was busier than I'd expected based on our experience being the only visitors at most of the wineries in Maipu the previous day. The discussions were interesting, focusing mostly on issues that specifically impact small-scale wineries, viticulture and production methods, organic certification standards, each winery's history and short-term plans for the future. We tasted wines from each bodega and some were paired with fabulously delicious hot and cold tapas: crostinis topped with brie, apricot, and chive; black pepper goat cheese wrapped in Parma ham skewered with a green olive; veal brochette (grilled like a kebab) with sweet, softened prunes in a malbec reduction. Heaven. 

I introduced myself to Constanza during one of the intermissions and we chatted a bit more when the formal program concluded. She's actually a sommelier and was quite encouraging about my interest in getting into the wine industry. I might try to get in touch with her again if we go back through Mendoza when we head to Santiago to fly home in December.

With Constanza and her mother, owners of Bodega Caelum.

After our success with the Maipu bike tour we decided to tackle Lujan de Cuyo the same way. This time we hopped on public transportation and made our own reservation for the bike rental instead of going through another one of Karma's "friends". It cost us about half the price of the Maipu excursion... I had sent the company a list of the wineries I wanted to visit as they offered to create an itinerary and make reservations where necessary. It turned out that some of my top choices were really far from the rental office in Chacras de Coria so we had to replace those with some that were closer. They also told us that Luigi Bosca wasn't taking reservations for tours on the same day but that we could try going to the gate and see if they'd let us in. Luigi Bosca is a massive operation, hence it wasn't really high on my list but they do export to North America so I was interested in seeing the winery so I could picture it the next time I have a bottle of their malbec at home. We decided we'd try stopping by if we were near it.

Our first stop was the impressive Cavas de Weinert (Weinert Cellars). We had to take the tour in Spanish but understood a surprising amount anyway. It was worth it just to stroll through the magnificent dark caverns, arched brick tunnels built underground to maintain cool temperatures, dank and scented with fermenting grapes and oak - I loved it. Enormous barrels lined every wall and there was an ornately carved 40,000 L behemoth barrel, the largest in Argentina, occupying its own alcove at one end of the cellar. We tasted some of Weinert's vintage down in the cellar and found them delicious, albeit a bit oakey. Wines like that need more time to breathe before they are ready to drink.

Wine tasting in Cavas de Weinert.

We climbed our way back into the sunshine and rode to our next appointment - the unassuming boutique winery of Carmelo Patti. Though it's toted as one of the "must visit" wineries in Cuyo, Carmelo doesn' t even have a sign out front. He's unpretentious and convivial. But he's been in the business for a long time and seriously knows his stuff. We arrived while Carmelo was finishing a tasting with a couple and another guy who stuck around for our visit. Carmelo chatted away, sharing tips on how to properly store wine, which wines to store and which to drink right away, and telling us a little about his story and experiences at international wine conventions. We understood most but not all of what he said. Still, he was engaging and put us at ease despite the language barrier. His wines were quite good but too expensive for our budget!

Next we tried our luck and failed at Luigi Bosca. So, we rode our bikes out towards the mountains and found an open area to have our lunch. It was sadly cluttered with garbage left by other picnickers/partiers but the view was still pleasant. Then we rode back into town to Bodega Pulmary. En route I managed to have a wee spill attempting to get from the "sidewalk" back onto the main road. I didn't hurt myself badly (and I maintain that it had nothing to do with the little bit of wine we'd had an hour or so before) but once we started riding again I realized my front tire was leaking air. It was flat by the time we reached Pulmary. The staff called our bike rental company and they brought another bike while we did the tour and tastings. Great service!

Our tour of Pulmary was conducted by Paul, a young apprentice winemaker who said he was originally from Norway and France but had lived in several places throughout his life. His English was perfect and devoid of any accent, leading me to believe that some of that time was spent in the States. We ended up staying for a much longer visit than originally planned, missing our final reservation at another winery, but it was worth it to learn more about how Paul came to be involved in the wine industry and his perspectives on winemaking. We thought the Pulmary wines were very good - the unoaked young wines were fresh and fruity, as expected,  the aged-in-oak wines were bold, rich in tannins, and had a velvety finish. Paul poured generously so we were feeling warm and tipsy despite the cool cellar. We called it a day after our visit, returned the bikes and took the bus back to Mendoza.

The biggest splurge of our time in Mendoza was for a cooking class the following night. It was organized by Ampora Tours and hosted by a chef named Laura, her assistant Celeste, and Belen the sommelier. It ended up being Chris and I with a group of 5 Brazilian guys on vacation from their wives and kids. They were a riot. The class was a lot of fun but it was hard to learn everything since we were split into groups to complete different parts of the dinner. It was also hard because we were drinking lots of wine as we cooked... 

Chris and I were first put on duty to make the pastry dough for the dessert. I enjoyed that because pastry isn't something I'd typically make at home and the other groups were just doing prep work, chopping things, etc. The next major task for Chris and I was to assemble the humitas. The group had prepared a mixture of seasoned, crushed corn but the final step was to wrap portions in the chala (corn husks) so they could be baked. It was much harder than I expected! ...especially after a couple glasses of wine. But we persevered and the Brazilians applauded our efforts, having elected to supervise rather than give it a shot themselves. We learned how to make empanadas, focaccia, and chimichurri sauce to go with  our asado (barbecued meat). Laura's father was in charge of the asado, carefully tending hot coals in a built-in stone barbecue inside the apartment. The empanadas and focaccia were also cooked in a stone oven inside the house. I want one for home. Not sure it'd be allowed with building codes, etc. Hmm....

Scenes from our cooking class in Mendoza.

Eventually we were shooed from the kitchen so Laura and Celeste could prepare our plates. In the dining room, we got to know the Brazilians a bit better over more wine and then dug into the delicious meal that we'd helped prepare. It was a lot of fun and I think we managed to learn a few things that we can try at home too! Mmm empanadas.

Having spent quite a bit of money over the previous days we decided to lie low for the remainder of our time in Mendoza. We walked around Parque San Martin, a massive green-space and recreational area complete with a man-made lake and caught up on trip-planning, blogging, and laundry. 

Man-made lake in Parque San Martin.

Street hockey in the park!!! Sort of. 
We didn't end up visiting Mendoza's newest wine region - Uco Valley - but still felt that we made the most of our time while staying more or less within our budget. Maybe we'll pay for a tour of Uco if we go through Mendoza on our way back to Santiago in December. We're also thinking that then we could pick up some bottles from the wineries we liked most and bring them home. Most of the small ones don't export to Canada. At least not yet! Anyway, that's all TBD because we may come back through Chile instead of Argentina or fly to Santiago depending on how things go. I suppose that's the hard part of touring a wine region when you, A) don't have a car and B) aren't going home right after: you can only carry so many bottles in your backpack! They're heavy and hazardous. In fact, only the one Syrah from Bodega Mevi left Mendoza with us for Chile. Fortunately we were leaving one wine country for another. Off to Santiago!


  1. Alex-Sandra Thibault1 October 2012 at 17:10

    Ange, this is an amazing post!! Gracias :)

  2. Agreed! The photos are so vivid and you are describing your trip in such a detailed and fun way. I'm glad you were able to enjoy your time in Argentina, although you kinda made me homesick! See you in a few months! <3