What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Argentina?
That answer probably depends on your background, your interests and your age.
For some it might be images of the Falklands conflict in 1982, for others it is the music and drama of tango in the plazas of Buenos Aires.
Or perhaps its romantic images of gauchos rounding up their cattle or cooking over an open fire.
Mountaineers will certainly have dreamt of climbing the highest peak in South America, Cerro Aconcagua.
For sports fans I would guess three things come to mind simultaneously “Football”, “Lionel Messi” and “Diego Armando Maradona’s” 1986 World cup genio genio genio ta ta ta ta ta ta y Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool of the century against England. For those who don’t get this take a look at this video.
For me it is variations of the color red…
Yep red, plum, purple and scarlet as in Red wine. Specifically a beautiful bold, deep scarlet Malbec!
Wine is a Big Deal in Argentina!
Wine is almost as big a thing as Diego Maradona – who’s fans have created The Iglesia Maradoniana a religion practiced by those who believe the retired footballer is the greatest player past or present.
Although there is no church specifically devoted to Argentine Viniculture (Eucharistic rites aside) wine is of the upmost importance in Mendoza. The region is the 5th largest wine producer in the world and accounts for about 70% of Argentina’s total wine production
Whats so Great about Mendoza?
Mendoza has one of the most optimal wine climates on the globe. Some of Mendoza’s vineyards are planted at the highest altitudes in the world at upwards of 4900 feet above sea level. The majority of vines however are grown between 2000 and 3600 feet.
Higher altitudes usually mean hot days and cool nights which are perfect conditions for grape growing. As a rule of thumb, higher altitude grapes are of better quality than their lowland cousins.
Mendoza is basically a desert with a total rainfall of less than 9 inches annually, thanks to the rain shadow created by the Andes to the West. Fortunately irrigation is available thanks to the melting snow from the Andes. A vast array of irrigation channels funnel this water where needed. Which combined with the low rain fall gives growers phenomenal control over how much water their crop receives.
The soil in Mendoza is far from rich and is actually pretty crappy, consisting of mostly rock and sand, making the vines fight hard to get enough water and nutriments. This actually results in a very good quality grape.
These factors combined with the altitude and climate allows Mendoza’s bodegas to produce grapes that are ripened to perfection, with sweet tannins, good acidity and fully developed sugar content.
Enter Malbec the feisty grape
The feisty Argentine Malbec’s are inky, medium bodied dry reds with dark fruits on the nose and pallet. The main fruit flavors are blackberry, plum, and black cherry.
Malbec and Mendoza a match made in wine heaven
The Malbec vine originally came from Bordeaux and was considered by the French to be a meh (or inferior) grape. However it is well suited to the growing conditions in Mendoza and has exploded in production and popularity.
Argentina now leads in Malbec production with over 75% of the world’s grapes coming from Mendoza, San Juan, and Salta.
Malbec is a big, bold, rich wine full of flavor and richness. This is good news! Why?
Because Malbec’s robust flavor can hold its own without having to use a lot of oak. And because Oak is expensive in terms of time and money, you can get a phenomenal bottle of Argentine Malbec that has only been in an Oak relationship for 6 months.
One of the Wine Capitals of the World
Mendoza is considered to be amongst the great wine capitals of the world, alongside Bordeaux, Porto, Verona, Napa Valley and South Australia. As with any wine region of the world – one of the biggest challenges is deciding what wine do I try or buy?
Grocery stores in Argentina (as in Italy and France) have significant aisle space dedicated to wine. This poses several problems. The first is the utterly mind-boggling choice of labels and price points. The second problem is that grocery stores tend to only carry wines from larger producers so small produces are often overlooked.
One way of getting around this is to visit a local wine merchant. Some may speak a little English (if not hand waving appears to be effective) and will be able to offer a selection based on your personal tastes. Prices vary as widely as the choice, starting as low as a few dollars up to a few hundred dollars or more.
A more fun way to try some different wines is to do a wine tour. Many of the wineries welcome guests with open arms, providing tastings, tours and some do lunch, complete with an array of the varietals they have on offer.
On the surface there are as many different ways to visit the bodegas as there are bottles of wine in the supermarket.
One option is to do a self directed tour by renting a car. Call me chicken but the idea of driving around all over Mendoza going from winery to winery sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Driving in Argentina is challenging at the best of times. Argentinians are very kind and hospitable, until you give them a set of cars keys that is.
Argentina’s strict drunk driving laws, drivers whose Italian ancestry is very evident in their driving habits, combined with multiple wine tastings doesn’t mix too well.
There are also organized wine tours where you get around by bicycle or on horseback. These options may sound fine, prior to your 4th generous sample of Malbec before noon and in 40 degree summer heat. Pass – muchas gracias.
Another option is to hire a driver for the day which allows everybody to partake in a glass or two (including the driver perhaps?).
Or alternately why not try a……………
Hop On Hop Off Wine Tour?
Instead of the usual city hop on hop off tour, Mendoza has a Hop on Hop Off Wine tour.
It’s a great way to visit different areas and their bodegas. Pick up and drop off from your hotel is included and with the help of your onboard Spanish/English speaking guide you choose which bodegas to visit. A typical itinerary is to visit two bodegas in the morning, have lunch at a third and then take a tour there in the afternoon. Pick up is usually between 7.30 and 8 am and drop off may be as late as 7 pm, so it does make for a long day.
We went with Bus Vitivinicola as they offer five different itineraries throughout the week. Most days you have five or six different bodegas to choose from, with at least two of them offering lunch options. We really wanted to go on The Valle de Uco tour, as we had heard that the stunning scenery of deserted fields, serried ranks of vines, blue skies and snow-capped mountains as you climb up towards the Andes made it a great choice. Even though you visit only 2 or 3 bodegas due to the longer travel times.
Unfortunately we had a tight window and could only do the Saturday tour, so El Sol it was. It cost US $ 24 each and covered transportation and guide only. Prices for entry and wine tastings in the different bodegas range from $5 to $10 per person and in some cases are deductible from wine purchases. At least two of the bodegas listed offered lunches with prices ranging from $20 to $40.
We opted to visit Laur first which is actually an Olive oil producer, not a bodega. Here you can taste their oils and balsamic plus get a short tour and an explanation of how the olives are processed for 300 pesos each (US $5). We left clutching a large bottle of their Extra Virgin Oil plus an amazing balsamic.
Next up was Bodega A16, where we lucked out and had an almost a private tour as there were only a few English speakers in our group. It’s a very modern, fairly new bodega but they already have some impressive wines. Our tour including trying some Petit Verdo straight from the tank while having a tour of the facility and then trying a range of their varietals around a huge table. Most of our fellow passengers had already visited one bodega so it was beginning to feel like a party.
Our final choice was Bodega Tierras Altas where we planned on having lunch and then a tour. By the time we had finished our excellent four course lunch–with paired wines–we were done. We had already tried four of their wines and their ‘Malbec Honey’ so we made our purchases and opted to enjoy the hammocks and a breeze instead.
These additional costs do add up; however the Hop on Hop off Bus is still an inexpensive, easy way to experience some of Mendozas Bodegas. There are some downsides though as some of the people providing the tours could easily be robots. Having given the same spiel every day for most of their lives, some of the tour guides resemble automaton presenters found in some cheesy museums. Oh and schedules are approximate, the accuracy of your pick up time depends on your fellow travellers who opted for a different bodega. We waited over 30 minutes because they were all still buying wine and the bus had to wait for them.
All in all it was a fun day and we thoroughly enjoyed it. By the end of the day it perhaps should more accurately be called The Stumble on Fall off Bus (SOFO).