Monday, March 7, 2011

Argentinian Grapes (28 February - 6 March 2011, Days 81-87 of 127)

The journey from our hotel in Uyuni, Bolivia to our hotel in Salta, Argentina took a total of 22hrs: 10hrs on the train to the Bolivian border town of Villazon, 30min at Bolivian customs, 90min at Argentinian customs, 5hrs in a private van from the Argentinian border town of La Quiaca to Salta and 3hrs of waiting around. We left our hotel in Uyuni at 1:30am on Mon 28FEB.

The train was surprisingly good, with large reclining seats and plenty of room. I slept for half the trip and even had time to watch the movie "Runaway Train" with Denzel Washington with English subtitiles. Usually movies are dubbed and subtitled in Spanish - go figure! As expected, there was only one official on duty at the Argentinian customs which is why it took so long. Also, it takes a long time to process Bolvians going into Argentina because of the high rate of illegal work.

We lost 1hr in La Quiaca because we had to change vans. The driver of the first van decided to go off and by a cover for the luggage without telling us and we just sat there. After seeing a second van come by we all decided to switch vans. Naturally just as we were loading our stuff into the second van the driver of the first came back but it was a case of "tough luck mate" - you shouldn't have left us. The first part of the drive was great - valleys of mountains with anticlines and eroded vertical pillars of red earth - looked great. We then passed the Tropic of Capricorn, marked by a white obelisk by the side of the road. It then got dark and rained the rest of the way - we are lucky - every time it rains was are on a bus/van travelling somewhere. We arrived at our hotel in Salta at midnight and hit the sack.

Our first day in Salta (Pop 551,300. Elev 1,178m. Est 1582) was a big one and very eventful. After a fabulous morning run up a hill that overlooks the city (running at a lower altitude after almost 3mths of running in the sky was unreal - so much easier!) we set out with our guide Carlos to the city to book our optional tours and to clean my laptop, USBs and SDs of viruses. Maureen and I booked a full day trip to the wineries of Cafayate, 186km away and the others booked horse riding and trekking. I was then introduced to Alfredo at Micronet to clean my PC gear. He was able to quickly clean my SDs and USBs with his NOD32 Antivirus sofwtare but needed to keep my laptop for the rest of the day to clean my data, back it up and then reinstall all software including windows. I was to come back at 6pm that day.

I then started my assault of Salta starting with the central "Plaza 9 De Julio". The cathedral is laced in pink paint and looks rather gaudy. It was closed so I would return later that evening to look inside.

The famous "Museo De Arqueologia De Alta Montana" was next which is dedicated to the discovery of three mummified Inca children at the summit of the volcano Mt Llullailaco (6,739m) in March 1999.

There is a whole sub-field of archeology called "High Altitude Archaelogy" dedicated to this type of work. The three children are on display at the musuem, one at a time, every 6mths to preserve them. It was both fascinating and macabre at the same time. Fascinating because I learned so much about Inca religious culture and macabre because I came face-to-face with a 6yr old girl, dead for 500 years and so well preserved that she looked asleep! The other two children were a boy of 7 and girl of 15, both kept on site in the musuems lab. All 3 kids are sealed in a vacuum tube which is kept at exactly the same conditions as the top of the volcano they were found in. The 3 kids were raised by royal lines in a priviledged lifestyle with the their heads deformed at birth to indicate their royal lineage and to "look like" the God of the mountain. When the high priest signals they are ready, they are taken to the summit of only the highest mountains in the Andes (six so far), given lots of Chicha beer, fall asleep and buried in a square hole in the summit with amulets, pottery and silver and covered up (logs and mud). The high priest and parents are convinced that the children are not dead but "wake-up" in the afterlife of the mountain God, who in return grants a good harvest to the Incas. Fascinating and macabre!

I then walked to the Salta Teleferic to take me to the top of "Cerro San Bernardo" (1,454m) to get vies of the city.

Along the way I saw the very ornate "Inglesia San Francisco" church and the monastery of San Bernardo with its intricate carved carob-wooden door.

Salta is famous for its tobacco leaf production and wines. It has magnificent houses (like Paddo in Sydney) and many Buenos Aires people holiday here in summer because of the cooler conditions and wine. It is warm here but not as humid because of the elevation.

The view of the city from the top of Cerro San Bernardo is fabulous. I descended at around 4:30pm and decided to walk to the supermarket for supplies. I then returned to the hotel for a break before walking back into town to pick-up my laptop.

When I got to Micronet at 6pm, Alfredo had successfully cleaned the laptop, backed up my data, reinstalled a light-weight version of Windows XP Professional, NOD32 Antivirus and Office.

He needed more time to finish installing my drivers, Skype and Adobe so I went off for a beer at the town centre.

I returned at 7:30pm and began checking my data and skype. I was there to closing time (9pm) but I was very pleased with the result - my machine was clean, running much faster and equipped with an antivirus software that kills viruses on-site without taking my data with it! I decided I would celebrate my renewed laptop with a feast from the supermarket back at the hotel including wine and ice-cream. What a day!

The day (2MAR) began with a 7am pickup from our hotel for the wine country of Cafayate near Salta. Maureen and I were joined by 15 other people, mostly from Buenos Aires but with 2 from Mexico, 1 from Spain and 1 Palestinian girl living in Haifa Israel.

The 186km drive to Cafayate was simply spectacular. Salta is in the Lerma valley and Cafayate is in the Calchaqui valley.

"Las Cochas Gorge (The Conchas Gorge)" connects the two valleys and consists of massive mountains of orange sandstone, on both sides, with iron reds, copper greens, cobalt blues and salt whites clouring them. Add the raging Cochas River in the middle, which looks like a river of Cadburys milk chocolate and you have a magnificent view as atested by the photos in this post.

We stopped to take photos at 2 vantage points and then visited the "Cochas Anfiteatro" (Amphitheatre), a natural cavity hewn in the rock by a now extinct river, which is 90% accoustically accurate. After a little test piece from me, everyone was convinced of the accoustics and we climbed back in the van to get to the vineyards.

Cafayate (Pop 12,600. Elev 1,660m) is like most wine towns. It is quaint, has nice restaurants, gourmet food and a nice plaza. There are 16 wineries in this region with 2,000 acres under vine. The oldest winery dates from 1879 with most from the 50s and 60s so it is relatively new. The area as soil and weather more like Napa. Hot and dry with some rain. Greyish soil. Some irrigation. Biggest problem is local parrots, who eat the grapes. No philoxera.

Our first winery visit was "Bodega Domingo Hermanus", est 1960. "Bodega" is the same as "Domain" or "Estate". Unfortunately our guide had mis-managed our stops and time coming here so we only got 15min at this winery before it closed for siesta. All the wineries close by 1pm for siesta and re-open bewteen 2:30-4pm. Fortunately for me, I pushed my way to the tasting bench after our winery tour and got to taste 4 wines.

The specialty of the Cafayate area is the white "Torrontes" grape and "Tannat" red grape. Tannat was developed for export to Uruguay since they eat more meat than Argentina and love a strong red. Cab Sav is the next big thing. Refer "CAFAYATE WINE TASTING NOTES" below for more details of my tastings.

The wine is good quality and very cheap for this quality. Cellar door prices are cheaper than supemarket prices for the same wine. I reckon that a $AUD20-30 cellar door wine in Oz equates to $AUD10-15 here for comprable quality.

Much to my horror, the guide told us that we would not be visiting a second winery (we paid for two on this tour) since we had taken too long getting here and could not fit one in with lunch and our return. After serving him a few bombs, I took matters into my own hands and agreed a meeting place and time with him for the journey back so that I could skip lunch and get a second winery in. It was now 1pm and the next winery re-opened at 2:30pm, so I raced off to photograph the first winery (could not do this before) and the town.

My second winery was "Bodega Manni" started in 1879 by the Italian immigrant "Manni" family. It was great. I was alone and English-speaking employee "Jessica" gave me a private tasting of 4 wines and all the info on local winemaking that I could stomach. We even had time for interviews. This experience made the day and countered the stuff-up of our guide. Refer "CAFAYATE WINE TASTING NOTES" below for more details of my tastings here. I was then picked up at 3:15pm from this winery for our journey home.

On our way home we stopped at 2 more photo points and visited our second geographical feature called "Garganta Del Diabolo (The Devil's Throat)". This is a wind-eroded split and cavity in the side of a cliff, into which you walk and climb. It actually looks like the inside of a throat, almost like a ski-slope made out of rock.

After arriving at the hotel at 7:30pm (one hour late), I had a quick shower and we all settled down in the back yard for a "Asado" which is a classic Argentian home-cooked BBQ of meat, meat and more meat. It was fantastic. "Umberto", the owner of the hotel cooked up a storm on the coals. We had beef sirloin, chicken, chorizo and even blood sausage (pork blood). The finale was the Argentian version of wagyu beef which is a lot thinner than in Oz. Final verdict? BBQ was probably better than most of us could manage but our wagyu is tons better. Maybe I have to wait to get it in an Argentinian "Parilla" of steakhouse! The wine and company and atmosphere were great. We drank the wine we bought from Cafayate today, as well as Reserve Malbecs and even a Rose. It was a warm night and we had heaps of fun. Could not even remember what time I went to bed. I do, however remember waking up 3 times before morning to go to the dunny - YES, it was diahorrea!

I got up at 8:30am on 3MAR for my run but my joints and muscles were very soar. Maybe it was the bood sausage or the salad or the rare sirloins? Only one other person got it and I reckon I must have got it because of the large quantity of meat and salad that I had. I battled on and still went on my run but it was slower and more painful. I spent the rest of the morning and arvo resting and blogging before we all got together to go to the bus station at 3pm for our 18hr bus to Mendoza, the main centre of wine making in Argentina.

The total journey, door-to-door from the hotel in Salta to the one in Mendoza took 22hrs, 18 of these on one bus and the rest waiting or in taxis. The bus was great - huge seats that reclined right back and plenty of leg room. They even served a hot meal and coffee! This was indication that we were in a more sophisticated country! The scenery from Salta down to Mendoza (approx 900km south) is much flatter, greener and full of farmland. You can still see the Andes in the west.

On arrival at our hotel in Mendoza at noon on Fri 4MAR, our guide Carlos rang the Brazilian Consulate to see if I could extend my existing 90-day VISA. Bad news. I can't. I have to re-apply for a new 90-day VISA. The Consulate in Mendoza was on holiday that Friday so I would have to try in Santiago. Another drama is born! At this point I went on a run to cool-off. I then left at 2pm for my assualt of the city.

Mendoza (Pop 1.1m. Elev 804m. Est 1561) is a flat city with very wide roads and deep gutters. Roads are wide because the city was totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1861 and if it happens again they want more room for the rubble on the wider streets! Apparently the death toll was high because of the rubble falling on people."Plaza Independencia" (built 1863) is huge but very unphotogenic - ugly fountain and monument and no flowers. From here it was down the main pedestrian mall "Av Sarmiento" which was much nicer with plenty of trees and outdoor cafes. "Plaza Espana" was the best with colourful porcelain tiles imported from Spain. I then picked up my winery map for tomorrow and headed to "Plaza San Martin" to see the Cathedral. Both were shit. Very ordinary and uninspiring. The best thing to come from this plaza was the coffee I had at Cafe Rixen which was the best I have had on this trip to date. Strong and full of flavour. Tonight at 10pm was the grape harvest parade through the city, so Maureen and I had dinner at a Parillaro on the route and close to the hotel. We enjoyed another potpourri of BBQed Argentinian meats with plenty of local red. The parade was late and boring - only 4 floats but thousands of people, mostly retirees from Buenos Aires!

Today, Sat 5MAR, was the big day! The Mendoza Wineries! What better way to see them than on a bike! Four taxis picked us up from our hotel and carried us to the wine town of "Maipui", only 15km from Mendoza, which is like the Cessnock of the Hunter.

Here we all picked up a bike and at 10am I was off on my own since I had marked out the wineries I wanted to visit and did not want to be slowed down by the main group. Bike is the best way to see the wineries since they are close together, you "burn-off" the wine and you enjoy, up-close, the olive-tree and vine lined country roads. Some roads have trees covering them completely like tunnels.

In summary, between 10am and 5pm, I rode a total of 25km and visited 7 wineries and tasted 20 different wines. It was a raging success and I was like a pig in shit.

There are approx 200 wineries in the Waipu area, spread over 717 sq km at an elev of 804m. Approx 60% of this area is under vine and growing. Vines are aged between 20-40 yrs old and the area was founded in 1861.

Most founding vignerons were Italian immigrants. Area suited to white Torrontes and red Malbec grapes but they also do lots of Cab Sav and plenty of Chardonnay. Also do Italian "Bonarda" grape and small quantities of Gewurtz, Riesling, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.

Annual rainfall is 200mm but the vines need 600mm so there is irrigation in place. Surprisingly most vines are organic using roses and other natural vegetation to attract insects (low numbers) and chook/cow manure to fertilise. There are no frosts and they never had philoxera.

Since I visited many wineries I was able to develop some sense of the varietal nature of Waipu. The specialty is definately Malbec which has a characteristic honeyed nose and is full of fruit that dances in the mouth. Malbec is usually not put on oak but when it is, the term "Roble" is added to the name to indicate French Oak for at least 6mths. The good news is that the balance of the wine on oak is very good and is not noticable.

All the wineries I visited charge for tasting. Typically it is 25 pesos or 6AUD for 4 wines. I paid a total of 75 pesos or 19AUD for 20 wines over 7 wineries. For details of the wineries, wines and all the stats refer to "MENDOZA WINE TASTING NOTES" below.

The last two wineries I visited were in the town of Waipu itself, which is not that impressive. The whole area is still underdeveloped and there are no good cafes or restaurants or the concept of gourmet foods in the town.

The Waipu area does have many Rugby clubs however. The wineries themselves are ahead of the game and many offer gourmet meals, olives and other gourmet foods to go!

Overall I think that Cafayate (in Salta) was a better wine town and area but the wines of Waipu Mendoza are definately better and of high quality. They are very cheap at cellar door across the board, from the entry level or Cave (AUD6-12) through Reserva (AUD13-25) to Premium (AUD35-60). Our wines would be 50-100% more in price for the same quality so watch out Australia - the Argentinians are coming. This area is exporting more and more and the USA is their No 1 customer!
After my last winery at 5pm, I had 2 empanadas and rode to our meeting place at the "Beer Garden". After no one turned up I rode back to the bike place at 6:30pm and had free wine there, courtesy of the always smiling and polite proprietor, Mr Hugo until 8pm when everyone else turned up.

That night I celebrated my great conquest of tthe Maipu wine area with another supermarket feast and hotel movie!

Our last day in Mendoza was low-key. It was Sunday and very little was open, including the wineries. After a sleep-in and morning run, I walked to "Parque General San Martin" (like Centennial Park with lakes and zoo) and then cabbed it up to the top of Cerro De La Gloria, Elev 960m and took picies of Mendoza City. Then it was back to the hotel to produce this post for the rest of the arvo. In the evening we went to a particularly fancy Argentian Steak place so that I could compare a "good" steak to the famous Meat and Wine Company in Melbourne - verdict in my next post!

NEXT BLOG: covers the temporary exit from Argentina to Santiago, the capital of Chile, due 10MAR.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: 1) Job well done by Alfredo at Micronet in Salta for cleaning my PC gear and getting me back on-track. 2) Thanks to Jessica at Bodega Manni for her excellent knowledge and interview of the Manni wines and Cafayate region. 3) Thanks to Mr Hugo for the bike around the Maipu wineries, the free wine at the end and his great attitude. See him at

Winery 1 - Bodega Domingo Hermanus, Est 1960. A) Torrontes Reserva 2010. Torrontes is an Argentinian white grape derived form Muscat of Alexandria. This one had a Gewurtz style floral nose, very spirity due to the 14% alcohol and finished dry. Hints of honey and peach but overpowered by the high alcohol. More like a strong Moscato. B) Domingo Molina Torrontes 2010. More complex since it is femrented in French Oak. Still lifted at 14%. C) Cab Sav 09. Soft tannins, classic vanilla and berry flavours since it is aged in French Oak for at least 1yr. Much like many of ours. 14.5%. D) Tannat 07. My favourite. Definately like a young Durif. Black-purple ink colour, lots of fruit, no oak. This is a red grape brought from France and very popular in Uruguay. 14.5%.

Winery 2 - Bodega Nanni. Est 1879. Most of their vines are 40yrs old with certified oraganic production. They do 300,000L/yr. A) Torrontes 2010. Lighter, more fruitier at 13.5%. B) Cab Sav 09. No oak. 14.7%. Big berry flavours. Too direct for me. C) Tannat 09. 15%. Full bodied. Lots of Tannins. My favourite. D) Torrontes Tardio 2010. Tardio means "late picked" so this a sweet one much like our late picked Rieslings only softer and like Moscato. Nanni also did the "Bonarda" grape from Italy which was not available for tasting.

Winery 1 - Bodega De La Rural, Est 1885, 12m L/yr, 400 hectares under vine. A) Museo Cab Sav 09. 13.5%. Too young and light for me. No body. This winery was also a museum for wine making in this area with displays of all the old presses and other gear. Free single tasting but all other tastings are AUD9 and higher since you have to buy a full glass. No thanks.

Winery 2 - Bodega Trapiche, Est 1881, 25m L/yr, 1,200 acres under vine, 55% export to 90 countries (USA is No 1). My favourite. Very well set up. Very commercial. Very visitor friendly and glossy. Paid 25 pesos for a 40min English tour and 4 tastings. A) Fond De Cave Reserva Sav Blanc 07. 13.5%. 9 months in French Oak. What a surprise. Looks like a Sav Blanc but does not taste like one. No shaved grass or lime. Has Gooseberry nose with Moscatel style lifted palate. Very spirity. b) Fond De Cave Reserva Cabernet Franc 08. 14%. My favourite of all wines. The best Cab Franc I have ever had. 15mths French Oak. Lively Ruby colour. Black liquorish nose. Palate is spicy, smokey and soft. No tannins. Great fruit. C) Iscay Merlot Malbec (60%) 07. 14%. 18mths French Oak. Intense red colour. Leathery nose. Palate is chocolate and soft cherry. Finishes dry. Never had this blend before.

Winery 3 - Bodega Di Tommaso, Est 1869, 50,000 L/yr, 50 acres under vine. Very boutigue with fabulous food (group told me). Paid 15 pesos for 4 wines. They also do there own XO Cognac using Malbec wine. A) Malbec 08. 13%. No oak. Ruby red. Earthy nose. Palate is plumby. B) Crianzaen Malbec Roble 07. 14%. 6mths French oak. Blood red colour. Spicy coffee nose. Palate is lifted berries with high spirit. High spirit finish. C) Cab Sav Roble 07. 13.5%. 1yr America oak. Inky red colour. Honeyed smokey nose. Palate is berry liquorish dancing in mouth. Finishes soft and scotchy. Very impressive. D) Albina Di Tommaso Amabile Late Picked Torrontes. A port made from Torrontes picked 15 days late with the ferment alcohol of Malbec added. 17%. Pale yellow colour. Nose and palate like a very light muscat.

Winery 4 - Bodega Carinae, Est 1911, 8,000 L/yr, 20 hectares. Paid 25 pesos for 5 wines. A) Rosado Malbec 09. 13.5%. Rose. Pale strawberry colour. Crabapple nose. Palate is under-ripe strawberries. B) Malbec 09. 14.5%. No oak. Lighter red colour. Honeyed nose. Palate is slighty under-ripe plumbs. C) Cuvee Brigitte Malbec Cab Sav (28%) 09. 14.5%. 8mths French Oak. Crimson red colour. Palate is cigarrette box with fruit. D) Malbec Reserva 09. 14.5%. 12mths French oak. Deep red colour. Leathery nose. Palate is rich berry with earthy undertones. E) Cab Sav Reserva 07. 14.5%. 12mth French oak. Brown red colour. Alcoholic aniseed nose. Rich berry palate with smooth finish.

Winery 5 - Bodega Cecchin, Est 1898, 400,000 L/yr, 78 hectares. Paid 15 pesos for 2 wines. A) Moscatel De Alexandria 2010. 12.8%. Late Picked. Pale yellow colour. Like an Aperitiff. Semi-sweet. B) Malbec 07. 13.4%. No oak. Ruby red colour. Honeyed nose. Palate is rich vibrant berries.

Winery 6 - Bodega Antonio Nerviani. This winery was closed for tasting but they let me film their bottling operation.

Winery 7 - Bodega Antiguia Giol, Est 1896, 190m L/yr, 4,700 hectares under vine. This was my last and favourite visit since I got along very well with "Emilio" the guy who served up the wine and because we exchanged so many wine details he offered my tastings for free. This is also the biggest producer in the area and has an excellent shop and restaurant and is very spacious. It is located in the town of Maipu itself. A) Chardonnay 2010. 12.9%. No oak. Pale yellow. Melon nose. Palate is very light. No bite. B) Canciller Malbec 2010. 13.2%. No oak. Deep red colour. Plumb nose. Palate is soft cherry with little body. C) Cab Sav 2010. 13%. No oak. Radish red colour. Radish nose. Palate is lifted berry fruit but still lacking body. D) Malbec 09. 13.9%. Ruby red. Scandalwood honeyed nose. Palate is berry with cigar box. Very characteristic of this area. E) Malbec Roble 09. 14%. 1yr French oak. Beetroot red colour. Earthy musky nose. Palate is complex with deep berry, cigar box and some honey. Great body. Easily the best taster here.

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Do not take an organised tour of the Cafayate wineries. It is better to catch a public bus there and back and walk around yourself from winery to winery since tastings are all from cellar door locations in town and not out in the vineyards. Most of them are next to eachother and in easy walking distance so you can see as many as you want and if timed right you can be alone and not with a bus full of people jossling for a taste. 2) TO INTREPID: you need to put sick people in their own room. My room mate had a cough for 3 nights in a row with frequent trips to the dunny and it is impossible to stop or not to hear it. He is not to blame but should be quarantined so that I don't catch it and so I can get some sleep!!!

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