Well, two months in Buenos Aires had flown past, and the time came to say goodbye. I was off to Santiago, Chile, but first planned to spend a few days on the way in Argentina’s wine mecca, Mendoza.
I booked myself on one of South America’s famous overnight buses, suite of course – a completely comfortable, fully reclinable seat with full leg rests. I enjoyed my evening view of BA as we made our way out of the city, and kept my eyes peeled for a view of the polo estancia as we headed west on the freeway. Welcomed on board by our enthusiastic host Gonzalo, he conducted a game of mini bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize, before serving us our dinner and wine. After dinner, there was a movie which I’m sure must have been “straight to TV”, then it was time to snuggle down and sleep while the drivers did all the hard work.
I woke up in the morning about an hour or so out of Mendoza and watched the desert landscape, progressively dotted with a few more vines as we got closer. We were served a little breakfast and a cup of tea, and pulled up in Mendoza just after 10am.
I went straight to my hotel where, thankfully, an early check-in was available, so I was able to freshen up before taking a walk around town and finding some lunch. I had forgotten how pretty the city of Mendoza is, with tree-lined streets and lovely plazas. One word of warning is to watch for the massive, deep drains that run along every street. With little rain, the main form of irrigation in the area is from melting snow from the Andes, which is dammed outside the city. When the dams are opened, or there’s heavy rainfall, these deep drains fill up pretty quickly. In the meantime, they are a constant hazard for pedestrians!
I used my first day in Mendoza to organise the following three days in the area, and to check out the town itself. There are a number of generic tours available for sale in all the hotels and hostels, but I wanted to do something a bit different. Plus, to fill the days up with fully-guided tours can be expensive.
I visited a great wine store, Winery, where there is a vast stock of local wines and wine knowledge, and they referred me to one of the local tour operators who ran tours to the furthest region, Valle de Uco. There are a large number of tour operators around the centre of town, particularly in Paseo Sarmiento, and with enough time and legwork, you’re bound to find something that suits you.
I found Charlie at Trout and Wine, an Irish man who moved here about 12 years ago. He had a tour going to Valle de Uco the next day, but unfortunately it only reached the northern part of the valley and didn’t make it to the wineries I wanted to visit. Nonetheless, he offered to put together another tour of a different region, Lujan de Cuyo, for a couple of days time, sure that he would be able to fill it. He customised the tour, including a couple of the wineries I knew of and wanted to visit there, and some that he recommended. He also gave me some great tips for my own explorations, and I left with a tour booked for two days time, and a loose personal itinerary for the other days.
By the time I’d done this, I realised that I had been in wine mecca now for almost 12 hours, and was yet to have a glass of wine. Time to remedy that! I went off in search of Mendoza’s only central tasting room offering a range of wines by the glass, The Vines. I arrived 20 minutes before closing time, so the kitchen was shut, but I still had time to enjoy a wine flight, choosing one that started with a white, a 100% Torrontes with grapes from three different Regions. Four different reds followed, a Pinot and a Bonardo, both from nearby Lujan de Cuyo, then a 2005 Malbec/Cabernet/Shiraz blend and a 100% Malbec, both from Valle de Uco. Both were regions I planned to visit, but different vineyards. The Pinot was heavy for a Pinot, but very nice, and the 2005 blend was smooth and lovely to drink. The Vines run a couple of events during the week too, including a winemakers’ night, each Wednesday featuring the wines of a different winemaker, and a tapas night each Thursday (except during January!) at the Park Hyatt.
It was time to find a late dinner (is there any other kind in Argentina?). Unfortunately, the highly recommended Azafrán was full but, it was as I was talking to the waiter here that I partially witnessed my first crime in South America. A diner sitting closest to the road had his phone stolen off the table by someone passing by. His dining companion took off after the thief and was able to recover the phone without incident. The waiter was outraged, more by the fact that the thief had not respected the diner’s meal time, than by the fact of the theft itself! It was a timely reminder to keep things close at hand at all times.
Nearby, I found another restaurant, Ocho Cepas, offering a nice outdoor seating area on a less crowded street, friendly service, and an extensive menu. I enjoyed the beautiful evening, a nicely cooked steak with some delicious grilled vegetables, and some lovely local wine. They were also nice enough to let me buy a bottle of wine, and take the rest back with me, rather than have to settle for the one wine available by the glass.
It felt like the end of a long day by the time I made the short walk back to my hotel and settled into my large and comfortable “real” bed for a good night’s sleep ahead of my winery visits the next day.