South America

20140211-202151.jpgOr “location, location, location!”

Let’s face it, I’m not just living in a new country, but also a new continent, which brings with it a variety of different places, people and culture, and fantastic opportunities to explore.

It’s not like I’m on the move all the time like last time I visited South America and covered 7 countries in five months.  I work and have some form of daily/weekly routine that keeps me in Santiago most of the time.

But living here allows me to get out from time to time, and get to know places that would be   s o   f a r   away if I was still in Australia.

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I have managed to see a little more of Chile, flying up to San Pedro de Atacama when a friend visited, taking a road trip up the coast and into Valle de Elqui with another visiting friend, and another road trip south as far as Valle de Maule with another friend. These latter two trips obviously incorporated some wine and, indeed, my interest in that field has also led me to explore, in depth, many of the wine regions around Santiago.

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I saw a lot of the rest of Chile when I was here last time, but I’m sure the opportunity will come up at some stage to revisit more of this beautiful country.

But there is, of course, also opportunity to get out to see a little more of the continent.

Last August, I took a truly-foodie trip to Lima with fellow-foodie-friend Fernando and, in addition to seeing some of the city’s sites, experienced the great range of Peruvian food, from the street, to China Town, to the city’s top two restaurants.  Although I would have liked to have seen the sun sometimes (Lima is notoriously cloudy), the trip was delicious, fun, and worth the extra 5 kilos!

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Over New Year, it was great to be able to take a friend up on a very kind invitation to spend some time on his country property in Uruguay.  After finding some reasonably priced flights, a group of four friends enjoyed a relaxing time together, sharing home cooked meals and exploring the coastline and surrounding areas.  Those of us who were visiting, albeit for a second or third time, got to know a different part of country and enjoy seeing it through the eyes of someone that had lived there for 10 years and knows it very well.

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When a Buenos Aires-based friend managed to get a free apartment for a week in Mendoza, I was able to find a very reasonable flight (US$140 return – cheaper and quicker than the bus) and join her and another friend for a girly week of wineries and restaurants.  With the exchange rate very much in our favour, it turned out to be an indulgent week with a relatively cheap price tag.

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So, I’ve managed to get to know some places a little better and it’s great to be able to jump at these opportunities, which would be so far from reality back home, when they arise.

This year, I plan to see some places that I’ve never been before, both of Chile (e.g. Easter Island), and abroad, like Colombia.

Although flights here are not cheap compared to Europe or the US, where competition is more intense, good offers come around and I will be keeping my eye on them to see what other opportunities present themselves.

So, I don’t just love living in Chile, I love living and experiencing all that a whole new continent has to offer!

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Mendoza Day Four – Valle de Uco

I was up early on Day 4 to get to the bus terminal and take a bus to Tunuyan, my starting point for my Valle de Uco adventure, the most southern of the Mendoza wine regions. There are tours that run there, but they don’t quite reach where I wanted to go, and a customised tour or personal driver for the day from Mendoza was going to be expensive for just one person.

The 9am express bus arrived in Tunuyan at 10.15, and there was a tourist office right there at the bus terminal. Jorgelina at Viamonte had helped me find a number for a remis, or local taxi, in Tunuyan and, with my mobile and the help of the girl in the tourist office (I had her call so that it was a local asking the price and not a gringa!), we were able to get a driver who estimated my round trip to be about AR$300, a third of what I’d been quoted to leave from Mendoza.

My first stop was DiamAndes, one of the Clos de los Siete wineries that I had heard a lot about. It is a project of French winemaker and consultant, Michel Rolland, another important figure in the history of Mendoza’s winemaking. He chose the land for its particular terroir and encouraged a group of French winemakers to take part. Not all of the wineries are established and open to visitors, but of the ones that are, I had been recommended to visit DiamAndes, a play on the words Diamond and the Andes.

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20130128-213133.jpgThe winery has been constructed with every wine making detail in mind. Years of collaborative experience in making wines has created a place that optimises wine making efficiency whilst retaining the integrity of the process, and presenting it all in a visually amazing winery. Making the most of gravity, trucks deliver grapes by way of a large sweeping ramp to the top level, the de-stemming process takes place, and grapes are dropped into their stainless steel vats on the next level down. The barrel room is again a level lower to allow easy filling for the oak maturation process. The rest of the facilities are just as modern and impressive and I had to remind myself that I was actually there to taste the wine.

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20130128-213144.jpgI had the luxury of a personal tour once again, but I was told the afternoon tours were full. We moved into a beautiful tasting room with a picture perfect view of the vines and the Andes, and I was first served a 100% Viognier with flowers on the nose and a minerality in the mouth. The next wine was a 2010 DiamAndina Malbec (marketed as “Perlita” outside Argentina), 100% grapes from the Valley de Uco and with only 50% barrel fermentation. This was strawberry jam on the nose and lovely in the mouth with an ability to keep for another 8 years in the bottle. The third and final wine was the 2008 DiamAndes Gran Reserva blend of 75% Malbec and 25% Cabernet, aged in oak for 2 years and another year in bottle before release. Beautiful! It’s been voted No. 14 in the Top 100 of Argentinian wines for 2012 by wine magazine El Conocedor.

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With the tasting over, I was really considering buying one of these wines, probably the less expensive DiamAndina, when my guide told me that the AR$80 price of the tour was currently refundable on the purchase of a bottle of the DiamAndes Gran Reserva, usually AR$165. An offer I couldn’t refuse and snapped up immediately. Now, this wine has cellaring potential of 25 years, but somehow I doubt it is ever going to make it back to my Australian wine rack. Luckily, it’s still great drinking right now and I’ll just have to find an occasion to crack it open. Aah!

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My driver was waiting patiently for me outside, ready to take me to my next stop, O. Fournier, where I was booked for a tour and lunch. Since I was now back closer to a bus terminal, and I was going to be a couple of hours over lunch, I decided to let my driver go here rather than wait in the heat. The winery is another amazing feat of architecture, often compared to a spaceship that’s landed among the vines. I can’t comment since I’ve never seen one, but obviously lots of people have because so many say it.

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20130128-213221.jpgI was running a little behind schedule, so decided to have lunch first, tour later. I was seated in the restaurant with, once again, an incredible view of the vines and the Andes. Believe me, it doesn’t get boring. Lunch was a six-course menu with four glasses of wine (that doesn’t get boring either, just fattening!), and the ability to select which level of wine you wanted to drink, starting at a very reasonable AR$210 and working up from there.

20130128-213228.jpgThe meal started with a bread basket of homemade bread resembling mini ciabattas, and my first wine was served, a crisp 2012 Urban Uco Chardonnay, full of honeysuckle and slightly buttery on the nose. The first of two appetisers followed, a yummy zucchini ravioli filled with pumpkin. Next wine was the 2011 Urban Uco Malbec, bringing flavours of dark chocolate and cherry with a slight anise finish, accompanying the next appetiser of sweet potato with aioli and eggplant “ashes”. Not as nice as the first zucchini dish, but still good.

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For the next wine, we moved on from the entry level Urban Uco range to a 2008 Beta Crux red blend, predominantly Tempranillo with 60%, 30% Malbec and 10% Merlot. I’m fond of tempranillo, and found this really enjoyable with light notes of peppers and berries. It was going to have to be good to accompany the entrée of sweet breads, and it did its job!

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There was a choice of mains, one being steak of course and, being a little steaked-out, I chose the oxtail sorrentinos (like large ravioli) with orange butter. Yum! The wine was a step up again to the Alpha Crux range with a 2005 red blend, again predominantly Temoranillo at 60%, 30% Malbec, and this time 10% Cabernet. This was a high alcohol, big wine, with 20 months on oak, and was full of chocolate and spice and a hint of smoke. I liked it a lot, particularly with the rich food.

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20130128-213342.jpgNext up was a small “pre-postre” of lemon sorbet, followed by the main dessert of fruit salad with a honey and rum “tulip” and a most delicious passionfruit icecream. This dessert was “wow”, and a fresh and clean end to a big and beautiful meal.

After lunch, the restaurant called for a taxi and I was given a tour around the winery, admiring the unique design features and the art collection which gets rotated, except for one beautiful piece that is on permanent exhibition, a girl standing by a lake, seemingly painted but, on closer observation, is made of plasticine!

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20130128-213541.jpgBy the time I’d finished, my new driver was patiently waiting and took me back to the bus terminal in nearby San Carlos. As we pulled up, a bus was leaving and, in my excitement, I ran to catch it. It was a “comun” bus rather than an express but still, I thought, how much longer can it take? I was prepared to kick back and relax for the trip home. Well, unfortunately, it can take A LOT longer, and it took about three and a half hours to get back to Mendoza, as opposed to the hour and 15 minutes it had taken to arrive. By the time I arrived in Mendoza, I was frustrated and sick of being in the bus, and couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel. Still, you live and learn, and I’d had a great day out, making my own way around the lovely Uco Valley.

It was nice to know that I had a late checkout the next day, time to sleep in, have a swim and breakfast, before getting my 2pm bus through the Andes to Santiago.

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Mendoza Day Three – Lujan de Cuyo

On my third day in Mendoza, I had the luxury of being in someone else’s hands for the day and all I had to do was be ready for my hotel pick up at 8.45. My guide, Gilda, was there right on time with the waiting bus. As predicted, they had managed to fill the tour they’d released just two days before, and there were another four Aussies on board and a German couple who now live and teach in Lima.

Our first stop was the architecturally amazing Catena Zapata, another fine example of what to do when you have more money than you, well, know what to do with. (For some reason, MONA came to mind.) Inspired by the Guatemalan ruins of Tikal, the fourth generation of the Catena family had the winery built in the form of a huge pyramid, using materials from the local region. The result is impressive, and the view from the top of the pyramid towards the snow-capped Andes makes it even more so. (I can´t believe I don’t have a photo of the outside, but check out the web page.)

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20130128-162445.jpgThankfully, because 9.30 in the morning is a little early for wine tasting, even for me, we started with a tour of the impressive facilities. The architecture inside is just as amazing, from the staircases, to the barrel room and the bottle ageing cellars. We made our way to the rooftop where we could admire the beautiful view, and were then led back to the tasting area (because 10.15 is SO much better for tasting!) where we tasted three different wines. We started with the 2008 D V Catena Chardonnay, which was a little on the oaky side for my taste, followed by the 2008 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon and finishing with a 2008 Angelica Zapata Malbec, both of which were nice.

20130128-162438.jpgCatena Zapata is a large producer, with many different labels representing different levels of wine, and many are only available on the export market. My enterprising fellow Australians used the extra time available after our tasting to upgrade and taste some of the next level wines, such as the DV Catena Malbec, which they said was well worth it.

Our next stop was just down the road at Viña Cobos, a winery owned by Paul Hobbs, a famous wine maker and consultant who played an integral role in taking Argentinian wines from quantity to quality. In contrast to Catena Zapata, the winery is understated architecture, but the large concrete block building is still striking in this landscape. Other than a few plots of vines around the area, some of which belong to the family of Paul Hobbs’ argentinian business partners, the majority of grapes are purchased from other growers both here and in the higher altitude of the Uco Valley.

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We had a short tour of the facilities before being led into the cool barrel room for our tasting, this time accompanied by some local cheese and nuts. We tried a 2012 Felino Chardonnay, with just 10% of grapes aged in oak, resulting in a fresh wine, rounded out with the light oak, that I really enjoyed. Next up, we tried three different Malbecs, each using grapes from different vineyards and with different oak treatment. Of course, my favourite was the more expensive 2010 Bramare Malbec from Rebon Vineyard at $AR295, but at A$60, it would be a nice one to lie down for a special occasion if I was going to be anywhere near my wine rack anytime soon. The 2010 Bramare Malbec from the local Lujan de Cuyo was big in the mouth and also delicious.

20130128-162539.jpgNext up was our lunch stop at Finca Decero, which was a large ranch style building in a beautiful setting that instantly made me want to live there. We enjoyed our wines with a delicious three course meal, starting with a fresh and light gazpacho with goats cheese. Yum! We then enjoyed a nice steak (still in Argentina after all!), followed by an upside-down baked tart of seasonal fruit with lemon cream that was delicious! The wines were a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah. Maybe it’s the Aussie in me, or the welcome break from all the Malbec, but although all the wines were good, I favoured the Syrah.

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20130128-162625.jpgAfter lunch, it would have been nice to string a hammock under the shaded verandah and take a siesta, but duty called, and we were off to our last stop, Alta Vista. When we arrived, our tour guide was not quite ready for us, and we enjoyed a little time resting in the shade and watching wild guinea pigs run around the yard! The heat had reached an all time peak for the day and I was glad when our tour led us into the adobe-style winemaking area and the coolness of the barrel rooms. We were then taken back upstairs to the tasting room where we tried four different wines. By this time, I had stopped taking notes, but there was nothing remarkable that jumped out at me and my fellow tasters tended to agree. The staff were really friendly and helpful though and, together with our tour guide, put together a short list of some of their favourite Mendoza wines.

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The bus trip back into Mendoza was fairly quiet, with many taking the opportunity for a little nap. It was a great day out with fun people and our friendly and informative guide. It was nice to have one day where I didn’t have to think too much, just get on and off the bus at the designated times, but I was also looking forward to my adventure to the Uco Valley the next day.


Mendoza Day Two – Chacras de Coria

I enjoyed a big sleep in after my first night in the big, comfortable hotel bed, waking with just enough time to get to the buffet breakfast. I then had time to send a few emails to set up my reservations for Valley de Uco in two days time, and make a few calls to confirm reservations for that same day.

20130128-142630.jpgThe local No. 1 bus to Chacras de Coria conveniently left from just around the corner from the hotel, and costs less than two pesos. About half an hour later, I got of the bus near the centre of the town and went in search of my first winery, Clos de Chacras. It wasn’t that easy, with very few street signs and a tiny map ripped out of the corner of a magazine page, but I found it about 15 minutes later, arriving right on 1pm. I had booked a tour for 1pm, followed by lunch in the restaurant but, for some mysterious reason, the tour guide had left with the tour 15 minutes early. They offered to give me a tour after lunch instead, but I had another reservation in the afternoon and, when they told me that their degustation menu included four glasses of wine, I decided to skip the tour and tasting altogether.

20130128-142718.jpgDespite the heat, I decided to sit outside for lunch under the shade of an umbrella. The setting was so beautiful, I couldn’t resist. From the deck, I had a nice view of the old winery buildings on one side, and of a pretty small lake and ivy-covered wall on the other.

I was presented with a my first glass of wine, a crisp and not too oaky Chardonnay, a handmade bread basket (always excited when you get good bread in Argentina!), and a small crostini with cheese and chives.

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Then, the first of my five courses arrived – a fresh salad featuring marinated zucchini, confit tomato, and finished with a soft poached egg. Delicious.

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Next up was an entrée of provoleta on a homemade cherry wholegrain bread, with a pine mushroom pate. The combination of the fatty and salty cheese with the slight sweetness of the bread, lessened by the wholegrain, was delicious and not something I ever would have thought of. The wine was a 100% Merlot and accompanied the strong flavours beautifully.

20130128-142731.jpgThe first main course was a smoked deer lasagna with roast vegetables and bechamel sauce. I was looking forward to this dish but the smoked deer was a tiny and almost indistinguishable part of the dish, buried in the ricotta filling, and the bechamel overpowered it a bit much for my liking. The pasta itself was cooked perfectly though, and the roast vegetables were good, and the accompanying 2009 Malbec was nice.

20130128-142738.jpgThe second main, remembering that I’m still in Argentina, was Bife de Chorizo, with a mille feuille of pumpkin, sweet potato and potato. Yum! The piece of beef was a nice size – not too big to be off-putting after the other courses, but not tiny either. This course was served with the piece de resistance wine – 2008 Gran Estirpe (“great lineage”) Blend of Malbec, Cabernet and Merlot. This was a beautiful wine that would have definitely ended up in my winerack if I were not travelling!

20130128-142745.jpgI moved inside for dessert to get some relief from the rising heat, and enjoyed my dessert on one of the comfortable sofas in the front of the dining area. For some reason, my dessert was not exactly what had been described on the menu but came with some of the same elements. It came served in a chocolate basket, which wasn’t to my liking, and contained a small serve of the burnt butter parfait that I’d been expecting and a syrup fig. It was nice, but not as nice as the menu offering sounded.

20130128-142637.jpgOverall, this was amongst the best meals I have eaten in Argentina, and as you know, I’ve eaten a few! Although there were a couple of elements that weren’t to my liking, I thought the execution of all the dishes was perfect, and the flow of courses was smart and well considered. I enjoyed all the wines, some more than others, and the location is pretty. I would love to be sitting on that deck with a group of girlfriends and simply passing time!

After all that food and wine, I wasn’t sure I needed my next wine tasting visit, but it was just up the road and they were expecting me. I got to Viamonte Winery by taxi, being too far on the other side of town to walk, especially in the heat and with a full belly!

20130128-142856.jpgMy host, Jorgelina, was waiting for me and I had the place to myself. It was another pretty setting, with a view over the vines towards the mountains. We took a quick look at the vines, and I learnt that Malbec is distinct in that it has three different shaped leaves. Who knew!  Well, probably a whole bunch of winemakers, grape growers, and the odd sommelier, but I certainly hadn’t.

20130128-142812.jpgWe escaped the heat and retired to the cool tasting room, where Jorgelina poured me three different wines, starting with a 100% Malbec rosé. Now, I don’t usually like rosé but I have had a couple in Argentina that could almost convert me. Made with a strong red grape like Malbec, and retaining quite a dry style, they are flavoursome, easy to drink in the Argentinian heat, and not too sweet. This one was no exception and was enjoyable.

Next up was a big, meaty 100% Bonarda, not my favourite grape but I’ve had some nice ones, and this one would probably be amongst them.

20130128-142902.jpgThen the 2011 Malbec Reserva, which was full of deep red fruits, balanced well with its time in french oak. At a very reasonable AR$80 (A$16), it was the wine that convinced me that I could surely manage to transport a couple of bottles in my suitcase to Chile and this would be one of them.

It’s worth noting that, unlike many wine regions around the world, Mendoza does not really have “bad” years. The climate is very stable (i.e. very hot and dry), irrigation is from controlled canals delivering melted snow water from the Andes, and there is very little rain all year round. Though they are susceptible to the occasional hailstorm, the best vines are protected with nets so, really, every year produces a consistency in harvest and every vintage is a “good” one.

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After the tasting, and a long chat with Jorgelina during which she helped me with my plans for a couple of days later, I had time to look around the grounds while I waited for a taxi to deliver me back to the bus stop for my trip back into Mendoza. After such a big day of delicious food and beautiful wine, the big, comfortable hotel bed was looking pretty attractive for a siesta!


Mendoza Day One

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.

20130121-171903.jpgBy 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.

20130121-171929.jpgNearby, 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.