March 17, 2012

Malbec Mania

Malbecs have been our wine of choice for the past couple of years, so it’s an understatement to say we were excited to get to the mecca of malbec production: Mendoza. We took a 14-hour overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires directly west to the foot of the Andes Mountains. It rained the entire way and we fell asleep to a pretty incredible lightening show.

Perhaps coming from California our expectations were too high, but at first, Mendoza was a letdown. The city itself is much larger and more unpolished than we anticipated. We visited several parks – whose fountains were turned to the color of wine for the Harvest Festival a week prior – but they really paled in comparison to the beautiful parks of Buenos Aires.

It wasn’t until nighttime that Mendoza began to shine. The darkness helps to mask the city’s somewhat rough outer layer and the wide tree-lined boulevards glow with street lights. At night the parks are lively and people are back from the wineries and out in abundance.

On our second day, we decided it was time to see some vines. Mendoza has three main wine growing regions: Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. We headed to Maipu for some winery biking. We rented our bikes from Mr. Hugo, an exuberantly nice man who offers you a glass of wine at 9:00am, hands you a map, and sends you on your way in less than 5 minutes.

As we started out on our bikes, we had to laugh. WARNING: this is not Napa. Even though this is wine country, it’s still South American wine country. We were shocked at how third world the surroundings are. If you look right, you might see some vines. If you look left, you’ll see a concrete housing project sitting on top of a plot of dirt. The roads were quite rough, there’s a lot of truck traffic, and the wineries are rather spread out. We calculated that we biked more than 20 miles that day.

Pretty much the only highlight of our bike trip through Maipu was the bodegas themselves. We were incredibly lucky to plan our trip to Mendoza during the harvest season. Some of the wineries had just begun harvesting grapes the day we arrived, while others were starting the following day or week. Being at a winery during the most important time of the year, coupled with the fact that these bodegas are very boutique, gave us a personal experience that we’ve never even come close to in Napa, Sonoma or Temecula.

Carinae is a small and charming boutique winery that produces 80,000 bottles a year. It’s owned by a French husband and wife and is named after a constellation only visible during the South American wine harvest. Their various plots of grapes are designated by constellations such as Sagitario, Aquario, Libra, and so on. Phillip, the owner, conducted our tour of five people. While we were there, his wine consultant paid a visit. Phillip had to briefly stop our tasting so that he, his wife and the consultant could make some important decisions about which day to harvest the grapes based on that day’s weather (it was cloudy).

Domaine St. Diego is an even smaller winery producing only 35,000 bottles a year. It is owned by a highly regarded wine consultant named Angel Mendoza – his name is just a coincidence. This bodega was so far away that not even Mr. Hugo had it on his map. It came highly recommended by some friends of ours, so we decided to go rogue and pedal the miles to get there. It was hot, Mr. Hugo’s bikes were struggling, and the road was so long. When we finally arrived, a tiny young lady met us at the gate and told us that they were harvesting, so tastings were by appointment only and they could not see us. We were devastated at the thought of having biked all that way for nothing. I think she could read the despair on our faces, so she offered to let us in so that we could walk around their property. We bought a bottle of their Pura Sangre Malbec-Cabernet blend and took to the vines. Who cares about a tasting when you can have an entire vineyard to yourself!?! We walked through the vines and olive trees up to one of their lookouts where we opened our bottle, sat back, and basked in this incredible opportunity.


After awhile, we headed back down to the main building to give our glasses back to the girl. What happened next was one of those special moments that you just can’t plan. Senor Mendoza and his two sons were at the de-stemming machine processing freshly picked grape bundles. It turns out the tiny and incredibly nice girl that met us at the gate, and offered us free reign around their property, was the Medoza’s only daughter, Maria Laura. She designs the wine labels. It’s a family operation.

Because we were able to personally witness how the machines worked, I learned more about the winemaking process in 15 minutes than I have in all of my California winery visits combined. I don’t care how ridiculously long and annoying that bike ride was, it was worth every second to stand with the Mendoza family as they harvested their grapes.

After our amazing visit at Domaine St. Diego, we still had to bike all the way back to the main road where most of the bodegas are located. It was 4:00pm, we had been drinking wine all day, and we still hadn’t had any lunch. On the way, I ran into a gas station to buy us some sandwiches and a pack of cookies. We made it to our third and final bodega of the day, Tempus Alba. They had a nice rooftop terrace overlooking their vines, but the overall experience was just okay. The most memorable part of Tempus Alba was our entrance. From the road there was a steep curb that you had to bike up in order to get onto their driveway. I tried to do some sort of wheelie move, and in the process, our pack of cookies bounced out of my bike basket and rolled right into the middle of the road. Just about that time, a car came barreling down and rolled right over our cookies.

It was the most fitting end to our unusual day in Maipu.

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