Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mendoza: Wine capital of Argentina

Mendoza is pretty much on everyone's itinerary when they come to Argentina, I haven't met anyone who hasn't already been or isn't planning on going. Situated pretty much bang in the middle of the country and with a front row seat of the Andes mountain range, it is a picturesque city in an unimaginably beautiful setting. With an elevation of around 800m above sea level and winds whipping down over the Andes, it really is an optimal place to grow grapes and olives.

As well as being a lovely city with a sprawling park, wide avenues and many places to relax, enjoy a drink and people watch, the main attraction here are the cycle wine tours. There are two ways to do these: go through a tour company as with everything else, or just go on your own steam. The second option allows much more flexibility, less money and at the end of the day is probably more enjoyable as you can go at your own pace and stay at a particular vineyard longer if you so wish.

From Mendoza, hop on one of the many buses heading out to the Maipu area, this takes about 45 minutes and all the bus drivers are familiar with tourists getting on and dropping them off at bike rental places. There are plenty to chose from and they pretty much all offer the same thing: a bike with helmet and discounts at vineyards which they are in league with. 

The main road through the town runs on for kilometres, with many roads branching off and leading to different vineyards. At the rental shop, a map is provided so the easiest thing is to suss out which vineyards you fancy going to (usually the ones where a discount is available) and just cycle off in that direction.

As a group we decided to head to the olive farm first to check out how olive oil is made and try out some liqueurs. There are a few places in Maipu to go for this so we just chose the one recommended by Mr. Hugo, the guy who owns the bike rental place we went to.

At the olive farm we were given the exclusive tour of the place where basically we were shown the machine which presses the olives to make the olive oil, a distilling machine for booze and a single olive tree (that's right, one), apparently you don't get to see the actual fields of olive trees (assuming they exist). After this slight let down we were escorted into the tasting room where, to start, there was a table laid out with bread and various forms of olive paste. The garlic and olive one was particularly good and something I will be making for sure when I get back home. After these starters, we got to try some liqueurs; these ranged from palatable rose petal and tia maria to whisky and absinthe. Needless to say the absinthe was like drinking fire but the whisky was pretty good.

From here it was on to the actual vineyards. On a map, everything looks pretty close together and our initial thought was how unnecessary the bikes were, however, some 6km further up the road you soon start to realise how not to scale the map is. At the first vineyard things were looking up as the group was taken outside to be given a talk on the grapes used, however that is where it ended and we were chaperoned into the old winery, seeing a distinct trend emerging here.

The winery turned out to be ancient, circa 1854 or there abouts, and as a result of this it is now a listed building so the owners can't make wine in there anymore. Consequently, this is now the wine cellar and the place where the tour and the tasting takes place. Four different types of wine to try but I would hardly call those tasters now, going to have to up their game I think.

Had the unfortunate occurrence of getting a puncture within the group but no matter as Mr Hugo will replace bikes when this happens, all this did was give us a cheeky half hour to just buy some more wine, chill in the 'picnic area' (old machinery graveyard) and wait, nothing wrong with that.

Now I know it's 'tasting' but I wouldn't mind a little more in my glass and the inevitable group decision was to just buy bottles of wine at the next place which had an affable host, excellent views and delicious wine. With the sun beating down and good company we easily killed an hour or too before heading off to the local beer garden, accompanied by our own police escort, for pizza and a pint. A wonderful way to cap the day.

I'd recommend this to anyone. Don't bother booking it with a tour agency or anything like that; get the bus to Maipu, turn up on spec, rent a bike form the rental place you feel most comfortable with and just go. Simple. Just don't buy the 4.75 litre bottles of wine available at the local shop by Mr Hugo's, apparently a little overindulgence can lead to a mild case of memory loss.

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