Friday, 13 September 2013

Mendoza - land of Malbec, olives and the majestic Andes

A second overnight bus trip took us from the blast-furness heat of Cordoba (41C) to a beautiful, pink-sky morning in Mendoza. The backdrop to the bus station as we sipped our cafe con leches was the stunning, snow-capped Andes.

The bus carried us 700km in 'Cama Suite' class - the seats reclined to 85 degrees so we both got some sleep - all for 450 pesos each (around £50). If you ever travel in Argentina, I'd recommend the buses, not least because air travel is so expensive, but mostly because it gives you a great excuse to spend the money you've saved on some of the exquisite wines this region produces.

I think my next 4 blogs will be about wine, so forgive me if it doesn't interest you!!

Wine has an exceptionally long history in and around Mendoza. The original vines were planted by the Jesuits over 500 years ago, followed by further planting by the immigrants from Europe during the 1800s. With the Europeans came a marked improvement in wine quality and diversity as they switched from the Jesuit's criollo vines to the varieties we are all familiar with today - the Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignon etc.

Given the country's tradition for wine-making, it's not at all surprising that wine is very much a staple drink for the Argentinians - in every parilla (grill eatery), you'll see the locals quaffing copious quantities of vino Tinto with soda and often a cube or two of ice!

The quality, story and flavours of some of the wines we've had have been amazing; even the £4 bottle of Mendoza Estancia we drank in a local neighbourhood parilla was far from shabby! On the quality point, what's been amazing is that neither Mike (hubby) nor I have had a hangover once - how ever many glasses of red wine we consume in a day - some days I'm embarrassed to tell you how many;-)

What makes Mendoza the wine Mecca it is, is its growing climate. The winemakers have all said that the terroir is perfect for good wine (stony and arid), but what gives them such a great advantage when it comes to consistency and quality, is their limitless supply of irrigation water, mostly from the meltwater of the Andean snow (what a lovely marketing story that is!). 

Controlled vine irrigation is essential here because the region is described in the native tongue as 'Cuyo' - which means sandy earth - or desert. Annual rainfall is a paltry 200-300ml (just one glassful as Mariella our guide at Septima Bedoga said today). The irrigation also gives the winegrowers one of Mendoza's greatest advantages - control of how much (1 litre total per annum) and when the vines get water. A deluge before harvest can ruin a crop of grapes, here they have no such problem. 

The other advantage of the near-desert climes are the very high daytime and very low night temperatures. The heat of the day encourages sugar production and thick skins, whilst the cold nights encourage good acidity levels. Added to this, the low levels of humidity make fungal diseases rare. 

The wine industry here has seen significant investment over the last few decades and entrepreneurialism encouraged by the relaxed laws on where winemakers source their grapes and grape juice. However the boomtime of the 1990s before the Argentinian economy crashed has well and truly passed for the small Bodegas (wineries) as inflation and the strict import/export balancing act takes it commercial toll. 

At Clos de Chacras Bodega yesterday (in Chacras de Coria) our guide explained that if they want to import the equipment and materials they need (barrels, corks etc.) they need to export an equal value of wine to balance the books. The main export countries for Argentinian wine are 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. Brazil and 4. UK. However, with inflation running at 30% and the government's restrictions on foreign currency access for Argentinians, it is really tough for the smaller vineyards to remain viable, unless they are mass producing (like Septima owned by Cordoriu which produces 3.5million bottles and exports 95% of it). 

In contrast, Chile's economic landscape is much more welcoming of vibrant wine businesses, consequently some winemakers are upping sticks and heading west over the border to set up there. As a result, Chile's wine industry is really beginning to motor.

More to follow tomorrow from our new and magnificent stone and wood hut at Tupungato Divino in the stunning and massive Uco Valley - the new frontier of Argentina's wine industry. 

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