Bariloche is a very recreational city because of its location at the beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi and at the foot of the Andes Mountains. The lake and area look and feel very much like Lake Tahoe in California. The mountains are more dramatic than Tahoe, but when we look out from our window at the Design Suites, we think of Tahoe. It is off-season in Bariloche but when winter comes the area will be jammed with ski enthusiasts. Bariloche has the largest ski resort area in South America. During the summer months there are beaches for sunbathing and many opportunities for trekking and fishing.
Well, not in Napa Valley but in Argentina and in other parts of the southern hemisphere. We are in the Mendoza wine country of Argentina where the harvest has been taking place since the beginning of February and will continue through April. We were fortunate to see harvesters working the vineyards at two wineries we visited, and we also had a very nice chat with a small vineyard owner who explained in detail the way harvest works in Argentina.
The crew consists of workers from the northern part of Argentina who spend the entire agricultural season traveling from crop to crop. For the wine industry, crews can be hired from an agency or as individuals. When a winery uses an agency, they pay the agency a fee and pay each worker by the amount he or she picks. Smaller wineries may have their own crew that they hire individually. These workers are also paid by each bin they fill. There are no unions, so all the workers can do is walk off a job to try and negotiate a better rate with the winery.
We just arrived in Bariloche after two splendid days making our way from Chile to Bariloche, Argentina. One can do the crossing in one day but we decided it would be more fun and relaxing to take the two-day tour excursion. We’d arrived at the airport in Puerto Monte where we were met by a driver and guide. It was a great idea for us to hire the guide, no mess, no fuss getting from the airport to our hotel in Puerto Vargas, a nearby smaller town. It is a Sunday when we arrive and just as in Europe almost everything is closed except for restaurants and the local supermercado. The town is very quaint but not much is going on here.
Our wine touring is over and now we begin the second phase of our three-week trek. We fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt, a small village in Chile in what is known as the lake district or northern Patagonia. Here we will take a boat ride across the lakes taking us from Chile to Bariloche, Argentina.
We have been in Chile for six days and have learned much about the people of Chile and their culture. The main meal of the day in Chile is lunch, lasting as long as two hours. It can start as early as noon or later depending on the area. In the town of Santa Cruz people stream onto the streets at noon to begin their lunch. They spend their lunch in the electronic game arcades, cafeterias, tucked away cafes, or just talking on the street with their friends. At 5 or 6 pm, Chileans will also have some tea or milk, and a snack. Dinner begins at 8:30 or later, but it is a much smaller meal than lunch.
Our next stop on our Mendoza wine tour is the Posada Salentein, a wine lodge owned by the Bodega Salentein, located in the Valle de Uco. The Valle de Uco or Uco Valley is located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, some 90 Kilometers south of our last stop, Club Tapiz. The elevation here ranges from 1000 to 1700 meters. The Uco Valley represents the new frontier of Argentine wines. It is here that wineries have sprouted up since the year 2000. These new wineries are taking advantage of the higher altitudes to plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. These are varietals that have not been very successful in other regions of Argentina. One of these new wineries in the Uco Valley is Bodega Salentein.
We enter the Bodega Salentein gate (to visit wineries in Argentina you must have an appointment; otherwise you don’t get through the guarded gate) and travel up a gravel road for three kilometers to the lodge. We drive past beautiful vineyards with the spectacular snowcapped Andes in the background. As we park our car, we are greeted by a receptionist who tells us our bags will be taken to our rooms and for us to follow her to the outdoor lounge. “Would you like a glass of our Chardonnay Reserve?”she asks. We knew at that point this was going to be a very special place.
For three days we feasted on delicious meals and the wines of Bodega Salentein, all included for our stay of $290 per night. On our last day, we are invited to a special lunch at the Posada, a typical Argentine feast that an employee of Salentein has arranged for his family.
The preparations begin early for the 2 pm luncheon. Fires are started in the outdoor stone oven and the stone barbeque grill rack. Two chefs begin the preparations in the kitchen. First in the oven is the bread that will bake for some two hours. As the bread bakes, the chef hangs a side of beef ribs on the rack of the BBQ. The side of beef will cook slowly for at least four hours. In the meantime while the chefs prepare and cook, we will leave to take a guided tour and wine tasting at the Bodega Salentein.
Upon are return we are just in time to feast. The lunch begins with a series of appetizers or small plates. First, a tomato, onion and herb mixture cooked with eggs much like an omelet and served on small slices of the freshly baked bread. This is followed by a small skewer of chorizo that is placed in a small glass filled with a salsa mixture. The third course is sweetbreads that we rarely eat but we cannot pass on. They are delicious. The sweetbreads are served with a mixture of onions and olive oil. Sauted chicken pieces and beef-filled empanadas from the stone oven follow. All this time, of course, the wine is flowing.
As we finished the empanadas the chefs filled a buffet table with assorted dishes of freshly grilled vegetables. Now is it time for the main entre, the beef ribs. These are very tender ribs, slow cooked to perfection. This all goes very well with the full-bodied Bodega Salentein Reserve Malbec.
Dessert is flan presented with a flare as you can see from the photograph. It is served with a sparkling wine that is just slightly sweet. The chefs are very proud and happy that we love their meal. They keep asking if we would like more. At this point, we are stuffed and the last thing we want to think about is food. As we leave it is 4:30 in the afternoon. Our chef who cooks the evening meal says goodbye and says “see you tonight for dinner.”How could we say no?
We are leaving Club Tapiz and will be heading for our next accommodations at Posada Salentein, 90 kilometers away in the Uco Valley. On the way we are visiting Catena Zapata, one of the most famous and influential wineries in Argentina. Club Tapiz has been a wonderful experience and the staff has treated us with much care and graciousness. We had delicious meals, relaxing massages and a great time conversing with other guests. We hope Posada Salentein will be just as welcoming.
Today our plan is to visit the Tapiz winery located in the Maipu Valley and the Melipal winery located in Lujan de Cuyo. These are two of the four wine regions of Mendoza, the other two are the Valle de Uco and San Rafael, which is in south Mendoza. We were surprised to learn that the elevation here is over a 1000 feet and as high as 4500 feet for some vineyards in the Valle de Uco. These wine regions are experiencing tremendous growth as foreign investors see the potential for wine in this area. The Mendoza wine region will continue to grow as long as there is enough water. Mendoza receives very little rainfall during the year because it is east of the Andes. The snowmelt from the Andes is the key to providing irrigation for all the vineyards. Aqueducts and well water have been utilized extensively to capture the valuable runoff.
Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina with some 900 wineries located in three separate regions on the eastern side of the Andes Mountain Range. It is harvest time, so there is much activity up and down the roads of this wine region. Mendoza is desert country, and much of it looks sparse and bleak. Don’t be fooled because on any side road you can find a spectacular multimillion-dollar winery and acres of beautiful vineyards.
The king of the grapes in Mendoza is Malbec, a Bordeaux varietal that has been planted here since the mid-1800’s. In the past 20 years, the wine industry has changed dramatically, and modern techniques in winemaking have brought Argentina’s wine to a world-class
We arrive at the Mendoza airport from Buenos Aires after an hour and a half flight. We rent a car, and within 45 minutes we are in the Maipu Valley and at the Club Tapiz Lodge where we will spend the next two nights. The Ortiz Family of Argentina owns the lodge as well as the nearby Tapiz winery. As we park the car, we can see that harvest is underway in an adjacent vineyard. The temperature is hot, probably in the mid-eighties, and the harvesters are clothed with long pants and shirts and wearing hats that drape over their necks. I can get some good shots of the harvesters working at a fever pitch. They work fast because their pay is determined by how many bins of grapes they pick throughout the day. We will explain more about the harvest techniques and process in a future blog.
The Club Tapiz is very old and an exciting lodge. Much of it new so it is a very comfortable place. The main lodge has seven rooms, and there is a Guest House two hundred yards away with four bedrooms. We are staying in the Guest House which is much more private and has its living room, kitchen, swimming pool and patio where breakfast is served. We even have llamas.
The wine bar in the lodge is open from 8 pm to 9 pm, and after that, you can sit down for dinner or hail a cab to take you into Mendoza. A cab ride to Mendoza is about $15. The dollar is gaining daily on the Argentine Peso, so everything here seems to be a bargain. Our elaborate Club Tapiz dinner including two bottles of wine comes to $60 a couple.
In the mid-afternoon, we visit our first winery about a half hour drive from Club Tapiz. The winery is Tempus Alba. Everybody that works at this small winery has a family connection to the owners. Our tour guide shows us a vineyard where a long-term experiment is taking place to find the best clone of the Malbec grape for the Maipu Valley. They have rows of 25 different clones in this experiment. They propagate and grow the different Malbec vines at the winery. After the tour, we sit on the upper deck that has a fantastic view of the vineyards. We meet the winemaker, Leonardo Biondolillo.
He tells us that it a goal of the winery is to make a small amount of wine at the highest quality possible. To enter the U.S. market he wants to keep the wines at reasonable prices. The inflationary conditions in Argentina make this is a difficult task, he explains. He thinks the recession will offer the opportunity for Argentine wines to make an impact because of their high quality at value pricing. After tasting the wines, we must agree. The flagship wine called Tempus Pleno is extraordinary. We give it 93 points. The price for this wine is $30, and by comparison, a wine of this quality from California would easily be well above $50. Tempus Alba has a U.S. distributor so if you spot it in a wine shop; it is very much worth a purchase.
After flying for what seems to be an eternity we have arrived in Argentina. We are only here for one night in Buenos Aires, leaving for Mendoza’s wine country on Wednesday. We will be back here at the end of our trip for four nights so we have a half-day to scout around. As we fly into the city, we get a feel for how large a city this is and how densely populated. As far as the eye can see there are office buildings and apartment complexes. There are some 13 million people in Buenos Aires and 3 million of those are in what is referred to as the capital area of Buenos Aires. The city is divided into barrios, and we are staying at the Loi Suites in the Recoleta barrio, a veryÂ cosmopolitan area. The weather is warm, partly cloudy, and just a bit humid, but great walking weather.
Walking around the Recoleta area, there are many outdoor cafes and wonderful looking restaurants. We have a quick lunch at one of the outdoor cafes and later dinner at another outdoor cafe. Empanadas are everywhere for quick take out eating or to enjoy at a cafe. Beef of course is what Argentina is famous for and we see several sides of beef in restaurant windows rotating vertically next to a wood-burning pit. There is also a large Italian influence here with many Italian restaurants and pizzerias. Dinner hour is late and lasts long into the next day. We eat around 9 pm and by the time we finish our dinner the Buenos Aires nightlife is just beginning. People are everywhere including young children. A couple of the kids remind me of my granddaughters who I know by now would be fast asleep on a school night. By the way, the kids here are just back to school this week after being off for summer vacation since mid December. Like European countries, eating is a slow and relaxed experience. You can linger over your meal for as long as you want.
On Wednesday morning, we awaken to a light rainfall. I decide to go for a run and within two blocks of my run there is a torrential downpour. The people headed off to work appear to be unconcerned. A man with a hand truck is completely soaked as he carries his load of cases of water into a restaurant. He looks at me with a smile and a morning greeting. Everyone we’ve seen so far in Buenos Aires appears to simply be enjoying life.
After our tasty gourmet breakfast at the hotel, we’re off to the municipal airport for a short flight to Mendoza and begin our wine tasting adventure.Â We are scheduled to visit 8 wineries in our 5-day stay there.