Category Archives: wine

Grape escape

Standard

There was a very good reason why we crossed the border back into Argentina from Chile, making a bee-line for Mendoza….Wine, wine and more wine! We were on a mission to try as many good wines as we possibly could in three days – whilst trying to remember what they actually tasted like! No mean feat with hundreds of wineries on our doorstop to choose from, growing grape varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the infamous Malbec and Torrentes. With rather a lot of success these days… Or so it would seem from the 90+ scores given by Robert Parker, the acclaimed critic. Argentina, one of the New World wine suppliers, is considered the fifth largest wine producer in the world, with Mendoza and the vineyards in the province, producing two thirds of this. The region contains 223,000 hectares of planted vineyards, compared to 400,000 in France, with some 280 wineries opened between 2001 to 2007. Malbec is very much the flagship grape; originally brought over from France in 1855, it thrives in the continental climate and semi arid dessert conditions of Mendoza, perfectly suited to the terroir. With vineyards planted at altitudes between 800 – 1100m, Lujan de Cuyo, is very much the epicentre for this emblematic wine of Argentina.

20130416-163111.jpg

Magical Malbec grapes

We decided against DIY; neither of us fancying our chances of making it on bikes all the way out to the Uco Valley, or navigating the city after a few glasses in a hire car. We were keen to learn more about the process and varietals and had noted a handful of vineyards we would be keen to see…. none of them were close to each other.

Cellars at Alto Vista

Cellars at Alto Vista

Notebook in hand and open mind we opted to go with Ampora, a well known wine tour operator for the first two days that offered full on guided tastings and we were so glad we did. Not only were Majo and Alex great hosts cum tour guides, they each added a different dimension; Majo, Mendocino history, culture plus her amazing personality and wine knowledge and Alex, a breadth of technical knowledge that was astounding coupled with a great passion for wine; he had just graduated from his degree in wine making.. Before we arrived at each of the chosen bodegas we were given a brief potted history. It was so interesting to learn about each of the predominately European funded vineyards, their preferred viticulture methods before we began tasting; the tours were given with great passion and pride and you couldn’t help but feel an almost reverential hush fall as we stepped into each of the cool and inviting cellars. Over the three days we met agronomists, owners, along with first and second winemakers – all keen to give us an insight into their world.

Tasting room good to go

Tasting room good to go

Spit or swallow… It’s just one of those questions you have to ask. We did both. With twenty odd wines to taste on our first day, we couldn’t possibly quaff all of them and remain coherent. So we studied the colour and savoured the aroma, before taking a slurp across the tongue and palate; occasionally doing ‘the right thing’ and making use of the spitoons. And took notes … decidedly more legible at the start of each day!

Behind closed doors... Private cellar at AV

Behind closed doors… Private cellar at AV

On day one we joined by a handful of Americans as we headed to Lujan de Cuyo, less than 20km south of Mendoza. First stop Bodega Altavista, an really attractive and well established winery, with old vines dating back to 1889, it also doubles up as the French Consulate. Here we had our first taste of Torrontes – known as the “liar” – for a good reason – on the nose an aromatic perfume like Viognier yet on the palate a complex and refreshing citrus finish similar to Sauvignon Blanc.. Unexpected and delicious, it was a show stopper. We actually tried their full range of top shelf wines, from sparkling to their single vineyard Malbec, plus another newbie for us, the Italian grape Bonarda. One wine we didn’t get to try was their Alta Vista ‘Alto’ 1998… Around $2900 AP, or £380 a bottle, we didn’t blame them for not opening it!

The bar had been set and we were not disappointed, as the hits kept on coming.

Wine painting in the cellars  of Kaiken

Wine painting in the cellars of Kaiken

Next stop, Bodega Kaiken, with its pretty covered pergola overlooking the vineyard we ate our first grapes, straight from the vines. Deliciously sweet the Merlot grapes were weeks away from their hand picked harvest. Their Malbec Kaiken Rose caught our attention; the deep rich rose colour a result of 24 hour contact with the grape skins, an aroma that reminded us of cherries and candy floss, it tasted of bananas and melon…we imagined savouring it with a plate of chorizo and octopus in a sun-drenched beach cafe.

Barrel art at Pulenta

Barrel art at Pulenta

With slightly squiffy heads, we were glad that we would soon be filling our bellies. After a pitstop at Pulenta Estate and a tasting that left us favouring the deep red, spicy yet sweet berry Merlot 2008, we headed to Ruca Malen for lunch, with perfect wine pairing (natch). Our table was the last to leave as we lingered over our five course lunch. We sighed over our starter of goat cheese truffle with dried chilli matched with a Yauguen Torrentes and giggled as our third course of Quartirolo cheese and chorizo, beautifully matched with their 2006 Malbec, came with it’s own presentation “map” under the glass plate. Stuffed to bursting after a full day of wine tasting and wine pairing lunch, we were in need of a power nap, before we could do anything else. Casa Lila, our temporary home for the rest of our stay, also gave us a great taste of Mendocino hospitality. A few blocks from the main drag, it was charm personified; beyond the pretty worn iron gates, it was an oasis of peace and tranquility. Just what we needed after a “hard” day of tasting! Yep, gluttons for a good thing, we both knew come 8pm we would be ready for another food fix and more wine! Matt had yet to completely embrace Argentine late night dining. Mind you, even I struggled getting my head around sitting down for a ‘proper’ dinner at 11pm – the reservation time offered for a table inside one particular popular restaurant. We dined outside, serenaded by street musicians, as we tucked into a langoustine salad for me and Costelata de cerdo, pork chop, for Matt… Washed down with our new found favourite, a bottle of Torrentes.

En route to Uco

En route to Uco

Ready for round two, we got up early and embraced our first sunny day in Mendoza as we headed for the hills and Uco Valley. With just four of us (we were joined by two young wine buffs who had friends/family that owned their own vines) and the prospect of a tour and lunch at O Fournier, we were in for a treat.

Tank tasting at Altitude

Tank tasting, at altitude

With a special backdrop of the Andes, vines at altitude and high tech holding tanks, Bodega Atamisque was our starting point for the day and second tank tasting; gingerly we sniffed and sipped the murky liquid offered – full of sediment, you could just about detect the top notes of a soft fruity finish. Within thirty minutes the sediment settled and the wine took on a refreshing and slightly florally almond taste; with less than a week in the tank, it showed great promise and would eventually emerge as their Sparkling Cave Extreme. We were completed divided on whether or not we preferred their Catalpa 2011 Pinot Noir or Merlot. Tough call to make at 11 in the morning!

Straight from the barrel

Straight from the barrel

Gimenez Rilli was an unexpected gem. Not only because we toured with one of the owners, but we tasted one of the finest Malbecs we had ever tasted – from the barrel, a month into its maturation, whilst nibbling cheese and quince in the tasting room. With great pleasure we eagerly hoovered up the steaming hot carne empanadas as we worked our way through several of both their Torrentes and Malbecs. The clear winner? Gran Reserva 2008 with its deep red-violet colour and classic taste of cherry, chocolate, spice and vanilla. It was delicious.

Corn-ucopia...

Corn-ucopia….

Steak and Malbec moment at O.F

Steak and Malbec moment at O.F

We headed further towards the foothills and the incredible looking and super high tech, Bodega O. Fournier. With a restaurant overlooking a lake teeming with trout and the Andes, it was a magical setting for our five course lunch; a twist on classic dishes from Argentina and Spain, matched with some of their best wines. Steak aside – which was cooked to perfection – medium rare and came with a red mojo sauce, the starter, Duo de humita en chalk y cazuela, a thick corn stew served with the savoury cake of corn, came with a first rate glass of Urban Uco Malbec 2011. Spying the well placed deck chairs, it was difficult dragging ourselves away, as we wrestled with thoughts of a siesta, sprawled out on the terrace. Not only were we stuffed to bursting, we polished off another bottle of their B Crux 2008, a heady blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Merlot, after lunch!

Lazy like a Sunday morning...

Lazy like a Sunday morning…


On the third day, we were almost relieved to be only visiting one vineyard, Trivento, in Maipu, and home to the production of a wine we had sampled a few times at home, La Chamiza. This time round we got to meet the winemaker and sample with him. We were not disappointed, as each glass surpassed the previous one. Our favourite (natch) was the much heralded Martin Alsina Malbec 2008 and their top end wine. With a bottle in hand we headed back into Mendoza for a hearty lunch.

The most consistent and striking observation we made, over the three days, was just how incredibly well structured the mid to top end wines we sampled were. More so given their age, or serious lack of. So many of them made the cut, it would be difficult to pick our all time favourite, although we will defo be looking out for Torrentes on our return. I would like to say we could spot a Malbec at ten paces – just by the colour – although that just might be wishful thinking!!

Advertisements

Mooching in Mendoza

Standard

Arriving at Mendoza was a shock to the system. After the hazy sunshine of Santiago we were met with grey cloudy skies and rain. Torrential at that; it bounced off the runway tarmac on our approach and we could clearly see major pooling beneath row upon row, of vines, huge puddles on some roads and water coursing along the acequias, irrigation ditches. Essentially a desert town with max 20cm of rainfall a year, it was far from the welcome we were expecting.

Sleepy leafy streets

Sleepy leafy streets

On Easter Sunday morning the city was still very much asleep, with a handful of flowers vendors setting up their stalls for business and the odd proud home owner out sweeping and cleaning the grey and ochre tiled veradas in front of their property.

imageMendoza, with it’s wide avenues, mix of historic and modern architecture, plazas and parques came across as a relaxed yet traditional city (Mendocinos do observe the siesta) full of flavour and culinary promise; Argentine, Italian plus the odd Middle Eastern cafes and restaurants line the streets of Av Sarmiento, Aristides Villanueva, Montevideo and Av Juan B Justo, to name but a few. We tried to imagine the buzz along these streets on a glorious sunny Saturday afternoon, or balmy evening; restaurants and cafes brimming with chatter and the smell of grilled meat, seafood, rich tomato sauce and fresh breads. Anything, rather than how they appeared on a cold wet Sunday mid morning!!

As we couldn’t check into our “one night only” hotel for several hours, we donned waterproofs and walked the quiet tree lined avenues, fallen leaves and rain making tiled veradas, slick beneath our feet.

Local Heroes - SM & OH

Local Heroes – SM & OH

With hardly a soul around it took us no time to figure out the ‘lay of the land’, the five plazas providing points of interest and reference; the main plaza, Plaza Indepencia, in the centre and four smaller ones, Chile, Espana, Italia and Plaza San Martin, but two blocks from the corners of the main plaza. They were all added when the city was rebuilt after the massive earthquake in 1861, each unique plaza with it’s fountain(s) and decoration offering something different, aside from a space to hang out and contemplate life. Our favourites; Plaza Espana with its traditional and pretty mosaic walls depicting life in Mendoza and numerous tiled fountains and Plaza Chile with it’s sturdy sculpture of the two liberation leaders O’Higgins and San Martin.

Surprisingly the city seemed to have suffered more than it’s fair share of juvenile tagging along benches, walls and the odd sculpture; the dioramas depicting Mendoza’s history on Av Las Heras having also fallen foul of vandalism too.

Bedside reading outside banco hipo...

Bedside reading outside banco hipo…

We took in the nearby Iglesia y Basilica de San Francisco, with it’s image of the Virgin of Cuyo and patron of the ‘Army of the Andes’, considered more miraculous than anything because both church and chamber survived the ’68 earthquake. Outside and inside the former Banque Hipocetario Nacional, modern art reigned supreme, with a mix of local and national art exhibitions.

Stumbling across a Carrefour superstore, we got very excited – like a couple of real saddos, we took time and great pleasure, peeking along the aisles, examining what was on offer; household, beauty products, not to mention the massive food section, price checking and looking for things we hadn’t seen before – eyeing covertly (or at least we tried to) trolleys and baskets to see what ‘the locals’ were buying, we stood out like a sore thumb in the checkout queue – all our basket offered up was empanada cutters, coffee ‘socks’, fresh ground Lavazza coffee, suntan lotions and mosie repellant. Hardly a gourmet meal in the making.

One of many fountains - Pl Indepencia

One of many fountains – Pl Indepencia

Like the rest of Argentina, the city really came awake post sundown, all around the grassy lawns of Plaza Indepencia, more stalls were being set up, selling souvenirs, carved bone handle knives, leather goods, jewellery and plenty of knick knacks. We walked along Av Sarmiento towards the eastern peatonal, the pedestrian section, awash with cafes and bars starting to spill onto the pavement and chose a cafe for its “wifi zonal” sign. Bad move. Although the wifi and service were both pretty good, the pizza was far from. In fact it was probably one of the worst we have eaten. Ever. Consoling ourselves with the upgraded Malbec we were offered, we checked our emails.

Thankfully our choice of dining establishments and lodgings improved over the next few days!!

All day fave - Maria Antonieta

All day fave – Maria Antonieta

We were recommended Maria Antonieta and for a good reason. Resembling a French styled version of Fergus Henderson’s ‘St John’, with an open kitchen, it offered the best bread we had tasted and incredible up-market cafe dining. The tarta del dia, pumpkin on the day I tried it, was huge, even by a navvies yardstick and totally divine. As was the mixta salad with the bitterest of arugula leaves and sweetest tomatoes. I polished the lot off.

"Light" lunch - pumpkin tart

“Light” lunch – pumpkin tart

Azafran at night

Azafran at night

Azafran, was so good, we actually returned for a second helping. This may have been partly because I had a classic case of food envy first time round. Matt had ordered the Costeta de cerdo, pork chops with a traditional lentil stew and sticky beer reduction, whereas I had gone for the simple langoustine salad with avocado and Parmesan galettes. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious – just not in the same league.

Eyeing up the wine cellar

Eyeing up the wine cellar

Did I mention that there isn’t really a wine list? Instead you can pop into the cellar and choose from the racks, sommeliers on tap to offer a guiding hand. The decor inside, if you can get a table (we did, second time around) is rustic shabby chic and quite a draw card by itself. And they served the meanest and poshest empanadas we had tasted to date; Molleja y champinion, Chorizo con cebolla and Morcilla y parmesano. A meaty mix of sweetbreads, sausage and black pudding versions with a tomato concasse.
What more could you ask for??

Mmm... Empanadas

Mmm… Empanadas

Navigating the fjords..

Standard
Navimag in her brochure glory

Navimag in her brochure glory

We had pushed the boat out (sorry, too hard to resist!) opting to go on the Navimag ferry up the western coastline and myriad of channels, to Puerto Montt, booking a triple AAA cabin in advance. Not so much because we wanted to travel in style – let’s face it, it was a ferry boat that transported livestock and cargo as well as a few passengers – we wanted to have a window and didn’t want to book last minute; four days at sea … what if the weather was foul, and we had no port hole to peer out of? Thanks, but no thanks. And probably just as well.

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

We boarded in Puerto Natales, sadly saying goodbye to Kau Lodge (the girls really did produce the best coffee we had tasted since leaving home) hoping for good weather, great views and half decent wine served with lunch and dinner (we were in training for Mendoza), plus sightings of wildlife from the decks. We got off to a good start, with a welcome bottle of vino in our cabin and relatively informative briefing in our dining room – the cabins had their own, on the lower deck next to the officers mess, below the main dining area.

In the early morning grey light and tides, the ship passed through the skinniest passage on the voyage, Paso Kirke, a mere 80m wide, with a restriction (natch) on the size vessel that can navigate through these waters, heading up the Sobenes Pass, the southernmost channel on our journey.

A series of safety briefings and nature films followed throughout the day, English and Spanish, in the main dining room plus an exchange book programme and the promise the chance to flex your vocal chords at the karaoke evening…. With the hope of sighting a few sea lions on rocky outcrops and seals ‘playing’ in the kelp forests, we stayed firmly on deck, making the most of the dry weather.

Glaciar Skua

Glaciar Skua

Just before supper we got the opportunity of coming up close to Glaciar Skua, part of the O’Higgins National Park and Campo de Hielo Sur. it was magnificent, spanning the width of the channel, some 40 plus metres visible above sea level. Almost the size of Perito Moreno, it’s spiky seraks and deep blue fissures were a sharp azure blue, even in the flat pre dusk light and clouds plus touch of rain, that had just started to fall.

And fall it did. For pretty much the entire journey.

On lookout for seals ....

On lookout for seals ….

The AAA lunch and dinner club

The AAA lunch and dinner club

Murphy’s Law as we wouldn’t get to see much of the stunning scenery around the small channels and islands that made up the fjords. We consoled ourselves with an extra glass of wine with lunch, ‘retiring’ to read in the afternoon, aperitifs before dinner plus a few more glasses with dinner . And really got to know our fellow cabin passengers from Australia as we spent rather a lot of time in their company; like naughty school kids we also skipped some of the lectures and demos in favour of chilling in our cabins watching movies and seeing what we could spot from the port holes…

Puerto Eden, the small (and only) town between Puerto Natales and Golfo de Penas was shrouded in mist as we passed at sunrise; we could just make out few rooftops as we slid by in the silent waters. Angostura Inglesa, English Narrows, so named because only one ship can pass through at a time, came and went without incident and we headed towards the deeper waters of Messier Channel and beyond it, Golfo de Penas and open seas.

It wasn’t the Drake Passage but it was a bumpy 12 hour ride. Just as we were finishing off supper we hit the first big swells and cross winds; time to ‘batten down the hatches’, steadying our tableware and helping our steward Andreas, gathering glasses that crashed over and bottles that had toppled off the table next to us, as he set about lashing closed the china cupboard and cutlery drawers. The evening film was cancelled and probably just as well, as the ship began to pitch and roll with a deep clunky groan echoing through hull as she rode the troughs. Off to our cabins we went…

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

The final day aboard dawned a little dryer and brighter – time to stretch our legs on deck and be on the look out for seals, dolphins and sea lions as we sailed around the Chiloe Archepelago. Shouts of “whales, whales” draw a small crowd, but we missed them and watched as sea lions fed on what looked like mini man-of-war jelly fish!

Two books, a handful of movies and a few pounds heavier (four course lunches and diners were beginning to take their toll) we finally arrived at Puerto Montt. Next stop Santiago.