VINEYARDS OF ARGENTINA
Buenos Aires reminds me of Madrid, the wide boulevards, trees and large government and bank buildings. We stayed at the Hotel Sofitel Buenos Aires http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3253-sofitel-buenos-aires/index.shtml a boutique hotel just off the Recoleta area, where you will find many embassies, deluxe hotels, outdoor cafes and fancy shops. It has 114 beautifully appointed rooms, and a gym. As a woman traveling alone, I liked that in order to go up to the rooms in the elevator, one must enter one’s room key. From this area you can walk to the famous cemetery where Eva Peron is buried.
Our Buenos Aires tour guide, Alejandro Frango was a fountain of information, not just of regular tourist information and history one can get from any tour book, but of in-depth facts and folklore. In the three hours we had him with a car/driver, we were taken to the most interesting places of each neighborhood: San Telmo, La Boca, Recoleta, etc. Two unusual thoughts he left us with had to do with the beginning of Tango. The Argentine writer Enrique Santos Diszpolo, said of Tango that it was “ Un pensamiento triste que se baila” literally translated it is a “Sad thought that is danced”. Jorge Luis Borges described it as “Dos hombres sobre zapatos de mujer con sacos muy ajustados, bailan una musica muy extraña” loosely translated he described the Tango as “Two men with women’s shoes and tight jackets dancing to a very strange music”. This is because the Tango was originally danced only by men with men or with prostitutes, ladies of good homes were not allowed to participate in such a scandalous dance.
Trattoria Perolaccia in Puerto Madero area, was a nice suggestion by the concierge of the Sofitel, because the restaurant we had selected was closed for the holiday. The “Porteños” as the people from Buenos Aires are called, maintain the eating hours of the Spaniards, late lunch and even later dinner. Best dish, the hand made Spaghettini Nero (black pasta with squid ink) with tomatoes and baby squid. The Chandon Latitude 33 Torrontes was a perfect pairing.
We flew to Mendoza and were picked up by Pablo, who together with his wife Kelly run the Grapevine http://www.thegrapevine-winetours.com/ , they arranged all our winery visits. We stayed at the Cavas Wine Lodge, http://www.relais.com/cavas a Relais Chateaux property outside of Mendoza who produces its own wines. It is at the foot of the Andes and run by a lovely young couple, Cecilia and Martin Rigal. The main building which houses the reception, the restaurant, pool and Spa is in Spanish Colonial style but the rooms are in sleek adobe huts offering all the modern comforts, including a plunge pool in the terrace and a sunning space on the rooftop of each bungalow. We were welcomed by the owners with a glass of their Cavas wine which was a pleasant way of starting us off with their hospitality. We had not had lunch yet, and it was 4PM but they ushered us into the dining room. I had a delicious rabbit terrine, then roasted goat as a main course.
They make wine for their mass. Up to the last decades of the 19th century wine was artisan made mainly for domestic use. It was then that the early Italian immigration with their mastery in the artisan winemaking process that made the Malbec so distinct. Through the introduction of money from the banks, major irrigation projects and high quality clones, new French and North American oak barrels did the Argentine wines took their place among the big wine regions of the world.
Pablo, who is a Mendocino, gave us information of the local wine industry and the wineries we were about to visit. He took us to visit two vineyards on our first day in Mendoza. Ruca Malen (which means young girl in the Apuche language) http://www.bodegarucamalen.com/ owned by two Frenchmen, their first harvest was in 1999. They make three tiers of red wines, Yauquen, their youngest, Ruca Malen the Reserva and Kinien the Gran Reserva some of which have been prized by Robert Parker at 90 and 92.
The next stop was at Terrazas de Andes owned by Vuiton, Hennessy and Moet group http://www.terrazasdelosandes.com/ESP/winery/history.asp They are a huge enterprise that has been in Argentina for ages. They are just opening a beautiful 6 bedroom inn on the premises which at USD$170 a night, is a bargain. We had a lunch at their restaurant and the chef Nora outdid herself. Simple, yet very tasty and well paired with their wines…
camembert in phyllo with micro greens paired with a Reserva Chardonnay, then came the small medallion of beef with gnocchi and chimichurri sauce paired with a Terrazas Afincado Malbec and lastly a black and white chocolate with a Baron B Brut Rose ( I for one would have preferred their sweet wine, which we got afterwards). This would also be a great honeymoon place or a home base to visit other wineries.
We visited several boutique wineries which do very little exporting to the US, such as Benegas
http://www.bodegabenegas.com/ which is a really old fashion one established in 1891 using cement vats. Here the owner names its vintages with his kids names, fortunately he has six. He also had a fantastic collection of ponchos. Then there was La Clos de Chacras http://www.closdechacras.com.ar/english/ where they also used the cement vats and produced a very interesting blend of Malbec, and Cabernet and where we had a very nice lunch especially the “empanada” which had boudin noir in the center and also the chicken ravioli with mushrooms.
Last for the day we passed by Altavista http://www.altavistawines.com/ which had an incredible Malbec blend from 2007.
After a short flight from Mendoza to Salta, up North, we were picked up by our guide and driver, Marcelo Céspedes a local Salteño, who entertained us with his local music and all sorts of information on our way to Tilcara and Humahuaca, very small villages with houses of adobe. He mentioned that in the old days, the roof tiles, called “musleras” were made by molding the mud on your thighs (this is why if you see an old house, the tiles are all of different sizes). The hotel Las Maria http://www.lasmariastilcara.com.ar/ in Tilcara was an oasis, with all the amenities of city hotels, a gym, spa, swimming pool, etc. Unfortunately for those of us who live in large cities, we are not used to being serenaded by dogs most of the night. The city has a small plaza with an even smaller church, about four streets that are named and paved, otherwise the rest is rocks and dust. The area is extremely dry.
The mountain views were spectacular. We were at an altitude of 2400 meters, and at times felt the effects of the altitude (easily cured by chewing coca leaves I am told). In Humauaca we had a delicious, simple lunch with Empanadas and Llama stew (which tastes like veal) and dessert for US$10!
La Casa de los Jasmines http://www.houseofjasmines.com/ a Relais et Chateaux in the outskirts of the city of Salta, previously owned by Robert Dubal and his Argentine wife, was very impressive surrounded by a forest of eucalyptus trees. They offer a variation of activities, such as mountain bikes for riding, gardening in their orchard, squash court, and a heated pool. They also have a beautiful spa. The new owner, a Frenchman, Raoul Fenestraz, was a very hospitable man and our stay there was memorable.
Cafayate – the wine area of Salta where the best Torrontes (white wine) are produced. We stayed at the hotel Patios de Cafayate http://www.patiosdecafayate.com/ which was extremely comfortable and close to all the wineries. We did the rounds of some of them, Bodega Nanni http://www.bodegananni.com/ (with organic wines), San Pedro de Yocochuya http://www.sanpedrodeyacochuya.com.ar/historia.php , El Porvenir http://www.bodegaselporvenir.com/english/home.html , Las Nubes, http://www.bodegamounier.com/ to name some of the better ones, and absorbed a great deal of information, some very curious. As you may have noticed a lot of the vineyards have roses growing at the end of the row of vines, it is an early warning for mold or deseases.While both American and French oak barrels are used to contribute tannin and aroma, French oak contains more tannins and flavor components with less “oaky” flavor and smell than American oak. American oak has a more aggressive mouthfeel and immediately apparent aroma. Each winery proudly mentioned the number of times they used each barrel. Most of the bodegas sorted the bunches of grapes from the stems and leaves by hand and it is all done by women. We were told it is because the women have more delicate hands to handle the grapes. The Malbec wines which is the grape best know in the US from Argentina, is best drunk after 5 years of age, but it does not last longer than 7-8 years. Most Argentine wines are not keepers, they are best drunk young. We also learned of a grape we did not know of, the Tannat which creates wines that are dark, dry and rustic. It originated in the Basque area in the mountains between France and Spain.
The landscape on the drive from Salta to Cafayate and back was spectacular. Some areas resembled those of the Grand Canyon of Colorado or the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The Legado Mitico in Salta http://www.legadomitico.com/salta/salta_esp.html where we stayed the last night was a real gem, right in the center of the city, near several sights, and restaurants. It was a private house, built in a very Spanish influence with an indoor patio, some with a balcony but all face the patio.
A very special thanks to Hebe Cafferata of Wanderlust Expeditions http://www.wanderlust.com.ar/ who planned all the details of our trip perfectly. Her contacts in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Salta were invaluable, without the guides she selected for us it would not have been such a spectacular trip.