Along with some friends visiting from Chicago, I spent a wonderful 5 days visiting the wine country of Argentina during Vendimia, the national grape harvest festival held at the beginning of March each year. Between the city of Mendoza where the festival is held, and Maipu, a nearby city, there are more than 1,300 wineries and vineyards here, in what is considered to be Argentina’s wine capitol. Alongside the high Andes mountain range is Mr. Aconcágua (22,841 feet), the highest peak in all of the Americas (North, Central and South), which we saw by bus and on foot, hiking one of its paths (4,000 ft above sea level) near Laguna Espejo, (Mirror Lake), one of the small glacial lakes set in this colorful mountain range.
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About 2,800 ft. above sea level, we stopped to see the Puente del Inca, (The Inca’s Bridge) a natural arch that forms a bridge over the Rio Vacas, and the hot springs nearby, with an interesting natural formation that formed over time as falling snow, dust and rocks carved a path for the sulfurous water and petrified the surface. Once the site of a hot springs resort, the erosion along the bridge has caused its closing, but now the area is protected and off-limits to tourists and continue damage that occurs with extensive use.
A variety of tours abound in the Mendoza province, including the winery and vineyards tours, as well as kayaking, horseback riding, rafting, and bicycling opportunities at high and low price ranges. For 200-240 pesos per day (US $50-60) we were picked up in our hotel lobby and taken around in vans and small touring buses to our destinations. Along the way, our tour guide told us about the area in both Spanish and English—the two most frequently spoken languages among the tourists. We met fascinating people from Lithuania, Sicily, Canada, Brazil, and India (which claims the largest number of wineries world-wide, in its nascent industry!), chatting about other tours and travels we’ve made, sharing wine, restaurant recommendations and stories, and snapping photos for one another. Everyone was so friendly—even before the wine tastings began and definitely more so afterwards!
A highlight of the trip for me was discovering Historias y Sabores, an artesanal factory located in a 100 year-old house close to the bodegas Trapiche and La Rural, which Mary Pat and I found while pedaling our rented bicycles around the Maipu area one lovely morning. For 20 pesos ($5 US) the owner, Argentine Alejandro Prieto, offered us a tasting of his locally made liqueurs, chocolates, jams, olive oils and olive tapenades, in a lovely patio setting with grapes growing all around us. Our bikes ($25 pesos or US $6 for the day) came from Mr. Hugo’s, one of a number of bicycling rentals located in Maipu, a 30-minute, $1.80 pesos (42 cents US) bus ride from Mendoza. Hugo provides a small map, helmet, bike, and water bottle—with complementary wine when you return.
Naturally we did some wine tastings too! We visited a total of 5 vineyards/wineries in 2-1/2 days on various tours. We toured a large industrial size winery, Bodega Lopez, which exports only 1% of its production world-wide. The other 99% is consumed inside Argentina. We visited a much smaller, new boutique winery, Vistantes, which exports to the US among other places. At Bodega La Rural we explored the Museum of Wines, which had lots of early artifacts of wine making in the 1880’s Argentina. It was a walk through time to see the various machines, barrels and other wine-processing equipment at the museum and be able to compare it with the contemporary wineries! One guide told me Argentines consume about 90 liters of wine per person, per year, or more than 102 bottles each—on average!
On the tours guides walked us through the grape to wine process, beginning in the vineyards and moving through the various rooms and equipment used to transform the grapes into wine. At the conclusion of the tour we sampled 2-3 varieties of wines: malbec, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, champagnes, rosé wines as well.
An olive oil factory visit was on another tour we took in Mendoza. Since 1920, Pasrai, an Olivicola Boutique, has been making olive oils, and a variety of tapenades, fruit jams, and other olive-oil based products like soaps and lotions. Yum. Locally made extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) with ájo (garlic), or oregano, or by itself, el clasico—with bits of bread–olive tapenades and raisins were included in the flavorful tasting we had here. I couldn’t leave without buying some olive oil soap, and a small bottle of the delicious EVOO con ájo to enjoy back in Buenos Aires.
Local restaurant fare for us included one dinner at what is called a “Tenedor Libre” restaurant in Mendoza—an all-you-can eat buffet with parrilla. Tenedor Libre, literally, translates to “Free fork” — the perfect name for a buffet style restaurant, no? Mateo, the chef at the parrilla there, was delighted to pose with me and his work-in-progress display of grilled meats!
Two parades, the official “Carrusel de Vendimia” a morning parade on the first Saturday in March in the main streets of the city, includes floats representing the various departments (regions) of the Mendoza Province. The floats show grape harvest motifs, the candidates for the title of the “Queen”(Reina) del Vendimia, and also include gauchos dressed in typical clothing on their horses. The other was an anti-government protest parade, in streets nearby the official Carrusel parade route, where local citizen groups protested the government’s support for the use more than 100 million liters of water per day to benefit the development of the mega-mines and disregard the contamination and harm these mines bring to the people and the entire natural world, damaging mountains and towns forever. “El agua vale + que el Oro” was the message displayed on banners, t-shirts, signs, chants and pamphlets throughout the route. Sobering!