Well, that was quite the little jump. It took almost 20 hours of bus travel before (out of the salty, desert landscape) endless stretches of vineyards suddenly appeared before my eyes.
I'm walking around Mendoza, thinking that this is probably one of the greenest cities, if not the greenest city, I've ever been in. Every street is lined with old, massive trees, completely shading the generously spaced sidewalks and streets. The city is absolutely saturated with living emerald.
The metro center looks much like the surrounding outskirts, giving off a calm, casual, suburban feeling. Although it sounds a bit odd, it's the kind of city that makes you want to dine at sidewalk café restaurants, hold down a well paying job, and raise a family—an unusual mixture of a northeastern U.S. suburb and city life.
Something is off with me and this town though. I've been searching (and failing) for the vocabulary to articulate it properly. Why don't I click with Mendoza?
I haven't taken a single photo in the city—a good indicator that while I find the town to be a relaxing and enjoyable, I don't find it new or stimulating. Aside from the greenery, I suppose I'm rather bored.
But that's not it though. There's a sophistication here that makes me want to return in 15–20 years as an older adult, perhaps looking for different things, through well traveled eyes. However, at age 26, it almost feels like there's an air of snobbery about. The lack of street food, the pricey restaurants, and the even pricier wine culture makes me feel like an outsider. The cost of living here is just not lining up with the style of life I'm searching for.
Learning About A Love
With as much as I've been proclaiming my love of Argentinean red wine recently, it should come as no surprise that my motives for visiting Mendoza are generally wine related.
Bodega—the Spanish word for winery—a piece of vocab that was stuck up in my head from years past (that I never realized I knew). A tour of the bodegas was definitely in order.
Some 15km outside of Mendoza is the wine district of Maipú. The greater Mendoza area produces over 70% of the wine in Argentina, with the vast, rural wine country of Maipú constituting a significant part of production.
Instead of taking a spendy wine tour (offered at every hostel and many agencies around town), I opted to jump on a bus and ride out to the region for a mere US$0.45. Out in the country there's a business called bikesandwines that's really making some serious money. For about US$10 a day, this company is renting bicycles to tourists so that they can enjoy the countryside whilst peddling between the wineries. Sadly, not within my budget though.
It only takes 45-minutes to reach the small town center of Maipú (just take the G-10, #173 bus from downtown and tell the driver to let you off at the tourist information office). A map the office provides reveals the location for a dozen different bodegas, spread throughout the region. It would probably take a car and two days to visit them all properly.
Even with a late start in the day, and moving by bus and foot, I was able to swing by three different wineries—two of which taking me on some lengthy (yet very informative) tours.
It was in the first winery that I visited (Bodega La Rural) that I met an Englishman in his early twenties, and pair of likewise young Swiss backpackers. The Brit, who had worked as a box packer in a wine warehouse, was trying to impress by speaking like was educated on the subject, but I soon came to realize that his extent of his knowledge came entirely from the movie Sideways (it's just the Swiss didn't realize it).
He was taking dozens of lines and little facts out of the movie and passing it off as his own—when he used the phrase Quaffable, but far from transcendent to describe a Cabernet Sauvignon, I called him out on it. Ass.
Now I won't claim that I possess the palate to pick up on the hints of vanilla and chocolate that develop into spice and coffee flavors or the aromas of cinnamon and berries leading into flavors of cherry, blackberry, and plum intermingled with hints of cardamom and pepper—but I do know enjoyable flavors when I taste them.
Easily my favorite wine of the day was the Rosé Malbec from Tempus Alba. Only available at the vineyard itself (not sold in stores), Tempus has created a white wine (more of a blush in color) made from the red wine Malbec grape—it's absolutely fantastic.
I wish I had made it down to Bodega Familiar Di Tommaso, as a trio of bikesandwine riders told me they're offering up free samples of no less than six tasty varieties.
The Tempus Alba bodega in Maipú was an impressive sight. I absolutely loved the sleek, modern, minimalist design of the building (created by a pair of architecture students from Medoza in 2003). The small vineyard is host to an experimental crop of Malbec, that after 20 years and several generations of specific plant selection later, should yield a genetically superior Malbec for production.
Half the acreage is dedicated to olive trees, the fruits of which are sold for pressing for consumption to help displace the cost of the research project and winery itself.
I learned heaps about wine production in just a few short hours. I'm absolutely amazed that these plants can live in such sandy, salty soil—but the stress seems to be in line with the turmoil needed to produce bountiful crops.
The Bodega La Rural disclosed to me that they pay their pickers one peso per bucket of grapes they pick—averaging about 40 buckets per day (of the 60-day picking season around March). That's about US$800 each will gross for two months worth of work.
There's a problem with the pickers in Argentina though. The government pays them unemployment of 200 pesos per month (US$67), and the young woman at the winery tells me they're happy to just collect and not work. Bolivians are being used to in massive numbers to replace the growing number of Argentineans who don't want to participate in the harvest.
I'm told you won't find any backpackers hired to pick grapes during the harvest season.
Lots 'o Bottles
I've said for some time—with a smile on my face—that I was going to drink my weight in red wine in Argentina. Well, I've been doing some quick calculations, and that might take a little doing.
A liter of fresh water weights a kilo, which means that weight is roughly the equivalent of (the contents of) 100, 750ml bottles. Wine (and alcohol in general) has a slightly different weight and density than water though… Any idea how much the contents of a bottle of Malbec, at 12% alcohol, weighs?
I'm not giving Mendoza much of a chance, but I have this feeling in my gut that I need to move on to someplace where I'm more comfortable. I'm hearing good things about Córdoba, Argentina's second largest city—and motivated by the absurd checkout and bag storage policy at my hostel, I'll be heading off in morning.
I'm truly impressed by wine makers. These people are part farmer, part scientist, part marketeer—overwhelmingly patient and attentive with their trade. What an interesting profession, with delicious perks.