Argentina, “We’re not in Chile anymore”

 

Looking down at just a few of the 32 turns.

Looking down at just a few of the 32 turns.

We have been “living” in Argentina for almost a month now.  When our Chilean visas expired, we headed over the border through a spectacular pass in the Andes on a bus.  We took some advice and rode in a double decker bus in the top front row.  It was good advice.  Some of the trip was a bit hair-raising as we traveled up the steep side of a mountain which included no less than 32 “S” curves. At the outside edge of each turn, you could peer out the window and look straight down the mountain. The migration and customs clearance at the border took a mere 3 ½ hours!  Two hours after that we landed in Mendoza. “Not in Chile anymore” refers to the fact that the Spanish is really very different here, causing us a new set of communication challenges!

Mendoza

Mendoza, Wine capital of Argentina and MALBEC!

Mendoza, Wine capital of Argentina and MALBEC!

When we landed in Mendoza, it was SURPRISE… raining cats and dogs!  Everyone kept saying they never get that much rain.  Mendoza supposedly gets 200 mm. (8 inches) per YEAR of rain, and we could see they must have received that much rain in one weekend (our first weekend there.. oh well).   Mendoza is a busy city with huge trees lining both sides of most streets.  It has five pretty plaza parks in the middle of the city with one large plaza in the middle and the others radiating out to the corners of a larger square pattern.  Each plaza has a historical theme.  Mendoza also has a large park that is reminiscent of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

A wine bottle from Checchin.  What is that thing on the right?  We regret not taking more pictures of the winery.

A wine bottle from Cecchin. What is that thing on the right? We regret not taking more pictures of the winery.

If you´ve ever enjoyed a Malbec wine, it probably came from Mendoza, which is more than a city.  It´s also a region that contains 3 distinct grape growing areas.  Dan´s favorite was Maipù because of its name (very funny, especially if you are a 6 year old boy).  The Maipù valley wine industry is the oldest in Mendoza and a great place for seeing some historic wineries.  If you are expecting Napa Valley though, change your expectations.  It is not particularly beautiful (think Turlock, CA), but there are some interesting wineries there. One of our favorites, Cecchin Family Bodega, dated back to the 1800´s when a family from Northern Italy arrived.  They are still making wine in the same way they did in the past, and much of the process (for example, labeling the bottles) is manual.  They use almost no oak barrels but the wine tastes great, and they use fruit trees instead of insecticides to keep the bugs at bay.   They do make Malbec, but they also had a delicious cabernet!

In dry weather the city is irrigated by these canals.  In wet weather they are storm drains.  The downside is that they tend to attract garbage.

In dry weather the city is irrigated by these canals. In wet weather they are storm drains. The downside is that they tend to attract garbage.

Mendoza, Maipu and surrounding areas are irrigated by canals fed by the rivers flowing down from the Andes.  All of the streets have OPEN canals running along-side of them in the sidewalks.  You need to watch where you walk!    Periodically the river water is diverted down these canals.  As a result the trees growing along the roads are huge and healthy, bringing welcome shade in this region where the sun shines 340 days a year. Outside of the cities the canals flood the fields.  For example, Cecchin irrigates its grapes by flooding them, and they claim that much of the skill lies in knowing just how much water to apply. . . .

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Char picking vegetables for dinner.

Char picking vegetables for dinner.

Char’s favorite area was called Uco Valley.  It is more luxurious in appearance than Maipu, and it is reminiscent of Napa, except that it is HUMONGOUS.  Fields of vines stretch as far as the eye can see.    We stayed at a modest farm (or finca) which had grapes, fruit trees, chickens and several beautiful casitas.  One of the big benefits was a vegetable garden open to the guests.  We enjoyed pulling produce from the garden and using it to cook delicious and healthy food in our casita.  They also make an excellent ‘young’ Malbec.

This winery had elected to build a huge flat roof above the cellar to help keep it cool, and to make it look cool.

O´Fournier winery had elected to build a huge flat roof above the cellar to help keep it cool, and to make it look cool.

In Uco Valley, we visited some extraordinary wineries that had been built just within the last 10 years.  Two vintners had bought up un-irrigated land that looked as dry and rocky as the Mohave Desert, planted grapes, and installed drip systems using well water.  To build the wineries they dug huge holes roughly 20,000 square feet and 10 stories deep, and put a concrete building inside the hole. This provides cool steady temperatures for the wine making and aging processes. IMG_1964We also had more than one picturesque, gourmet winery lunch that paired the wine tastings with the food.  If you are ever in Uco Valley,  Bodega Azul and O’Fournier both provide an excellent experience.  In O’Fournier’s restaurant, your view through their wall sized windows is of the snow capped Andes and surrounding vineyards.

 

One of many labels saying what family had purchased that particular segment of vineyard.

One of many labels saying what family had purchased that particular segment of vineyard.

Several wineries are appealing to the wine connoisseur’s desire to make their own wine.  You can buy several acres of grape vines within a winery, dictate how the wine is made, and put your own labels on the bottles. . . . Other favorite photos from this section are below. Below the photos there is a little history lesson about Argentina’s hero, General Jose Martin.

A bit of South American History…

As most of us learned in history class, most of South America was “settled” by the Spanish or Portuguese.  (Indigenous people unfortunately did not always survive this settlement).  However, just like in North America, there was a period when the settlers tired of European rule and decided to rebel.  Chile and Argentina actually cooperated in this effort, and with the leadership of  General José San Martin,  they defeated the Spanish in some logistically clever border crossings through the Andes, actually crossing through 6 different passes instead of concentrating on just one.  This evidently made it difficult for the Spanish, who were surprised by the arrival of so many soldiers.  Also this was done at a time when Napoleon was fighting against Spain, so a lot of Spanish resources were soaked up in that conflict.  In short, General José San Martin arrived back in Argentina with his surviving troops as a hero, and today throughout Argentina, there are statues, plazas and streets named after him.

 

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