I’d read that of you wanted to travel Patagonia in January and February you’d need to think about booking a couple of weeks in advance but I just sort of assumed we’d have to take the hit on some pricey, low standard accommodation. Turns out you’ll be lucky to get a bus and might find yourself stranded in some cute little town with no affordable accommodation. Fuck it then. We’ll have to chalk Patagonia up to a future us adventure. We booked ourselves a flight to Buenos Aires and as soon as we landed we beelined for Retiro and jumped on an overnight bus to Mendoza.
You don’t come all the way to Mendoza and not go on a wine tour, it’s probably against the law or something. Mendoza apparently does Malbec pretty well. Now, I’m not any manner of wine connoisseur by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. Before I met Tarrant I selected wine by scouring the prices and picking the cheapest one. I figured if it wasn’t great I wouldn’t give a crap after the first glass anyway and if it were particularly awful the first swallow would send your tastebuds retreating into a dark corner and you wouldn’t be able to taste it. Two bottles for £6? Oh go on then. Functioning brain cells are overrated anyway.
What I’m saying is, you could tell me the finest wine of the Mendoza region was the lesser spotted testicle grape fermented under a full moon with the tears of orphans and I’d nod sagely and parrot it in my blog. But I’m assured that Mendoza does Malbec particularly fucking well, even better than France I’m told. Probably wouldn’t say that to France’s face, mind.
We opted for the afternoon tour. We were collected from our hostel by Lorena who spoke flawless English and were whisked away in a full minibus with a bunch of other foreigners to probably the closest region to the city, Maipú. It was quite wonderful. Industry gave way to a more rural feeling area and we pulled into our first winery, Domiciano, named for the Great grandfather of the original owner I believe.
Most of their vines are off in another part of the region but they have half an acre of vines here too for you to gawp at, or wander up and down for that perfect Instagram shot. What makes this vineyard special is the fact they harvest at night. This is for practical reasons rather than some manner of hippy biodynamic thing. The owners prefer a sweeter grape so they leave it for three weeks longer and it gets bastard hot in Mendoza. So utterly bastard hot. I’m never going to be able to replace all the fluid pumping out of my face. Anyway, the grapes are harvested by machine, not by hand, but transporting them in that manner of heat can cause the grapes to spoil so they harvest them at night when it’s much cooler.
We were taken into the winery where the magic happens. The grapes, and only the grapes with no leaves or stalks, are poured into a huge stainless steel vat which is temperature controlled. The grape skins float to the top but that’s what gives the wine its colour and nuance so it has to be mixed in. Apparently even Malbec starts off white. Then it’s transferred into vats with shards of oak to give it more flavour before its bottled and sold.
Unless its destined to be a reserve or a grand reserve. That shit goes into oak barrels (rather than the oak barrels going into it) from France or North America and there it sits to age. The longer it sits in a barrel the longer it can be kept in your fancy wine cellar in its bottle. Unlike my two for £6 wine. You just had to glance at it wrong and it would turn to vinegar.
And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for! The application of the product to our faceholes. They don’t give you a lot for obvious reasons, it’s a tasting, not a piss up. But we were to try three different wines starting with the Malbec. Oh my gosh, it’s like melting into velvet. It was full bodied… I mean I think that’s how I’m meant to describe it. It’s a little too easy to drink as were the next two but they probably shouldn’t have led with the Malbec because now everything else tasted like water. Our winery host told us all their wines were a little bit dangerous on account of the later harvest and the sweeter grapes.
We bought a bottle from the shop and headed back to the minivan to be taken to the next winery, 1870 Esencia. Whereas Domiciano felt clean and professional, Esencia had more of a village ale festival feel to it. Music was playing, families were chilling out with their feet in the canals that ran through the vineyard, and rather than being seated and fed wine, swirling the liquid in our glasses like we had a fucking clue what we were on about, we were topped up as we walked through the venue.
This place does grow two varieties of its own red grapes but mostly it buys grapes in for its wine production. We were handed a sweetish white wine as we headed into what used to be the winery with large brick structures where the wine used to be made. This is just a museum now, they use stainless steel these days, but it took two years to build these buggers with bricks from Europe. Incidentally, it was Che Guevara’s great granddad that built them, Juan Guevara.
We were given an orange white wine as we were told about the history and that gets its colour from a white grape but they leave the skins in whilst it’s doing its thing. It was okay but again, not my thing. Then we were given a drier red wine to have with an absolute delight called an alfajor which is made from chocolate, dulce de leche, peanuts, magic, joy and fairy dust. The wine here was fine but not my cup of… fermented grape juice. I definitely preferred the stuff at the first place.
Let’s just quickly touch on irrigation, because the Mendoza region is hot and dry and it rarely rains. They rely on snow melt from the mountains for their water supply which is channeled through narrow canals called acequias and you can see these along the side of the footpaths in the city centre. Lorena told us that locals are used to them but it’s not unusual for tourists to fall in them. She obviously found this hilarious. To be fair I could see myself disappearing into one with a yelp because I was trying to Google the best milanesa in Mendoza rather than watching where I was going. Acequias are a gaucho invention, but they also use drip irrigation, an Israeli invention, which feeds the plant only what it needs thus saving water.
We interrupted our wine consumption with a quick trip to an olive oil factory which makes olive oil of the extra virgin variety. Fun facts, there are 230 types of olive tree in the world. They use three varieties at this factory. Once you plant an olive tree it takes seven years before you can start harvesting it but it’s worth the wait because you get 400 years out of it. Don’t go picking them off the tree and sticking them in your chops though, they taste bitter. Green and black olives come off the same tree, the black ones are the mature fruit, and for making olive oil you want them at their violet stage. There you go. You’ll thank me when it comes up in the pub quiz.
We were shown the machines used to crush the olives and extract the oil, and they told us they don’t go for a second round of oil extraction. They use the olives once then they sell them to other factories that make your bog standard oil. Then we were shuffled into a room where bread and oil was laid out for us to apply to our faceholes. Ooh yes please! They had your plain extra virgin olive oil, but then they had the flavoured stuff. Garlic, oregano, lemon, chilli. Would it be considered rude to just lie on the floor and have Tarrant drizzle it all directly into my facehole?
After our olive oil interlude we were piled back into the van to be taken to Florio which specialises in sweet wines. There’d be no tour here, just the tasting which was fine by us. I think we tasted six wines? They were all pretty sweet and ranged from 8.5% up to, like, 18%. That last one, fuck me, I could hear my dentist rubbing his hands with glee it was that sweet. I think I developed three new cavities just looking at the bottle. One of them was a sweet, sparkling red that they artificially add the bubbles to. It was over 12% and tasted like juice. It would have been nice with a shot of vodka. They actually sell their wine to be used in ice cream, one of the other guys bought some but it was too sweet for him so I finished it and it was actually really, really lovely.
Well I’m not going to lie, we might have only been tasting a few sips at a time but it went right to my head. I don’t know how people drive themselves around bodegas on a DIY trip and don’t end up wrapped around a tree. We were deposited back in the city, we found a place selling a milenesa meal deal for AR$890 then shuffled back to the hostel to pour our Malbec into our chops. Ten out of ten, would recommend. We were educated and plied with wine, had a great afternoon and met some lovely people. I still wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between different grapes in a blind taste test but I don’t think that was the point of it.
Jump to “Useful shit to know…”
Maipú, Mendoza Province, Argentina
Stayed at: Katana Hostel, Mendoza
Useful shit to know…
- We booked our wine tour though our hostel for AR$6100 each (US$33 officially, US$17 Blue Dollar)
- You can go in the morning or the afternoon. We chose the latter and had to be ready for 2pm.
- Pick up ended up being around 2.20pm.
- It was a great day and everything we wanted it to be. We saw vines, saw how it worked, and tasted loads of different wines. Would absolutely recommend.
- We did ask about the full day tour when we booked but we were told it wasn’t worth the extra money. To be fair, the half day was plenty for us in the end.
- We booked our flights directly with FlyBondi, a budget Argentine airline, which was an experience in itself.
- The website is only in Spanish
- When you come to checkout it asks you for your document number so of course I used my passport number. I tried two debit cards and a credit card with no luck.
- Tarrant read that the document number needs to be eight digits so I tried again with a debit card but knocked the last digit off my passport number.
- The golden ticket eventually turned out to be to use a credit (not debit) card AND and eight digit document number. As long as your passport number is correct when you’re in the process of booking your flights it doesn’t matter if you fudge it at the payment stage.
- It’s a budget airline so you’ll of course have to pay extra for checked bags.
- We booked directly with the airline, paid in pesos and were refunded 43% a few days later as per the government’s new scheme to offer tourists Blue Dollar rate if paying by card.
- Your free cabin bag allowance is 6kgs and it must fit under the seat in front. They didn’t weigh it at the airport, they only weighed our checked bags.
- Their website was misbehaving when it came to the online check in. It kept timing out, then when we got to the stage where we entered an email address to get the boarding pass the passes simply never arrived.
- We kept trying and eventually we got our passes.
- FlyBondi are impossible to contact. If you Tweet them you get a copy paste response with a link to “Start a conversation”. If you use this link no one actually ever gets back to you.
- I tried Instagram and email. I eventually got a response to the email two days after the flight.
- The flight itself was fine. Seats were predictably uncomfortable and hard with zero leg room. They did recline a small amount but then the person behind you can kiss goodbye to their knees. But for short haul you really can’t complain.
- It actually left on time. The cabin crew were lovely.
- You can buy food and drink on board with card or cash, but they only accept cash pesos.
- A can of Pepsi was AR$500 (US$2.70 official rate, US$140 Blue Dollar).
- I’ve heard they’re notorious for cancelling or rescheduling flights. Aside from that they were absolutely fine. As long as nothing goes tits up you’ll be okay but good luck getting hold of anyone if you need to.
- We landed at Jorge Newbery Airport (AEP). Several buses from outside the terminal take you around the city.
- The number 45 will take you to Retiro.
- You need a SUBE card to take public transport in Buenos Aires.
- Uber is also an option.
- Several bus companies go to Mendoza; Chevalier, Tramat, Via Tac, Cata, 20 de Junio, Central Argentino and Andesmar.
- We used Busbud to find out which company had the next bus out and bought our tickets at the desk.
- It cost AR$13810 each (US$75 officially, US$40 Blue Dollar).
- It took about 17 hours overnight.