Mendoza is the Malbec capital of the world. Once settled into our hostel we headed out on a mini-van wine tour. The vineyards and wineries are scattered around Mendoza with the most accessible ones being in the suburbs of Maipu, Chacras and Luhan. The van tour took us to Maipu where we firstly visited the Vistantes winery, a large winery with a beautiful view over the snow-capped Andes mountains, but fairly average wines. At the wineries we got a short tour about their process of making the wine and a tasting. Secondly we visited Vino el Cerno, a small organic winery dating from 1912. It was in a lovely old building with an underground cellar for all the wine barrels. Third was an olive oil factory where we got to see them during the production of the olive oil where they grind the olives into a paste and then simply squish all the oil out of the paste. Then they distille the pressed liquid till it is pure olive oil. We also got a tasting where as the backpackers of the group we devoured all the bread and olive oil. Our last stop was a shop where they make all their own chocolate, jams and liquers including absinth. Since it was only 6pm at night we decided to skip the absinth and stick with wine.
Back at the hostel in Mendoza we joined in on an Empanada cooking class. Empanadas are basically Argentian pasties or pies with all sorts of savoury fillings inside. With a glass of free wine we watched as the old Argentian lady made the mince filling and then the pastry. We then got to put them together and make the pastries with their decorative edges. We then all sat around chatting and drinking the wine until they were cooked and deliciously devoured. Afterwards we just kept on chatting with everyone. It was a very social hostel.
Our second day was something we had been looking forward to for a long time - Bikes and Wine. The thing to do here is to hire bicycles and ride around from vineyard to vineyard doing tours and tastings. We made our way to Chacras, a cute little village by bus, hired our bikes and headed off. The first place of the day was called Lagarde. An amazing winery that we were very impressed with. The winery tour was fantastic, where we learned some much about the wine process in Mendoza:
Wine guide for dummies by Christian:
1) The most important ingredients for winemaking are the grapes. We visited wineries of different ages. No wine can be produced in the first 4-6yrs after the vines are planted. After that, the older the vines are, the better the grapes. However as the vines start to get much older, say 80+ years old their yield decreases, so less wine can be made per plant. The main grapes grown in Mendoza are Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Torrentes (white).
2) There are two types of irrigation - flood and drip feed. The better wineries seemed to favour the flooding method where a whole river was diverted and used to flood the fields. This is because it encourages the plants roots to grow deeper in search of better nutrients rather than staying near the service as occurs when they are drip fed. The winemakers also like to stress their vines by not giving them any water or nutrients, in turn forcing them to develop better root systems to find water and nutrients themselves.
3) Mendoza is prone to hail storms so many of the winemakers use nets to protect the vines. This technique can not be used on the older, lower yielding vines or by winemakers who want to get the DOC certification because the nets block out 35% of the sunshine.
4) The first step in the winemaking process after the grapes are harvested, is destemming. The grapes are then moved into a hydraulic press. It is important to use a hydraulic press because this prevents the seeds from being cracked. If you crack the seeds it can lead to a bitter taste in the wine.
5) Once the grapes have been pressed the mixture of juice, pulp and skins is moved into a fermentation tank. Some wineries add yeast, some just let the natural sugars in the grapes start the fermentation process. The fermentation process historically took place in large cement tanks, but now is very careful carried out in either epoxied tanks or stainless steel tanks with proper temperature control.
6) After about a month in the fermentation tanks and once the winemakers are happy the wine has fermented enough (it can't ferment too much because if it goes over 16% alc it can not be sold as wine), they have a choice. It can either be bottled and sold then as table wine (it'll be very sweet and fruity) or it can be moved to barrels to begin the aging process. This is normally the case for the higher end wines.
7) The wine is typically left in the barrels for 6-24 months. Anything less than 12 months is known as reserva wine in Argentina and is sort of an intermediate wine. Anything aged for more than 12 months is typically known as grand reserva and is the higher end wine. The amount of time for which the wine is aged in barrels is directly proportional the amount of time the wine can be aged in the bottle - 12 months : 10 years in the bottle, 24 months : 20 years bottle. Two different types of barrels are used - French oak and American oak. The barrels provide many of the flavours that you can taste in the wine such as chocolate, vanilla, oak etc. French oak leaves a softer finish, American oak a sharper, more powerful finish. The barrels cost 1000 Euros each, and are used 3-4 times. The top of the range wines use brand new barrels, the next line down use second time barrels and the lower quality line use third or fourth use barrels. The barrels are often then sold to whisky makers, although in argentina the lack of whisky producers means they offload them to whoever they can for about 300 pesos or $60.
8) Once the aging process in the barrels has finished the wine is moved to the bottle. The wine is typically aged in the bottle for 1-3 years. This is because the wine straight out of the barrel can be quite strong and sharp, but as it ages in the bottle is becomes smoother and more rounded. The really high end wines can be aged in the bottle for a very long time, and as they do so they will get better and become more complex. They will however lose some of their fruitiness and flavours at the same time.
After the tour we had the tasting where all 9 of us on the tour sat down and enjoyed multiple glasses of wine. We started with the white and then moved through their range of reds and champagnes finishing with a wine called Henry that was a blend of 5 different red grape varieties.
After 3 hours at Lagarde we cycled back to the little village to get lunch and then onto the next winery. Clos de Chacras was a gorgeous winery hidden amongst the village where we sat by a beautiful pond and did a tasting of 3 reds. It wasn't the most amazing wine but the setting made it an absolutely lovely way to spend the afternoon.
Our last winery was just around the corner in the village. It was an organic winery called Pulmery. We did the tour with the winemaker and he let us try the wines at different stages of the wine making process. We first tried a malbec that had been in the fermentation tank for 4 weeks - it was very sweet; and then a cabernet sauvignon that had been ageing in the barrel for a year - it was quite strong but a little bit sharp. Then we got to sit down and taste quite a few of the finished wines they made including port and several glasses of each. We sat there with 3 bogan aussie women chatting to the winemaker for a few hours. That night we caught up with Hayden and Mandy again who were also in Mendoza and had a nice meal where none of us drank any wine!
Day 3 in Mendoza was a very restful day where we didn't even leave the hostel! It was nice not to rush around doing anything.
Our last day in Mendoza and we did MORE wine tastings. This time we hired bikes in Maipu and visited 2 wineries. The first was the largest winery in Argentina - Trapiche. It was a stunning winery, with beautiful architecture and a very long history. It was big, shiny and mass producing. The wines were nice but definitely not our favourites.
Then we rode many kilometres to Carinae, a lovely little winery where we got a great private tour of their process and then tasted 5 lovely wines. The cute thing about this winery was the owners love of astronomy and everything was named after constellations and stars! We had a quick wine-free lunch at a third winery as dare I say it, we were wined out. Back at the hostel we sat around drinking wine and had an argentian bbq with people before heading off to bed to hopefully cross the border the next day.
At our first winery
Vines in the sun at Vistandes
Barrels at Vino el Cerno
Olive oil production
Fermentation tanks at Lagarde
Stacked up bottles of wine
The oldest vines at Lagarde
Wine tasting at Lagarde
Christian enjoying the wine at Lagarde
Anna on her bike
Clos de Chacras winery
Our view as we cycled along