Like neighbouring Chile, Argentina is now world-famous for its wine, and the ground zero of Argentinian vino is Mendoza. At around 700m above sea level, nestled in the eastern foothills of the Andes, with a tree-lined Spanish colonial town centre, and a sunny climate that lends itself to al fresco eating and drinking, Mendoza would be a lovely place to visit, even without the famous alcohol. “The Land of Sun and Wine” certainly lives up to its name, with miles of vineyards and hundreds of wineries dotted around the province, which together produce over 2/3 of Argentina’s wine.
This part of the country is so far away from ocean breezes and rainy clouds (and consequently receives so little rainfall – an average of 10 days per year) that it’s ostensibly a desert – the surrounding area is known as the Cuyo, which comes from an indigenous word apparently meaning ‘dry sandy earth’ – exactly what you end up with after several millenia of minimal rain. Not that the lack of water has deterred the local farmers from growing everything from grapes to olives – they just use millions of litres of water (snow-melt from the nearby Andes) to irrigate everything.
Like Chile, it was Spanish priests who first brought grapevines here, over 500 years ago. And, according to the informative guides at the wineries, it turns out that growing grapes in a desert isn’t actually a problem, as the controlled irrigation allows winemakers to use exactly the right amount of water, all the time. In France, where their old-school wine laws forbid any irrigation, a year with too much (or too little) rain can be disastrous. So, ironically, nowadays it’s actually the upstart New World countries like Argentina, Chile, and Australia that have a better record of producing wines of a consistent quality. Take that Frenchies.
The small town of Maipú is just 16km south of Mendoza, and is full of wineries (and also organic olive farms, family-run cheese factories, gourmet chocolatiers, and so forth). And renting a bike for you own DIY cycling tour seems to be very popular (judging from the number of bike hire shops everywhere). The only problem with arranging anything in Mendoza (from tours to bus tickets to money-changing) is their epic siesta. The entire city is dead and deserted for three hours every single afternoon. Maybe the wine has something to do with that…
Bodega Di Tommaso is my first stop, a family-run winery in Maipú that produces Argentina’s signature tipple, Malbec, in a historic old bodega. My wine knowledge mainly consists of having a good sniff, swigging the glass back, and saying “Please can I have another one?”; but the sommelier runs through a thorough tasting with me (us, I should say – there are plenty of other tourists here today). Despite the size of the place, Di Tommaso is considered to be a boutique winery, as it only produces 300,000 litres a year.
After a delicious (and mostly liquid) lunch, I follow the appropriately-named Ruta del Vino to Viña del Cerno. The hot climate here favours red wines, so it’s more Malbecs, Merlots, Cab Savs, and Syrahs. Randomly, one of my fellow wine tourists is a university lecturer from Australia who specialises in viticulture, and the oenological expert gives the local winemakers a run for their money with his detailed questions, on everything from soil chemistry to sugar content. I amuse myself by drinking as much free wine as possible and stuffing my face with complimentary olives and bread.
Back in Mendoza, after a slightly wobbly bike ride back from the wineries to Maipú’s bus station, followed by a sleepy bus ride from Maipú to Mendoza, and I find that my hostel is having a typical Argentinian asado – a calorific carnivorous concoction of assorted barbecued meats, and very little else. In addition to its wine, Argentina is famous for its cattle; and the traditional gaucho cowboy likes nothing more than a galloping horse ride across the pampas, followed by a massive plate of beef. The asador (a man, naturally) is firing up the barbie, while several women scuttle about with plates and cutlery.
Now, I love me a barbie and some burnt meat as much as the next man. And to be fair, the meat scores highly for both quality and quantity. There are enormous racks of ribs, sizzling sausages, glistening black puddings, steaks the size of dinner plates, and some massive chicken breasts. Plus, some small and cute-looking (and quite tasty) bits of meat called chinchulines, which I later find out are intestines (I’d obviously drunk enough Malbec to care by that point). The trouble with the asado is, apart from the huge quantity of meat, there’s not much else. No rice, or pasta, or potato salad. Just a few small bread rolls. And no veggies whatsoever. Just a barbecue in its purest form – fire and meat (the only thing that’s green is the chimichurri, a traditional Argentinian condiment that’s made from herbs and olive oil). As a result, after a while, I feel like I’m full of meat, clogged up with protein and stuffed with fat. It’s not a particularly pleasant sensation, like being pregnant with a food baby (Congratulations! It’s a burger!). And even the famously-curative properties of yet more red wine don’t do the trick.
I spy one of the locals just finishing a piece of beef the size of a toilet seat, and casually ask him whether he’s ever heard of cardiovascular disease or arteriosclerosis. He scoffs at the thought of all that wonderful red meat doing him any harm at all; and even if it is unhealthy, it’s part of the culture, he says. “I’d rather die than stop eating it”, he proudly claims, before going back to the grill for another sausage. I try not to think about how he probably will die if he does keep eating all that meat, and I waddle back to my room, and bed.