Mendoza sits at the base of the Andes and serves as a gateway to an outdoor enthusiasts paradise. Mountain climbers can use Mendoza as a base to climb Aconcagua, and day trekkers have limitless options within an hours drive. Equestrians can take advantage of Argentina's horse culture and warm summers provide white water rafting while the mild winters place Andes' skiing only a few miles away. The town also boasts a main park that is a 1,037 acre site with cycling trails and and equestrian center.
The town itself is a pedestrians dream with long cobblestone walkways lined with outdoor cafes and parilla restaurants. Five beautiful parks dot the downtown area in the shape of the five on a dice cube. The center park holds the city's modern art museum and from there, you can head West on a pedestrian mall for several blocks and reach the right and left "top dots" by heading North or South within another few blocks. The town sits in what would be a desert if the founders had not built a series of open aqueducts which line the streets, bringing in water from the Andes. Giant Poplars and Sycamores line the streets creating a "tree canopy" to shade you from the sun while you sip your wine whiling away the warm afternoons.
If all of the above weren't enough to bring you here for a visit, Mendoza also sits in the heart of the wine country! Pressed for time to see as much of Argentina as possible in just a couple of weeks, we decided to forego the outdoor activities and focus on the wine and Argentine barbecue (parilla). South American wine tasting has not quite achieved the tourist friendly "free" wine-fest that can be found in North America and Australia, but Mendoza does have an option that we can't find at home because of our litigious culture. Welcome to a day with "bikes and wine". Bikes and wine is simple. For $21 you are provided with a bright yellow bike and a single page map that includes eight stops for your wine tasting in the Mendoza countryside. Bikes vary in quality so a precursory test ride is in order before you leave the shop. Some bikes come with handy wine bags on the back to haul around your purchases.
We were picked up by the bikes and wine shuttle and along with a Swiss and English tourist headed out of town to the starting point. We received our 10 word orientation, made a couple of test laps around the front yard, and received the most important "be back by five" instruction, and then eagerly headed down the road to drink some wine. At our first stop, we were greeted by a sign indicating "exclusive parking" for bikes and wines clients. "Perfect," we thought. We felt warm and fuzzy and very special. We were "exclusive." Finally someone realized who we were. We dismounted our amarillo rides and placed them in the custom made re bar bike rack and headed in for our first tour.
Our first stop was an old vineyard called La Rural. In addition to being a operational vineyard, La Rural had a museum with a collection of antique horse drawn carriages, wine presses and vintage wine make apparatus. "Vintage" took on an entirely new meaning once we received the tour guides explanation. It seems that the early Argentine winemakers did not always use oak barrels to create and age their brew. Back in the day, oak must not have been plentiful or the wine makers just weren't savvy so they improvised by using the hollowed out carcass of a cow in which the grapes would be pressed and aged.
Yummmmm! Nothing says "tasty beverage" like a robust meaty wine! Surprisingly, the wine tasted "horrible" as our guide put it and the switch to oak was made. We walked through the rest of the operation and finally arrived at the tasting room/art gallery. The rules of the first tasting were simple. We would receive tastings of two wines, a Chardonnay and a Malbec, both of which were not sold in stores. Once again, we felt exclusive. Not only did we have exclusive parking, but we would be served exclusive wines in a beautiful tasting room and art gallery.
We would be able to taste additional top-shelf wines for a fee. The wine matrons lined up the glasses and poured the first taste. I swirled the glass and raised it to my nose to impart the bouquet. "Smells like cheap chablis," I thought. I tasted the wine and to my surprise, it was horrible. I wondered if they used the cow carcass to make this one. The second wine was no better and the reason the wine wasn't sold became apparent. Despite our exclusive status, we were being served the swag that was unfit to be sold in stores! I realize that not all wines can be winners and thought perhaps a premium tasting would be in order. Here is where the Argentine wine tasting model falls down. Additional wines were only available by the glass (a whole glass,) at a price for which a bottle could be purchased in town. I would have bought a flight of three tastes, but to have to buy an entire glass at the price of a bottle in the store seemed excessive when I really just wanted to try it and maybe buy a bottle later. We had been joined by three other tasters from Canada and Australia and we unanimously decided that there must be greener pastures at other wineries and headed down the road on our fluorescent two-wheeled cruisers.
At this point I was feeling a little less exclusive and a bit skeptical about the rest of the day. Fortunately, the two Aussies that joined us were at the beginning of their long trip and their enthusiasm for anything different was contagious. We promptly got lost in the country roads and eventually came upon stop #3, which was intended to be lunch. The lunch was amazing and gave me new hope for the rest of the day. So on we went to stop four, which was the Tempus winery. This place knew how to play the game. A beautiful tasting room with multiple options for flight tasting. We all selected our tasting menus and settled in to try some wines. Argentina is known for it's Malbecs, but I think the Syrah and the Tempranillo stole the show. Energized by a first rate tasting experience we headed down to the next winery. The maps give estimated ride times between locations, so you would think that after 15 minutes we would wonder why we hadn't found the winery that was supposed to be five minutes away. Finally, the English lawyer in our group had enough sense to turn us around. We back tracked until we found winery #5, which was really a 15 second ride across the street from winery number four and headed into the tasting room, a refurbished barn with bean bag chairs, for our next round. We skipped the tour and headed right to the wine. We collectively bought a bottle of champagne to complement our tasting and relaxed for an hour exchanging travel stories and poking fun at the Canadian for wearing the country's flag on all of their luggage (it's weird, nobody else does that.)
One of our groups bike had broken so we attempted to contact technical support, but there was no answer. Luckily, a policeman came by on his scooter and offered to take our tasting mate to the next winery. You gotta love the police in Argentina. The time was approaching five but nobody was ready to quit, and we all agreed that the mechanical failure cost us time, so a phone call was made and a late return was arranged. I don't remember the name of our last stop of the day, but the wine wasn't so great. The rave reviews of some of our group were indicative that their judgment was impaired. So wisely, we decided to abandon the bikes and let the sweeper truck take them back to the shop. We waited for the bus for about ten minutes then the ladies flagged down a truck and we hitched a ride back to the starting point.
All together, it was an amazing day. In retrospect, we should have stayed in Mendoza for an extra day and explored their giant park. I still miss this place.
Welcome to Argentina! First impressions of Argentina are that we may have found heaven. The weather here is absolutely perfect, top shelf wines are $10 a bottle (good wines are $5!), good steak dinners with a bottle of wine are less than $25 for two and the outdoor excursion options are limitless. People are out to dinner at 11 p.m., stay up until 2 a.m. all the time, and everything shuts down between 1:30 and 4 p.m. so everyone can nap. This is the most likely "retirement destination" we´ve found yet.