When your drug of choice is Argentinian Malbec, it makes sense to go to the source—to Argentina’s Mendoza wine region. So, there I was, on a flight to Buenos Aires to meet up with my sister, Angie, and brother-in-law, Olly, the Malbec enthusiast.
With the help of the company Journey Latin America, we decided on an itinerary that first took us south, to the cooler climes of Patagonia.
South to the ice
From Buenos Aires, a 3½-hour flight took us to El Calafate, a town on the shore of Lago Argentino. The place has a Wild West-frontier feel, with a desolate terrain of tundra and rock, precious few trees, and the peaks of the Andes on the western horizon.
Renting a car wasn’t as hard as finding a station with gas to fill it up. We were intrigued by the warning that insurance doesn’t cover overturned cars. This made sense when we were later warned to always park facing into the wind. If the infamous gusts don’t overturn your car, they are likely to at least rip the doors off.
A mere 34-mile drive—which brought us closer to the ice fields and the Perito Moreno Glacier—took about four hours on a dirt road. Our destination was Estancia Nibepo Aike, a working sheep farm that offers lodging. The proprietor was indistinguishable from the farmhands. They were all fierce-looking gauchos with black beards, red berets and knives tucked in the backs of their breeches.
We met the sheep and the multinational crew of fellow guests, rode horses, and, despite being cheapskates, got talked into the $240-per-head glacier boat tour.
From a distance, this 180-foot ice wall (with a further 360 feet submerged) looks impressive. Close up, one can fully appreciate how massive the jagged wall of luminescent blue ice really is.
The glacier squeezes slowly but relentlessly through a rocky bottleneck into the lake. It “talks,” with repeated reports like gun shots, while house-size chunks of ice—snow that fell 300 years ago, our guide explained—fall into the silty, cold, gray water with a sound like an avalanche, creating mini-tsunamis.
Back on the boat, we returned to base camp, our excited exchanges enhanced by the crew serving us scotch on the rocks—supposedly glacial “rocks.”
Then, we were on to Mendoza—Argentina’s primary wine district in the semi-arid, central western highland foothills of the Andes.
Again, cultural and language misunderstandings made renting a car a struggle. The fancy coffee Angie ordered turned out to be a toasted sandwich. The local currency, pesos, use the dollar symbol, so the supposed U.S. $200 I thought I was getting from the ATM turned out to be 54 cents; and I bought postcards, but stamps to go with them seemed a completely alien idea.
So even with maps, GPS and Google, we had some trouble finding Casona Rural de Maipu, a resort nestled in the Lunlunta hills in the heart of bodega country, south of the town of Mendoza.
After entering through a formidable electric security gate, we found airy Spanish buildings with porches, a small yard and a pool. There are also stables, where our animated and hospitable hostess, Inness, keeps her horses and a dog that reminds one of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
The next morning, Inness arranged for us to visit the Domaine St. Diego vineyard, which is conveniently located across the road. We were welcomed by Maria, the vintner’s daughter, who strolled with us between the vines, explaining how the industry started when “people come, and they are bringing their favorite vine.” In particular, two waves of Italian migrants came to rebuild Mendoza after two catastrophic earthquakes.
We were shown how to tell the leaves of a Malbec vine from a Cabernet; instructed on the effect of sun exposure, skin thickness, pruning; told how “grapes are like people”—you have to wait many years for them to “develop their personality.”
We were told about the local municipality’s strict attitude on water management. Reliant on snow-melt rather than rainfall for irrigation, there are canals crisscrossing the whole valley. The canals are controlled by sluice gates that only the municipality can open (or not, if you don’t pay your water tax.)
Finally, we were ready for the tasting in an elegant sun room, set as if for a refined dinner. But before the wine, there was a sampling of olive oil produced from the olive trees scattered among the vines. “First pressing, or virgin oil is no so important,” Maria explained. “You are looking to the acid is important.” Less that 0.8 percent is acceptable. The good stuff is 0.5 to 0.3, she said.
Then, to the wine: a sparkling Chardonnay, a Cabernet Frank and deep purple, oily Malbec.
Feeling like Miles in the movie “Sideways,” we rolled the wine to assess its viscosity. We sampled its bouquet (or “nose”) with ours. We sipped and gargled—and tried to convince ourselves we could taste the vanilla, the caramel, the marmalade, the coconut—all those unlikely flavors wine aficionados always claim.
My unsophisticated palate preferred the sparkling white Chardonnay. Even the Cabernet Frank was a little too much tannin, let alone the Malbec—but Olly was in clover.
By late morning, as we prepared to walk back, we were, if not three sheets to the wind, at least comfortably mellow. Still, Olly insisted on poking his nose into the manufacturing side of the operation, where massive wine containers are decorated with a “Sgt. Pepper” Beatles motif.
Our other wine experience was a bike tour with Wine and Ride, on Los Caminos Del Vino (“the wine road”), which turned out to be tree-lined but pot-holed roads between fields of vines.
First stop was the very opulent vineyard of Bodega Trivento. We sat in an elegant, air-conditioned lobby and sampled the same kind of selection—which again convinced me I am not a fan of old world-style wine with all that tongue-furring tannin.
Then, another olive oil tasting, but this time after a tour of the factory with its presses and holding tanks. We learned the best oil is not filtered, rather siphoned off the top of the container, and stored in brown glass bottles.
Lunch was in a shaded courtyard, but the heat persuaded us more biking would just be “whine and ride” and we gratefully allowed our bikes to be transported and us to be driven back to Inness’ compound.
We left wine country for two days of souvenir shopping, and seeing more sites back in Buenos Aires, notably the vibrant, if very commercialized, artist quarter of La Boca. Then, I was headed back to Virginia, while Angie and Olly swanned on, by ferry across the Río de la Plata to Colonia in Uruguay.
We were all reluctant to leave Argentina, a country with so many exotic landscapes and venues.
Dr. Patrick Neustatter of Caroline County is the author of “Managing Your Doctor: The Smart Patient’s Guide to Getting Effective Affordable Healthcare.”