Saturday, May 8, 2010

Red, Red Wine ... and a Couple of Good Whites, Too

Now I'm going to be singing that song all night.  But it seemed like the only possible title for this particular post, since I'm now in Argentine wine country in Mendoza.

I last left you in Buenos Aires, dear reader (aside from a little detour in the last post) and from there I caught a 'semi-cama' bus to Mendoza.  14 hours and NO BLANKET later, I was here; this was my first experience in this particular class of bus and, while significantly cheaper than 'cama', you definitely get what you pay for.  Had I realized when the bus stopped at a cafe-cum-gas-station about 11 p.m. that it was my only chance to buy some dinner, I might've enjoyed it more; as it was, I survived on fruit I'd brought with me.  I misunderstood the attendant's rapid-fire Argentine accent and thought he said we were stopping only for 'seis' minutes (e.g. 6) so I took a quick walk to stretch my legs and got back on, but it was more like half an hour.  So I would've had time to buy a tasty jamon-y-queso empanada, or something.

But it didn't kill me to live on bananas and apples for a night; probably good for my health and my waistline, actually.  I'm already fastening my belt at least 4 inches tighter than when I started out, so a few more food-less bus rides and I'll be doing even better!

But I digress.  I got to Mendoza just fine, and checked into a hostel in a lovely old converted mansion right off the main square, the Plaza Independencia.  After eating (the bus didn't provide me with breakfast either), I headed out to wander the town.  Among the better discoveries was a little wine tasting bar right down the street called the Vines of Mendoza, so I headed back there in the evening to taste a 'flight' of 5 Malbecs.  Scrumptious!   (As you can tell from the smile on my face ...)  I was very tempted by the "Los Iconos" tasting, with 5 of Argentina's best wines, but was deterred by the 600-peso price tag.  (That's about $125 ... I probably wouldn't think twice in my working life, but on the road it's about 10 nights of accommodation, or two long-distance buses!  Or a good chunk towards an Easter Island jaunt.)

The next day (yesterday) I went touring vineyards in the nearby regions of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo; I decided against the self-guided biking tour because I'm with my sister on this one ... alcohol and cycling is a bad combination!  So I hopped a bus and someone else drove me around; slightly more expensive than biking but still reasonable.  There are very high-end tours to be had, where you can pick your own specific winery stops, or you can hire a car and driver to take you wherever you want to go; alas, these things do not fit well in a long-term backpacking budget. 

But I was equally happy on my bus, full of Argentinos and Chilenos on holiday, and one other backpacker (a sweet young American college boy named Brian who had never actually drunk wine before).  The others on the bus -- mostly married couples -- kept thinking he and I were also a couple, so we gave up trying to explain otherwise and I just smiled when they referred to my "novio" (a.k.a. boyfriend).  Considering he was, at most, 22 or 23, I thought I was doing all right for myself.

The wines were delightful, and I tried some equally tasty olive oils at another stop.  I'd expected to enjoy the wine-tasting part, so that wasn't really a surprise; what did surprise me was the area we drove through.  I'd been expecting, I suppose, something like the bucolic peace of Bordeaux or Burgundy, steeped in tradition and history, or the lush green of Niagara or the Okanagan.  But Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo are suburban, if anything -- we didn't really hit open countryside at all.  The wineries are mostly very small, boutique or family affairs, so there are few grand estates with long sweeping drives and majestic chateaux.

Still, you can't really go wrong spending a day drinking wine, especially when it's fine Argentine malbec and torrentes (the latter is one of the good whites I tried).  Incidentally, did you know that "malbec" comes from the French for "bad mouth"; French wine growers tried and discarded this grape in a huff as unworthy of their attention.  From the dry mountainous region of Mendoza, Argentina, however, it`s taking over the world; those old French viticulturalists might be rolling over in their graves.

You can find other red wines here, too, and I tried a few of those as well.  I`m not sure what it is about the climate or soil or ambience of this part of the world, but Mendoza appears to turn all kinds of red wines on their heads and turn them into something else entirely.  Take pinot noir, for example:  I`m used to this wine as a lighter, easy-to-drink quaff (which it usually is in Niagara), but here in Argentina, I had a pinot noir that was spicy and peppery and `big` like I`d expect from a shiraz or a cab sauv. (What would Sideways make of this?)   I had to double-check the label to be sure what I was really drinking.  Similarly, the Argentine version of a cabernet sauvignon I tried was much softer and mellower than anything I`ve had from other parts of the world.

I had trouble remembering, though, as I drank some fine wines, that I am no longer a hardworking finance professional with ample disposable income and was tempted to buy a few expensive bottles to ship home.  But then the wine fog cleared, and I remembered that I`ve transformed into a backpacker-on-a-budget who would prefer to spend her available cash going to Easter Island, say, than on expensive wine; the wine will still be there and they`ll still ship it to me when I have a paycheque again, but I won`t be as tantalizingly close to the Isla de Pascua (as I must remember to call it here) as I am right now.  It`s just a question of priorities.

This is my biggest argument with anyone who`s told me I`m `lucky` to be able to afford to travel.  They don`t get that anyone can do this, if they`re willing to make the trade-offs required.  There`s no `luck` involved, people ... I worked really, really damn hard for the money that I saved up, and I`m willing to live very cheaply and forego a lot of luxuries to make it stretch to the things I really want to do.  So if you`re sitting there saying, `Well, that`s good for you, but I could never manage it even though I`d love to`, then quit your whining ... and quit your job, throw some stuff in a backpack and c`mon down and join me!

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