Family-run Viña el Cerno is one of a growing breed of small wineries, or ’boutique bodegas’, that are becoming regular tourist stops in western Argentina.
The country’s wine industry may have been slow off the mark against neighbouring Chile, but is fast gaining momentum. In less than five years, Argentina’s wine exports have more than doubled in volume and tripled in value, with Malbec its most famous grape.
“I’m getting coffee and hints of tobacco,” I find myself musing as I sniff a glass of Viña el Cerno’s Malbec. I would feel quite proud of my connoisseur’s evaluation, if I hadn’t been prompted by an idiot-proof wall display, which clearly marries the type of wine with pictures of their associated tastes and smells. Cherries and blackberries in Tempranillo; roasted coffee and tobacco in Malbec; grapefruit and honey in Sauvignon Blanc; Oreo cookies and conkers in Cabernet.
Ok, I may have got that last one wrong. That picture wasn’t so clear. But I leave Viña el Cerno content and determined to memorise all the wallchart characteristics to impress my friends at home.
Wine tours aren’t always such a success. While there’s no limit to the amount you can learn about wine, there’s a definite limit to the number of times you can feign awe at the bottling machines.
On most winery tours, too much time is spent on the process and not enough on the important part: the tasting.
Large wineries are particularly guilty of offering sterile tours, herding visitors round in mass groups, before handing them a thimble of wine and pushing them towards the gift shop.
That’s where the boutique bodegas can have the edge. You’ll often find a far more personal approach in the smaller wineries, and if your timing’s right, you might even be their only visitor.
Also, knowing Argentinian hospitality, you’ll almost certainly be treated like an old friend, with much arm grabbing, cheek kissing and friendly banter.
There is certainly no shortage of boutique options around Mendoza. The most popular approaches are either to take
an escorted half-day tour with a group, or hire a bike and make your own way around the vines. The advantage of the former is it often includes a picada lunch (the Argentine equivalent of tapas), with plenty of cold meats, local cheeses and, of course, lots of wine to wash it all down.
The city of Mendoza, the capital of the province of the same name, is the heart of Argentina’s wine industry. Nestled at the foot of the snow-capped Andes, close to the Chilean border, it is known for its wide, tree-lined avenues and a laid-back pace of life that can come as a shock to those coming from traffic-clogged Buenos Aires (1000km, or an overnight bus journey, to the east).
After the country’s capital and Iguazu Falls, Mendoza is one of Argentina’s most popular stop-offs for backpackers.
Recent years have seen a rash of high-standard hostels opening up – many with swimming pools and in-house bars, and all offering countless opportunities for excursions and adventure sports. For many, Mendoza becomes one of those backpacking black spots, where a planned couple of days can easily turn into a couple of weeks.
However, wine enthusiasts shouldn’t stick solely to Mendoza’s well-worn tracks. Neighbouring San Rafael is another major wine-growing centre yet, despite being an increasingly popular holiday spot for Argentinians, the average backpacker still passes it by.
San Rafael may not have the whistles-and-bells hostels of Mendoza, but there is a fair supply of affordable hotels and holiday villas for those wanting to make further inroads into Argentina’s wine trail.
Unfortunately, my own choice of accommodation doesn’t quite live up to the superlative-laden guidebook description.
In place of the ‘lively atmosphere’, I find I’m the sole off-season visitor under 50 and my only companion is a dog who takes a friendly pat on the head as a green card to hump my leg at any opportunity.
But, dog-on-heat aside, I’m taken with San Rafael. It is somewhat sleepy, with a rather ordinary town centre, yet that’s its charm.
For once, having no major sights to tick off can feel refreshing. You can put the guidebook away and mooch around town, doing your best to masquerade as a local.
Until, that is, it’s time to get back to the tastings. San Rafael is home to an impressive diversity of wineries. From the stunning Champañera Bianchi, with its grand fountains, elaborate gates and showpiece cellars, to Jean Rivier, a modest and functional boutique bodega of Swiss origin, all seem keen to share tales of booming business.
However, my guide at Jean Rivier does admit their main obstacle still involves overcoming ‘industry snobbery”, making it clear the key culprits are firmly entrenched in the so-called Old World.
But times are changing and the reputation of Argentinian wine is growing at an astounding rate.
Here in the UK, the Gaucho Grill (an expanding chain of Argentinian restaurants) is case in point. When it opened its first premise in Piccadilly in 1994, the idea of putting Argentine wine on the menu seemed laughable and they opted, instead, for a menu that paired its steaks with beer. Fourteen years on, not only do they have a lengthy wine list, it’s also entirely native, with the most expensive Malbec blend priced at £190 a bottle. “Actually, it’s those with the least knowledge about wine that are the hardest to win over now, because they arrive with so many preconceptions,” Gaucho Grill’s head sommelier Jessica Closs says.
Nonetheless, the Argentines are now attaining snobbery of their own, with the Gaucho Grill vowing to take the country’s most famous label, Norton, off its menu this year after the brand secured a deal with Tesco.
It seems wine is best served with an open mind and an ability to understand your own taste.
Sitting in a gastro pub back home, staring at a lengthy wine list with a surprising number of Mendozan exports, I find Christian’s football analogies left a lasting impression. “It’s having a variety of players that makes the game interesting,” he said. When it comes to wine, the Argentinian game is one to watch.
Walking with dinosaurs
If you’re doing the Buenos Aires/San Rafael/ Mendoza triangle, consider splitting the trip with an unusual stop. The canyons of Sierra de las Quijadas are one of Argentina’s little-known highlights. Only recognised as a national park in 1995, they offer fantastic hiking trails and the chance to walk among dinosaur footprints and 120 million-year-old fossils.
Those wanting to take the palaeontologist’s dream to the next level should continue south. In recent years, the biggest-ever dinosaur remains have been found in Patagonia. First came the discovery of a 100-tonne giant now known as Argentinosaurus; then, last year, this was usurped by the discovery of a beast thought to have measured four storeys high, with a neck 10 times longer than a giraffe’s.
Oddly, for a country so obsessed by red meat, these creatures are thought to be history’s biggest vegetarians.
To arrange a trip to Sierra de las Quijadas, see www.sanluisturismo.com.ar (Spanish only) or contact San Luis Hostel. For a chance to aid the experts on a dig, join a dinosaur camp at Centro Paleontológico Lago Barreales in Neuquén, Patagonia. For details see www.interpatagonia.com.