Thursday, October 14, 2010

Crossing the Andes

Following our extensive, one-day wine tour of one of the most up and coming wine nations around, our time in Chile has unfortunately come to an end. If there were ever going to be a time for wine to flow in the streets of Santiago, today was likely going to be the day. Through the night, the trapped miners were slowly being rescued and brought to the surface and there was little else on the news - in English or Spanish.

But here we are, leaving what was likely to be a hefty day of celebration, to hop onto a bus for six to eight hours. I could easily have stayed on and discovered more of what Chile had to offer, but I had to remember that crossing the Andes to Argentina was the real purpose of the trip. I'd just have to be happy that we had the opportunity to spend the one day in Aconcaugua Valley.

I might add, however, that we almost had to stick around in Chile for awhile longer when Boo couldn't locate his "exit visa" as we were getting onto the bus. We had been warned, when entering both Peru and Chile, that we needed to be careful and keep these documents close at hand because we wouldn't be able to get out of the country without big troubles if we couldn't produce them for the customs agents. I wasn't sure that the bus would wait around for us as Boo searched virtually every piece of luggage and every paper that we had for 15 minutes or so. Luckily, he found it stashed away in some lost pocket.

Once on board, the bus route actually re-traced some of our steps from yesterday as the road to Mendoza winds its way through the Aconcagua Valley and past Mount Aconcagua itself. There just wouldn't be any leisurely hikes through the vineyards or tasting of multiple wines.

One of the most interesting parts of the journey was the climb to the pass right before the Chile-Argentina border. The route is so steep that an intense series of thirty-plus switchbacks is required. The almost vertical slope is highlighted by the fact that you drive by a number of ski-lift towers. There wasn't much snow left at the pass when we were there, but the area is a challenging ski hill during the winter - one where many national teams - including Canada's - come to train.

The border isn't nearly as exciting - however, it can add exponentially to the trip's time. We thought the hour-plus we spent in various lines and sitting on the bus was bad, but we were told later that it's very routine for buses to be held for hours while the customs officers go through every piece of luggage - once, twice or three times. Needless to say, feeling relieved that Boo had found his exit visa" was a major understatement.

It was quite stunning to note the distinct difference in terrain as soon as we had crossed the pass into Argentina. The ruggedness of the mountains seemed to mellow out dramatically and the reality that we were in a mountain desert kicked in immediately. And boy, was the wind ever a-whippin'! Our bus didn't stop, but as we passed a Mount Aconcagua viewpoint, we saw a number of day tour buses where the passengers had gotten out to wander a bit and take photos. Their jackets and hair were flapping in every which way.

Despite the wind, it would have been nice to have a brief stop to take in the sight. As one of the Seven Summits - or the highest mountains of each of the seven continents - Mount Aconcagua is the highest peak in the Americas and the highest mountain outside of Asia.

Tough to grow grapes up here though - and our reason for visiting Mendoza was, surprisingly, for the wine. We could only schedule four nights in the Mendoza region and I'd hoped to take full advantage of our time there. The fact that our bus was arriving two hours later than originally scheduled wasn't particularly thrilling - despite the never ending changes in scenery.

Mendoza is perhaps the most important wine region in Argentina and its wine tourism has been evolving dramatically over the last so many years. Our plan was to spend our first two nights staying at a boutique guest house/hotel at one of the local wineries. We'd never stayed at an actual winery before and the opportunity to do so now was to be an exciting, new experience.

Although the choices and varieties of accommodation continue to grow, staying at a working winery is still a relatively limited option. At the enthusiastic recommendation of our agent, we chose to stay at Club Tapiz. A restored villa from the 1890's, it is surrounded by 22 acres of vineyards and olive trees. We quickly came to understand that, historically, there is a large Italian presence in the region and that many of the local farmers and wineries hedged their bets on grape production by the growing and manufacture of olive oil. In fact, we found out that Bodegas Tapiz's new winery was actually down the road and the immediate buildings were used more for accommodation and olive oil production.

We arrived too late in the day to head down to the new winery, so Boo and I decided to wander around the vineyards to see what we might find. Instead of exploring the newly sprouting vines with a view of the Andes in the background, our tour was cut rather short as the day's previously clear skies had given way to a robust thunder storm. The clouds in the accompanying picture don't really capture the ominous nature of the storm or the close proximity of the lightning. We didn't care to offer up or test our conductivity while wandering around in an open field, so we hightailed it back to our room.

616. 2009 Tapiz Syrah (Mendoza - Argentina)

One of the nice touches that Club Tapiz offers is an evening meet and greet where the guests can discuss the day's adventures and taste some Tapiz wines. Two other couples - from London, England and Washington D.C. - joined up with us. Our lively and gracious host, Santiago, talked about Tapiz and their wines while serving up a steady pour of a couple of their wines. After the cocktail hour, we carried on by having dinner at the winery's well-received restaurant, Terruno.

For months leading up to our vacation, we'd been told to expect Argentine food to consist of meat, meat and more meat. We figured it kinda made sense to stick with the beef and goat for our first meal in the country. Noted British wine journalist, Jancis Robinson, has lauded the Tapiz Malbec as a great value, but we'd tried the Malbec at the meet and greet; so we thought we'd try something different and went for the Syrah - particularly since I don't think we really see much Syrah or Shiraz from Argentina in the Vancouver market. We see a fair bit of Chilean Syrah, but the Argentine wines still seem to be largely Malbec based.

It's a shame that we didn't get a chance to travel over to the actual winery because Tapiz produces almost two dozen varietals and blends under the Tapiz label. We only had the opportunity to taste about six of them and the Syrah was the only full bottle that we finished off. It just goes to show that there's never enough time. To bring that point home, it turns out that Bodega Tapiz participated in this year's Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival and I didn't even make it to their table. Granted, I didn't realize we'd be staying there back in the Spring.

What we did make time for was dessert - and I have to say that the olive oil gelato was superb. I'd happily take whatever steps would be needed to bring a couple gallons of it home with me. Between the call of gelato and missed wine opportunities, I guess we'll just have to make it back here some day. In the mean time, I'll have to keep an eye open for some bottles to show up in the Vancouver market.

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