Saturday, 12 April 2008

Shaded by Sycamores

Sycamore’s line the matrix of streets in Mendoza turning what should be a parched, dusty city into a grid of dappled, shady streets and avenues. The Centre of the town is dominated by the Plaza de Independencia and its four satellite squares, one at each corner. Our hostel was located on a a broad, tree lined avenues several blocks away from the centre of town where, on either side of the streets wide irrigation channels bring precious water from the nearby Andes to sustain the sycamores with their smooth, peeling bark and mottled green leaves. The wine lovers amongst you may recognise Mendoza as the heart of the Argentinian wine industry. The long, warm summers and plentiful supply of meltwater from the Andes provide ideal conditions for red wine production and this is evident in the number of vineyards and winemakers in the area.

On our second day in Mendoza we took a tour (not the best but fairly informative) of the vineyards to get an idea of how the industry works in this part of the world. We were shown around three very different winemakers: the first, a large scale commercial winemaker (Weinert) several hundred of thousand bottles a year; the second, a smaller scale commercial vineyard; and, the last was a boutique, family run affair that concentrated only on what they could make in a small barn. The Weinert winery made both red and whites but concentrated on blended reds for the mass market. Their wines were generally made in vast concrete chambers lined with epoxy paint and then aged in giant oak casks. None of the wines we tasted their were anything to shout about.

The second winery was much more interesting. It had been set up by an Italian who had tired of mass production and was aiming for quantity over quality. He made several wines including a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend but focused on high quality Malbec, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. What I found particularly interesting was that they had taken white wine production techniques from Australia and New Zealand including liquid nitrogen cooling techniques and malolactic fermentation, that turns the green apple like malic acid into the softer, more buttery lactic acid.

The final vineyard we went into also played host to our buffet lunch, a collection of cold meats, juicy meat empenadas and artesenal cheeses. As it happens, the wine made on the premises was probably the best, despite the fact that it was served in bottles without labels. The lunch was delicious and quite typical of the region. The meats and cheeses were all served on platters made from the remnants of old oak wine barrels and the vegetables, roasted or pickled including beetroot and red cabbage.

In addition to the vineyards we visited a beautiful modern distillery. The building had been designed by an local architect using local materials in a very modern style blending industrial and domestic methods. The grounds had been landscaped and planted with Cypress, cacti and lavenders to take advantage of the warm weather and arid conditions. It brought home to me how much great architecture, classical and modern there is in this part of Latin America; I look forward to seeing more when we go to Brazil as I hear that Sao Paulo and Rio have some amazing new buildings.

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