Wine and Olives

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Monday, June 6, 2005

Imagine hailstones the size of baseballs, that can destroy an entire season's grape and olive harvests within minutes. Knowing that the desert area stretching from San Rafael to Mendoza was particularly prone to severe hailstorms, we were pleased to see the occasional "refugio granizero" (hailstorm shelter) erected alongside the highway. On closer examination, however, we realized that the protective coverings were frequently missing - apparently "borrowed" by locals who felt they could put them to better use. Our new "post-accident" windshield is already lightly pock-marked from the fierce sand storms we experienced in Torres del Paine, so the last thing we needed was to try to avoid falling balls of ice.

Expensive protective netting systems are however distinctly evident on acres and acres of the area's vineyards and are removed only twice- yearly for pruning and harvest. This was explained in some detail by a friendly oenologist who described for us how the desert around Mendoza had been transformed - through ancient aqueduct irrigation systems first developed by the indigenous Huarpe Indians - into the principal wine producing area of Argentina. She also informed us that as roses are particularly susceptible to pests and diseases, a bush planted at the end of each row of vines serves primarily as an indicator plant to warn of an imminent attack on the grapevines....and the aesthetic effect is simply a nice bonus.

No traveller or tourist in Mendoza leaves without visiting at least a few of the local bodegas, so we planned our stay to take in several tours, and of course the "obligatory" samplings! The Mendoza area with its charming vineyards produces about three quarters of Argentina's wines, and until recently they were all consumed in-country. After all, with prices starting as low as Cdn $1.00 per bottle, it's cheaper for locals than drinking water! Although famous for its Malbec reds and Torrontés whites, export of Argentinean wines continues to be limited to a few specific labels such as 'Trapiche' and the organic wines, "Buenas Ondas", which are now even available in Ontario LCBO outlets.

The contrast between bodegas is quite remarkable, and we were pleased to have included both the very old and the ultra modern. Antigua Bodega Giol, one of the first wineries in Mendoza, continues production in huge wooden casks, even though most wineries now use small oak barrels to alleviate the exorbitant costs associated with long ageing times. They have a beautifully carved cask on display which was made in Nancy, France, and has a capacity of 75 thousand litres - apparently the largest in the world. Needless to say, it is no longer being used. Bodega La Rural, on the other hand, has now converted almost entirely to sanitized, stainless steel production units - more efficient but definitely lacking the charm of former days. The equipment of centuries past can now be appreciated by a stroll through their wine museum, the largest in South America.

Perhaps less well recognized, but equally interesting, are the olive processing plants in the province. Similar to our experience in San Rafael, we observed small producers transporting their harvest to Laur - one of the nearby olive factories. As with the wineries, the ancient wooden processing equipment had been set aside to make way for the ultra-modern stainless steel oil extraction units. A guided tour left us with some very interesting titbits: large olives have less oil than small ones (and are therefore mainly preserved whole); the colour of the oil (greenish to golden) depends on the variety only and is no indication of quality; the earlier harvested olives contain less linoleic acid, so combined with a cold press result in the best grade extra virgin oil; later harvested olives and pressing with heat produces distinctly lower quality of oil.....and so on. Now if only we could retain some of these facts for our next game of Trivial Pursuit!!

Since we are not particularly attracted to large cities - and lest you think that we spent our entire stay in Mendoza sampling wine and olives - we hasten to point out that we quite enjoyed the downtown garden plazas as well as the Parque General San Martin. An area of 350 hectares, this latter park boasts over 50,000 trees - quite a feat for a desert expanse. The "icing on the cake" might be an apt description for the massive ornamental iron gates separating the park from the downtown. Forged in England, these imposing portals were originally fashioned for a Turkish Sultan, but were brought to Mendoza in 1907. We decided to reserve a day during the week to explore the park, leaving Sunday for the Mendocinos who flock there and manage to cover almost every square inch of the park on their day of rest.
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