My first trip to Argentina had been planned for several months. A close friend, my former college roommate, was getting married and I had been invited as his best man at the wedding. When he wasn’t required to be in the capital, Buenos Aires, to attend to his business, he preferred to stay at his country home, a traditional estancia or cattle ranch located an hour outside of the city. It was where the wedding was to take place.
Argentina is a fascinating country with stunningly diverse geography, ranging from lush tropical rainforests, windswept steppes and long coastal stretches to towering Andean peaks and Arctic glaciers. The culture has been influenced by successive waves of immigration from Europe, mainly Spain, Italy, Ireland, Britain, Germany and France. It is the most distinctly European of Latin American countries. Argentines are proud of their roots in the ‘old country’ and tend to think of themselves as a cut above other Latinos.
The wedding was a colourful affair with lots of music, dancing and drunken revelry. I was grateful for the opportunity to practice my Spanish and rusty Tango skills. We were served several courses of traditional Argentine cuisine, an eclectic blend of Native American and Mediterranean influences. The Argentinian propensity for red meat and rich, calorie-laden food belies the immaculate physical condition of the people. The country produces arguably some of the best looking women (and men) in the world.
The event went smoothly with only one notable mishap. My friend had the bright idea of having his picture taken on horseback while uncorking a bottle of champagne. The horse, stunned at the sound of the popping cork and the camera flash, neighed loudly and bolted through the hedges into the garden where the festivities were happening. The guests guffawed at the spectacle, cheering for the horse in typical Argentine fashion, and welcomed the intrusion as part of the festivities.
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The other incident of note was meeting my friend’s paternal uncle, a veteran winemaker with a large estate in Mendoza, the premier wine-growing region in the country. The uncle, as it turned out, was looking for an apprentice to train and eventually run the place while he was away on extended trips abroad.
A week later, we were in a Ford pick-up, driving to Mendoza province in the western part of the country. We drove non-stop from Buenos Aires for nearly 12 hours, stopping only for meals. Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia at nearly 7000 meters is situated in Mendoza and the snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountain range make a spectacular backdrop to the vineyards stretching out at the foothills.
The cultivation of grapes for the exclusive purpose of winemaking came to the Americas in the 15th century during the Spanish conquest. Today, Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. Due to the high altitudes and low humidity of the main wine-producing areas, Argentine cultivators are not faced with insect, fungi and mould issues that grape farmers usually have to deal with, and pesticides are used rarely, if at all.
The region does not receive much rainfall. Instead, the vines are irrigated by runoffs from melting Andean glaciers. Some prominent varietals cultivated in Argentina are Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo and Chardonnay, all of which originated in Europe, with the sole exception of the indigenous Torrontes grape, used for producing a fruity, aromatic white wine.
A personal favourite is a proprietary blend of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah, cultivated at high altitude (5000 feet above sea level) Salta vineyards in the northwest. It pairs wonderfully with bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) accompanied by Andean potatoes and chimichurri sauce.
Growing season usually lasts from October to the beginning of harvest in February. Harvest season can go on till April depending on the type of grape and region. The three main wine-producing regions in Mendoza are Maipu Valley, Lujan de Cuyo, and Uco Valley. My home for the next several months was located in the remote Uco Valley region, one of Mendoza’s most fertile regions, blessed with perfect conditions for growing the famed Malbec, a full-bodied, smoky red wine.
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As an experienced winemaker will tell you, the difference between a great wine and a good one is terroir, the regional characteristics that define its taste: climate, soil, sun, altitude, the slant of hillside and distance from a body of water. The jagged Andes is the most significant element in Mendoza’s terroir. The cool air and altitude of the mountains slow down the ripening process, balancing out the bright, sunny days. Big temperature differences between night and day enhance acid levels, resulting in a full, ripe and fruity wine.
Originally from the Loire and Cahors region in France, the humble Malbec, once known as a poorer cousin of the Cabernet Sauvignon, has been reinvigorated as Argentina’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Today 75 percent of all Malbecs in the world are grown here.
I stayed in Mendoza from the end of September till a few months after harvest season the next year, learning the ropes from Luciano and his sizeable crew of itinerant workers. In return for my services, I was to get a share of the produce. It was enough to see me through the rest of the year, most of which was spent hiking the Andes and fly-fishing for brown trout in Patagonia. The arrangement was repeated for two consecutive seasons during which I developed an affectionate bond with the land and its people.
The skills learnt in Mendoza would come handy many moons later when I set up my winery years later with some friends. One of my partners was the Argentine who had invited me to his wedding. His marriage had not lasted beyond the first year. I attended his second marriage too, and a few years back asked him to be the best man at my wedding. Now, like me, he is a bachelor once again, but the wine still flows on, as do our lives.