Ruta del Vino: tasting the best of Argentina

We have officially left Patagonia behind us and are heading towards Northern Argentina. What awaits us is more of the magnificent Andes, endless desert plains and wine, litres of wine. But above all, we meet up with some dear friends again!

Driving down from the high Andes to the desert landscape around Mendoza it is hard to believe that this arid area is home to Argentina’s number one beverage: wine! But the closer we get, the more bright green fields we spot interrupting the barren hills. We arrive to our first destination, Valle de Uco, and by then vineyards are everywhere. With the help of irrigation water from the mountains they turned the desert into red gold, as this valley, 100 km from Mendoza, houses some of the best bodegas in the country. Often started by immigrant winemakers from France, Italy or other renowned wine regions, these wineries benefit from a tonne of imported knowledge and an ideal local climate. We start off with the Salentein Bodega, makers of our favorite Portillo Malbec. We don’t really remember how many bottles of this cheap – in Argentina at least – but great wine we have already consumed this trip, but enough for the winery to make it to the top of our “to visit list”. The bodega – in Dutch hands – surely knows how to impress its visitors: the tree-lined driveway through the vineyards ends at an impressive, modernistic visitor centre complete with modern art museum and high-end restaurant. Unfortunately the cheapest tour is 22 dollars per person and includes only a modest tasting – the reason we’re here – so we decide to spend our money in their bar. On a patio overlooking the vineyards with the Andes as a backdrop we enjoy some of their best wines for a fraction of the tour’s worth. By the end of the day we find ourselves a nice riverside spot to camp, a refreshing dip, as showers are overrated, and we cook ourselves some delicious burgers. We get talking with a local who is fishing in the river and it turns out to be an American who works in the region to introduce US importers to the wineries. Perfect to get some insider info on which places we should add to our list. It turns out later that his taste is a bit above our budget, but still. The next day, however, we’re planning to splurge for once! We end up in Domaine Bousquet where we have booked a 5-course lunch with wine pairing, the perfect way to sample all they have on offer. It’s simply superb: the wine, the food, the wine in the food, amazing! We go for a small tour of the winery and cellars, where we learn about how great the region is for organic producers due to the little pests that the dry climate supports, and are happy we can catch a breeze walking around before we have to drive off. We turn off at the first vineyard where we think we could park for the night and ask the farmer for permission to spend the night on his grounds. As long as we don’t mind waking up at 6 when they start working, no problem at all… That night the weather here turns so we speed off towards Mendoza to continue our wine odyssey in the wineries closer to the city. It turns out to be a rather lousy day as most of the wineries that we planned to visit are closed this Saturday. Apparently it is some special holiday for the winemakers and everyone is enjoying an extended weekend. Also, we thought Valle de Uco was much more beautiful than Maipu or Lujan de Cuyo and thus we’re not so impressed. Sunday we spend in the city, another bad call as it looks like a ghost town that day. Luckily we find some open wine shops – Hannes was still looking for some good bottles from the bodegas that were closed yesterday – and there’s still plenty to choose from for a nice lunch. With a glass of wine we close our visit to Mendoza and move on to the next province, San Juan.

The city of San Juan is on the list for one thing only: more wine. We drop by one more winery and also a sparkling wine producer where we get a tour and tasting. Clearly the wine area is less visited and everything is cosily small scale, but we have to admit the quality is a little less attractive compared to its Southern neighbor. So after some lunch and rest, to get the tasting out of our blood, we move further North, into the desert to Dique Cuesta del Viento. The real reason we have come to San Juan is the world class kitesurfing on this dammed reservoir. One of the kite schools has no problem with us parking there for a few days so we set up camp and wait for the wind pick up the next morning. Well, that was the plan at least. The nice pork ribs in black pepper sauce that we cooked last night might have been a bit too long in the butcher’s counter and not long enough in the pan… So Hannes has to postpone his classes for a day. You don’t want to be trapped in a wetsuit with an upset stomach! Anyway, a day later Hannes starts another 6 hours of classes spread over the next few days. It takes some time to get back to the level he reached back in Jeri but in the end it works out great and he’s happy when we move on. We’re on a schedule now as tomorrow evening we’re meeting up with our Argentinian friends, Soledad and Gaston, in Cordoba and we have a long drive ahead of us. Because of this long drive, we continue after dark, something we usually try to avoid, and suddenly something crosses the road in front of the car. Hannes utters a high, surprised shriek and is unable to hit the brakes in time so we grab the rabbit-like animal under our front bumper. Sad about our first road kill, we stop over at the next mirador and go to sleep. Well, we try to. The 31 degrees outside at 10 pm don’t make sleeping very easy… On our way to Cordoba we pass by San Juan’s main tourist attraction: Ischigualasto National Park, more commonly and pronounceably known as Valle de la Luna. We’re doubting whether or not to do the tour as the weather isn’t great and you just have to drive in line with everyone else following a guide, but when the sun finally comes out we decide to go for it. There are some interesting rock formations and the colors are nice but in the end it’s not really our thing to have this kind of tour. So we’re very happy when at the last sight the guide lets us drive off on our own to the exit, at least some freedom in the park!

A bit later than planned – we’re not used to factoring in traffic anymore – we arrive at Gaston’s office in Cordoba. The drive was pretty exhausting so we have a quiet night with the 4 of us. We order some Milanesas Cordobésas and have some wine before we all retreat to a Netflix episode and go to sleep. It’s weekend, Soledad especially came over from Buenos Aires for us, so we spend our time like all Cordobéses do: we head out into the Sierras for a refreshing dip and riverside maté. The next day we opt for heading back into the Sierras over an asado at Gaston’s place because of the weather, but that was the wrong decision. Half way up a hill Gaston’s car spits out all its cooling liquid in a steamy cloud and we have to spend the rest of the day waiting for help and transport back to the city. Ah well, shit happens, and luckily we had great company to pass the time! After the weekend normal people apparently have to go back to work so we thank Solé and Gaston for their hospitality, again, and continue our journey North. Well, at least for 25 km, because that’s when we realise our car has been leaking oil from the distribution and we decide Cordoba is our best bet to get it fixed. Was it the rabbit or just old age, we’ll never know. But that evening we are back at Gaston’s doorstep waiting for our car to be repaired. We spend some time in the city the coming days and catch up on some blogging but we’re happy when on Thursday we get notified that it is fixed. As we drive out of the workshop we notice shifting gears feels very strange so we let the mechanics have another look. Some plastic little thing broke inside the gearbox but that can only be fixed mañana. Sigh… another night stuck here. Without too much delay on Friday we then finally manage to leave the city and continue North, towards Tucumán. We were a bit anxious to drive through here beforehand. Whenever we mentioned our itinerary North to Argentinians everybody told us how beautiful and tranquilo it all was. And then quickly added that we had to watch out for thieves in Tucumán. Truth be told, it does look like the most impoverished part of Argentina thus far, but we meet nothing but genuinely friendly and curious people here. And they have the best empanadas…

From the lowland heat we make our way through a sudden stretch of lush cloud forest, the Yungas, to the highland valley of Tafi del Valle. We don’t think it’s that special but we do enjoy the milder temperatures and chilly nights in the area. After enjoying the local cheese and a small loop in the area, we move on towards our real destination in the highland desert: Cafayate. What brings us there? You guessed it, wine! This town is the epicentre of Argentina’s second wine region, specifically known for the fruity Torrontes grape. As we can’t drink white wine in our van – we don’t have a fridge – we thought it would be nice to go taste it at the source! The vineyards here enjoy an equally spectacular setting at even higher altitudes than in Mendoza and the rows of vines are here and there interrupted by enormous cacti, protected in the area. After our pleasant experience in Mendoza we want to find another wine-pairing-lunch-opportunity and bodega Piattelli seems like the ultimate spot. And yet again, the value we get for this lunch is unbelievable. The location is even better than last time and the food and wines are exquisite. This time we just take a nap in the parking lot as there is no tour included and then we drive a few hundred meters down the road where we camp for the night. Back in town the next morning we visit one more winery – 11 am is the best time for tasting right ?! – and as finale go for some Torrontes-Cabernet ice cream after lunch.

That finally satisfied all our wine cravings and quenched our thirst for a while and so we wave Cafayate goodbye and leave via the scenic way. Oh no, wait, we first take a nap because the drive apparently is much nicer in the golden hours of sunset. It was a great two weeks and with many litres of wine and diesel consumed we have now finally arrived to the true North of Argentina: Salta and Jujuy provinces, some 4987 km from where we left off in Ushuaia 2 months ago.

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