Friday, November 28, 2008

Argentina Trip 2008 - Day 7: Andes Outta Here

The next morning we had breakfast at Lares (I can’t remember if I mentioned this before, but Argentinian breakfast usually consists of just a piece of toast or a croissant and some coffee).  We saw Matt and Nicole again and the four of us decided to meet at a bodega called “Ruca Malen” that we’d was great for lunch and tour/eat together. 

Matt and Nicole headed to a bodega at which they had reservations and Sarah and I took the bikes that Lares had for vistors and took a ride around Chacras.  

After our ride we hired a driver and headed out to the bodega to get a tour.  Of the tours we went on, this one was the most “cookie cutter-ish”… the guide was the least knowledgeable and just seemed to know the basics.  And we were with about 12 other people, which made it a lot less personal.

But!  We had a great time hanging out with Matt and Nicole.  We sat together outside – all looking at the mountains.  Oh, and the food was amazing.  Ruca Malen gave us a different wine to try with each dish.  This was a ducle de leche mouse for dessert. 

After lunch Matt and Nicole took Sarah and I back to Lares de Chacras – they had rented a car instead of hiring a driver to get around.  It’s a slightly cheaper options, but you do have to be careful about how much wine you “taste”! 

 We packed up and headed out to the airport.  The Taxi dropped us off and we went inside and stood in line at LAN (AA doesn’t fly into Mendoza, so they had to fly it over on a sister airline).  LO AND BEHOLD THEY HAD MY BAG.  After 6 days of no luggage!

With about an hour before we needed to be at the Omnibus stop, we headed back into Mendoza because we wanted to buy a specific wine we were worried we wouldn’t be able to get in BA: La Azul Reserve.  We had this wine for lunch at Tupungato Divino and it was our favorite of the entire trip.  We drove past the winery near Salentine but weren’t able to tour it.  Anyhow, we stopped by a wine shop in Mendoza and they had it – so we bought two bottles to bring back with us to the US. 

Finally we got to the bus stop, with 30 minutes to spare, and were able to get on a slightly earlier bus than what we’d planned on.  Again we had great seats and this time remembered our Tylenol PM.  We slept a lot better on this bus! 

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Argentina Trip 2008 - Day 6: Baby got back-pack

We woke in the morning and were sad to leave Postales. Laura, Ursula, Betiana, and Italia had been so sweet to us… During breakfast we received a call from American Airlines saying that our bag was at the Mendoza airport and that we could go get it (and you say, “But wait! Didn’t AA say that they couldn’t call out?” Why yes they did!). I told them that we’d already been to the airport once because they’d told us it was there and it wasn’t. And that if it wasn’t there again, they would have to ship it to us BACK in Buenos Aires, because that evening we’d be taking the overnight bus back to BA. Arrrgg.

After breakfast a car came to pick us up and take us on a bit of a trip up into the mountains. Since the Valle de Uco is closer to the base of the Andes than Mendoza proper, we wanted to take advantage of the proximity and get some mountain time.

About 20k from Postales is a historical site called “Manzana Historica.” It is a very, very small town with a little museum, a convenience store, a medical building, and a few houses. The museum and historical site were built to memorialize San Martin. The story is that he sat below an apple tree (Manzana = apple) and contemplated liberation for the South American people from Spain in the early 1800's. This is Sarah and I also contemplating liberty for the Argentinean people under the apple tree. Though I doubt much will come of it.

After about 30 minutes of walking around the park, the driver started taking us higher up into the mountains. We stopped for a few photos:

We drove a ways farther up until he wasn’t comfortable taking his car much higher (those little Fiat coups aren’t built for mountain dirt roads) and so we stopped at an old resort location. It was a bit run down and no one was there except for the owner (I think it is a place that locals may go during the summer). It was about lunch time and the driver asked the owner if she would consider feeding us lunch in their restaurant. Obviously she hadn’t planned on guests, but she was very accommodating and said she’d whip up some empanadas for us.

We walked around the property a bit before lunch:

A meat/cheese plate is a very common lunch dish. I took this photo because of the jamon (ham) in the center: it was like our lunch meat ham, but mixed into it were hardboiled eggs, olives, and carrots.

Then the empanadas came – they do these very, very well. Usually it’s ground beef with a lot of chili powder and a bit of cumin, white or yellow onions, and bits of green olive. Then they’re lightly buttered and baked until golden brown. The view wasn’t too shabby either.

After lunch the driver took us back to Chacras (Mendoza) which was about 1.5 hour trip. Chacras is a southern suburb of Mendoza – about 25 minutes from the city center – where there are wineries much closer together than in the Valle De Uco. They are close enough in proximity that you can bike to quite a few and not mess with hiring a driver.

We arrived at our hotel – Lares de Chacras and got set up in our room. This was one of the two true “hotels” we stayed in, so we had to lay out at the pool in the afternoon. They are having a very hot spring so it was nice to take advantage of the water.

Every evening Lares has a Welcome Wine Tasting down in their basement cellar. We sat with two other couples, one from San Diego and one from Brazil and chatted about our experiences so far. The couple from San Diego (Matt and Nicole) were super nice and doing a vacation that was basically the reverse of ours (Buenos Aires first, then Mendoza); so we exchanged tips over a bottle of wine compliments of Lares.

For dinner we were in the mood for something more simple – since we’d had night after night of 5 course meals and very rich food (rough life eh?) We’d read about a hole in the wall Mexican food restaurant walking distance from our hotel called “The Taco Bar.” It was perfect. We were the only tourists, most of the silverware was plastic ware. But they made a mean guacamole, some great tacos, and tasty margaritas. Plus they had a funny/fun music mix. Sarah and I particularly enjoyed Video Killed The Radio Star and needed to remember that:

Back to the hotel for Election coverage! While the local stations were covering it, we didn’t understand quite enough Spanish to stick with that. So we watched the BBC. We had to stay up pretty late since Mendoza is 2 hours ahead of Eastern time. It was really interesting watching a British news channel cover the American election. They were pretty unabashed about saying that the US would benefit in its foreign diplomacy by electing Obama. Annnnnnnd with that, bed time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Argentina Trip 2008 - Day 5: A Tale of Two Tours

First, thanks to everyone who's reading and sticking with this. It's kind of like we've cornered you all into watching our family vacation videos, but you're being nice enough to stick around, long after dessert, to watch. Kind of you!

So we woke up on Monday morning having scheduled a couple of wine tours for the day. Postales actually did the planning (they were amazing - so thorough). We had breakfast - made by Diego and waited on by Italia (poor thing had to come to Postales just to wait on us for breakfast). Our driver picked us up at 10am and took us first to Salentine winery.

Salentine is one of the largest wineries in Valle de Uco (and Mendoza). They have a couple of art galleries that we were able to peruse while we waited for our tour to begin...

This shot below is standing at the visitors center/shop/gallery looking at the actual bodega. Our tour consisted of 4 couples: 2 from Germany, 1 from France, and Sarah and I. The tour guide took us along the vines and explained why different types of grapes are planted in certain locations and at certain altitudes.

The Bodega is two floors. The top floor is where all of the steel tank mixing and fermenting is done. There is a large, circular opening the center of the room that looks down on the lower level underground.

This is looking through that opening at all the oak barrels underground (it keeps them naturally cool).

This is a close up photo of their extra large oak barrels, which are HUGE. Almost 2 stories high. I'm trying to remember exactly, but we're pretty sure the guy said each one costs around $40,000 USD. They use them for three years and then switch them out for new ones.

Standing in the room we saw from above earlier.

Back at the visitors center Sarah snapped this of me with the fish-eye lens still on. I guess there's a reason wide angle lenses aren't used for portraiture.
We purchased an Iphone right before the trip and just didn't put the sim card in (so we wouldn't get charged international rates). That way we were able to use the internet anywhere we got WiFi - and in Argentina, it's EVERYWHERE. They're a lot better about letting you use it for free at cafes, bars, restaurants, etc.

After our tour and tasting at Salentine, we went to lunch at a place called Tupungato Divino. I had read online that a number of people really enjoyed it.
It was a long, slow ride down a bumpy, dusty road to a small restaurant/lodge stuck between two vineyards looking straight up at the mountains. Without question, this was the best meal we had on the trip.

For 75 pesos each (around $22 USD) we had a 5 course meal that took about 2 hours. We ate outside, had an incredible view of the mountains, and consumed the most carefully prepared food I've had in a long time. The chef was so sweet - she came out and explained each dish thoroughly in Spanish even though we didn't understand everything she said.
Sarah chose their chicken - I went with a salmon ravioli that was the best pasta of the whole vacation.

We also had our favorite wine of the whole trip here: La Azul Reserve. We haven't been able to find it in the states yet, so if anyone ever comes across it, please buy a bottle and send one to us! It's a very, very small bodega in the Uco Valley. Great wine.

Pablo (different Pablo than our chef at Postales), one of the two owners of Tupungato Divino, came to our table during dessert and expressed his thanks to us for driving out of the way to come to TD. He was a really sweet guy who told us that he and a childhood friend had moved their families from Buenos Aires to Mendoza to build TD. They left their steady jobs in the city, designed this restaurant and lodge, and came out to try something brand new. Well, it may take them a while to get it off the ground, but I HIGHLY recommend going here to anyone who is ever in the area. And their rooms are very nice too!
Next we headed to another winery called Andeluna. It is a smaller producer than Salentein. On weekdays they offer a cooking class taught by Pablo (not TD this time, Pablo who cooked dinner at Postales). This is the kitchen were he teaches and you get to eat what you cooked.

I really enjoyed this tour. The guide was very knowledgeable - it was just Sarah and I. He took us out to the vines and taught us how you can use the leaves to determine what kind of grape a vine is (by the shape of the leaf). He also explained how vines are pruned in order to achieve the sweetest or most potent grape you can get (the more grapes that are pruned, the higher the quality of the grapes that are left. But it also results in a lower yield, which is why those grapes go to the nicer, reserve wines.) There's an amazing amount of care and science and finesse that goes into winemaking.

And now the important part.

This wine region of Argentina is most known for the Malbec grape. It produces a very easy to drink red wine (below).

The view behind us at the tasting:

Andeluna vines below the mountains.

Sarah picking out a wine for us to buy.

Back at Postales we took a short nap and then I got up and took some sunset photos. These vines are brand new. Vines don't produce grapes until they are at least 3 years old - and most vines can't really be used for production until 4-5 years. Which is why it is not easy or cheap to have a vineyard!

While we were away Diego had started the meat for dinner that night. Hours and hours of careful roasting:

Again, rough life. The summary of our day: Wake, eat, wine, eat, wine, sleep, read, eat, wine, sleep.

So after we went on our evening walk, Laura (Postales receptionist) asked us where we'd like to eat. I said, "Oh, it's nice out again... I think outside." She said, "No, I'm sorry. I mean, where do you want your table to be." I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." She said, "Do you want to eat by the vines, by the pool? Where?"
So they moved the table wherever we wanted. We chose under the lamp, near the vines.

There's something a little Narnia about this, no?

When I hand someone my SLR to take a photo of us, this is typically the type of shot I get back.

And finally, Postales before bed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Argentina Trip 2008 - Day 4: We were lucky enough to travel here, and we're going to flan-t it. (eh? EH?)

We woke up the next morning and immediately called American to find out if our bag hand landed safely in Mendoza. We wanted to find out BEFORE we took the 20 minute cab ride to the airport. Alas, American did not know where the bag was (surprise surprise). Since we were going to hop in a remise (hired car) and take a hour+ long drive out of Mendoza for 2 days, we thought we'd at least try to go get the bag and hope it would be there.

It was not.......

So we came back from the Airport and grabbed breakfast. If you don't know what the picture below means, then you haven't read my entry for Day 1.

So, forget it. We decided we'd go to Valle De Uco and just enjoy it for 2 days - not worry about the stupid bag. I grabbed a couple more shirts (above, and a pink one you'll see in a minute, and then over and over). And we took a remise out to the Valle De Uco!

Our remise driver didn't speak any english, but he would speak slow enough Spanish that Sarah understood 90% of what he was saying, and I probably got 40%. Really nice guy who told us all about Mendoza and the outlying countryside.

Don't know if you can read this map, but we drove south from Mendoza (top of the map) along the base of the Andes, toward the Valle De Uco and a town called Tunujan. After a little over an hour, we pulled off the highway and drove through the town and out into some farms. Finally, we drove up the driveway into our residence for the next two days: Postales del Plata.
Postales is a Lodge on a vineyard in the Uco Valley. They have about 8-9 rooms and have been closed for over a year completely renovating the place. They reopened the DAY we came and we were their first and only guests! Literally, we had a staff of 6 who were only there because we were... which was kind of guilt inducing, but also totally awesome. If you end up in this area one day, and don't go here, you're stupid:

Our room had the old-school key.

Simple, but very tastefully done.

One of the three buildings with rooms (ours on the left)

You stay for the view... Yes, that's a vineyard about 20 steps from our door.


Iphone photo of us deciding that this is when the trip REALLY starts. Forget that dumb bag.

Remember, it's their Spring right now.

So dinner was going to be around 9. They were having a chef drive in from the city, who would be preparing dinner just for us. Crazy. He runs his own restaurant called Fuego - but they're going to use him for the Postales too as it gets up and running. We decided to take a walk around the property before dinner...

Looking back on the lodge...

Pretty rough life.

See the roses by my feet in the picture below? We thought they were a just a nice detail in the landscaping, but as we learned about Bodegas we found out that they are actually there for practical purposes. Roses are more quickly affected by toxins in the soil or dramatic moisture changes. So they plant roses at the head of each row and around the borders to work as indicators of any major problems. Canaries are to miners as roses are to grapes... it is canaries, right?

Ok, so let's talk food, because that's really the point of the trip.
When we got back from the walk we were introduced to Pablo, our chef. He has worked in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, but has settled in Mendoza. Super, super nice guy. We chatted for quite a while, and he passed along a couple of restaurant recommendations for when we were going to be in BA. He told us all about the menu for the evening that he and his Sous-chef, Diego, had prepared.
He prepares everything in the true Argentinian style - by wood oven. So everything we had was oven baked. The roles we ate were fresh out of the oven. The pork ribs were roasted for 4 hours before dinner, served with mashed potatoes and a roasted tomato. He explained that he likes to use very fresh, very flavorful ingredients, so that he can prepare more simple dishes. Like our salad which was arugula, Gouda, oranges, and oil/vinegar. Amazing.

Our waitress was a sweet girl named Italia. She didn't speak much English and was very shy to try it. But she informed us that she had to use us to practice since we were the first - so the three of us talked for quite a while. These are the times I enjoy most on a trip... when you're spending time with the locals, having local cuisine, and really getting a sense for the place. Of course everything seems better when you have good food and good wine.

But for me, the real achievement of the meal, was the flan. Prior to this, I did not like flan. I'd tried it, probably, 3-4 times, and had mediocre to negetive experiences with it across the board. I've never had flan like this. It was more creamy than gelatinous, and it was served with the most smooth dulce de leche I've ever tasted. It was incredible. Kudos to Pablo for being able to completely change my mind about a regional dish!

That's post-dinner bliss.

At the end of dinner, we'd ordered an additional bottle of wine for our room. So we went back, watched Mad Men on the Iphone, sipped wine, and then read until we fell asleep.