Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Marvellous Mendoza

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A typical Mendozan street – an avenue of trees, an irrigation stream and with a view of the mountains in the distance.

After saying farewell to Patrick (who had decided to stop for the day by a stunning reservoir), Johann and I sailed down into Mendoza via a couple of side roads that were clear favourites with the local cyclists. Despite being in the desert, Mendoza is lush and green thanks to the sophisticated irrigation system that channels water down from the mountains and feeds the many famous vineyards, streets and trees of the city. This is the only city I know of where even its industrial zone looks pretty.

Apparently the complex irrigation system was originally developed by the indigenous Huarpes of the region, to bring water from the Mendoza river to the arid planes. They used various tools and gravity to control the direction and flow of the water, enabling this limited resource to be used extremely efficiently. The Spaniards saw this green and fertile oasis and started up the wine insdustry in the 1500’s, after colonising Mendoza. Today, Mendoza produces more than 70% of Argentina’s wine and has the lion’s share of its wineries. Mendozan Malbec is viewed as being amongst the best wine in the word thanks to its soil, dry climate and incredible number of days of sunshine.

As an aside – Mendoza is also yet another reminder of the threat of climate change. Shrinkage of the glaciers above Mendoza, reduced snowfall in the mountains and increasing years of drought of the Rio Mendoza are a real threat to the wine industry and population of Mendoza.

I was extremely lucky as Pipa, a good friend from business school, had arranged for me to stay with his sister Samanta’s young family in the south of the city. Samanta was actually away on business in the US and her husband Maxi was looking after their three children whilst also trying to finish building their new house, so it really wasn’t the best timing for them. Needless to say I was extremely grateful. As it turned out, their home was also slap bang in the middle of the Mendoza wineries and in a gorgeous residential area, making it an absolutely perfect place to relax for a few days and sample some of the wonderful Malbec wines that the city is so famous for.

Father & son mountain biking action – we had a good Sunday morning riding some of the off-road trails behind their new house.

Their current stunning house in the southern wine-growing areas of Mendoza – this made my time in Mendoza a whole world away from my usual experience of being in a low-budget hostal room, often minus windows, in the middle of town.

Maxi making wood-fired pizza on the parilla (grill). Every Argentinian home has one of these for BBQs (asados).

The canals that channel water across the city and streets of Mendoza

Mixing the old and the new: I saw these old classic cars in front of a modern Mendoza house

Some Mendozans are lucky enough to have their own small private winery or micro-brewery attached to their house – one can but dream!

Beautiful old buildings in central Mendoza

Being in Mendoza for a few days also gave me a perfect opportunity to give my bike a bit of TLC before having the big descent down the Los Libertadores pass into Chile. So on my first day I replaced the chain, tightened up the brakes, swapped over the back and front tyres to make sure they wear evenly and used a local bike shop to true both wheels (which they very kindly did for free:). Now the bike was running like a dream, all I had to do for the next couple of days was eat, drink, sleep and relax!

The Clos de Chacras Winery

Clos de Chacras was less than an hour’s walk from the house. This peaceful winery is hidden away behind residential houses.  From the road you wouldn’t even know it was there.

The winery building itself dates back to 1921 and has recently been restored and updated by the Gargantini family who took it over in 1987.  The original old cement fermentation tanks are still in use, now coated in an epoxy resin which allows the wine to breathe very slightly through the tiny pores in the cement. The first wine wasn’t produced here until 2004 though, so it’s all still very young.

I enjoyed a wonderful lunch next to the vineyard, with a glass of sparkling wine followed by a Malbec/Merlot blend made from the vines right in front of me.

The vineyard tucked away in Mendoza city

Enjoying myself!

A very tasty lunch

The 1920s wine stores still in use

The original cement fermentation tanks

The Lagarde Winery

Lagarde is one of only four vineyards in Mendoza that produces ‘Malbec D.O.C.’ wine. To get the D.O.C. label they have to meet four strict rules (hopefully I understood this correctly!):

  1. The vines must be over 100 years old – theirs are from 1906
  2. They must not use a hail net (which means whilst being at risk from freak hail storms, the grapes get 25% more sun and hence have more flavour)
  3. The vineyard must use traditional flood irrigation, not modern drop irrigation – i.e. where the whole plane is flooded to water the vines. They plant olive trees throughout the vineyard to drink up the excess water
  4. No new Malbec vines must be planted nearby to avoid cross-contamination

This carries high risk of significant losses in case of any extreme weather, but if all goes well, the grapes will have a superior flavour and the rewards will be high. The winery employs 150 people during harvest time to pick their grapes by hand.

 The Lagarde winery

Not a bad spot!

The Malbec D.O.C. vines – spot the olive trees dotted around to hoover up any excess flood water

Keeping the barrels topped up to make sure the wine doesn’t oxidise

These giant oak casks cost 15k euro a piece, and are sold on for only 300 euro each. They are used for the best wines, to maximise the opportunity for the wine to breathe as it matures

Experimenting with a new type of fermentation ‘tank’

Making sparkling wine (‘espumante’) – bottles undergoing the second fermentation process that gives the wine its bubbles

A ‘riddling rack’ for turning the  bottles – this process gradually moves the dead yeast sediment down the neck of the bottle. I was rather pleased with myself for being able to teach the guide a new word rather than the other way around for a change!

The final stages from left to right: 1) the neck of the bottle is frozen in nitrogen, 2) the bottle cap is popped off and yeast sediment removed into the big barrel, 3) sugar is added (in varying amounts depending on whether the sparkling wine will be sec/brut etc), 4) the bottle is corked then capped. 5) The label is added by hand, using two pieces of string to make sure it’s put on straight.

Another unbelievably good tasting menu for lunch – time to get back on that bike!

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