When you think of red wine, beef schnitzel, creme caramel and entertainment while wrapped in a blanket, you hardly expect to be on a bus in Argentina.
Thirteen hours ago we departed Rosario, Argentina for Mendoza; a city in the country’s wine region. I was expecting the usual kind of bus service with average food and broken seats. But, an hour into our trip, we pulled onto the side of the road and watched in wonder as a catering service loaded eskis onto the bus. Eskis bursting with fine food and wine that was then served to us by a waiter in a suit.
“Si, gracias”. Yes please!
In the morning we woke early and were presented with breakfast accompanied by coffee and tea. Then the bus attendant entertained us with a game of Bingo. Australia should really look into mirroring this amazing Argentinean system.
We are currently loading our bags into a taxi and it is early, only about 9:00 am. I feel refreshed after a comfortable sleep in a fully reclinable seat. We are navigating our way from the termini to our hostel in the centre of Mendoza.
I am always thrilled to be in a new place. After we check in to our hostel, we walk around the city centre marveling at the wide, leafy streets and spacious main square. We sit basking in the sun, watching the fountain display and local kids playing a game of soccer. One of them drops the ball into the fountain and makes the risky climb down the steep wall to recover it.
We meander along the streets, looking for nothing in particular, exploring artesian stores and pausing for a coffee at one of the many cafes. We watch with a laugh as a local argues heatedly with a parking officer. They are flailing their hands around passionately. I can imagine what they are saying – no matter what language a person speaks, sometimes, the dialogue is the same.
We spend the afternoon exploring the city’s many plazas. There is the Spanish Plaza with its decadent tiles, exotic trees and extravagant fountain and there is the more simple Italian Plaza. After a violent earthquake in 1861, the city was rebuilt this way in order to tolerate seismic activity.
In the afternoon we nap in the hostel room before venturing out again in the evening. This place comes alive at night. It’s like the locals are nocturnal. There are people everywhere and the city is buzzing with a party vibe. We eat at a burger place.I can’t see anything vegetarian on the menu but Justin has a burger the size of a large dinner plate. While he eats I look around. There are people everywhere and all the shops are open.
We wake early to change hostels. We are moving to the outskirts of the city to a place that is slightly cheaper and has longer availability. It is almost Summer here and, at this time of year, everything books out before you have the chance to click your fingers.
It is a Sunday here. There are few people around and many of the restaurants and cafes are closed. It is a rest day. We leave our bags in the living-room while our room is being cleaned and are offered a free coffee by our eager-to-impress host. We sit on the rooftop of our hostel, drinking coffee from a machine and staring out at the grey skyline. Beneath us we can see the pool and table tennis table.
Around lunchtime we venture out in search of an open restaurant. The area where we are staying has a slightly edgy feel about it due to its proximity to the bus station. There are locals sitting on plastic tables drinking wine and every second shop sells bife de lomo.
It is about a twenty minute walk before we arrive in the city centre. We wander aimlessly glancing in the windows of closed cafes until we stumble upon an open restaurant that serves a combination of Italian and Spanish cuisine. We sit at a table outside overlooking the leafy, wide street lined with shops. I order a gnocchi dish with blue cheese and walnuts and Justin orders tomato penne with peas. We share a bottle of sixty peso Malbec from the region. It is a lovely wine that tastes similar to a Rosé. We spend the afternoon drinking and enjoying the sunshine before lazily wandering back to the hostel, past churches and marble statues. The sun is out and the entire place is surrounded by an atmosphere of calm.
The next morning we are awake at 9am for a tour of the Mendoza wine region. We climb aboard a minibus with a guide that explains the itinerary in Spanish and then English. I prefer listening to the Spanish version. Since our one week Spanish crash course in Panama City, I have been trying to learn as much as possible. I recognise certain words and try to get my brain to connect the dots, but I am always that sentence behind in my translation.
It is about ten minutes to the region we are visiting, Maipu. As I look out the window I see a wealth of terracotta houses and rows and rows of vines. The sun brings the earthy colours to life. Mendoza is bursting with vineyards as it is the largest wine producing area in Latin America. It is also renown for its olive oil production.
Our first stop is an olive-oil maker called Pasrai. A lady with an immaculate appearance greets us and explains the production process to us. We wander through the small factory and taste four of their olive-oils and pastes. I fall in love with their tomato and olive pastes and try more than my fair share. The flavours explode in the mouth. I buy two small jars to take on the long journey home to Australia.
We clamber back aboard the bus and are taken to the first winery, Vistandes. It is a modern winery with sleek wooden boards and state-of-the-art stainless steel vats. The man who manages Vistandes tells us that most of the wines they produce are solely for tourism and export. Our group is split in half and he takes the four English speakers on a tour. We see the room where the wine is stored in oak barrels. It smells like coffee, spices and licorice. I want to bottle the scent. I love the look of the barrels, they are stamped with all kinds of names. Each of them had their own unique history before they arrived here.
We are then taken to the tasting room where the manager offers us their Malbec and then a Cabernet Sauvignon. I prefer the Cab Sav as it is smoother – the Malbec is acidic and rough. These bottles sell for around sixty pesos in Argentina (around twenty dollars) and, once exported, are sold for around two hundred US dollars. We buy a bottle of the Cab Sav, thankful we can experience them without their exported mark-up. We board the bus behind the guide, like ducklings following their mother.
The second winery is owned by an Argentinean couple and is called Don Arturo. Our guide is a pretty Argentinean girl called Maria with long dark hair and a rose-shaped stud in her nose. She speaks with a slight American accent. The setting of the winery is a stunning white building surrounded by vivid red and white roses growing on lattice and rows and rows of vines. I can imagine someone being married here.
Maria tells us that this winery primarily makes red wines such as the Malbec, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet.The Malbec was traditionally a grape grown in France but there was a disease that killed it off in Europe, however it is still a favourite in Argentina. She tells us that the grapes are watered ten to twelve weeks before harvest and that the Carbernet leaves grow higher than those of the Malbec.
Maria leads us to the room where the wine is stored. One of the barrels holds up to one hundred thousand litres. That is more wine than I could drink in my lifetime. She briefly takes us through a small museum and tells us that the large barrels are no longer used because they were unhygienic (as they were difficult to clean) and they did not mix the wine sufficiently. I glance up at a humungous barrel that is approximately three times my height. I can understand the cleaning issue.
Next, we see the dark, cold cellar where the wine is currently kept and Maria shows us the small barrel where the owner proudly stored a fine wine for over a year in order to give it to his daughter on her wedding day. Maria conveniently mentions that this wine is available to purchase in the store. There is always something to purchase.
Upstairs, we sample the wines. We try a Malbec, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. I become aware that there is an art to wine tasting. I have witnessed this before with my dad, but as she explains all his strange little actions come to life.
Hold The Glass – Maria shows us how to hold the glass from the stem as not to heat it. Apparently the wine should always be around seventeen or eighteen degrees Celsius.
Note the Colour – We are instructed to hold our glasses to our white serviettes, or up to the light, so that we can see the colour of the wine. You should never drink wine that has an orange tinge as it can lead to headaches and indigestion issues. All the wines we try are, thankfully, a healthy purple and red.
Swivel the Wine – Next, she has us swiveling our wine around in the glass. She tells us to note the tears on the side of the glass and shows us how some tears are thicker than others. Though what this means I am still unsure.
Smell the Wine – We are instructed to put our noses into the tip of the glass and smell the wine. I prefer the scent of the wines that have been in the barrels. I can smell the hint of chocolate, vanilla and tobacco.
Note The Taste – I take a sip of a Malbec that has been in the oak for a year. Like I’m being told, I close my eyes and concentrate on the flavour. It has a fruity taste and as I hold it in my mouth I can make out a hint of raspberries and strawberries.
I realise, suddenly, that every wine has a history and something unique about it. I develop an appreciation for the art of wine making.
After purchasing several bottles of their wine, we head back to Mendoza. I am tired and giddy from the alcohol but elated from the day in the sun sampling some of the region’s finest wines. I haven’t thought too hard about how I am going to lug three bottles of wine through customs and back to Tasmania.
I watch as our bus passes lines of bare vines and a stunning building complete with clock tower. The sun glistens through the window and I lay my head against the back of the seat, listening to the Spanish music on the radio.
We tip the guide and disembark when we arrive out the front of our hostel. We are starving from the vast amounts of alcohol and lack of food. We meander across the highway to a small restaurant with red chequered table cloths. I can’t help but think it looks slightly tacky. A waitress rushes over to greet us in Spanish. Justin and I share one of our famous confused looks before she realises that our Spanish is less than impressive and switches to basic English. She hands us our menu before galloping off in a blur of volumous hair to serve another customer.
I am familiar enough with Spanish that I can now read a menu. I choose a pizza and explain to the waitress that I would like it without ham. Justin orders a large steak burger. The meat in Argentina is world-renowned and he is keen to eat as much as possible before we leave.
We watch as the waitress bustles off with our order. Around us are families are enjoying the Monday lunch rush. When our meal is presented before us I am surprised to see they have put ham on my pizza. I am about to tell the waitress before I stop myself. It’s not worth the trouble. She is busy and, here, being vegetarian is a concept that is misunderstood. Who wouldn’t want to eat meat? Seems to be the general attitude.
I pick at my meal, envying the smell that is radiating from Justin’s burger. I have never before wanted to eat meat. However, his burger is seducing me.
“Are you sure you don’t want just a small taste?”
I stare at the burger before me. It has steak in it. Steak. I’ve been a strict vegetarian for almost ten years. I consider saying no before my senses kick in and I find myself taking a small piece of burger from him. Can I really consider breaking my ten year meat famine?
I find myself taking a bite. I sink my teeth in slowly, blocking the thought that I am indeed eating an animal. And… it is truly delicious. It is juicy and rare. This steak burger is one of the tastiest things I have ever had. I enjoy every moment of it because my conscience will most likely never let me do this again.
But, while I’m here in this foreign place, I might as well live on the wild side. You know, take a step in the shoes of a carnivore. I’m in Argentina and, after all, my conscience is clouded by the effects of all that high-quality wine.