"Could we go out to the restaurant at, say, 8:30 or 9:00?" I ask our hotel front desk clerk in Mendoza. "Well, you could," she responds hesitantly, with a furrowed brow. "But you will be the only people there for about one hour."
We decide to arrive at 10:00 instead, even though this is around the time we'd be thinking about bed at home. We sidle past the two people sitting at the bar and follow the hostess to our table. She seats us and we're not alone: there's one other couple.
1884 Restaurant Frances Mallman is known as one of the best restaurants in Mendoza, housed in a historic bodega (winery) building, so we're surprised by the emptiness. When we ask the hostess in Spanish where everyone is, she just smiles and says, "Es muy temprano"---it's very early. Sure enough, people drift in gradually throughout our meal. The tables start to fill up. As we finish off dessert and ask for the check, at 11:30 at night, there's laughter in the air, a bottle or two of wine on every table, and great music on the sound system. In the glass-fronted kitchen, the crew is hustling in every direction. The place is jumping and alive at the approach to midnight, even though half the diners are older than we are.
The tables are also filled with slabs of beef in various states of carving. The annual amount of beef consumed in Argentina is the stuff of legend: 60 kilograms per capita every year. Put another way, that's a pound of beef every 2.7 days, for every man, woman, and child.
They can put back the wine too, but not like they used to. Argentina is the world's 5th largest wine producer (behind France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.). In the past, most of this went quickly down the not-too-picky gullets of the locals. In 1970, per capita wine consumption in the country was 92 liters per year-over two gallons per month, per person. Alas, now it has dropped down to a mere 35 liters a year (blame it on rising beer sales), but that is still among the highest in the world.
It's not all turning into fat while they sleep though. That's probably because they don't seem to sleep much. In a country where many dance clubs don't open until 2:00 a.m., "early to bed and early to rise" is not in the vocabulary.
Getting to the Grapes
To get to the heart of the wine culture of Argentina, a stop in Mendoza is mandatory. Mendoza city boasts leafy parks, pretty streets, and a good climate. For tourists, however, it's really all about the wine. On our first day we hop into a van with our guide Charlie O'Malley--obviously not a native. After touring around South America for three years, he landed in Mendoza and now runs The Grapevine Wine Tours. With his vineyard connections and ability to deal with fussy foreigners who can't speak much Spanish, Charlie has become the go-to guy for seeking the malbec motherlode. "I get people like you who just want to survey the scene and try some different wines," he says. "Then I got others who are total wine fanatics. They bring down suitcases filled with Styrofoam wine holders and want to analyze soil samples."
Four of us pile out and snap pictures of the view at our first stop, Ruca Malen, with the snow-capped Andes Mountains glowing pinkish behind the grape vines. We don't realize we will have this view at every stop, nor that we'll hear roughly the same spiel about how wine is made. For the first time we learn more than we ever wanted to know about de-stemming machines and malolactic fermentation, a ritual that will then be repeated at every winery. When the tour finishes though, it's time to sample the local chardonnay, cabernet, and malbec. Since Ruca Malen is our first stop, this means getting a buzz started at 10:00 in the morning.
We then make our way to Tapiz bodega, which produces a label known as Zolo in the U.S. On this tour we get to ride a horse and buggy around the vineyard, with the Andes as a dramatic backdrop. We sample a few young wines straight out of the steel tanks, from grapes grown at different elevations. At the nearby restaurant at Club Tapiz Wine Lodge, we dive into an excellent meal prepared by a local celebrity chef. The wine keeps flowing.
When the tour continues back in the van, we ride past the massive Norton winery and find that this is still an industry in transition. "In the old days," Charlie says, "everyone just filled up their jugs at the local winery and that carried them through the week." Norton still keeps that tradition going. Every Thursday morning, the locals are lined up with their dama-joana refillable containers, paying 8 pesos ($2.60) for six liters---more than a gallon.
By the time we leave the last winery that afternoon, my wife Donna is stretching out on the back seat for a nap and the rest of us aren't feeling too lively either. There's something not quite right about a wine headache that comes on at 3:00 in the afternoon.
The next day we do it all again, but on a bicycle tour. This sounds so spontaneous, just hopping on a bike and riding out to wineries, but Mendoza is a big city. We actually have to get into another van and ride about 20 minutes before we begin. After that though, we get to see the wine countryside at a slower pace, working off some of yesterday's indulgence at the same time.
We have grand plans to visit four wineries by bike and our abstaining guide is all for it. After we pedal through the tree-lines country roads, then past olive trees lining the driveway of historic bodega Nieto Sentiner, the first tour of the day begins. We listen to another fermentation lecture, but get to wander the beautiful grounds and taste some impressive high-end wines.
After some more riding, the tour of LaGarde goes even better. They make champagne method sparkling wine by hand there, which is an interesting twist, but then they leave the two of us alone in a dining room with four different bottles of wine, some freshly baked empanadas and a plate of bread and cheese.
After diving in with gusto, we discover our legs are a little wobbly as we head back out to the bikes. On second thought, let's leave it at a two-winery tour.
Wine in the Desert
After the regimented tours of Mendoza's bodegas, the wineries in Cafayate are as refreshing as a crisp glass of torrontes, the ought-to-be-famous fruity white wine from the region. While there's surely still a lot of money at stake in the wine business here, it doesn't feel like it. Cafayate is a little town, in a mountainous desert region up near Bolivia, with an airport that looks permanently closed. Many of the wines are world-class, but the people making them don't take it all so seriously. It's probably hard to act all uppity about el vino in a place where hardly any employee arrives by car.
Most visitors also show up on a bicycle, since few of the vineyards are more than a short spin from the town square. Travelers wheel up, have a taste, and maybe take a bottle or two back to the inn. The man greeting visitors at historic Vasija Secreta half-heartedly offers in Spanish to give me a tour of the place, but I decline. Not because the tour is in Spanish though. At this point the fermentation process lecture could be in Martian and I would nod my head in full comprehension.
The one-speed bike I pedal around on is only 2 pesos an hour (65 cents). Every bike on offer has a big basket in the front, which looks kind of girly. That soon makes sense though when the purchases start stacking up. The bike shop is in a strategic location too: right across from HelederÃ‚Âa Miranda ice cream shop. This is not your standard gelati shop. The expected flavors are joined by two new red and whites: cabernet savignon and torrontes.
The Barbeque Master
In Buenos Aires, I become a barbeque master. That's what the certificate inscribed with my name says anyway. A friend puts me in touch with Mirco Zampieri, general manager of La Cabaña. By most accounts the legendary La Cabaña is the best steakhouse in a city of great steakhouses. He invites me to experience their "Gran Parrillero Argentino" class one afternoon. I don a monogrammed apron, a beret, and a red scarf to learn about the real national passion---grilled beef. First we go through a good 20 minutes on the parts of a cow. "To really know Argentina, the chef and grillmaster says, you first must understand the meat."
Zamperi himself had taken this advice to heart. He arrived in Argentina from Italy, with little knowledge of the main Argentine dietary passion. "I said to a butcher shop friend of mine, 'I want to come work for you so I can really learn about the meat.' My friend told me he didn't need to hire another helper. 'But I will work for free,' I told him. After that I worked four hours a day at his butcher shop, before I went to my restaurant, for eight months straight. When this opening at La Cabaña came up, I was ready."
Under the watch of grillmaster Damian Gelati (no relation to the cabernet ice cream), I scrub down the grill with salt water, skewer some kebabs, and clean a whole filet mignon. I learn how to make the two key condiments: chimichuri and criolla sauce. The former is a mixture of oil, vinegar, finely chopped vegetables, and lots of herbs. In most Argentine households, it sits in the fridge for months. The other is usually a combination of red and green peppers, onions, tomatoes, parsley, vinegar, and a bit of salt and pepper. This is about as spicy as things get here.
I also prepare some things I thought I'd never touch. Not only do the Argentines put away half a cow apiece each year, they also enthusiastically dive into the organs as well: kidneys, the pancreas, and unidentifiable glands all get as much action as the steak. As a group they're called achuras, which roughly translates to "that which is waste." Truth in advertising anyway. I taste each one as a good sport, then decide one nibble is enough on the morcilla blood sausage.
"What time should we arrive tonight?" I ask Mirco after a final lesson on grill engineering and tending the coals. "Probably 10:00 is best," he replies. We can have time to talk since it's not busy yet at that time."
The Origin of a Slab of Meat
That night, just as the late-night talk shows would be airing in my home town, I sit down to start dinner and taste the results of my prep work. The malbec cork gets popped and the food keeps coming: the sauces, the sausages, the kebabs, and a thick cut of prime aged beef. Despite my limited knife-wielding skills getting the meat ready, it turns out to be the best steak of my life.
At the end the waiter hands me a ticket with a barcode on it. "If you take this to the kiosk by the door," he explains, "you can read all about your steak and where it came from." Sure enough, as I insert it into the machine I see the farm where the steer was raised, his picture, a photo and bio of the farmer who tended to him, and what the animal ate. (No such origin ticket for my pescatarian wife's salmon though.)
The Argentines will tell you their beef is the best because of the way the animals are raised. No hormones, plus a diet of free-range grass and occasional oats. I can't say for sure this is why the beef is better there, but it comes out consistently great at fancy places and at humble neighborhood joints. And none of the ill-placed macho attitude that you have to order a steak rare and be sucking on blood. Here, real men eat their meat fully cooked.
Our final meal in Buenos Aires at the end of the three-week trip is a melancholy last supper, at an unpretentious place we just wander into by chance. Another steak because I just have to. And another glass of red wine for the same reason. When I get back home, I'll longingly dream of meals like this, with a total tab that's less than just a bottle of wine in a restaurant at home.
Doing it all a little earlier in the evening would be nice though. As we are walking back to the hotel, past the eerie Recoleta Cemetery, we both yawn as a distant clock strikes midnight. Our bodies still haven't fully signed on to this schedule, but we're the odd ones out. Teenagers and grandmas are drinking espressos in the busy cafes. Parents with toddlers in tow are getting take-out pizza. The club kids are filing into the "resto bars" for a while before going out dancing later. We have to be careful where we are walking: at this time of night, the sidewalks are packed.
Editor Tim Leffel is author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune as well as The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its second edition. He contributes to a variety of magazines and is a regular columnist at Transitions Abroad.
All photos © Tim Leffel except opening steak photo courtesy of La Cabaña
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