Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Easter Island – Rapa Nui – Isla de Pascua

By whatever name you refer to it, Easter Island has always held a certain mystique for me. Perhaps it is the sheer remoteness of the island or the enigmatic moai (stone statues) for which the island is renowned or maybe even because so little is really known about the island and the indigenous peoples who inhabited it and named it Rapa Nui. I only know that it is one of the places I have longed to visit. Located about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) off the coast of Chile in the middle of the Pacific, the small volcanic island was once considered one of the most isolated places on the planet. Now, it is connected to mainland Chile via daily flights from Santiago and these flights are packed with islanders and tourists alike. The flight is long, about 5 and a half hours but I spend my time reading voraciously about the island, the history, the geology, the people and what to see and do. I kept glancing out of the window at the blue Pacific below and my list of activities got longer. Tom looked over and commented that we only have 4 full days and “that is quite a list”. I agreed but kept on adding to it until…land was below us. I put away the books I was reading and retrieved my camera. I did not want to miss the first aerial photographs of the island. Hmm, did I mention how tiny it is? The plane swooped across the entire land and was out to sea again before I could ready the camera. The pilot banked steeply and turned to approach the runway from the opposite direction. By now, we could make out the terrain and runway which runs the width of the island on the south side, one coast to another, west to east. I was able to get some shots of Orongo, a sacred ceremonial site as the plane lightly touched down and the pilot immediately applied the brakes bringing the plane to a screeching halt with seemingly only feet to spare before dropping into the ocean. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned it but, I have a distinct fear of flying, particularly of takeoff and landing. I have flown a lot but have never quite come to terms with the idea of a monstrous metal object carrying several hundred people and God only knows how much cargo, lifting off, hurtling through the air at 500 plus miles an hour and then dropping back to land without there being more accidents. I know all the statistics about the safety of flying but I am always relieved when I have my two feet firmly on land again. And what land. Land of the moai (stone statues) and of ahus (burial sites), of anas (lava tube caves) of petroglyphs and of volcanoes. Easter Island. The plane is parked just a short walk from the terminal and as we come down the steps, the sun is shining brightly. The island from what little we see looks vibrantly lush and green. As we wait for our luggage, we chat with a few people from the plane. One thing struck me was the number of single people, both men and women who for whatever reason were travelling alone. Mike is from Michigan and is staying on the island for 4 days. Although he is not at our hotel we exchange information and he tells us he is interested in splitting the cost of a car rental and touring with us for one of the days. We had been told by the hotel to stop at the CONAF booth at the airport and purchase our national park pass. Since most of the island is designated as a national park, you need a pass and we had been told that it is checked at various sites and that the easiest place to get it is the airport. The passes are $60.00 US dollars each and I viewed it as more of an island tax. We were warned that there were two sites that we could only access once with the pass, at Orongo and at Rano Raraku. All other sites could be visited as often as we wanted. The hotel had said that someone would pick us up and sure enough a jovial islander was holding a sign with our name displayed as we stepped out into the brilliant sunlight. “Lorana” he said as he draped beautiful fresh orchid leis around our necks and gave both of us massive bear hugs. “Welcome to Easter Island. My name’s Teddy” and with that Teddy became our friend, impromptu guide and historian for the rest of our stay. Besides us, he also picked up Mark, a Canadian from Ottawa who worked in some sort of government position and was travelling alone and a young Japanese couple who remarkably were only going to spend one night on the island before going back to the mainland. Seemed like a long way to come for just one night but they explained they were on a two week world tour and were trying to make it to as many places as possible. Just listening to their itinerary made me exhausted. We are staying at the Tupa Hotel. As advertised on the internet it is on a cliff with great ocean views and walking to the main building and reception, the pathway is crowded on both sides with beautiful succulent flowers and plants: lilies, orchids, irises, hibiscus and other exotics in a dazzlingly array of colors. The reception area is a lounge with a fabulous view of the grounds and ocean but exploring will have to come later as we are quickly checked in by the extremely efficient but very friendly and helpful, Constancia. We told her we would be back later to get some help with our itinerary and plans for the next four days. Our room overlooked the courtyard and was sparsely furnished but clean and would be fine for our needs. We quickly unpacked and set off to explore the grounds and the nearby town of Hanga Roa. We also wanted to inquire into tours and car rentals. We had come up with a plan that we would take a full day tour the first day, just to get a feel for the island and then rent a car and explore ourselves for another. We were also interested in doing some snorkeling and scuba diving which we had read is some of the best in the world. Heading back to the reception to chat with Constancia, we had an unexpected surprise with remarkably good luck. It seems that everyone who books into the Tupa Hotel knows this fact but us. The hotel is owned by Sergio Rapu, a former governor of Easter Island (his sister in law now holds that title) and is a well known archaeologist who is often interviewed about the history, laws and well anything that has to do with the island, in general. As we entered the reception area, he introduced himself to us and settled us at a table with a map of the island and proceeded to give us a quick history lesson telling us places of interest to see and an archeological overview of the area. He quickly told us that organized tours were not really necessary and showed us on the map how to get around the island easily. He asked if we had purchased our park passes and said they would be checked and marked at both Orongo and Rano Raraku but we could be asked to produce them at any time, so to be sure to carry them with us when travelling. The hotel had two rental cars available and we reserved one for the next morning, we found out later that the hotel rentals were much less expensive than renting in town. We also asked for some suggestions on restaurants and besides telling us that in general the food on the island is good, he gave us the name of a couple of his personal favorites. He also told us that he is at the hotel much of the time and if we have any questions about the historical sites or the island, just find him and he will explain more to us. As we left the hotel we could hardly believe our luck. What good fortune and chance that we had stayed at the Tupa. Tom was as pleased as I was and we hoped it would be a good omen for our time here. We decide to walk into town which is only about a 10 minute stroll and check out some dive shops and somewhere for dinner. It is getting late and it is Sunday so many places are closed but we find plenty of people walking around and we encounter our first moai. The stone statue will be the first of many that we will see over the next few days and not the best but we are nevertheless excited at seeing it and take quite a few photographs. There is a small restaurant by the water at Playa Pea and we decide it is perfect for dinner. Sitting at a table outside, I can hardly believe my luck. Easter Island. As we order a pisco sour – Chile’s national cocktail – we toast our vacation and settle down to eat and plan our next day.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What a week

We started the week getting news from home that Tom’s mom has taken another turn for the worse and at this point the priest has been asked to perform last rights. We are scheduled to go back to the States in May for two weeks and have an exchange of information with Jeanne to see if we should change plans and leave earlier but we finally decided there was little to do and to stick to our original timetable. With one big exception. We are going to squeeze in a trip to Easter Island for 5 days. Easter Island or Isla de Pascua or Rapa Nui as some call it belongs to Chile but is located about 2,500 miles (4,000 kms) off the coast – similar to Hawaii in relation to California. It is well known for the stone statues called “moai” and has been on my personal “bucket list” for a long time. I go online and make reservations for both there and to finalize our trip to the States. I also contact Felipe and let him know our change of plans as he knows of a family who will take care of Winston for us. We give him the update on mom and arrange to meet him on Wednesday for lunch. He is going to say a mass for her and will also tell the Carmelite nuns and his friends at the seminary to include her in their prayers. Tuesday there was no further news from home and we spent the day quietly at the motorhome, giving Winston a couple of long walks on the beach. Our day in Santiago on Wednesday with Felipe was wonderful. We met again at the Cathedral and this time we were able to get plenty of photos of it and the Plaza de Armas. Felipe took us to one of his favorite places to eat, a Peruvian restaurant very close to the plaza. “As long as I don’t get served guinea pig” I told him. Guinea pig is a delicacy of Peru but I really have no compulsion to try it. He assured me that the food is excellent and he won’t eat guinea pig, either. After lunch he drove us to a famous lookout point in Santiago called Cerro San Cristobal. One of the highest points in the city, the views from the top is amazing even though there is a good deal of smog. Felipe told us that after some rain, the smog will clear but right now they are waiting for the rainy season which starts in May. He pointed out the old and now abandoned gondola cable that used to carry people up the mountain. Now the only way to get to the top is drive some of the way and walk the steep steps to the summit. I can only say that both Tom and I were quite out of breath by the time we made it to the very top. At the summit there is a sanctuary, chapel and statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The snow white marble statue is about 45 feet tall (14meters) which sits on a pedestal of about 26 feet (8 meters). At night it is lit up by lights on all sides and it can be seen all over Santiago. It is here that Pope John Paul II said mass and blessed the city of Santiago during his visit in 1984. Now every December 11th, there is a pilgrimage to the top and the statue and mass is said. Felipe told us that on that day it is packed with people. Today, it is quiet and I spend a few minutes in the chapel praying for my mother-in-law. Felipe sits quietly to one side until I am ready to leave. From here, Felipe will leave us close to a known shopping area and the metro station that will get us to our bus. As it is getting late, we browse a few shops but want to get back so Winston is not left too long alone. Thursday Tom left to check our emails and when he returned, his face told me the news we had been waiting for but secretly dreaded. His mom had passed away, yesterday. His sister Jeanne had been with her, holding her hand and she said at some point she realized a change and that mom was no longer breathing. It was very peaceful and she had never been in any pain. The woman was almost 92 and until November had maintained great health and had lived alone. She had had a long and wonderful life and knew that she was loved by us all. She will be missed but we honor her long life. Tom’s sister is amazing. She is taking care of all the details including one we had not thought of. She has spoken with the priests and funeral home and the funeral will not be held until May 13th, almost 3 and a half weeks from now giving everyone time to schedule and fly in without rushing and panicking. Following the funeral will be a “Celebration of Life” lunch. We immediately go to the nearby internet office and send emails. To our children, close friends and family members. There is sadness but we know mom is in a good place now and that is a comfort to us. In a way we wish we had not made the plans for Easter Island but the family told us to go and have fun in mom’s memory. Jeanne reminded us that she had supported our trip and had so much enjoyed listening to Jeanne read her our blogs and show her on Google maps exactly where we are. Although the technology dumbfounded her, she loved to Skype and see and hear us talk about our adventures. We leave on Sunday for Easter Island and we will dedicate that part of our trip to her and her life. Love you, Mom. Jeanne Patricia Conry, born July 28th 1921, passed on April 17th, 2013.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Felipe’s Ordination at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago

We had met Felipe, who is a deacon with the Santiago Diocese in Bariloche when he was on vacation with some friends from the seminary and he had told us that if we happened to be in Santiago on April 13th, we were invited to his ordination at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Even though both Tom and I are Catholic, we had never attended an ordination and readily accepted the invite. Somehow we would make the date work into our calendar. We have stayed in touch via email and Felipe is hosting a lunch after the service for family and friends, to which we were also invited. From Algarobbo it is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) to Santiago. A bus service into the capital runs frequently and from the bus depot, we can easily get around by the metro. After purchasing the tickets for the bus, we settled in for the 75 minute ride to Santiago which is mostly freeway and passes through the wine region. At the metro, we made a couple of inquiries and after being shown the metro routes and where to change lines, we were on our way. Next stop: Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral. By pure luck, we chose the correct exit to emerge from the underground station and the cathedral was directly in front of us and very imposing. But we have no time to admire the architecture. The service was due to start at 10am and it is now 10:15. We are late. We crept through the doors hoping no-one would notice our tardiness. As I said, we have never attended an ordination and did not know quite what to expect. One thing we did not expect was the number of people already congregated. The church was packed. The side chapels were packed. The naves lining the walls on either side were packed. The aisles were packed. Tom later told me that he figured there had to be about 5,000 people packed into the cathedral. Needless to say, no-one even glanced our way. We slowly made our way down the right side to try and get as close to the altar as possible. Large TV monitors were placed along various columns and overhead so everyone could see the service and the audio was fantastic. Besides Felipe, there were 5 other deacons also being ordained. The altar was crowded too, with over 200 priests in attendance to welcome the deacons into the priesthood. As each deacon was introduced his “followers” i.e.: friends and family banged drums, waved flags, shouted and cheered. Naturally when Felipe was called we joined in the loud, raucous cheering. This was definitely not a quiet sedate service. We kept edging our way through the crowd until finally we were just to the right of the altar. I could see Felipe and by chance he looked our way. His jaw dropped when he saw us and he waved over and motioned for us to stay where we were. After a few minutes, he was called upon to speak. He was the only deacon to do so and he eloquently thanked his family and friends for their support and guidance. My heart glowed. Felipe, I think, is going to be a true asset to the church. After the service, he leaned over and told us to meet him at the front of the church on the right side. We missed him the first couple of times as he was surrounded by hundreds of people, congratulating him and asking for his blessing. He hugged us and then introduced us to two friends, who he said would drive us to the lunch were we could talk. We once again find out what a small world it is. Pilar is an ObGyn doctor in Santiago, her daughter is an ObGyn doctor at Colombia University, Tom’s sister is an ObGyn doctor in California, they all belong to ACOG (American Council for Obstetrics and Gynecology) and since Tom’s sister is being elected president of ACOG in May, they all know of her. Pilar and her husband are astounded when Tom told them that Jeanne was his sister. The lunch is being held at a local church hall and as soon as we arrived, we were handed a glass of champagne and introduced to Felipe’s father, mother and his two sisters. Felipe had told them all about us and they were welcoming and eager to introduce us to some of their English speaking friends and some friends visiting from the States whom they had known for many years. We were seated at a table with Pilar and her husband, Dave and Kathy who were visiting from Orange County in southern California and another couple. The catered food was very good with salad, different pastas served with a variety of sauces, some fabulous desserts and of course excellent Chilean wine. We were even able to spend some time with Felipe although he had many people who wanted to congratulate him. His parents were beaming with pride and it was evident that his family is very supportive and loving. We were having such a good time that we were startled to look at the time and realize that it was almost 6 in the evening. Time really does “fly by” when you’re having fun. Pilar offered to drop us off at the metro station and we readily accepted since we had no idea where we were. We thanked Felipe and his parents for inviting us and made arrangements to have lunch with him on Wednesday, so we could catch up on his first few days with his new parish. It was 8:30pm when we finally got back to Algarobbo and a very reproachful Winston. Being left alone all day is not his idea of a good time but a long walk on the beach with Tom restored his good Beagle nature. As Tom said “Winston may not have had a good day but we had a great one”. We had seen a friend achieve a goal he has been wanting for a long time and Felipe in our opinion is going to be a thoughtful, compassionate priest. The church is fortunate to have him and so are his parishioners.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Chilean Coast.

We have a few days to spare before having to be in Santiago, so we decide to explore this region of the Chilean coast. From Los Andes, it is only a couple of hours drive to the coast area of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. The weather is gorgeous with bright sun and virtually no wind or clouds. As we approach the ocean, our spirits soar. We have not seen the Pacific for a long time and we are excited to be by the sea once again. We had heard of a campground in the beach town of Con Con but after seeing it we were disappointed to find that is was not even close to the beach but further inland in the mountains. Although not quite what we were looking for, we decide to stay for a couple of days and get some laundry and other regular chores out of the way. Winston was allowed to run free with a couple of other dogs who live on site and he had a grand time. We, on the other hand just wanted to be closer to the beach. We also want to find the mechanic that Michael, a German traveler had told us about, whose business is in Algarobbo. In addition to regular maintenance, Tom wants him to check the brakes and the muffler, which is making a bit of noise. We decide to stay on the coast road through Vina del Mar and Valparaiso and then take the road inland through Valle de Casablanca, one of Chile’s wine regions and then back to the coast to Algarobbo. The coast line in Chile is incredible. Topographically, there is only a thin stretch of land between the ocean and the Andes and in areas it seems as though the mountains touch the shore. At both Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, the hills in town are so steep that there are trams running up the sides of the mountains to transport you from one street to the next. It is amazing to watch them stop on the hillsides and let people off. There are so many homes, apartments and businesses that are built into the mountain sides and it is difficult to imagine how they get used to living in such a precarious position when as we know earthquakes happen frequently. Outside of Japan, Chile is probably the most volatile of countries when it comes to big quakes. We are from California, which is known for earthquakes but in Chile a 4.5 on the Richter scale is a cradle rock. Try an 8+ quake which is often times followed by a tsunami! Also it is Sunday and the towns are packed with people who both live here and day visitors from Santiago. We really want to explore the towns but decide to come back another time. Passing through Valle de Casablanca, we notice that the grapes have been harvested and the vines are empty. We see quite a few of the larger bodegas from the highway and signs to many others. Yet another area we need to visit before leaving. When we arrive in Algarobbo, it is much smaller and far less people than Valparaiso but it is also getting late. We drive a little way out of town and find a place to park for the night right by the ocean. It was a great spot except for one sign, a permanent reminder of the dangers of parking on the beach. “Tsunami Zone”. There are also signs showing the evacuation route should the alarm sound. We figure “what are the chances of that happening?” and position the motorhome so our door opens to the sea. Winston goes crazy and runs around the beach, in and out of the water, like a dog possessed. Even he is happy to be camped by the water again. It will only be for one night as tomorrow we will find the mechanic but right now we are content with a glass of wine and since we are now on the west coast, a marvelous sunset.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Our final days in Argentina – for now

I woke up deciding – I could live in Mendoza. I can fantasize about waking up surrounded by vineyards, with nothing to do but explore old and new bodegas and sample new and exciting wines. I figure it would keep me busy for a long time. But then reality set in. We are leaving to continue our adventures but I will return to this area and next time I am staying at Cavas Lodge. Tom agrees because we have had a good time here. Next stop is a small town in the mountains called Potrerillos. Remember those motorcycle tires? Well, Betty and Marcos who inherit them, live there. We have tried to contact them but have not been able to, so we can only hope they are home. On the way we pick up a hitchhiker. David is English. He is 68 and climbs mountains for fun. He is on his way to climb one right now. A big one at 19,000 ft. and he is by himself. My wow and awe factor kick up a notch. I am still amazed at the mix of people we encounter and David is added to that ever growing list. He had attempted to climb this same mountain last week but had been driven off due to bad weather. Returning to town to get his tent replaced, he was now going to attempt the summit for the second time. If this failed then he would have to cancel for the season. As we dropped him off at the start of the dirt road leading to the mountain, he had a 13 km hike before he even got to the base. “Now that is crazy” I said to Tom. We did find out later that after ascending to 10,000 ft, David again had to abandon the attempt because he had temporary blindness in his right eye. In my book, the man is a winner for trying. We were very disappointed when we arrived at Alto Potrerillos only to find that we had missed Betty and Marcos by a couple of hours. They had left for Mendoza. Darn, we may have passed them en route. As it was, we decided to push on to Parque Provincial Aconcagua. I had been talking to Tom incessantly about how much I was looking forward to seeing it. The highest mountain in the both the Western and Southern hemisphere at 22,841 ft (6,959 meters,) Aconcagua is surpassed only by Everest in height. For mountaineers it is also one of the 7 summits of the world. Then came our second disappointment of the day. Earlier than normal because of the strong winter storms that had already developed, they had called people off the mountain and had closed for the winter. Our only view of Aconcagua was from the south face and through binoculars and our camera lens we could see why the south face is considered to be the most difficult to ascend. The snow, which was blowing off the perpetual glacier in billowing clouds by the winds that ravage the mountain, was clearly visible and we did get some incredible photographs. Since the park was closed and with no other place to stay the night, we drove on to the border crossing. The border between Mendoza and Santiago at the Paso Cristo Redentor is considered one of the busiest in South America and judging by the cars, trucks and buses, we have to concur. It is also one of the highest at an elevation of about 10,500 ft. It took us three and a half hours to clear the border and another three hours to descend down the Chilean side. Incidentally this road is thought to be the most winding road in the world and counting the hairpin turns, 27 in all, in a steep descent down the Andes we believe that is true. Accomplishing this part in the dark was taxing on both of us and it was with relief that we arrived in the town of Los Andes, Chile for the night.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cavas Wine Lodge and thoughts on wine

After visiting Vino Cobos we met another American couple from Naples, Florida who were staying at Cavas Wine Lodge and invited the four of us to come back with them and share in, you’ve guessed it, more wine. Well, that kind of invitation is impossible to turn down. Debatably, but in my book the best place to stay if you want to experience wine producing Mendoza – without an RV, that is - is Cavas Lodge. The boutique hotel set amid vineyards against the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, is gorgeous in its simplicity. There is a slight Moorish feel to the whole place with curved stucco stone walls and rounded roofs which blend nicely into the landscape. The main building has a reception area, lounge, dining room and outdoor pool. All of the rooms are actually small villas set slightly apart from the lodge and one another along lighted pathways winding through the vineyard. We were shown into the airy lounge which is filled with striking sculptures, modern paintings and comfortable chairs and sofas. After consulting with us, Bob ordered a bottle of chilled Rosé wine, which was perfect for the warm weather day. Owner Cecilia Diaz Chuit came by and was delighted by the gift of a bottle of wine from Vino Cobos which they had bought for her. As we chatted she, like many people, were astonished by our journey and she promised to stay in contact with us. After two bottles of the Rosé, followed as the evening wore on by a beautiful Malbec, the six of us chatted and shared stories as comfortable with each other as long time friends. It was with regret on all sides that we called it an evening and we drove Tim and Naomi to town again. In the next couple of days, we catch up on some RV chores and have Tim and Naomi over for a traditional Argentinean assado. We drank copious amounts of wine from our now blooming collection, while Tom cooked sausages and 2 different cuts of beef over the wood fire. It was then time for fond goodbyes with our new Australian friends as the next day we are leaving to head north for the Chilean border. All in all, we can honestly say that we have had a fabulous time in Mendoza and just in case there is any doubt left in anyone’s mind, let me clarify. I love wine. It is just about the only alcohol I consume. I like wine by itself and on occasion by myself. I love having a glass of wine to enjoy an interesting talk, to celebrate a great moment or to share with good company. There is no doubt that whenever we drink wine, we are absorbing the smells and tastes of the earth around us, from the soils in which the vine was grown to the tannins and spices and color that the grapes have when grown in a specific microclimate. Wine drunk without food tastes different than wine which is accompanied with food. Food can amplify the enjoyment of the wine and vice versa. Wine reacts with food in the same way that an herb or spice might. A good pairing will bring out the nuances enhancing the flavors and distinctive characteristics of both the food and the wine. However, the best pairing is the combination of good food, great wine and excellent company. Wine in its best context is a mix of people, smiles, music, landscapes, smells and food. Well, in this past week, in the amazing province of Mendoza, we have had it all!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Bodegas of Mendoza – Part 2

Tim and Naomi arrive at 11 that morning and we plan our day with the first stop being at a bodega we had all had recommended to us – Catena Zapata. Unfortunately it is Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and it seems the wineries are either closed or short staffed. Catena Zapata is closed to the public, it seems there is a private event taking place and the guard, even after much cajoling and pleading was undeterred, so after talking with the manager on duty, we made an appointment for the next day and moved on. To put us back in the “wine mood”, we stopped at the first bodega that was open and we recognized. Bodega Norton is a medium sized winery and they make a wine that though not excellent is imminently drinkable. Ignacio, who introduced himself by the nickname “Nacho”, told us that he was short staffed and could not offer us a tour but he could pour us some wine and leave us alone to explore the tasting room. After opening a Chardonnay and a Robles Malbec, which I had mentioned was my favorite of their wines and giving a brief explanation of the production process of both, he left us to enjoy the wines and each other’s company. This is just what we needed. One side note, unlike any of the California wineries, which might just chop off your hand if you tried to pour your own glass, that might sound extreme but it is a grave “faux pas” as anyone who visits the wineries is well aware, here in Argentina the bottles are left out in such a way that you can pour as little (or as much) as you like, go back to one that was particularly pleasing to you or even suggest an alternative vintage. It is very laid back and reminds Tom and me of how Napa used to be back in the eighties. Because Ignacio was so generous, we purchased some of that very drinkable Robles Malbec that I enjoy. We next went to Bodega Terrazas de los Andes. In the late 50's, Moet & Chandon sent its chief winemaker, Renaud Poirier, to Argentina to investigate the potential of the region for producing world-class wines. Impressed with the local conditions for winemaking and the presence of unique high elevation vineyards, Moet & Chandon established Terrazas de los Andes as its first subsidiary winery and vineyards outside of France and the bodega is now considered to be a pioneer producer of high elevation premium wines. We elected not to do the tour and so while waiting for the tour to end so we could join in the tasting, our hospitality hostess Valeria, took us to a table overlooking the grounds and ordered us a glass of sparkling wine. Later as we tasted a remarkable selection of wines, Valeria explained their philosophy of wine growing and production. With an emphasis on maximizing fruit expression, varietals have been carefully matched to each vineyard altitude: Cabernet Sauvignon at 980 meters above sea level, Malbec at 1.067, Chardonnay at 1.200 meters and Torrontes at 1.800 meters and as a result they have a truly marvelous selection of high quality wines available. It is late and we drive Tim and Naomi back to their hostel in Mendoza while making plans to meet the next day at our campsite, if nothing else we have a one o’clock appointment at Catena Zapata. Bodega Catena Zapata is without a doubt one of the most visually stunning wineries I have ever visited. From the gorgeous limestone block walled exterior which extends to the interior on the walls and floor, to the amazing temperature controlled rooms on the lower floors which contain an astounded selection of wine from decades of vintages and the interior central staircase which winds its way round each level until at the top you are treated with 360 degree views of the vineyards for miles around, this winery is a “not to be missed”. The tasting itself was a little disappointing in that it was uniquely uninformative which we excused due to the fact that it is Easter Saturday and the winery appeared very short staffed when compared to the number of people visiting. The wines themselves however were very good especially the Chardonnay from the Adrianna Vineyard made from grapes grown at 4757 feet. Compared to the other bodegas we had visited, Vino Cobos is very small. However the wines were superb with a choice of 3 or 4 different wines categories to choose from and complimentary goat cheese and crackers. Our hospitality hostess was very knowledgeable and helpful in discussing not only their wines but also the wines from the region. While the tasting room itself was large and modern in décor, we sat at a table for 6, including us and one other couple from Naples Florida and it gave the feeling of intimacy created by guests and our hostess. It was a pleasant bodega with excellent wines.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Bodegas of Mendoza – Part 1

Our bodega experience began as we were traveling on Route 40 still some 30 kilometers or so from the city, where rich Andean soil ground from layers of volcanic rock is the source of famous Argentinean wines. Chandon Champagne Cellars had a sign stating they were located just a few kilometers from the highway. It was still early afternoon with plenty of daylight left to find our campground. Situated in an area called Valle de Uco and opened in the late 1950’s, Chandon, Argentina was the first winery that Moet & Chandon opened outside of France. A delightful young lady called Carolina, who spoke excellent English, guided us through the various types of sparkling wine they produce. She was wonderfully welcoming and tried to provide us with information that we were interested in, answering our questions very knowledgeably. With a combination of clay-based and rocky soils and a semi-desert climate with cold nights combine to create the perfect conditions for obtaining grapes with higher acidity, body and flavor. There is no doubt that Chandon believes, and rightfully so that Valle de Uco is the best region to grow the best grapes to make the best sparkling wines from Argentina. We stayed much longer than we originally thought and sampled quite a variety of wines, settling on 4 to take with us, all either rosé or made from the pinot noir grape including a bottle of their signature Baron B wine. Our campsite was a little difficult to find but after making our way down gravel side roads and past many vineyards, we eventually found it nestled between fields of vines. Camping Vina de Vieynes is a great campground in the Mendoza area known as Maipu and was perfect for our forage into wine country. During the next two days we went to three more bodegas based purely on the fact that they each produce a favorite Argentinean wine of ours. They are also some of the oldest and more established bodegas in the region and situated in an area of Mendoza known as Coquimbito, one of Argentina’s oldest viticulture zones. The first visit was to Bodega Finca Flichman which was first started in 1873 by the Flichmans who inaugurated the name “Finca Flichman” in 1910. This winery was on our list because it makes one of Tom’s favorite wines “Caballero de la Cepa”. It is a beautiful building offering wine tours and tasting. The grounds are amazing and actually won an award in Mendoza, where large bodegas with fantastic landscaping are the norm, for the most architecturally pleasing landscape and deservedly so. The “Caballero” that we like so much was created in 1947 and is considered the first Argentinean “fine” wine. In addition to a case of the Caballero, half in Cabernet Sauvignon and half in Malbec, we also buy some of their lower end Misterio Chardonnay and Malbec. Quite delicious and a good sipping wine. Our next stop is at Bodega Trapiche which make my most favorite wine in all of Argentina “Fond du Cave”. Tiburcio Benegas founded in this winery in 1883 and he is actually credited along with a Frenchman, Don Michel Pouget for introducing the Malbec grape to Argentina for which the wine of this country is renowned. Pouget was originally hired by then President Sarmiento to establish a vine nursery in Mendoza called La Quinta Nacional. It was on the tour of the winery and their wine-making process that we meet Tim and Naomi, a young couple from Melbourne who are making their way, the long way round, from Australia to Canada where they plan on working for a few years. Accustomed to working in high end restaurants, they are very knowledgeable about wine, its aroma, its complexity, its acids, tannins and nuances. Since they have no vehicle, today they rented bicycles and are doing a biking tour, we suggest meeting up with them and we can all drive together in the motorhome to different vineyards. They happily agree and we pick a time for them to be at our campsite the next day. Besides Fond du Cave, Trapiche make some other delicious although by Argentinean prices, expensive wines and in addition to Fond du Cave, we also purchase some of their Gran Medalla Malbec. Fortunately each bottle came with a free bottle of sparkling wine so we selected rosé, which for the past few years I have come to enjoy over the brut and extra brut champagnes. Our final stop for the day was at Bodega La Rural which makes a favorite of Mariano and Marcela, Rutini’s Trumpeter. Remember if you like Rutini wines, they are produced by Bodega La Rural. In addition to a modern wine-making facility, this 100-year-old colonial style bodega houses a museum of antique tools and equipment that were used to make wine in Argentina during the nineteenth century. As a result, the winery’s tour is like taking a trip back in time where you can appreciate the labor and sacrifice that went into wine production a century ago. As we tasted their wines, we browsed through the collection of antiques on display, it was quite unique. And so completely sated and thoroughly happy with our bodega selections and the Coquimbito region, we plan our next experiences in the Lujan de Cuyo area with Tim and Naomi.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

San Rafael, Mendoza Province.

After entering the province of Mendoza, route 40 continued to be part paved and part gravel until Malargue. From there it was smooth sailing. Driving from Malargue is really the beginning of the wine growing region of Mendoza and is an astonishing contrast to the barren pampa steppe we were used to seeing. Here the volcanic rich soil is abundant with acres of grape vines and meticulously planted orchards of olive trees. It is March and the vines are laden with enormous bunches of large juice-filled grapes. Autumn in the southern hemisphere and the crops are at their peak. In some fields the harvesting is already starting to happen. Also, the magnificent Cuesta de los Terneros, a jagged snow capped section of the Andes on our left, are home to both the Domuyo and Overo volcanoes. These heavily glaciated mountains would definitely provide some wow factor, if the vines do not. We also follow the rapids-strewn Atuel River which, along with the Diamante River in San Rafael provides during the spring months, Class 2 through 5 white water thrills. After crossing two, very narrow bridges we come to the town of San Rafael. Irrigated by the Atuel and Diamante Rivers, vineyards and orchards still survive within the city limits, which is part of a prosperous wine-and-fruit-producing area. As we drive down long, sycamore tree-lined avenues we are enclosed on both sides by vineyards. Grape vines as far as the eye can see. On the main street of Hipolito Yrigoyen, the trees on each side are so mature that they tower over the entire avenue, branches meeting in the center of the road, completely shading the afternoon sun. That first evening in a short 5 mile drive we counted six large vineyards and several smaller family owned ones. Tomorrow will be wine tasting. We found our campsite for the night, located on the banks of the Diamante River and checked our maps. Since we really want to spend most of our available time in the city of Mendoza which is the largest producing wine area of Argentina, we will visit only two vineyards in San Rafael. The first winery, referred to in Argentina as “bodegas” we chose was the small family owned Bournet Winery. Not realizing we needed an appointment, we simply drove up to their bodega which was actually their production facility with a small tasting room attached. The manager called the owner who happens to live next door and she and her husband came to meet us. After they found out we were Americans, they called their daughter-in-law who spoke perfect English and talked to us about their small vineyard and proudly showed us their awards in a variety of categories. As we walked around their facility, we sipped on an excellent Malbec and bought a bottle of that plus a bottle of sparkling wine before leaving. It was a wonderful experience to be with a family that was so dedicated and proud to be vintners. Our next stop was at the other end of the scale. Bodega Bianchi is huge and about as mass market as any of the monster wineries in the States but still maintains a family ran atmosphere. Located in the flat lands of the San Rafael Valley, Bodega Valentin Bianchi is one of the oldest wineries in South America. Started in 1928 by Don Valentin Bianchi, the grandchildren continue to run and manage the day to day operations of the bodega itself. Their vineyards are about 2,600 feet above sea level and the Andes which tower above the vines act as a barrier from the damp winds coming from the Pacific Ocean. With moderately warm summers, this unique landscape creates an ideal microclimate for growing grapes and the wines they have produced have won international recognition. The stone and marble bodega and tasting room is enormous with beautifully maintained gardens. Besides being offered a considerable list of wines to taste, they also had a dining area where we could sit and order an appetizer plate and glasses of wine at very reasonable prices. We are hungry and quickly decide on a cold platter consisting of a variety of cheeses, deli salami, pate and some wonderful smoked pheasant. All of that and two glasses of their Reserva Malbec were only $15.00. While we ate and tasted, we picked up 6 bottles to purchase ranging from a simple Chardonnay to a bottle of Malbec Reserve. It is getting late and we decide to stay in San Rafael for one more night before leaving for the town of Mendoza. Later that evening, after dinner and sharing a bottle of Valentin Bianchi’s wine, both of us concluded that this was a fantastic start to our wine exploration of Mendoza province.