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.