Woke up thinking I was still flying business class on my way to the Andes, such was the comfort of the Andesmar bus to Mendoza. The jolly waiter/bingo caller sprang up the stairs, pulled the curtains open at the front, and began slotting in our dining trays to our luxurious seats. Then we were served a delicious breakfast of muffins, croissants, tea and chocolate. A wonderful start – and now the morning sun was beginning to poke it’s head over the mountains to say hello. It was going to be a good day.
And so we arrived in Mendoza – a place close to the eastern Andes, and a place where over 70% of Argentina’s wine is produced. At the bus station, we immediately went to the booking office of a bus company to book passage to Santiago, Chile, in a few days time. There is only one route to Chile from here, and that’s a winding route through the Andes, a route that no doubt afforded spectacular views, and so we booked an early morning bus to get the most out of the scenery. We then took a stroll into Mendoza proper. It felt right from the start. Leafy pedestrianised areas, full of cafes and plazas, fountains and the somewhat quiet hustle and bustle of a market town – certainly not as ‘in your face’ as Buenos Aires. There were a disturbingly large number of tracksuit clad youths hanging around the streets and the parks, though they were not the threatening ‘what you lookin’ at?’ kind that hang around towns and cities in England. In contrary, they were friendly, and curious to come up and speak to us, the bolder ones practicing new English vocabulary they’d picked up from somewhere.
We still had all our luggage, and so carted it around the central Plaza Independencia to the excellently located and named Hotel Argentinio – a business hotel. We checked in, but were too early to have the room, so we freshened up in their toilet, a splash of water, a spot of Nivea Roll on, a rinse with listerine – and we were ready to head out. We walked through the pleasant streets and hopped on a bus to Maipu. Maipu is a small town on the outskirts of Mendoza, and is home to a great concentration of wineries and olive farms and other small places in the business of food and drink. It took about 30 minutes and 16km to get there on the local bus. At one stage a tout got on, trying to get us to hire bicycles from him – the transport of choice around the bodegas. Competition between rival bicycle firms is tough here, and fights have been known to break out. We hopped out on a dusty street and decided to head to a place we’d seen on the way up – Mr Hugos, leaving the tout disappointed. This place had it all sorted. Mr Hugo himself was there to greet us, and the welcome drink of a very generous glass of malbec red wine each definitely sealed the deal. We had our drink, then hopped on our Mr Hugo branded bicycles for a day of vineyards and tastings.
I must admit I wasn’t impressed at the start. I couldn’t imagine how peaceful wineries could exist in the busy, dusty town, but we followed Mr Hugo’s map and swung a right down a small street, and suddenly we were riding between lovely vineyards where the only sound heard was the chirping of birds. Our first stop was the wine museum, which didn’t sound that appealing – but I was wrong. Again. We parked our bikes up, and walked into the high roofed wooden building, where loads of wine barrels were stacked up opposite a bar. The exclusively female staff seemed to enjoy our feeble attempts to speak to them in Spanish, and poured us a glass of malbec each before letting us commence our self-guided tour of the museum – which is a living museum as it is still a running winery, producing excellent malbecs and San Telmo blends. Self-guided may have been a mistake, as Alex and I poked our noses into all sorts of places we shouldn’t have, and even scaled a ladder to the top a row of huge wine barrels, where we could walk around enjoying views of the whole winery. Back at ‘reception’. The girls working at the bar beckoned us over and showed us a menu of wines. “This”, said one, looking at us intently, “is the most expensive wine here.” She was pointing to a blended San Telmo of a particular vintage – and it was so expensive it didn’t even have a price next to it. “Here, for you” she said, as another girl brought a bottle of the very same. They poured us two huge glasses of the shiraz/cabernet/malbec blend. Alex and I were already light-headed, and after this we were pretty pissed. We made small talk. We bid our farewells and tried to walk out in a straight line, to the sound of giggling behind.
We hopped back on the bikes and headed further away from the main stretch of road, and we came across a tiny house in a large garden that advertised itself as an ‘olive and spirits’ house. It was a family-run place where they grow olives and stuff them with different things, and they also make different kinds of dulce de leche. Their trump card, however, was their spirits and liquors. They made all kinds of wonderful spirits and liquors. Alex and I were guided around the house by a one of the family. First, she described the processes involved making the dulce de leche, the olives, the alcohol, then it was tasting time. We tried the olives first, then the different dulce de leches, which we spread on little pieces of bread. Delicious. Alex has been addicted ever since. Then we were told we could choose two spirits or liquors each to try. Sensible, seeing as it was only midday. I opted for a shot of ‘tobaco’ – a potent mixture of rum, gin, vodka, whisky and….tobaco infused filth. It tasted OK that day – later tastings would reveal a taste not unlike that of an ashtray. On this day, though, it tasted great, so I bought a big bottle to lug around with me for the rest of the trip. Alex and I both went for the local absinthe too, lovingly prepared by one of the smokey eyed young chaps working there. It was the whole works, sugar heated up on spoons, dissolved in the absinthe, set on fire. We drank. Now we were really flying. We probably needed to eat. We bid our farewells and staggered to our bikes.
We cycled to a lovely winery in a wooded area, and headed in. They had a lovely terrace overlooking their vineyards, and Alex and I thought it the perfect spot for a bit of lunch. We met 2 French girls here, on a similar road to ruin, and so we joined them for lunch, washed down with 3 glasses of wine – a sangiovese, a tempranillo and a malbec. Divine. Now we were ready for the final stop – the famous Trapiche winery. As we approached the regal grounds of the finest winery in Mendoza, we were disappointed to be stopped by security at the gate to the compound. Apparently there were no more tours for the day, and the winery was closing. The French girls played a useful role here, using their charm on the easily charmed Latin man, and suddenly we were let in, if only to see the shop and buy some bottles. Alex and I, however, had other ideas.
We all trooped into the shop, where a wine expert started talking about ‘legs’ and ‘noses’ and ‘bodies’ and ‘velvety finishes’. Alex slipped off towards the entrance of the winery proper. Then I did the same. We slipped into Trapiche unnoticed. An old rail track ran at the side of the building, and a just married couple were having their photographs taken. We walked up some stairs and to a tasting area, where a big chap with a bigger smile and straggly black hair was entertaining the last tasting group of the day – another group of French girls Alex and I sauntered around, admiring the view of the barrels underneath the glass floor. We then headed to the bar. The chap came over and asked us, in Spanish, if we were members of the group. We said that we were. “What can I get you then, gentlemen?” He asked with a smile. “Something….velvety, fruity, fresh yet powerful…” I replied, with absolutely no idea what I was talking about. “I’ve got just the thing for you gentlemen. “Take a seat and I’ll be right over.” Alex and I did just that, and relaxed on the green leather sofas with studded wooden trim perusing the menu. Every wine was expensive – some of it $50 a glass. We wondered if we’d have to pay for this glass we were about to receive. We wondered if we’d get found out and thrown out. The man came over shortly grinning, as the French girls filed out, looking at us suspiciously. “This, gentlemen”, he announced with some flair, “is the Ferrari of wines – this Trapiche wine sells for hundreds and hundreds of dollars in Europe. Can you guess the type of wine?” He poured us 2 huge glasses and I swilled some of the wine around my mouth, taking my time, and swallowed it. “It’s a blend, isn’t it? I said, thinking back to the other expensive wine we got for free in the wine museum. “You’re right!” He shouted, slapping me on the back. He began describing the wine in great detail – a man truly dedicated to his profession. Then his phone rang. “A moment, gentlemen”, he smiled. Alex and I could hear a voice panicking on the other end of the line, and the words ‘hombres ingles.’ “Fuck. We’ve been found out. It’s the guy in the shop. The French girls must have wondered where we’d gone. We’ve got to get out of here.” How? A dramatic escape? Bolting out to the bikes and cycling away? Or wait to be arrested? Or perhaps taken to a room and beaten up. The man looked at us, no longer smiling, and instead a look of fear had spread across his face. “I’ll be back. Gentlemen” he said, and literally sprinted down the steps and out of the building. Alex and I looked at each other. Had he mistaken us for gangsters? We decided to finish off the delicious wine. The bottle was right in front of us. We didn’t take it, but decided we needed to get out of there. Now. So we slipped out, cutting quickly across the grass and to the bicycles, parked up alone now. The gates to the building had yet to be closed. The security guard was looking at us as we cycled towards the exit. But he didn’t try and stop us, and we cycled out and sprinted away, laughing at our fortune.
We got back to Mr Hugos, and decided to get a bus back to Mendoza, before the police came (we were riding bright orange Mr Hugo bicycles after all). Mr Hugo wasn’t hearing any of it though, and kept pouring us glass after glass of malbec. By the time we got on the bus we were absolutely smashed, and we still hadn’t properly checked in to our hotel.
We got back to Mendoza, and checked into our room at the Argentino. We allowed ourselves a brief powernap, then headed out to get some food down the happening Avenue Aristides Villanueva. We found an Irish bar on this stretch, William Brown, where we got chatting to some local teachers who were all married to English men. It was one the parties birthdays – and everyone was in high spirits. I had to neck three pints of Quilmes just to stay awake though, and Alex and I staggered up and down the stretch, hitting bar after bar, and we were even taught tango by some equally inebriated local lasses. We switched to Fernet, for even more intoxicated results. It was a fun evening all in all. We hit Mr Dog to finish, for a delicious pero caliente with all the toppings. It was 4am. What a day. I loved Mendoza already.