Ah everyone’s favorite topic…or at least ours. It’s always important to embrace the customs of other cultures while traveling, including partaking in local food & drink. So, in the name of good travelers & to ensure we were thorough in our research for the blog, we forced ourselves to indulge the various wine regions along our route through South America.
In case that last sentence wasn’t obvious….it was sarcasm. Of course it’s not difficult to enjoy all the magnificent bottles of wine! Wine is a close second (occasionally maybe first…) passion of mine after yoga. Though I should probably tell people I love reading, volunteering, etc. etc. something more acceptable than drinking wine. But I digress.
When we set out on this journey we had to train our brains to realize this was for the long haul…we weren’t on vacation for a week or two & therefore we shouldn’t indulge as much as we may otherwise - for both our wallet & waist size sake. Choosing to start out in South America did nothing to help this cause. The warm weather, happy & relaxed atmosphere, & just so much food & wine were irresistible. If you are looking for a few new regions or bottles to try, you almost can’t go wrong with a South American choice but we wanted to highlight just a few of our personal experiences so far!
Through various 6 degrees of separation, we received the recommendation from friends & co-workers to visit the wine area of Casablanca in Chile. In wine region world, this is a particularly new area for production & historically more of a white wine region (hence the name I suppose?). We did a “drive thru” tour on our way back from Valpo to Santiago, you could spend more time checking out the rest of the town but outside of the wineries we didn’t see too much to write home about. We’d suggest no more than 1-2 days max.
Our main objective passing through Casablanca was a stop at Kingston Family Vineyards, a beautiful winery with which we had a personal connection through my work & a fellow VT alumnus, small world. My former boss was wonderful enough to put us in touch with one of the owners who she knew personally & set us up with a tour & tasting! The charming, family owned boutique winery captured our hearts with its family history (dating back to the early 1900’s!) & commitment to quality grapes & production. In a valley known for its white wines, Kingston, shockingly, dared to plant red grapes & their efforts paid off, & is now recognized for its fantastic pinots.
Small world getting smaller…our tour guide for the afternoon was Ben from Maryland, just outside of D.C., & currently staying at our Valpo hostel so we had already met him! We toured through the vineyard, learning about their harvesting process & struggles all wineries faced due to climate change, disease etc. We glimpsed around their boutique in-house production & bottling system & ended our tour with a delicious compare & contrast tasting between the Pinot Noirs & Syrah. We won’t tell you our favorites; they were all fantastic so you’ll just have to try them for yourselves!
Oh Mendoza, I had so been looking forward to this one. As how South American wines, specifically Malbec, are some of my favorite this is the hub of my wine world. Mendoza itself was so different than we expected it to be. I guess naively we assumed it more like Napa Valley than a bustling city on its own however we quickly learned there is more to its core than wines.
With the University of Mendoza in the heart of the city, it gives the whole area a young, hip vibe, feeling a bit like SLO, Cali. There’s no shortage of shops, restaurants & bars – a big beer scene given all the wineries surrounding it & you can tell there’s a major craft brew moment happening.
Most wineries are actually situated in a variety of areas surrounding Mendoza proper; Lujan de Cuyo, Uco Valley & Maipú. Here is where it’s certainly more like Napa in that doing the wineries “properly” is ridiculously pricey. Not like an undoable amount of money but more than anyone on a year-long travel budget can spend. Or at least our budget anyways. In the end we settled on a bike tour through Maipú….for some reason I’m a glutton for punishment & though I still wasn’t over my Ensenada experience I let Ben talk me into another bike outing….
Pro-tip: If you want to experience Mendoza like you think you do & get the feeling of Napa, be prepared it will not be a cheap vacation. If you do that & basically book through all the fancy tour groups, you’ll get what you wanted.
After a revolving door campaign to figure out what bus we needed to take, where to get off & eventually just hailing a cab, we picked up our bikes from the locally famous Mr. Hugo. Our first stop along the “wine trail” was Tempus Alba, a very modern micro winery with a self-guided tour around their winery ending on the rooftop patio restaurant (empanadas anyone?) & wine bar.
Tempus Alba was kind enough to offer my favorite glass of Malbec thus far on the trip. It was as “kick you in the teeth” dry & earthy as they come. I was in heaven, Ben so-so on that one - preferring the slightly lighter, more fruit forward blend. Over the horizon, slow moving, dark clouds began to form….it was time to move to our next spot.
Viña de Cerno
A mere few kilometers’ ride from Tempus Alba sits the still family owned vineyard Viña de Cerno. A more old-school, “traditional” looking vineyard than its neighbor. Assisted by the winemaker’s daughters (sounds like a novel, doesn’t it?) we selected tastings from their reserve lines of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & evening sparkling. Yes, this clever vineyard offers an exceptional sparkling Malbec blend. Surprising myself, my favorite glass here was the Merlot Reserve, I even favored it over the Malbec - something I never thought I’d say. Again, agree to disagree, Ben’s preference was the Malbec Reserve.
While we are happy to report that any tasting in Mendoza is not a small tasting, these are not the stingy overly priced pours but hefty ½ + glasses of wine. We had now visited two of these wineries & those dark clouds I spoke of earlier were now darker & closer…
Apparently anytime I sit on a bike it can’t just be an easy ride. We now found ourselves, a few tastings in, slip & sliding down the streets in a complete downpour. I bounced back & forth between being incredibly irritated & cracking up laughing at our ridiculous situation. By this point it was late in the afternoon & many of the vineyards were closing…what were we going to do in the pouring rain?!
A moment for the Beer lovers…
Obviously, the answer was haul butt over to the local beer garden & wait it out. I’m not sure anything was more surprising than to find there was a “hole in the wall” pop up beer garden in the middle of wine country.
El Patio Cervecero Beer Garden looks like it was put together by hand, & for all we know it was. But it was the perfect spot to wait out the storm, wash out the wine with some cervezas - we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The little fold out tables covering the dirt floor were filled with people we had seen all day also enjoying the wineries. We all laughed at each other, now completely soaked head to toe & still attempting to avoid the slightly leaky roof over our heads. But the service was amazing, the beers were good & cold, plus they provided tasty popcorn to munch on while awaiting a break in the storm.
When we finally saw our chance to make a run for it (bike for it?) we must have looked a mess because the waitresses advised we continue to wait or have the local tourist police give us a lift…. If that wasn’t awkward enough, in the end the police decided we could bike & they would follow along slowly behind us, ensuring we made it safe & sound. To be fair this wasn’t just for us, they followed all us tourists (8-10?) back in a group to Mr. Hugo’s. In a fit of paranoia, I am not sure I’ve ever tried to ride a bike more perfectly in my life.
All in all, we were not disappointed with South American wines, it’s truly hard to find a bad one. We enjoyed wines we have always loved & discovered new wines, like Torrontés (an Argentinian white, often paired with spicy food), to enjoy. We enjoyed each drop of wine to the fullest, no doubt we will probably find the wine selection less robust as we head to Asia.