21 Dec 2011

Mendoza - when the world seems to shine...

When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine that's....Mendoza

Since being able to say 'malbec' Ben has wanted to visit the Mendoza region, which accounts for 70% of Argentina’s wine production. Yet another ambition accomplished and what a way to do it...

Situated in a semi-arid valley with rainfall of only 200mm a year Mendoza is not your typical wine country, but the previous inhabitants (before the Spanish arrived) of the region, the Huarpes, very kindly bequeathed a system of river fed aqueducts, turning desert into the perfect vineyard host.

The Jesuits first planted vines here over 500 years ago but it wasn’t until the French, Spanish and Italian immigrants of the 19th century arrived with their 'noble varietals' (Malbec, Cab Sav, Merlot, Syrah) that the fun began, although production remained predominantly for the domestic market with an emphasis on quantity rather than quality until 30 or so years ago.

Falling domestic demand (in favour of soft drinks such as coca cola!) a huge advance in wine growing + production techniques, low humidity (which removes the problems caused by insects and fungus) controlled irrigation (avoiding the risk of a damaged crop from too much rain just before harvest) and the Argentinian economic crash in 2001 (which hugely assisted the export market as prices plummeted) have all helped to make the Mendoza region one of the worlds prime producers of quality wines.

And if you would like to take part in Mendoza’s development there are three ways that we now know of – drink as much Malbec as possible (we know some of you make admirable efforts in this direction already) or visit the region and go tasting in as many bodegas (wineries) as possible (highly recommended) or indeed purchase a vineyard yourself and get producing (more below)...

We visited 6 bodegas over two days (by bus and bicycle), which means starting the first tasting at about 10.30am and finishing at about 1730 each day - it was tough work but intoxicatingly fascinating, hic – which takes account of a tour of the cellars + production facilities and a fabulous lunch, of course with plenty more Malbec, hic.

Everything that we tasted was at least good and some of it was spectacular right across the range from rosé, to whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Torrentés (only found in Argentina)) to reds (Malbec, Cab Sav, Syrah, Merlot + some blends).

The best we tasted was a 2008 Malbec from a young producer (Pulmary). His family bought 25 hectares in 2004 for approx US$625k and then lovely old cellars/production facilities for a further US$2 million in 2008 (can be bought for as little as US$2 per litre of production or outsourced completely) – they currently produce approx 150,000 bottles but are increasing output steadily.

So a serious level of long term investment, but if you want to produce wine then Mendoza is a fabulous place to do it. A city of approx 120,000 it was largely destroyed in 1861 by an earthquake, and rebuilt with low buildings arranged in a grid system of broad avenues lined with trees (every street), restaurants and bars and many squares which all adds up to making it a très pleasant place to spend time.

Being close to the andes it is also prime country for skiing, white water rafting, trekking - you’ve heard the list before - and it is close to Aconcagua – that highest peak which you have also read about in this bloggedyblog – and the surrounding national park, all good reasons for us to move here, hic...

20 Dec 2011

Pucón - Climbing a smoking volcano


From Bariloche the bus (x2) ride back over the mountains into Chile to Pucón is relatively easy and a trip full of yet more contrasts.

As we climbed on the Argentinian side of the mountains the amount of volcanic ash on the ground increased to the point where the side of the road was so covered in the mound of cleared ash it looked like it had been snow ploughed off the road just as if we were in the middle of the ski season. There were few animals in the fields which was fortunate as there was nothing to eat other than dust - everything was covered in at least a foot of ash.

And then we started to drop down the other side of the hills, the Chilean side, the leeward side, where there is no ash at all. Within minutes the landscape changed to lush green pine forest, then a bit further on rich pasture and beautiful deciduous trees which apart from the odd Chilean bird giving the game away could have been the Surrey countryside on a sunny day.

Pucón sits on the shore of Lake Villarrica surrounded by hills with one of the most active volcanoes in Chile (Villarrica)  looming in the background. With a local population of about 30,000 but a summer (Jan/Feb) influx of 10 times that, including the President and it seems most national politicians, Pucón is the place to be and be seen.

You can literally do any activity you can think of from sun bathing on the beach (grey volcanic sand/ash) to climbing the volcano, white water rafting, kayaking, water/jet skiing, drinking, eating, trekking, mountain biking etc etc

We were here to climb the volcano, we got lucky with the weather and made it to the top. Yet again it was a first in many ways for us, climbing about 1400 metres on snow and ice to the final height of 2847 metres and then peering into the smoking crater. Having watched ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ recently (on some bus at some point – to be missed if at all possible) there was no lack of imaginative and slightly tangential thought staring into the mouth of another world, until the smoke blew our way and choked us back to wondering about the imminent descent...

The choice of method to get back down was between skis, snow board or bottoms. We both chose to slide all of the way on our bums, for which we had been provided with full waterproofs and a plastic tray to sit on - it was great fun!

Bariloche, the Argentinian estancia and volcanic ash

Bariloche is situated on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi where kite surfers, sailers, jet skiers etc do their thang. The town is built mainly from wood in the alpine style and it is a ski resort, it is also the chocolate centre of Argentina (with great ice cream to boot), there are good restaurants and with a population of approx 120k it is of a size that matters – we had reached 'civilisation' once more after 5 weeks or so in the Patagonian wilderness.

The sad thing right now for the local populace and economy is that a volcano in Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle chain blew its top in June throwing loads of ash skywards which the prevailing winds then blew east and with Bariloche being right in the way, lots of the ash landed on the city and the surrounding area.

The ash looks like anything from big grey sand granules to a fine dust on every surface, until the wind blows in the wrong direction and the horizon then mountains then lake then far end of high street disappear and the locals don avian flu style face masks.

The airport has been closed since the eruption, so the only way in or out is by road which means the tourist traffic has dropped dramatically and approx 20% of the local population have already left looking for work elsewhere.

Each of our 5 days in Bariloche saw a different level of ash in the air as the winds came and went which meant everything from clear blue skies (revealing the beautiful lake and mountain backdrop) to visibility of no more than half a mile as we walked (the town and environs) cycled (30kms around various lakes and hills) and horse backed on our second gaucho style experience. And despite being totally covered in volcanic dust by the end of the day, this horsey excursion, on a much bigger estancia, in many ways topped the previous jaunt. 

The Argentinean estancia 101. 

Estancias are basically massive tracts of land where cattle and sheep graze the hard terrain of the Patagonian steppe. Sounds rough but it makes for some of the best quality meat on the planet, but why?

Our day in the saddle was led by Andrew, an Australian rancher who has lived and worked in Aus, New Guinea and Argentina and now manages this estancia of 25,000 hectares with an additional 10,000 hectares up the road (which is an area equivalent to approx the size of the Isle of White!) Andrew would finally explain the mystery of why Argentinean beef is so tender and tasty, but first a bit about the man and the history of our surroundings.

Andrew is a cross between Crocodile Dundee and the Marlborough man (still smokes Marlborough reds) – definitely someone more comfortable in the saddle than the office chair. He was also hugely knowledgeable on everything from farming to macroeconomics to business to wine to wildlife to veterinary techniques to the science and arguments of global warming (finding water where there isn’t any in Patagonia after 3 years of drought) Argentinian culture/customs, history and politics – a fascinating conversationalist whilst clip clopping (more of a silent whoosh through the ash) along.

Ben.. gaucho style

As it turned out the estancia (San Ramón) is owned by the family of a Swiss gentlemen (now deceased) who when in his twenties got bored with his family’s coffee trading business so he sold his share to his brothers for a modest sum and set up a chocolate company which he named Suchard. Not content with setting up just one hugely successful company, a few years later he woke up one morning and decided that job recruitment was the thing to get into so he established another new company which he called Adecco - a moderately successful couple of enterprises you might agree.

At some point he bought the estancia in Patagonia – he liked riding – and lived on it for a year or so with his family redeveloping and stocking it to become a proper working estate with a staff of 15. Each staff member is provided with a house on the farm for him and his family and all the children are put through private school – so as foreign owners go they are very good. In terms of size compared to other estancias, San Ramón is one of the bigger privately owned farms but small compared to many that belong to big corporates.

Other notable foreign owners of Patagonian estancias – Benetton have about a million hectares (twice the size of Norfolk) to supply all their wool, Ted Turner of CNN has approx 40,000 hectares which he has unfortunately de-stocked completely and keeps just for fishing trips with his mates (the official line is that it is to preserve the local wildlife).

If you would like to buy an estancia right now (land is available) 10,000 hectares of the best Patagonian desert shrub land will cost you approx US$2 million. To then stock it with 8,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle you are looking at a further US$700k. All that will net you an income of approx $250k per annum after all costs have been paid, so not a bad return in today’s climate. Let us know if you are interested and we can put you in touch with the right people.

So why is Argentinean beef so good? According to Andrew, our new font of all knowledge, it boils down to three things. Firstly the Argentinians have stuck to British breeds of cattle, predominantly the Hereford with some Angus in there as well, which are believed to be the best meat producing breeds on the planet. Secondly, they have avoided the North American doctrine of a corn based diet - apparently the corn causes a ring of fat around muscle that other diets don’t - whereas the ‘food’ available in the Patagonian steppe (supplemented with hay when required) does them just fine - and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they enjoy a stress free life having almost unlimited amounts of space to graze in and being moved from pasture to pasture very infrequently.

All in all a fascinating day where we covered about 20 kms around the farm and several different landscapes from open prairie to mountainous terrain to caves to rivers (more of a dribble). Lunch was a lamb from the estancia of about a year old (a hogget) spit roasted over the open fire whilst maintaining the crucifixion position, washed down with local Malbec – hard to beat.

In places the ash on the ground was a foot deep so the dust kicked up by the horses was impressive to say the least. Of course it is preventing what little grass that does grow from doing anything at the moment, but volcanologists have said it will both fertilise the soil and provide an insulation layer which will reduce the freezing effects of winter, both leading to richer pasture in 3 or so years.

Clearly in this context when a tough existence is made even harder than normal, now is the time to buy...

Maybe we should live here, all donations welcome!

19 Dec 2011

Ruta 40 - road trip

Ruta 40 is the stuff of travelling myth, the Argentinian route 66. You can, if you wish, travel along this epic highway from the Argentinian/Bolivian border almost to Ushuaia in the south entirely on the one road, a distance of approx 5000 kms. Lots of it however is still gravel track with a speed limit of 40 kmh (obviously), although the government is making a final push to tarmac the whole thing.

'At its traditional southern end near the city of Río Gallegos it starts at sea level, crosses 20 national parks, 18 major rivers, 27 passes on the Andes, and goes up to 5,000 m (16,404 ft) in Abra del Acay in Salta'- wikipedia.

We booked a two day bus ride to travel approx 1,300 kms along it; leave El Chalten at 9am, stop at 9pm somewhere else in Patagonia, sleep in a hostal, start again at 7am and reach Bariloche 14 hours later – the idea being that you could watch the countryside glide by and wouldn’t miss a thing by doing anything crazy like travelling at night.

Now then. If you haven’t gathered this by now then let’s be clear about what we mean by Patagonian countryside. There are times when you can see mountains in the distance to the left of the bus and other times when the road goes round a bend to deal with some gradient or other, but mainly it is just 30 kms or so to the horizon in all directions of Patagonian desert which means dust, knee high shrubs and miles of fencing.

Ben thinks this landscape is beautiful in its vast and empty nothingness; the light is always stunning, the wind is relentless and the sky (with cloud formations that we hadn’t seen anywhere before) an integral part of the 360 degree 3 dimensional vista.

Pam thinks Ben is nuts.

It is perhaps a boyz thing, but as the driver was wearing a leather Stetson this qualified as a road trip to remember. Pam slept through as much as possible.

The only downside of day 1 was the bus’s inability to have its heating turned off (overheating old grunter) or the windows open (dust issues) and the four blokes sitting across the aisle who hadn’t showered for at least a month, which meant for 40 (of course) degrees of minty freshness.

Day 2 saw a newer bus (with cooling functionality) and fewer passengers, all of whom seemed to have a firmer grasp on the concept of personal hygiene which meant for a way more pleasant journey.

The landscape also started to change in the final few hours into lush green mountainous forests surrounding lakes, for indeed we had reached the lake district of the north of Patagonia, and then our destination of Bariloche.

16 Dec 2011

Parque Nacional los Glaciares - north

El Chalten - Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

The main attractions of the northern sector of PNLG are the peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre.

In the 1980's the Argentinean government sponsored people to come and live in El Chalten - which up until that point was no more than 1 small house (yellow) where a mountain hermit dude lived to tend the sheep of the estancia (large Patagonian farm) - as a land grab exercise to get first dibs on the place before the Chileans had a go - a proper remote pioneer mountain spot.


The two peaks are regarded as serious climbing challenges and mountaineers have been coming here for the last 60 years or so to conquer them, or be conquered themselves - the best pizza restaurant in town (Patagonicus) has photos lining the walls of those that have died trying, beautiful photos from the 1950’s onwards but a slightly macabre dining experience.

The town is within the national park and is a tad disappointing; a mess of random buildings of many totally unrecognisable architectural schools of thought, along with being overpriced and under stocked - a real missed opportunity to build something sympathetic to the surroundings being such a recent addition to the Argentinean map.

And for us after the amazing highs of the W tour, the El Chalten landscape and treks were less than jaw droppingly amazing, nice but probably better to have come here before the W as an intro to Patagonian mountain wilderness.

That said, in addition to two days trekking on foot we enjoyed a day on horseback which was fantastic, the full gaucho experience with lazy riding style, steak from the farm for lunch cooked on the open parilla (bbq) - being so remote the animals are not vaccinated in any way and with completely stress free grazing to boot the meat was the best - and magnificent views all day long.

And then we set off on our Ruta 40 road trip, 2 days to remember :)


11 Dec 2011

Parque Nacional los Glaciares - south - walking on ice

El Calafate / Perito Moreno

El Calafate is a pleasant enough town (buildings in main street follow wooden alpine style and sell warm clothes and chocolate) built on the edge of the southern end of this national park (and tourism to the park) which contains the largest ice cap outside of Antarctica and Greenland and feeds 48 big glaciers.

Basically the reason that Patagonia to the east is so dry is that all the moisture from the Pacific is trapped in these mountains as ice.

Perito Moreno is one of the 48 that we can all visit without any difficulty and walk on if prepared to don crampons (and be under the age of 45!) It is 250 square kms of ice, over 30 kms in length with a leading edge 5 kms wide and in places 100 metres high - you can take the boat to within about 200 metres of that leading edge...

or stand on one of the viewing gangways at about 70 metres distance.

Perito Moreno is one of the few 'stable' glaciers on the planet, i.e. it is not receding due to global warming - although no one can quite agree as to why that is. The ice of the glacier moves down the hill at about 2 metres a day and has grown to meet a peninsula effectively creating a dam between two lakes. When this dam can no longer hold the pressure of the rising water level in one of the lakes, the dam bursts to much applause (last happened in 2006). We didn't get to see that particular show, but it is dammed right now and could blow at any moment, so hurry hurry...

Why are glaciers blue? - another geeky factoid - same reason water is blue, the more pure the ice (less air) then the more it absorbs the red end of the light spectrum, so when you look down a crevice or sink hole on the glacier, the deeper you can see the more the ice has been compressed the less air there is, the less red the more blue.

All this means for many more expletives of incredibly amazing wondrous humbleness at the sights and sounds of the forces of nature - this immense wonder is truly truly spectacular, especially when bits break off...

We also did one of the tours onto the ice which meant trekking with crampons for an hour and a half or so and then drinking a whisky on glacial rocks :)

walking on ice and to finish off