The idea of biking among wide, flat vineyards with orange, smudged hills as the backdrop appealed to me tremendously. There should be the clippity clop of horse-drawn wagons and plants heavily laden with dark purple grapes, and the occasional tail-wagging dog and the sound of big wooden gates moving creakily on their hinges as I pedal up to the vineyard entrance.
In practical application, there was a bike ride in the suburbs along a fairly open-mouthed drainage canal, and it was pretty enough, but the plants were cut back from last year’s growth and had barely unfurled a single leaf, and it was hot and it was dry, but I had brought both water and some cookies to nibble, because no hostel breakfast, no matter how contundente is going to get you through ten tastings before lunch without a little inebriation.
I was in Mendoza, Argentina, known for its Malbec, and just six hours from my home, in Santiago, Chile. For the southern cone, Mendoza is the king of enoturismo (wine tourism), so on a recent weekend away, I went to go see what it was all about. I’ve pedaled through wineries in Chile, and in wine country in Oregon and New Zealand. I’ve always been a cyclist, and have recently begun to consider wine a central event, not an add-on. So I decided to give Mendoza’s pedal-bike options a whirl.
But first I talked to my hostel-mates. “We got so wasted” reported one tall, broad-shouldered Brit, before comparing getting-pockets-rifled-through stories with the Irish guy beside me, who asked for the name of the tour that had felled this human giant. I quickly divined that there are two main areas where people go bike wine touring in Mendoza. There is Maipú, which attracts a lot of backpackers, and Chacras de Coria (in Luján), which pulls more restauranteurs, wine snobs, and frankly, me. I hooked up with a tour company in town, and took the public bus to the plaza in Chacras de Coria, fielding questions from a 70-something woman named Patricia who wanted to know why gringos sometimes appear on the bus she takes to go visit her grandchildren. “Winetasting,” I told her, and the bus kept filling up, though on that day, I was the only (obvious) foreigner.
Set up on my bike, with a helmet, a map (depicting, in addition to the route I should take, a painted rock which had fallen into the aforementioned drainage canal), and a bunch of phone numbers to call in case of confusion or emergency, I set off on a tour of what turned into four wineries, one of which I only stopped and had lunch at. The guide who put it together had wanted me to see five, but I had to cut one out due to time constraints and chatty winemakers.
In the end, I met a charismatic Italian-Argentine winemaker named Carmelo Patti, who makes his small-batch wine in the back and basement of a house that shows no sign of being a winery from the outside, and also a tremendously knowlegable young oenephile and wine tourism guide named Juan Pablo at Lagarde, who poured crazy generous servings at the post-tour tasting and made me, an avowed non-sparkling wine drinker, rethink my position. I later went to Pulmary, where I felt like I’d surprised a family mid-picnic on their grassy, shaded grounds. Here they make wine from organic grapes and have a sustainable organic garden and a pretty tasting room in the cool basement with paintings by family members on the wall. And though I was pretty much done with wine, I was completely done with the bike, so I tried more sparkling wines and decided that I also had never previously tasted the right rosé.
It was a long day, even having missed one of the scheduled wineries, and I did manage to get lost, which meant I got to see a part of suburban Mendoza which was not even on my map (this though, was my fault, not the mapmpaker’s, nor the tour company’s). For me, the fit of the wineries was great, and I hadn’t told my guide about my dreams of clippity cloppity horses or the swinging wooden gates. I essentially traded more beautiful terrain for personality, knowledge, small scale, and wine from organic grapes. If I were going to Mendoza again to go winetasting (and I most likely will), I’ll set out earlier, drink less at each pour, and explain my scenery requirements a bit more thoroughly, and then I’ll double back to a wine store and pick up more wine from some of this trip’s favorite visits.
[Editor’s note: My tour and tastings were arranged and paid for by Kahuak tourism in Mendoza.]