Tuesday 2 February 2010

Where the wine flows

Mendoza comes to life only twice a day: in the morning, when everybody rushes to work, and in the evening, when everybody rushes out to meet their friends. Dusk is just falling behind the window. Lights combine: the headlights of passing cars, restaurants' neon signs, street lanterns. The wide streets are lined with tall trees, whose crowns obscure buildings' windows. Mere metres away is the biggest square I have ever seen in a city centre: it is not a mere square, it is more like a small park. In 1861, a great earthquake destroyed Mendoza completely: the town had to be rebuilt from scratch. Mindful of the recent disaster, it was decided to implement some innovations that - if necessary - would make it possible to survive another quake. That's the reason for the wide streets and the huge central square, it will serve as an evacuation point when the worst happens. For now though, in the evenings, local craftsmen display their goods here. Everything is for sale: jewelry, kaleidoscopes, leather bags and wallets, wooden bowls for dips, colourful masks, sweets, dolls, jams. Enthusiastic kids run from stall to stall, peer into the fountains, play hide-and-seek between the trees. The main square is surrounded by four smaller ones, each a few blocks away. Fountains, canals, continuously watered lawns, trees - ubiquitous presence of water and green makes one forget that Mendoza is built in a desert. Thanks to the constant irrigation, life in the city is very pleasant - one doesn't feel the heat that burns the surrounding land.

We're sitting in one of many local restobars: the places where nice, relaxing music flows from the speakers, food is never consumed without wine and wifi is free for all. We're resting after a day spent in Maipu, a small town a couple of kilometers away from Mendoza itself. We're resting after a day spent conquering a few kilometers of asphalt road in unbearable sunshine, on shoddy bicycles, with occasional breaks for wine, olives and even more wine. It's amazing how much better it tastes after learning the secrets of its production.

Until now, wine for me was just wine: cheap or expensive, but lacking any important meaning, really. I could even be called a wine blasphemer. Even though, having watched so many movies, in my heart I've dreamt of having my own vineyard (somewhere in the hills of France, in a small town where everyone knows each other, with a big old house...), somehow I've never even had the will to at least read some Wikipedia pages about wine. Today I have a splitting headache from an overload of interesting information. I now know how rose wine comes to be. I know that every kind of grape requires slightly different irrigation. I know the difference between young wine, reserva, gran reserva and premium. I know what the tools used in production of the beverage look like. I know that a barrel should be turned into furniture after its third use. I know that corks are brought to Mendoza from Portugal. I know one mustn't drink Malbec in France and that this kind of wine tastes the best in Argentina. Gorging myself with olives produced in a neighbouring factory, and hoping to prove to Bjarni how much I know already, I joke that in 2004 they surely had a sensational harvest here, the best one in years. The laugh gets caught in my throat at the Di Tomasi vineyard, where our female guide shows us shelves stocked with their most expensive wine. Only four thousands bottles were made and they were personally numbered by the owner of the wineyard and are sold only here, in this place. As the grapes were from the best possible harvest, it was decided to limit their sale to at most a thousand bottles per year - the rest collect dust on the shelves, which only adds to their charm. The year of that harvest? 2004... We buy a bottle, planning to drink the contents on a special occasion, and return to the city. We stop on the way, glancing at Aconcagua, the highest peak of the Andes. The mountain delights and intimidates at the same time - one can feel its power from afar. We return our rented bikes and catch a bus going in our direction. A few minutes later we reach our place and now, here we are, resting in the restobar.

I'm sitting with my legs extended in front of me, listening to jazz and thinking about our day. Though so far Argentina fails to charm me, this, one of the most incredible views of our trip, made it worth coming: vineyards stretching towards the horizon, towards the snow-capped peak of the amazing Aconcagua.

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The past!