Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Road to Mendoza

Crossing the Andes was not an experience we had considered much. We had thought about how much it would cost, what mode of travel, whether to go by day or by night, how long it would take. We thought of Mendoza, Argentina as our destination, but did not think of the crossing of the Andes as an experience itself. Perhaps we should have, because the road to Mendoza is both a geographical and historical marvel.

The first thing you notice when you approach the Andes is its highest peak; while the spine of the mountain range is a barren blade of greyish brown, a single peak is capped in white. This is Aconcagua, at 6962m above sea level she is the highest peak in the world outside of Asia and her snowmelt is one of the primary sources of the river system that runs into Mendoza.

The Andean border between Chile and Argentina is formed naturally by the Andes mountains themselves, but where exactly one country ends and the other begins has been a source of history between the two nations. Aconcagua is definitely Argentinian, because her water flows to the Argentinian side of the range, but border definitions have not always been so clear.

La Cumbre Pass is the name of the valley through which the road to Mendoza winds, a steep mountainous climb on the right side leads you to the historic monument named Christ the Redeemer of the Andes. This statue was erected in 1904 to celebrate the peaceful resolution of a border dispute between the two nations which came very close to war. If it wasn't for the efforts of a wealthy and highly religious Argentinian socialite, who arranged for the statue to be erected here, Chile and Argentina, both deeply catholic countries, may have resolved their differences by killing each other. Instead they decided to have a parade with gun salutes and lots of hugging and cheering.

In Uspallata pass, also on the way to Mendoza, is a bridge named Picheuta. Back in 1817 a General with Republican ideas named San Martín formed an army with the intent of kicking the Spanish out of South America altogether. It was here at Picheuta that a sentry of San Martín's army first contacted the Spanish army that occupied the Chilean side of the Andes. Later, San Martín went on the liberate Argentina, Chile and Perú from Spain, San Martín is a bit of a hero to the Argentinian people in particular. A statue of Genral San Martin is found at San Martín Plaza in Mendoza, being the place where his 'Army of the Andes' was raised in the first place.

The bridge at Picheuta

Statue of San Martín in Mendoza

When your time passing through the Andes is almost done, you pass the Potrerillos dam, which dams the Mendoza river to form a large artificial lake. Mendoza has very little rainfall, but the combination of persistent sunshine from the arid climate and plentiful water supplied from the snowmelt of the Andean peaks makes for perfect conditions for growing grapevines, a fact that Mendocinos (people from Mendoza) have taken full advantage of.

Mendoza and the surrounding region supplies 80% of Argentina's wine, the vineyards are irrigated by a series of free flowing channels originally created by the Hualpa Indians of the region, and further developed by the Spanish for the agriculture of grapes, olives and lots of other fresh produce.

Mendoza is famous particularly for its Malbec wines, a variety we don't see much of in Australia. Malbec is similar to Shiraz but softer and lighter in character, and Mendoza is responsible for supplying very fine Malbecs at rediculously cheap prices when compared to Australian wine. At the Carmine Granata winery, Marina explains to us that the 2007 Cab Sav we are anjoying is selling for 18 pesos per bottle, and the Malbec for 28 pesos, or around $6-$9 Australian a bottle. For 280 pesos you can pick up a bottle of the 1999 Nicolas Granata Malbec, national and international gold medal winner and regarded by the people who decide such things as the second best Malbec in the world.

So for us, the road to Mendoza ends with a warm welcome in the form of some of Argentina's finest wine and food, the only tinge of sadness being that almost none of the wine here is exported to Australia. We will have to drink enough of it while we are here.

Jace wonders if he can fit the barrel in his pack. Scrap the pack, just take the barrel!

Meanwhile, Alix enjoys as much as she can

The fabulous spread at Casa de Cuno ends our tour of the Mendoza wine region

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