Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wine & Wind in Mendoza

Mendoza province is Argentina’s wine cask, and over the last decade-plus its wines have begun to make a global impact, enough so that investors from Europe, North America, Chile, and elsewhere have poured funds to create some of the world’s most distinctive wineries. By some estimates, there are more than a thousand wineries in the province, mostly in Luján de Cuyo, Maipú, the Valle de Uco, and San Rafael. In the provincial capital city of Mendoza, US investors have created the Vines of Mendoza wine bar (pictured here) and a vinoteca in the nearby Park Hyatt Hotel, both of which appear to have been resounding successes, and used them as a forward base for a private vineyard estate project in the Valle de Uco.

Not so long ago, everyone who visited here had to stay in the capital and find their ways to the wineries and vineyards - many
of which were open for tours and tasting - pretty much on their own. Recently, though, there’s been a proliferation of vineyard hotels, some of which, like Cavas Wine Lodge (pictured above), help organize their guests’ winery excursions and other activities - including mountaineering, river rafting, paragliding, and other adventure. Surrounded by vines, Cavas was one of the first of a group that now includes Finca Adalgisa, Club Tapiz (pictured here), and La Posada at the Finca y Bodega Carlos Pulenta.

Arriving in Mendoza last Tuesday, I spent two nights at the most recent entry in the vineyard inn sweepstakes, Lares en Finca Terrada (whose website is a placeholder at present, but is due to be up shortly). Pictured here, it’s a purpose-built hotel, on seven hectares of Malbec vines in Luján de Cuyo, near the suburb of Chacras de Coria (where the owners’ other hotel Lares de Chacras, is located).

Lares en Finca Terrada has only five rooms, two of them suites, and is relatively isolated on the eastern side of Ruta Nacional 7; though it’s only about five minutes by car or taxi to Chacras de Coria and its abundant restaurants, it’s not a practical pedestrian excursion, and the hotel offers occasional meals to guests only.

Tuesday night was mild and windless and, as I sat on the terrace having dinner with an Anglo-German couple, the topic somehow turned to weather. I brought up the subject of El Zonda, the Cuyo region’s fierce katabatic winds that descend from the high Andes to raise havoc, blowing dense clouds of sand and dust and even lifting corrugated metal roofs off houses. Like the North American Chinook and the European Föhn, the Zonda brings higher temperatures and a pressure drop that causes headaches and is hell on people with allergies.

As it happened, I was something of a prophet. The next evening, around 7 p.m., the wind started kicking up and half an hour later it was a full-fledged Zonda as hotel personnel struggled to take down tent shelters and umbrellas before they were ripped to shreds. About that time the power went off and we were reduced to battery-powered auxiliary lighting (Finca Terrada is due to invest in an emergency generator shortly).

Meanwhile, a group of four Finnish women had arrived but, with their taxi afraid to leave because of fallen trees and branches, they could not leave for a planned dinner in Chacras. Amazingly, hotel manager Edmundo Day recruited an emergency chef to come from Chacras for them, even as I was hoping to head there for dinner myself.

By 9:30, though, the Zonda had subsided and I braved the drive into Chacras - through streets that were partially blocked by fallen trees or branches, and occasionally flooded because the deadfalls had clogged the acequias (irrigation canals) that irrigate the vineyards. In fact, most of Chacras was without power as well, though the excellent Chilean restaurant Mar y Monte was open. Returning to Finca Terrada around midnight, I read by candlelight - the batteries for the auxiliary lighting had run down.

During the next morning’s breakfast, even as utility crews were clearing the streets and restoring power, the powerful Zonda was all anyone could talk about.

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