Friday, January 15, 2010

Wine & Dinos in Patagonia

When foreigners think of Patagonia, their first thoughts are usually of a remote region in the antipodes, where the winds blow and the snow falls. Few think of grapes and even fewer of wine grapes but, in reality, grapes grow as far south as Punta Arenas (Chile), Estancia Sara (in Argentine Tierra del Fuego), and the Falkland Islands.

That’s a little misleading, because these destinations have table grape vines that grow indoors, as in the winter garden restaurant at Punta Arenas’s Hotel José Nogueira (pictured above, with a net to keep the fruit from falling onto the diners' tables). Nevertheless, wine grapes have grown, with commercial success, for more than a century in Argentine Patagonia - Bodega Humberto Canale, half an hour east of the provincial capital of Neuquén, celebrated its centennial in 2009.

In fact, the Patagonian wine industry is expanding rapidly with the new San Patricio del Chañar district, less than an hour northwest of Neuquén. Having made The New York Times’ list of “31 Places to Go in 2010,” Chañar figures to grab even more attention in the coming years, thanks to bodegas such as Bodega del Fin del Mundo, Bodega NQN, and Bodega Familia Schroeder. The latter two also have fine restaurants, but Schroeder is the only one that can boast an in situ dinosaur fossil, discovered during the construction excavations.

Neuquén province is a hotbed for field-based paleontology research and especially dinosaur discoveries - so much so that Schroeder has named one of its lines “Saurus” - with a triangle of paleontological museums at Lago Barreales (west of Chañar), Plaza Huincul (pictured here, west of Neuquén), and Villa El Chocón (southwest of Neuquén). In theory, it would be feasible to visit most of the wineries and museums in a day, but that would be extremely rushed, and two days would be desirable.

Meanwhile, Chañar isn’t the only novelty on the Argentine wine scene. Near the town of Sierra de la Ventana, one of the few places in Buenos Aires province where bedrock rises above the legendary Pampas, the new Bodega Saldungaray (pictured here) has planted nine hectares with a diversity of grapes that includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. Available only in southwestern Buenos Aires province, these are young wines - the vineyards were planted only six years ago - that aren’t ready for export, and the winery doesn’t really have a specialty yet. Still, it's worth a visit, especially with free tours and tasting during the day, a restaurant that’s open until midnight, and nightly tastings, paired with food, under the guidance of its sommelier.

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