Wednesday, February 6, 2013

wine 102

 Robert Parker gives this Malbec from the Uco Valley 90 points

You all know about red wine, or do you?  Everyone seems to know Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  Argentina is famous for Malbec.  But there are so many other interesting varieties.  Have you tasted a Cab Franc?  Have you heard of Bonarda?  Or Petit Verdot? Or Tannat? Or Carmenere?
We left the northwest, Salta and Cafayate, where the white grape Torrontes is king, and flew to Mendoza, The Wine Center of the World.  That is what the sign at the airport claims, sort of like Wenatchee is the Apple Capitol of the World.  And both are pretty close to being true.  (Yakima and Bordeaux will have to steam in silence and read on.)

There is a wonderful little place named The Vines of Mendoza where you can sample various wines from many producers.  Since there are so many wineries, and many of them are 50-100 miles outside of town, it is a great way to learn a lot without driving for hours.  We chose the high priced tasting, after all we did not travel 9,000 miles to taste their average wine.

Las Reserves Del Valle was a flight of five Reserve wines ($250 pesos) although there were several other choices ranging in price from $50 pesos up.  Recall from the previous blog that a peso is now worth about   Thirteen cents, so this is not going to break the bank.

We loved the 2011 Zorzal Pinot Noir, delicious and full bodied for a Pinot.
The Laureano Gomez 2010 Malbec was delicious, intense black color and fruity but with enough tannins to give a nice long finish.
The Gran Lorca Poetico was a 2008 Petit Verdot, not our favorite, but then I thought this is better as a blending grape.
Do I sound pompous yet?  I dislike wine snobs, but we are just reporting the facts, and a couple of opinions.
The most expensive wine in the sample was the 2010 Recuerdo Gran Corte, a blend of Malbec, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  It was great, but not worth the $50 per bottle price.  In fact we both commented that Mike Wade's Fielding Hills is better wine than any of these.
Finally, we enjoyed the 2006 Monteviejo which was another blend of the same four workhorse grapes, but in different percentages.
And if you want to buy any of these, or learn more about the wine here, visit the Vines of Mendoza website.

Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room

Later that night at dinner we had a blend with Bonarda from the Las Perdices.  The next day we tried some Tannat and in Santiago, Chile we had some Carmenere.  But that is the subject of the next blog. Cheers.  Dale

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Dollar Blue

The currency market here in Argentina is turbulent.  For much of the past decade the Argentine Peso was worth about .20 to .25 cent US.  Inflation has been bad here during the past three years, officially the rate is 10 percent, unofficially it is above 25 percent.  The IMF has recently penalized Argentina for failure to report its economic statistics accurately.  The Presidenta howled but the market understands inflation.  So there is a black market in US dollars.  Everyone wants them. While the official rate is 4.99 pesos to one USDollar, you can sell your dollars to money changers, Cambios, for a fluctuating rate based on supply and demand.
When we got here twenty days ago the rate was 7.2 pesos to the dollar.  Yesterday it hit a new high of 8.0 to one.  The front page headlines in today's paper show this is a real problem for the government and they are trying to stop it. In a desperate measure, the government announced yesterday that they are putting price controls on all the major supermarkets to try to hold down food prices.  Right.  We will see how long that works.  Government controlled price fixing has never worked over a long term.  It can create short term dislocations, winners and losers.  But over time the market will prevail.  Thankfully. In the meantime, can you please sell me some more Pesos for 8 to 1?

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Meat of the Matter

Okay you foodies out there, this one is for you! Let`s be honest, food is one of the joys of travel. Well, food also plays an important role in the families of Argentina. It is common for Argentines to socialize over an asado (barbeque) and as we know, Argentina is famous for their beef. Cows were first brought to Argentina in 1536 by the Spanish conquistadors. The cattle thrived when fed on the lucious grass of the humid pampas. Beef soon became a major part of the culture due to the guachos of the pampas.  

Parillas are restaurants that grill meat over an open fire. They serve side dishes like a mixed green salad or french fries but the main attraction is meat, cuts of all kind. The portions are huge but we have discovered that it is perfectly acceptable to order one steak and one mixta salad to compartir (share).
                                          The parrilla at La Candelaria restaurant in Salta

Salad Mixta

Many Argentines can trace their heritage back to Italy particularly in the Mendoza and Buenos Aires area. So, it is not surprising to see pasta as a major food group in Argentina. Pizzerias can be found most everywhere. A popular pasta  is a "sorrentino"  filled with  ham, mozzarella and ricotta cheese shaped like a sombrero.

A plate of Sorrentino pasta

Dulce de leche is made from cow`s milk and is a carmel color spread that is translated as "milk jam". It is used as a spread on pancakes, toast or to fill pastries or cakes. We saw ladies selling their home made jars of dulce de leche in the remote areas we traveled. It is found in every store. Even in the US this flavor is gaining ground. Haagen-Dazs now has a dulce de leche ice cream and Starbucks a dulce de leche coffee drink! I guess this is a good example of how food cultures begin to blend together.
Jars of Dulce de Leche
Pastries at a roadside coffee shop 
When we toured the south of Argentina a previous trip, we found the influence of  the German culture impacted Argentinian cuisine. The media lunes (half moons or crescent roll dipped in a sweet glaze) come from the German "Halbmond". The German pastries and torta fritas were Argentinized by the addition of the dulce de leche filling. These are served every single morning for breakfast everywhere in the country north or south!

Breakfast Media lunes and Alfajores served at the Loi Suite Hotel in Iguazu
Alfajores are a sweet biscuit filled with dulce de leche and are served as an accompaniment to a cup of coffee anytime of day. In Bariloche (northern lake district) the Swiss chocolatiers are hard at work. We have often had chocolates brought to our room in the evening even in Salta. The cafe con leche each morning rivals anything Starbucks can brew. And of course who wouldn`t want ice cream in summer? The ice cream is so delicious....especially the dulce de leche flavor! (Are you getting my theme?)

Cafe con leche served at the KKala Hotel in Salta

In the north (Salta), we have enjoyed the high andean cuisine that uses local products of  lamb, goat, llama, rabbit, mushrooms, quinoa (an ancient Andean grain), corn, tamales, sweet potatoes and the like.  The restaurant in the Hotel Ameria takes some of these ancient ingredients to new heights with Chef Rita Blanquez presiding over the kitchen at Restaurant Darrical.  She blends the new with the old.... the fresh shrimp comes from Buenos Aires and I doubt the Incas had ice cream!

     A timbale of quinoa and vegetables with a seafood pesto sauce 

Almond ice cream served on baby green eggplant stewed in a sugar syrup

Pork bondiola served with a red wine demi glaze and a timbale of Andean Squash with pistachios 

PRICES:  We shared the meal pictured above at the Restaurant Darrical in Salta and our entire bill was $35 including a bottle of Don David Cabernet and bottled water. The portions were generous.  At the Restaurant Azafran in Mendoza our dinner bill was $95 for one salad to share, one goat filled ravioli dish, one skirt steak, one coconut flan, wine and water. We noticed the price of empanadas on the menu was $3 apiece. Prices are much higher in Mendoza!

Ah yes.....the empanada. You have to thank the Spanish for this one! It is said that the empanadas from Salta are the best in the country and I agree. They are filled with cubed meat, minced  potato, egg, scallion, cumin and cayenne pepper. The girl at our hotel tells me that her family gathers every Sunday for empanadas. Nothing else on the menu, just a variety of empanadas filled with meat, chicken or cheese. (They cost about 75 cents apiece)
The empanadas we ate for a quick lunch in the square at Salta 

When I first came to Argentina, I expected to eat meat everyday. But there really is so much more to experience.  The trout has been delicious and we have found local fish in most every town. Admittedly, some good and some not so good.  

Delicious river trout served to us at a restaurant in the square at Cachi.

One of our taxi drivers yesterday was laughing at a Portena customer (person from Buenos Aires) who was outraged that he could not find salmon on any menu in Salta. Our taxi driver told him that if he wanted salmon to go to Chile!  The first rule of travel: when in Rome do as the Romans do. Yes, it is okay to share a steak, but do NOT ask for salmon in Salta, ask for goat instead! Gail

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Maiden`s Sacrifice

We visited another world in Salta, the world of the Inca's over 500 years ago.  At the Museum of High Altitude Archeology we met a fifteen year old girl, the young Maiden, who was presented as a living sacrifice and entombed at the top of the 22,110 foot (6,739 meters) above sea level Mount Llullaillaco. Frozen in her stony chamber, thin dry air, she looks alive just as she looked when she was lovingly laid to rest to appease the gods and to watch over the people down below the mountain.

Along with her was a six year old girl and a seven year old boy.  They wore beautiful textiles, the garments of royalty.  They carried miniature dolls, crafted of gold and silver and dressed in fine clothes, wearing tropical bird feather headdresses. The girls hair was carefully braided, even today you can imagine the effort to make these sacrificial lambs be spotless and without blemish.
The young girl and the young boy have somewhat conical skulls, a sign that they were of royal birth and had their heads bound to shape them.  They were part of an elaborate ritual, hiking two hundred miles over the mountains from Cuzco, where they had been chosen by the Inca leaders, they and their guardians climbed to the very summit of this gigantic peak.  There the men dug a pit and fashioned out three niches.  The children were given a maize beer and some cocoa leaves to put them to sleep.  Then, carefully, they were placed in their mountaintop tomb where they froze to death in their sleep.
In 1999 archeologists discovered the tomb. There is a video display of the actual removal of the mummies from the snow covered mountain.  The children have been viewed by CTScan, their DNA tested, their organs are normal, even some blood remains in their hearts.  They were preserved by the unique conditions of the extremely high altitude.

Additional exhibits show other mountain shrines and one, Reina del Cerro, or Queen of the Mountain, whose body was discovered 80 years ago at a different peak.  Experts believe there are 40 other mountaintop burial places in the Andes.  They are not planning to disturb any others out of respect for the dead and the faith that led parents to sacrifice their own perfect children in the belief that their sacrifice would pacify the gods of these magnificent and terrible mountains.

I cannot help but think of The Old Testament story of Isaac and Jacob, and the New Testament gospel of God sending His own son into the world to sacrifice Himself for the sins of all mankind.
We are part of human history replete with great examples of sacrifice.  The Incas believed that by sacrifing their finest, young royal children, that the children would live forever, would merge with the mountain gods and would be the protectors of the entire Inca community.

Everyone in the museum spoke in hushed tones, the lighting was subdued.  We stood silently and watched the Maiden as she rests peacefully in her plastic chamber.  As we walked out of the museum it felt as if we had been in a church or a temple.  This museum alone was worth the trip to Salta. Every three months they rotate which mummy is on display.  They take extraordinary care to preserve these gifts from the past.

On Wikipedia, ask for Llullaillaco. They indicate the boy must have struggled near the end as he was tied up. The little girls face is upturned, looking toward the sky.  She is known as Lightening Girl as sometime in the far past a lightening bolt struck the top of the mountain and her face shows the burns.  Simply amazing and for an additional article with a fine slide show of the children click the link to the NY Times article below. Dale

Wine 101

Library Wines at Bodega El Porvenir 

Argentina is justly famous for great Malbec.  Fewer people have enjoyed the superb white wine, Torrontes and even less know what Tannat can do to enhance the flavors and complexity of a red blend.  Our friends know we come here to walk the orchards and vineyards, talk with the growers and winemakers so we can improve our own wine making skills.  On previous trips we visited Mendoza, the wine capital, and far south in Patagonia, spent time at the el Fin del Mundo vineyards south of Neuquen.  This time we came to the northwest, to Salta and Cafayate, the home of aromatic white Torrontes.

Cafayate has a great little museum, Museo de la Vid y el Vino, with sound and light and interactive displays on the life of the vine and the magical process of turning soil, sun, water and the hard work of man into the beautiful beverage.  Wine is like life, complex and mysterious; the powerful sunshine, pure air and water and the huge temperature swing between day and night can turn an ordinary grape into complex sugars, add fermentation and the proper yeast to create the right balance of fruit and terroir, a skilled winemaker can choose from 13-14 percent alcohol and after filtering the white wine it shimmers in the glass and gives joy.

Bodega Nanni
We visited three great wineries in Cafayate, El Porvenir was our favorite.  The personal guided tour of the entire operation was thoughtful and the wine excellent.  In the past three years they have retained Donald Hobbs of California as consulting winemaker and this year they received a 92 from Robert Parker.  The wines were moderately priced and are now available in North America.

Bodega El Esteco 
We also visited a very large scale winery, El Esteco and a smaller family owned winery, Bodega Nanni.  Both had great wines, nice tours and are worth a visit,  Nanni was founded in 1897 and only produces 250,000 bottles a year for local consumption.  Esteco is 20 times larger and sells a variety of labels and at different price points throughout the world.

We walked through the vineyards, ate some grapes and measured the vine spacing and the trellis systems.  We talked to the workers about the pruning practices and the cosecha, the grape harvest, which will begin next week.  The wine museum has a video on the history of winemaking and watching it makes you feel small as the process is formidable.  It also makes you thirsty.  So, let's raise a glass of Torrontes.  cheers.  Next time we can focus on Malbec and its cousin from Cahors, France called Tannat.  Dale

Friday, February 1, 2013

Cafayate to Salta on Route 68

The scenery from Cafayate to Salta on Nacional 68, is spectacular.  The most amazing large rock formation was Los Castillos, a red sandstone, windblown into the shape of European castles.  

The drive of about 210 kilometers took over five hours.  The road is paved except where it was washed out by the raging Rio Guachipas.  The saddest stop was at the home site where a man and his wife we rebuilding a mud brick home, just 100 yards from where their previous home was washed away only 8 days ago.

The man was lucky to survive the sudden flash flood caused by torrential mountain rains far away.  His llamas were swept away with his entire house.  He was able to save only three of the animals.  The regional government sent a bulldozer to help him, but he was laying the bricks for his new house by himself. 

Further up the road a major washout occurred last February and they still have not begun repairs.  We drove across the rocky debris from the flood.  Sand, dry desert, rocks of all shapes and sizes.  This is a hard land, unforgiving.  

The brave owner of the little mud brick house shook his head and said, "the river is bigger than us, it takes our house away so we build another."  Fatalism, what can you do when you are up against the power of nature-
This is big country.  Mountains are huge, technicolor, reds, browns, black, grey, white in stirations from the uplifting of tectonic plates eons ago.  Rivers are wide, fast, the color of a coffee milkshake full of silt.  Valleys are broad, and once you come down from the mountains, the valley floor is full of farms, fields of tobacco, grapes, corn, vegetables and big John Deere tractors and harvesters and hot hard working men.

The gem of small rock formations was the El Anfiteatro, a three hundred foot high rock wall where ten million years ago water cut the rock into a natural amphitheater.  

The locals sell fresh tortillas and the musicians come to play pipes and guitars for the tourists.  We bought some cold water and an alfajora and two turtle shaped pipes for Daniel and Johnny to blow happy music on.

Our last rest stop  en route to Salta shows a pear cactus and a very different type of landscape. Another long day driving, but worth the effort.  Dale