Bodega hopping in the Valle de Uco

There are still parts of the Valle de Uco that resemble the semi-arid desert that existed here before vineyards and fruit trees blazed colour across the valley floor. When you see the landscape as it once was, it’s hard to imagine how this area became famed for being one of the largest producers of exceptional wines in Argentina. It took visionary people to see in this scrubby landscape, a thousand or more metres above sea level, the perfect location for viticulture.

As unpromising as it looks at first glance, fed by snow melt from the Andes, the terroir of the Uco Valley is perfect for several grape varieties, most famously Malbec, and today produces some of the finest Argentine wines. One of the first pioneers of Uco’s booming wine business is the Bodega Piedra Negra, named for the black stone soils that are typical of the area. Its owners, Jacques and Francois Lurton, arrived in the area from France in 1992 and brought with them a family winemaking tradition dating back to the 17th century.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

It was to here we headed for yet another wine tasting, in particular we were keen to sample their prestigious Malbec varieties, but also far less common wines like Pinot Gris. We hadn’t booked, but when we arrived the security guard called the colonial-style villa and arranged a guided tour. We were the only people there, and were shown around by Emma, a knowledgeable young French woman who had recently arrived in the valley to learn about the wine trade. We ended the tour with a tasting of several wines, and the purchase of several bottles more.

One of the unintended consequences of our visit to the Valle de Uco was buying more bottles of wine than we could reasonably hope to carry home in a suitcase, never mind  lugging them around on the final leg of our trip to the Argentinian Lake District. Still, if you can’t make inadvisable purchases of wines while sipping them under an Andean sun in the middle of the vineyard where they’re produced, when can you? Adding to our earlier purchases from the previous day, the suspension of our tiny hire car looked under severe strain.

On our way to Bodega Piedra Negra we’d passed through a strange place marked on the map as Manzano Historico, or Historic Apple Tree. This seemed a bit improbable, but in this dusty corner of the Valle de Uco is an apple tree that General San Martin is supposed to have sat under on his return from liberating Chile from the Spanish. The alleged tree is still there, as is a big monument to San Martin and an unnecessarily large Christ statue. There was a big school party misbehaving to add extra surrealism to the scene.

After our tasting we drove towards the small town of Vista Flores, passing numerous vineyards on the arrow-straight roads of the region. This is a vast place with huge skies, we saw very few cars and few signs of life, but did come across a man hitching a lift in the middle of nowhere. We gave him a lift to the town before deciding our time would be better spent by the pool at the Finca La Azul, where we were staying. This was our final night in the Valle de Uco and the chef had prepared a delicious farewell dinner, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

The next morning we packed our bags and bottles and set off for Mendoza airport, taking a route through the foothills of the Andes that would allow us to explore more of this magnificent region. We hadn’t gone far when we came across gangs of gauchos riding in the opposite direction. We stopped to take a photo and they stopped to chat. There was a big fiesta happening in one of the bodegas further down the valley. It was tempting to turn around and head towards the party … sadly common sense prevailed.

Valle de Uco, wine tasting in the shadow of the Andes

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, the vineyards of the Valle de Uco stretch across a vast landscape under an immense sky. This is one of the premier wine growing regions in Argentina, producing some of the country’s most famous and delicious wines; and it’s dotted with fantastic bodegas that offer high quality accommodation, great food and, of course, plenty of wine tasting opportunities. If you have the time, and the cash, it makes for a truly luxurious few days in lovely countryside only a 100km south of Mendoza.

We had three nights booked at the Casa de Huespedes Finca La Azul, which sits in the middle of vineyards interspersed with peach and plum trees. It’s one of the friendliest and most relaxing places we’ve ever stayed. It set the tone for a lazy few days in the valley, hopping from bodega to bodega tasting extraordinary wines, and having some of the most delicious food of our trip, all locally sourced. Best of all, we spent time sitting in the garden at La Azul trying their range of excellent wines produced a few hundred meters away. We didn’t want to leave.

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the finca late in the evening. Turning off one of the long straight roads in the Valle de Uco, we crunched down a gravel track in the darkness of a country night just able to see the rows of vineyards on either side. Once inside we were offered a late dinner and had a bottle of something red and tasty while we chatted to the chef and the owner. It’s always disorienting arriving somewhere in the dark, and I was keen to see our surroundings in daylight.

The next morning I went for a walk through the vineyards as the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the mountains in the background. It was beautiful. As in Mendoza, the weather was a bit hit-and-miss, with rain and shine. Luckily, when the weather is bad in the Valle de Uco, wine tasting is an indoor activity. A couple of kilometres down the road is one of the more unusual wine producers at the Bodega Salentein. This is a famous Uco producer, but the twist is that it’s owned by an aristocratic Dutch family.

It’s the descendants of Heribert Van Westervelt, a prominent 18th century aristocrat from the Dutch province of Gelderland, who founded the Bodega Salentein, and who are credited as pioneers of the recent transformation of the Uco Valley into one of the world’s wine hotspots. The state of the art facility we toured produces some excellent wines – they were served at the wedding of the current Dutch King and Queen – and sits amidst vineyards overshadowed by the Andes.

The huge circular underground cellar is a bit like a Roman temple, creating a sense of religious reverence for the barrels of wine stacked all around. There’s a nice art gallery on site, as well as art in the grounds of the bodega, but compared to other places we visited its modernity felt a little soulless. Afterwards we strolled back to the car under a now ferocious sun, and headed for a six course tasting menu paired with tremendous wines at the Bodegas Andeluna Vineyard. The Valle de Uco is a pretty upmarket place, and fine dining options abound, but food at the Andeluna was exceptional.

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

By the time we emerged from the Andeluna, and it was a long lunch, it was raining hard. Luckily, we were staying only a short distance away and we staggered back to relax and digest our lunch in time to have another excellent dinner at the La Azul, which included an extraordinary piece of meat from the barbecue … I could get used to this kind of luxury travel.

Chablis, a village at the centre of the wine world

Leaving medieval Noyers-sur-Serein behind, we followed the Serein River through lovely Burgundian countryside to one of France’s most renowned villages, Chablis. The chances are, people would visit Chablis even if it wasn’t world famous for the quality of its wines. The medieval stone-built village, set amongst rolling hills on the banks of the Serein, is a lovely place. It has plenty of ancient buildings, including the 13th century church of Saint-Martin.

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The truth is though, people come here because Chablis sits amidst some of the most prestigious vineyards on earth, and lends its name to a wine that is drunk with both gusto and reverence around the world. As a result, the village is dominated by wine-related tourism. Even if you wanted to, it’s hard not to find yourself lured into various cellars for tastings. My excuse is that the weather wasn’t very good, forcing us to seek alternative, indoor activities, or risk getting wet.

On an impulse, we decided to stay in Chablis rather than press on to Auxerre. It was raining and, as we wandered around looking for a hotel, we came across the Hôtel du Vieux Moulin, a lovely hotel in a converted 18th century watermill. It certainly isn’t the cheapest option in Chablis, but it must certainly be one of the best. It also happens to be owned by a respected wine producer, Domaine Laroche, makers of ten premieres crus and four grands crus, amongst others.

We wandered off into the village centre in search of wine enlightenment. Chablis is home to fewer than 3,000 people and is not difficult to walk around in an hour, we strolled through some of the narrow lanes near the hotel, visited the church of Saint-Martin, and found ourselves on the main street quite quickly. The village was quiet, but when we arrived at the Laroche wine shop to do some tasting, there was a group of twenty Canadians sniffing, swirling and sipping.

We took a seat and waited for the group to finish and leave. Then we had the place to ourselves. Over the next half hour we were treated to a couple of Chablis cuvees, three premieres crus and two grands crus, with a blow-by-blow account of where they came from, the terroir the vines grew in, and the method of production. It was fascinating to see the map of where each bottle had originated, and to realise we’d driven past some of them on our way to Chablis. Needless to say, we left with a few bottles.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

The rain had finally stopped and the sun was just breaking through as we left the wine shop and clanked our way back down the main street. After dropping the bottles off at the hotel we set off to explore a bit more of the village, and walk off the earlier tasting. Chablis is a pretty place, although there are few things to do other than wine tasting and wine buying. We hung out at a little bar on the main square, before realising that if we didn’t go for food soon everywhere would probably be closed.

The Hôtel du Vieux Moulin has a highly rated restaurant attached to it, but it was closed. Luckily, it has a sister restaurant next door to the Laroche wine shop, Les Trois Bourgeons. To say the food was good would be to do a disservice to the Japanese chefs who serve up miraculous French bistro food, paired with excellent Chablis wines. We were seated at the kitchen and watched fascinated as our food was prepared. It was the perfect end to a day in the heart of Chablis wine country.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Wine tasting in the Granite Belt

I’d planned to leave early in the morning and have the weekend in the Granite Belt, but a night out with friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley ended late enough for me to watch the sun rise over the Brisbane River. I made it to the Granite Belt’s main town of Stanthorpe just in time to watch the sun set over the surrounding vineyards, wine from which was probably responsible for my late start.

Queensland’s Granite Belt sits high on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, a mountain chain that you have to cross to reach this fertile region. The lush, green countryside and rolling hills that spread out between the two county towns of Stanthorpe and Ballandean, came as a complete surprise. The whole area seemed to be covered with vineyards and fruit orchards.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

I was staying in a lovely wooden house on stilts, with a wood burning stove to ward off the cold nights – much needed at an altitude of over 800m. An agricultural hub, and home to around 6,000 people, Stanthorpe was my first taste of Australian small town life. I headed into the town centre to see if the tourist information office was open, it wasn’t, so I headed to the next best thing, the pub in O’Mara’s Hotel.

I ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar alongside a couple of regulars. We were soon chatting about what I should see and do while there, the general consensus being that I should definitely do wine tasting in Ballandean, and that I shouldn’t miss the Girraween National Park. It turned out to be excellent advice … as was the chalkboard at the end of the bar!

The next morning, I did a beautiful scenic loop to Ballandean. It was such a lovely morning that it was a pleasure to be wandering the countryside. I came across wooden churches in the middle of nowhere, small villages, historic ranches and, of course, vineyards. Twice, I almost ran over large snakes, a reminder that life in these communities can be perilous. Finally, it was time to sample some Granite Belt wines.

Vines have been cultivated here for wine production since the 1870s, thanks to a far sighted, and presumably thirsty, Catholic priest of Italian descent, Father Davadi. There were lots of Italian settlers in the area who had the knowledge and skills to make wine, mainly for their own consumption. Over the last 140 years though, the Granite Belt has learned a thing or two about making good wines.

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Despite producing some of the highest altitude wines in Australia, the Granite Belt still has a low profile outside of Australia. The wines made here are growing in popularity though, and are increasingly well-known. The region is most famous for red wines, but I tasted a chardonnay at Tobin Wines in Ballandean that was spectacular. So good, in fact, that I carried two bottles of it back to the Netherlands.

“Passion” is a word often used in the wine business. The owner of Tobin Wines, Adrian, embodies it to an extraordinary degree. Basically, he’s an unapologetic wine fanatic. I wanted to try the tempranillo but, due to his exacting standards, the next batch won’t be available until 2020. Which was how I ended up with the chardonnay, and learning his philosophy that a superb wine is possible only if the grapes are of the highest quality.

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

Vineyards, Ballandean, Queensland, Australia

He’s a small producer, and some years has chosen not to produce any wine because he felt the fruit wasn’t good enough. Not that that should be a surprise, after he bought the vineyard he spent a decade perfecting the vines before producing a single drop of wine. After a fun hour with Adrian, I headed down the road to the region’s biggest and best known producer, Ballandean Estate Wines, for another tasting.

The Ballandean Estate is the area’s oldest producer, dating back to 1930 when Italian immigrant Salvatore Cardillo and his daughter Guiseppa settled here. Guiseppa married Alfio Puglisi, another Italian migrant, and the Puglisi family still run the business today.  They’re famed for their red wines and, if you’re going to find a Granite Belt wine outside of Australia, it’s likely it will be from the Ballandean Estate.

Wine tasting and Quilmes (the pre-hispanic fortress, not the beer)

The dramatically situated pre-hispanic fortress of Quilmes lies a short distance south of Cafayate and is a fascinating place to visit, especially if you get there before the tour groups start to arrive. Continuously inhabited between the 11th and 17th centuries, at its peak Quilmes was home to over five thousand inhabitants. Inca armies tried to invade this region in the 1480s but failed to dislodge the Quilmes people from their mountain refuge.

Unfortunately, the Spanish arrived shortly afterwards and the Quilmes wouldn’t be so fortunate against this second set of conquistadores, although that didn’t prevent them from mounting an heroic resistance that lasted 130 years.

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

The Quilmes civilisation fiercely resisted Spanish colonisation of the region, and the site saw bitter fighting when the Spanish invaded. The fortress was the scene of several bloody battles and a devastating siege. After the Spanish had crushed the Quilmes’ resistance once and for all, those who remained alive were deported wholesale to the area around Buenos Aires.

It is a poignant reminder of the fate of all indigenous peoples who resisted Spanish invasion, a poignancy not made any easier now that Quilmes is the name of Argentina’s most famous beer brand and can be seen adorning the shirts of football players. Not exactly a dignified way for a once proud people to be remembered.

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

Ruinas de Quilmes, Argentina

After a sobering morning contemplating the historical injustices done to indigenous peoples across Latin America, it was back to Cafayate and a much anticipated wine tour and tasting at the Bodega Etchart. Etchart make a delicious Torrentes Reserva that we’d been sampling over previous days, so this was something to look forward to – yum.

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina

WIne tasting at the Bodega Etchart, Cafayate, Argentina