Well well well, so we’re back from Cafayate. It was only a mere 22 hour bus ride, but we’re back. It seems fitting that our last big bus ride would be an overly long one. And that it was. We left Mendoza on Tuesday night at 9pm, arriving at Tucuman around 10:30am. Luckily, we had planned in advance and purchase a swanky bus ticket so that we would arrive rested and ready to taste some wine. It was nice. Full 180° seats are absolutely the best. In addition, we were served a hot meal and had an open bar. A couple glasses of wine, a full belly, and I was ready to sleep. A 12:00 bus to Cafayate arriving at 5pm meant that it was a mere 20 hours to get there. We checked into our hostel, walked around for a bit, then hit the bed. We had a big day ahead of us.
The next day was pretty simple in theory. We would rent bikes, tootle around the vineyards, taste some wines, have a lunch, then come back to the hostel. The morning activity worked out just fine. We picked up a couple of old one-speed bikes and headed out of town to visit Etchart Bodega. The tour was pretty normal, especially given that Etchart is a massive winery, one of the biggest in the region. But it was enjoyable, especially since we were tasting Torrontes. This is emblematic of the region and one of the main reasons we came. Folklore says that it is only grown in the Cafayate area, which adds a little extra something to it.
Following Etchart, we pedeled to Lavaque, who told us that their tour guide was on vacation, so we coasted to Hermanos Domingo, which we definitely expected to be a low-quality, high-volume production. It was. But it was more. Their reserve line was actually really good, and we picked up a couple bottles of the Tannat to drink later. You know, because the first thing you want to do after a day of wine tasting is crack another bottle of wine.
We left the winery in plenty of time to make it up to Finca los Nubes, which is owned by Jose Mournier, another well-known Argentine winemaker. This is where we were to have lunch. I had some technical difficulties with my bike, which left me cursing and wondering how a one-speed bike could have issues with a chain. So… I had the wonderful opportunity to push it up the hill, all the way into the clouds. But… after rinsing my hands and taking a quick breather, I was ready for a tour and lunch. This was a small winery, which is always a nice change from a big one. Decent wine, and then lunch. What was lunch? Yummy, yummy cheese, candied apples, and a Torrontes was the first course. A perfect parrilla (grill platter) for the second course with the Cabernet-Malbec blend. Finished with coffee and cookies. We talked about how when we lived in France, how we had thought this is what it would be like. We didn’t really find it there, but a simple 20 hour bus ride had gotten us here, so better late than never. The afternoon was classic Argentine: siesta. We slept through the afternoon, woke up for dinner of sausage and cheese, cracked a bottle of the Tannat we had purchased, then went right back to bed for the next day.
Friday was our second day of touring wines, and the last scheduled one. We were a little worn out on wine, as you might imagine, but we decided to keep the dubious reservation at Yacachuya, owned by the Etchart family. Rented a couple of bikes, started up the 7km hill to the winery, then POOOFFF!!! My tire was not just flat, it was totally worthless. The bike rental guy had warned us about the spines in the road, and I apparently was destined to find one of them. (Note: if you’re counting, I have had some issue with 4 of the last 4 bikes rented. Luckily, I’m not counting.) So… we get to walk up another hill, this one longer and steeper. Oh, joy. But, it was worth it.
We arrived, both without shirts on, sweating, panting, dirt on our hands and dust in our hair. We quickly headed to the bathrooms to make ourselves more presentable, or at least as much as possible. We exit to bathrooms, still shaking water off our hands, to meet Cecilia, the daughter in law of Arnauldo Etchart, founder of Etchart winery which we visited the day before. She was quite nice and a definite talker, so we did a quick tour of the small-production vineyard and bodega before heading past the “No Admittance” sign, going towards their house. She’s talking about her kids, the difficulty of the reservation, the fact that her english is terrible, everything. Erin and I are looking at each other with disbelieving eyes that say, “We’re going in there?”
We walk into a small, but nice room with a plate of cheese and crackers setup. Cecilia talks for awhile about the essence of wine, how it’s about the moment, and I’m sitting there wondering about etiquette. Okay, so there’s a delectable cheese plate in front of starving me, a glass of torrontes wine I want to chug like Franzia, but I’m in an old hunting lodge-esque room, there’s a lady in huge chunky jewelery who hasn’t touched the food yet. What do you do? I went for the cheese as delicately as possible and sipped the wine as quietly as possible. But as soon as she left, we started taking dorky pictures of us pretending to be high class. Of course, we got caught by Mrs. Arnauldo Etchart, wife of the founder. What bad luck! Oh well. I don’t think we were fooling anyone.
The owner’s wife sat down and talked to us for awhile about Cafayate and the Torrontes grape, why they did the winery, etc. It was all pretty interesting and in the middle of it, she would quickly scold us for not eating more cheese. I thought I was being dainty, but honestly, how can you eat a lot of cheese daintily? So I abandoned the cotillion-style and went for the (still dainty) shovel-method, which, I think, the grandma really appreciated. Then, the man himself shuffled in. He was doing normal things, like bringing in the paper and mail, talking to his wife about something or another, just generally being a bit crotchedy. We shook his hand, sat down to eat some more cheese, and just listened.
Don Arnauldo Etchart was (and is) a dominant figure in Argentine wine, primarily because he was one of the main reasons the french winemakers came to Argentina, starting with Michel Rolland. Arnauldo Etchart called Michel Rolland down to Cafayate in 1985 or so, which is really early in the fine-wine world of Argentina. So… we were definitely a little star-struck.
After the cheese plate scene, we moved into the formal dining room, complete with a glass hunting case of stuffed poultry to look over the proceedings. We definitely felt awkward, but I’m pretty sure this just added to excitement. We had an incredible lunch, in a beautiful setting with great wine. And afterward, Cecilia even put our bikes in the back of the truck and took us back to town. It was way beyond anything we could have expected.
Once back in town, we settled down for a bit, then headed back out to visit a couple more wineries, namely Nanni. We were expecting to go in for a tasting, so when someone handed us a glass, we thanked them and drank it. But, crazy this, they were all french and quebecqois. So, we popped back into our French mode. But, kind of like forgetting to clutch when you shift, it didn’t work so well. French/Spanish/English words came out in orders that made no sense. Thankfully, they spoke english and we embarassingly reverted to our tongue.
The two quebecqois were about our age and quickly invited us to an asado they were making back at their campsite. We said absolutely, let’s meet in the square. Erin and I were wined out by this time, but it wasn’t long until we bumped into them again. We changed plans to go out for pizza. After all, it’s so much more simple to order a pizza than to go to the campsite, carry wood, make a fire, grill the meat, and all the other things that go into it. A long night at the pizza place left us with a wine-barrel mouth the next morning.
BUT… it was our last day on our last trip in our last month and we were troopers. So we bought a big bag of Lays potato chips and headed out after a huge pot of coffee. Nothing too notable with the exception of the tiny Bodega Salvador Figueroa. Nothing to bring it back to the essentials. It was a warehouse with a bunch of plastic tanks. Stainless steel? Nope. Mechanical presses? Nope. They even bottled by hand, which is just crazy. 6,000 bottles total production means it’s a small family production. Fun stuff.
After that it was quiet time. We had some lunch, watched an old car rally take over the town square, and waited for the bus to leave. We left at 6pm, and arrived at 4:30pm the next day. 22 hours goes by incredibly slow when there’s nothing to do. It was broken up by a drug raid where they found quite a bit of coca leaves, which really is pretty harmless stuff since they just make mate out of it. But, it did provide an half hour of entertainment in the middle of the Argentine desert on our last bus ride. Oh, nostalgia.