Wine week. Conclusions. Good? Good, bad, weird. Advice for readers? Beware the Malbec spell.
If it looks like my writing style has altered, perhaps it’s down to the state in which I have been left by all the fermented grape juice I disappeared during a week focused almost exclusively upon wine.
Like a gibbering old soak, I stumbled around a few hectares of Mendoza’s stunning wine region, muttering quietly to myself about blackcurrant, about blends and about oak as I underwent an unbroken 4 day cycle of uncorking, snorting and slurping, silently admonished by the surrounding cordillera mountains, who glowered down on me like a bar steward who’d seen it all before.
In truth, like most old soaks, I knew little about wine, and as I thumbed my way through The Wine Pocket Bible during the preceding overnight bus ride to Mendoza I became increasingly intoxicated, both on the cheap plonk I’d opted to smuggle onboard, and by the sheer scale of my task.
Red, White, Rose, Sparkling, Fortified. Regions, varieties, blends, vintages. It was enough to drive a man to drink. The field had to be narrowed and thankfully a thunderbolt of circumstance did just that: we were heading towards Mendoza, a region known only for the red stuff, and mainly for the Malbec grape. So a wine connoseur I would not be, but on the positive side, (and pardon me for adding my own witty rejoinder to an already spicy couplet) everyone likes a drink, no one likes a drunk, and literally anyone will punch a wine buff.
Everyone likes a drink, no one likes a drunk, and literally anyone will punch a wine buff.
Even the Dalai Llama, I dare say, would be tested if some big-nosed glass-swiller butted in at an inopportune moment to carry on about terroir and timbre. This week wouldn’t be about buffery, it would be about love. Wine love.
Entering Malbec country
Relieved that I wasn’t likely to finish the week as an imbecillic wine bore, I (accompanied by my occasionally more sober wife) headed into the Argentinian countryside with a friend who owns a local organic wine finca. If it sounds like we move in exalted circles, we don’t. This guy is literally the only person we happen to know in Argentina, and his offer of hospitality was so genuine and intriguing that I decided to make this week about wine.
Arriving on the finca, our host Mike fried up some steak and token vegetables, uncorked a bottle of his own wine, ‘MTB’ (a blend of Malbec and Petit Verdot he’s been manufacturing since 2007), and began to teach me about wine. Not in a whiffy wanky way, but in the way that only a smallscale grower can, with pure dirt-under-the-fingernails passion.
Wine tinted spectacles
In the following days we looked at vines, discussed the growing process and watched the workers, a friendly Bolivian family (who live onsite) as they worked methodically round, pruning each plant. I was amazed to learn that an area little bigger than the average country garden (3 hectares – I’m sure that’s a garden by wine buff standards) was enough to generate 15,000 bottles a year and could be managed by such a tiny staff.
Alongside the ubiquitous Malbec and much rarer Petit Verdot, Mike (like everyone else apparently) was growing a little Cabernet Sauvignon on the side because, if you can make a good Cab Sav, it’s like being catapulted into a wine growers’ Premier League.
if you can make a good Cab Sav, it’s like being catapulted into a wine growers’ Premier League.
I learned that wine is a picky blighter which hates wet feet, loves bright days and cold nights and thrives on carefully manufactured hardship. I also learned that the entire Mendoza region waters its vines with snow melt from the mountains, through a complicated network of irrigation canals, which the different growers take it in turns to use every 8 days. If that sounds arduous and complicated, consider that Mendoza is effectively dessert, so without the irrigation, cactuses and camels would quickly replace this green and pleasant land.
All of this I observed through increasingly wine tinted spectacles.
It’s impossible to say how much more I learned, because it’s impossible to say how much vino tinto I had slurped. By this point the Malbec haze was drawing in over my memory bank like a big red comfy blanket. Yes, there was important stuff going on outside my wine duvet, echoing round my ears like a surreal dream, but it was so warm and comfortable in here.
One thing I do distinctly remember was visiting Mike’s wine store where we picked up another 15 cases of the good stuff. I know not if that was to feed my increasingly troublesome wine habit. I also remember visiting the Bodega where Mike’s wine is processed, where we tried another grower’s wine and chatted with a local expert about how hard small time sellers have to work to make ends meet.
…I began exclaiming words like VANILLA! and LEATHER! at the top of my voice in an effort to impress our host
At one stage during the week I believe there was an intervention of sorts, for I found myself sniffing little bottles from a box marked Le Nez du Vin, and exclaiming words like VANILLA! and LEATHER! at the top of my voice in an effort to impress our host. Whilst it was passingly interesting to have a go at this olfactory bingo, I could feel my senses crying out to be given back into the care of the delicious velvety Malbec.
Saved by Bonarda and a walk-in wine list
The giddy rollercoaster of red wine reached a peak when, just before Mike offloaded us (probably with a sense of sheer relief) onto our bus to Buenos Aires, we repaired to a restaurant, and upon asking for the wine list, I was told “We don’t have a list, we have a room”. As I wobbled round the wine list-room lunging towards the panoply of bottles on offer, I spotted, through the haze, a bottle which didn’t say Malbec on it. “Oh that’s Bonarda” said Mike “Lovely grape, you won’t have tried it before, good choice”.
I swilled, took a long, deep sniff and drank, then something odd happened…
We closed the wine list/walked out of the room. After a few desperate, dry minutes the Bonarda arrived and was poured. I swilled, took a long, deep sniff and drank, then something odd happened. My senses began to return, I started to broach sobriety, normality came trundling towards me. I was cured! Through the course of that meal, the more delicious, smooth Bonarda I drank, the clearer I felt. As the restaurant came into sharp focus, cogent thoughts drifted back into my brain, and I realised I had broken the Malbec spell. I had gotten out.
“White wine, please”
Minutes later, as we settled into our comfortable seats on the long distance bus (this is Argentina, land of first class bus travel) to Buenos Aires, an attendant sidled up and asked us if we wanted some wine before our meal. My brain did a funny dance, my liver shivered, and I took the only sensible course of action in light of the last 7 days. “White wine please” I said. I couldn’t take a risk on it being Malbec, or the good Lord only knows which bus we would have gotten off and into which strange lands I might have been deposited.
I hadn’t intended to go on a week-long bender during wine week, it had just…happened. Don’t blame me, blame the Malbec.
I drank an unhealthy amount of wine this week as part of my program of Weekly Challenges. Each week, for an entire year, I’m trying something completely new. That’s 52 new skills and experiences in 12 months. To find out what I’m up to this week, or to see previous Weekly Challenges including Walking on the Moon, Turtle Conservation and a Raw Food Diet, have a look here.