Celebrating Beauty, Culture and Fine Wine
By Jade Frank
Strolling along brilliantly colored tiles in Plaza Italia, sipping on extraordinary red wine for $1 a glass and snacking on a dish of steamed escargot, I did a double take at the unmistakable sight and sound of bagpipes. Attending the annual wine festival of Mendoza, Argentina went against all my preconceptions of South America, yet felt so right.
The wine festival or “Vendimia,” is a time of celebration for the harvest of the area’s unique grape, the Malbec, which is used to make the savory Malbec wine, a red variety with a robust, yet fruity taste.
Argentina may be best known for its beef and tango, but few realize the quality of the country’s unique wine. Malbec grapes flourish here in Argentina’s central valley, east of the Andes in the Mendoza region. While Malbec originated in France, it has truly found its home in Mendoza. The crop has struggled in French vineyards, but due to a perfect combination of growing conditions like high altitude, strong sunlight and protection from the Andes, Malbec grapes are happy in Argentina. And what could go better with beef and tango than a brilliant red wine?
Mendoza’s backdrop is spectacular with the snow-capped Andes looming high against the horizon, including Aconcagua, South American’s highest peak at 23,000 ft. The area is popular with outdoor enthusiasts for climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and rafting.
Mendoza is normally a relatively laid-back town, especially when compared to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s bustling capital city. The streets are wide and traveled by vintage European cars and bicycles and large, shady trees overhang the numerous outdoor cafes spilling onto the city’s sidewalks.
Parades and Fairs
During Vendimia, the city morphs into a crowded hubbub of parades and street fairs where the wine is plenty and the province’s capital bulges with pride.
Each region in the Mendoza province is represented in the festivities and selects a princess to compete for the harvest queen (la Reina de Vendimia). Argentina is known to have beautiful women and the princesses are no exception. The chosen beauties ride atop lavish floats from each region in a Friday and Saturday parade that travels through the city’s downtown area.
The float’s participants proudly boast their season’s best varieties by giving away wine samples and full bottles to the crowd. Spectators receive their gifts by way of baskets attached to long poles, which they extend to the passing floats, elbowing each other in competition.
The Harvest Queen is chosen Saturday night during a glitzy show held inside a large Greek-style amphitheater in Plaza San Martin, reminiscent of a North American beauty pageant. The sold-out crowd of 25,000 and television viewers are entertained by a grand light show, music and dancing. For those who can’t get into the show can watch it on a big screen set up in Plaza Italia.
Top Notch Artistry
When darkness falls, the city’s plazas come alive as booths of handicrafts, wine, sangria and ethnic gastronomy are erected downtown. Local and visiting artists sell their high-quality wares, ranging from bright pottery, jewelry, leather goods, hand-carved mate gourds, knitted and woven textiles and more. The prices are reasonable and the artistry top notch; it’s easy to spend hours browsing and chatting with the friendly artists. Unlike other South American markets, these vendors aren’t pushy and even thank you just for looking.
Argentina has a very eclectic heritage, made up of Spanish, Italian, German, Scottish, French and indigenous groups. Each European group maintains their culture in Argentina and celebrates their heritage through clubs and organizations. The groups take part in Vendimia, providing a plethora of tasty traditional food booths from their respective ethnicities. Most abundant are the Spanish booths, with an array of tapas and rich paellas filled with every type of seafood imaginable, cooked over a fire in a giant-sized frying pan.
The groups also showcase traditional costumes, dances and music. After a few glasses of Malbec, you might even join in the dancing. Walking around the buzzing plaza is like a whirlwind European vacation in one night.
If the tapas don’t fill your belly, Mendoza has numerous parilladas that cook up the kind of beef Argentina is known for. A parillada is a steak house with a large open fire grill. The Argentines don’t waste any meat, so the choices in cuts can be overwhelming. Point to what looks good and the chefs will hook you up with as much as you like.
The most popular restaurant is Las Tinajas, a buffet style parillada with seating for hundreds. A live tango band plays from a balcony overhead, inspiring the locals to sing along proudly and make numerous toasts. Las Tinajas doesn’t offer only meat, but anything you might be craving with all-you-can-eat pasta of every variety, fried goods and a salad bar, as well as specialty dessert crepes made to order. Not including wine from a lengthy list of local and imported choices, the meal will only set you back around US $6 a person.
Bicycle Wine Tours
If you can’t make it to Mendoza for Vendimia, a fun way to experience the area’s wine culture it to rent a bike and spend the day visiting some of the local wineries in the area. There are several bike rental shops in town and costs no more than US $5 for the day, just ask for a “routa del vino” (winery map) and head out of town. Expect to do no more than four wineries in one day, as they are fairly far apart from each other.
Riding around the vineyards by bicycle is a fun way to see the country, lush vineyards and sample some excellent wines right from the barrels. Luckily, Malbec wine is becoming more popular worldwide. It can be found at most local liquor stores; so don’t be worried if you can’t fit many bottles into your suitcase.
Mendoza is a charming city with a small-town atmosphere. The friendly locals, superb setting and gastronomic delights make it a perfect vacation spot with something for everyone. Vendimia time features Mendoza at its best, but all year round, the city welcomes visitors and doesn’t disappoint.
Jade Frank lives to travel and documents it with writing and photography. She lives in Amsterdam.
Read Jade Frank’s story about the Elqui Valley: Chile’s Elqui Valley: A Zen Experience in ‘Travel Therapy’
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