Patagonia: the home of otherworldly landscapes, uplifted granite, glaciers, unrelenting wind, and the toughened skin of a Pinot noir grape. At the region’s northern reaches, where fabled mountains yield to desert flatlands, there are wineries.
We couchsurfed and hitchhiked our way to find them, and when we did, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had them virtually all to ourselves.
Adventurers, read on. For those of you interested in the details of do-it-yourself wine touring in this area, read Patagonia Wine Tasting, a How To.
The Genie out of the Patagonian Wine Bottle
We had come to Argentina with a Patagonian wine itch to scratch. The region is very quickly coming on the world wine scene. But where to begin?
The answer would come on our first evening after crossing the border from Paraguay when an employee at a wine shop in Puerto Iguazu gave us an unexpected primer on three of Argentina’s wine regions – Mendoza, Cafayate and Patagonia.
“And Patagonian wines?” we asked.
“Good Pinot Noirs.” He said. “It’s a young wine region, but it’s getting better each year.”
So we sampled some Patagonian wines during our two-month stint in Buenos Aires. A Pinot Noir here, a Malbec there. A Syrah, even a Cabernet Sauvignon. The more we drank, the more we liked, particularly of those Pinots. We wanted to know more.
En route from Bariloche to Cordoba, we stopped off in the town of Neuquen, the jumping off point for the Patagonian wine routes. Our goal: to tour some Patagonian wineries independently without renting a car. Unfortunately, the initial results of our online research yielded Twitter echoes (i.e., Google searches that yield your own tweets on the topic).
Florencia and Fabricio, our CouchSurfing hosts in Neuquen, were thankfully on the case. When we arrived, they’d put together all the public transportation information we’d need. But independence from a tour or rental car came at a price: two early morning buses to the base of the route and the choice to walk, hitchhike or taxi from there.
No problem, right?
To the Wine Road, the Open Road
Funny thing about the desert: early mornings are cold, really cold. That we were sleep deprived made our first bus to Cinco Saltos even more difficult. The bus was packed with locals on their way to factories and schools outside of town. Even in the best of conditions, we would have missed our stop. As it turned out, we missed it by a mile.
Or was it two?
We jumped off in the midst of fruit orchards and walked back along a highway, buses and trucks throwing the cold morning wind in our faces.
What did we sign up for again? Is this wine touring?
We cut across a series of dirt roads. “Excuse me. Where is Cincos Saltos main square?” we asked two local women on their morning walk.
“Straight…left, right…then straight,” they offered, chuckling. They were intrigued by the misplaced gringos and wondered how we had appeared, seemingly out of the middle nowhere.
When we found the main square and our bus to San Patricio del Chañar, we engaged the bus driver with concern: “Is this the bus to the wineries?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, amused at our anxiety. “I will tell you when to get off.”
He showed us the schedule for return buses so that we wouldn't get stranded. This man was our guardian for the day.
It turns out there were no wineries in San Patricio where the bus terminated, but a few taxis were available to take us the ten kilometers to our first winery, Bodega NQN. When our driver dropped us off, he grew protective, almost afraid to abandon us: “Are you sure? Here, take my number. Please call me. I’ll come and get you.”
We assured him we'd be alright and reluctantly he left.
Bodega NQN: Wild West Minimalism
Bodega NQN, at the northern end of the Ruta del Vino served as our first taste of Patagonian vineyard aesthetics and the philosophy of new minimalist simplicity. Wineries in this region were only about a decade old, but the sheen and modernity were striking. Wine tradition was out, high science was in.
If the Fountainhead’s Howard Roark owned a winery, this is where it would be.
The region is a desert, so there’s lots of sunshine; washout vintages are not an issue. Days are warm, nights are cool. The game here is about control and irrigation from canal systems that take runoff from the mountaintops. Because of the desert, fungus and insects, the usual vineyard vandals, haven't yet proven an issue.
We asked our guide, a young woman who took us around for over an hour and patiently answered all of our questions in broken Spanish, which years had been better than others.
“No bad years. As the vines age, each year is better than the next.”
Consistency from year to year is a blessing in the wine industry, but this dependability also precludes the odd exceptional year that everyone raves about.
Notable tastes at Bodega NQN: Viñedos de la Patagonia Malbec Malma 2007: Nice fruit, berries and tannin. Our favorite of the tasting. After tasting the young 2009 Malbec, and the fruit-forward Malma Merlot Reserve 2005, this was a relief.
Hiking to Fin del Mundo, the End of the World
Not yet courageous enough to hitchhike, we walked the seven kilometers to Bodega Fin del Mundo, the oldest (from 1999) and largest winery on the route. As we walked along the side of the road, our favorite neighborhood bus driver passed us, heading in the opposite direction.
In the middle of nowhere, his smile and wave made us feel oddly reassured.
Upon our arrival at Fin del Mundo, we were set up with a guide and a tour right on the spot.
During the tasting, our guide gave us an overview of the different labels and qualities that Fin del Mundo produces, from inexpensive table wines (Ventus & Postales del Fin del Mundo) to the mid-range (Newen) to its higher end Reserves and Special Blends.
This is one of the nice features of Argentine wineries: ranges are broad, and there's usually something for every budget and preference. The difference in price (and sometimes quality) is dependent on aging in oak barrels (and duration), selection of grapes, and how long it is kept in the bottle before being released.
When our guide learned of Dan’s preference for Pinot Noirs – a grape variety suitable for growing in this region because of the climate and well-drained soil – she opened up a few more bottles for us to taste. The tasting experience was laid back and comfortable; there was no sales push nor attempt to swiftly show us the exit.
Notable tastes at Bodega Fin del Mundo: Fin del Mundo Pinot Noir Reserva 2008: Light, smooth, a bit of smoke, presumably from the oak. Fin del Mundo Malbec Reserva 2007: Smooth, round, nice fruit and a bit of velvet in the finish.
Experiments in Hitchhiking
As we considered the three kilometer walk we had ahead of us from the entrance to the main road, good fortune appeared. A group of employees from the Argentine Wine Testing Board exited the winery with boxes of wine under their arms.
This was the life.
We asked where they were headed, and when they realized we were without a car, they insisted we join them. We were both in admiration of each others' jobs.
“Taste wine every day?” That sounded pretty good to us.
“Traveling the world, writing about it and taking photographs.” That sounded good to them.
After agreeing to swap jobs one of these days, they left us at the main road and we continued our walk south.
When it comes to hitchhiking in this part of the world, using the entire hand (palm down) almost as if to slow down the car seems to yield better results than a waggle of an upturned thumb. Perhaps it also helped that our inhibitions about hitchhiking had vanished. One good interaction and a little tippling will do wonders for one’s hitchhiking confidence.
A few minutes later, a woman and her son picked us up. We hopped in the back of their car and shared our story, where we were headed.
She nodded. “My son is traveling around Europe right now. He’s doing what you are doing.”
In a karmic exchange, she offered safe passage right up to the front gate of the next winery, Familia Schroeder. Hopefully her son would find similar kindness to get him where he needed to go, halfway around the world.
A Final Taste, A Ride Home
Familia Schroeder’s best-known label, Saurus, refers to dinosaur bones discovered when the winery was being built. Amidst the displays of recovered bones in the cellar, our guide-sommelier explained the winery’s specialty, Pinot Noir.
“It’s because the days are hot, the nights are cold and there is a lot of wind, the grapes become strong and their skins thick. This is what makes Pinot Noirs in this region so unique.”
We tasted several vintages and agreed. We came away with an excellent bottle of Select Reserve Pinot Noir for our hosts. One of the appealing aspects of Argentine wines is a bottle costing anything over $10 could be considered expensive and is often of surprisingly high quality.
Notable tastes at Bodega Familia Schroeder:
True to their word, Familia Schroeder’s Pinot Noirs are their specialty.
– Saurus Pinot Noir 2008 and Saurus Pinot Noir 2007 (both barrel fermented): smooth and fruity
– Patagonia Select 2008: floral, berries and hints of the mineral-rich soil.
We left, bottles of wine in hand and walked the edge of the vineyards towards the main road. By this point, our pace was plodding, the sunshine and wine consumption having taking its toll. As a small car passed by, we feebly waved our hands.
Surprisingly, it stopped. We ran over and asked the driver, an older gentleman in a baseball cap who looked like he spent his days working outside in the sun, if we could get a ride to the main road or perhaps the town of San Patricio.
He smiled warmly, shook his head and asked: “How about I take you all the way to Neuquen?”
The transportation angels sang from above.
It turns out our ride was courtesy of a Familia Schroeder irrigation specialist. He once worked in the fruit business but now applied his talents in the vineyards. As we shared our itinerary in Argentina, he remarked, “You know, each region of Argentina has its own culinary specialties.”
“So what’s the specialty in this region?” we asked, genuinely curious to learn about something new in Neuquen.
Then he started laughing, “It’s asado everywhere in Argentina, isn’t it?”
And with asado, a good red wine.