In the late 1800s in Mendoza, Argentina's largest wine-producing area, business was booming. Local bodegas (wineries, in the local parlance) were challenged with supplying an ever-growing demand and resorted to ditching labor-intensive European winemaking techniques in favor of combining vast quantities of grapes, yeast, and sugar in underground concrete vaults and crossing their fingers. It was the winemaking equivalent of "winging it" and the results were invariably crap.
Things remained unchanged for the next 100 years until the bodegas realized that there was much more money to be made in the export market. Argentines had grown accustomed to their churlish and cheap table wine, but Europe and North America seemed to enjoy their more refined blends. Yet if the bodegas were to have any hope of competing internationally, they had to undergo significant procedural changes to improve the quality of the wine and upgrade the equipment. So they did, and this is why the whole world is able to enjoy Argentine wines today.
Argentina as a country remains ideologically stuck in between these two periods; while society craves the modern luxuries of the Western world, rules and laws often feel like general suggestions, to be interpreted at will and rarely enforced by the police. It is thanks to this poor enforcement, however, that activities like drunken bike-riding between the bodegas of Mendoza can prosper.
On a warm Saturday morning in November, we waited in line at Baccus Bike Wine Tours in the small village of Chacras de Coria, just outside the city of Mendoza. The apparent owner of the business, Diego, delivers the same speech time after time to Americans, Australians, and Brits about which bodegas they should visit and where they should go for lunch. Bike helmets are always optional.
We then chose our bikes, pumped up the tires, and (upon request) were handed helmets. After all, the idea was to get drunk and ride bikes—but safely. The route would take us to three bodegas over the course of the day with an overall distance of around 25 kilometers of cycling.
As we set off, the grand trees lining the streets of the village sheltered us from the uncharacteristically fierce spring sunshine. The dirt roads and plenitude of rusting cars were a needed reminder that we were in South America, especially when trees opened or you turned a corner and suddenly the majestic, snow-capped Andes became visible.
We arrived at our first bodega, Nieto Senetiner, after a short but rewarding 30-minute ride. This bodega dates back to 1888, and while ownership has changed hands on various occasions, some of the original vines remain to this day and are still used to produce grapes. In the tasting room, shelves neatly stacked with hundreds of bottles of different vintages and crystal-tasting glasses sat atop a glass table. It all suggested that whoever came up with the phrase "bull in a china shop" had never seen a drunk tourist wearing a backpack in a wine tasting room.
We started with a chardonnay-viognier blend, crisp and refreshing. Its sweet aroma led to a surprisingly rounded acidic flavor. Next was the malbec. Known worldwide as the Argentinian wine, this varietal was originally an import from France but has enjoyed much more success in Argentina, particularly Mendoza, because of a higher fluctuation in temperature between day and night. Nieto Senetiner offers a variety of malbecs from different parts of Mendoza, allowing the amateur wine connoisseur to try and appreciate the effects of the terroir on the wine.
After three large glasses in quick succession, it was time to pay up and move on. After a deceptively long ride, our efforts were instantly justified as we arrived at the Kaiken bodega and were treated to stunning views of the Andes behind acres of uninterrupted vineyard.
Kaiken specializes in high-end organic wines. How organic? Sheep that live on the premises roam free among the vines, fertilizing the soil and clearing unwanted weeds. After an in-depth one-on-one tour, we began the tasting. This time we were allowed to choose the four wines we would drink and we decided to stick with different malbecs so we could attempt a compare-and-contrast type of exercise.
It could've been the sheep shit, the arduous cycling, or just the fact that we had already gotten a taste for the booze, but the organic philosophy really did seem to make a difference. The wines, though all made from the same variety of grape, each had a distinct flavour and personality. The effects of the different locations in which the grapes had been grown and different barrels in which the wine had been aged were quite distinct.
One thing that had certainly developed over the course of the day was a growing sense of hunger. The combined effects of roughly 13 kilometers of cycling and seven glasses of wine made the morning's breakfast feel a lifetime away. Luckily for us, our next stop was the Alta Vista bodega, renowned not only for its beautiful colonial buildings but also for the picnic it offers in the picturesque grounds. Drunk on our bikes, we took a longer but quieter road that allowed us to zigzag along country lanes without fear of being hit by a speeding 1950s Renault.
The bodega was expecting our arrival and had blankets and pillows laid out waiting for us. We were served a glass of the house malbec (what else?) as our picnic promptly appeared: a salad of quinoa with raw vegetables, goat cheese, and dried fruits; canapé-sized quiches; lentil burgers; and blueberry cheesecake. This kind of efficiency is something you rarely experience in Argentina but always appreciate.
With some food finally padding our stomachs, we tried the best wine that they produce at Alta Vista: the Alto blend of cabernet sauvignon and malbec. Though it was clearly high-quality, it was not the star of the show. Instead, the easy-to-drink, refreshing torrontés left a more lasting impression.
We headed home buzzed, sun-kissed, and in desperate need of a nap. Fortunately enough, we did not have to carry back all the bottles of wine we had eagerly bought in our drunken stupor. Diego, our man, had it all figured out: you buy your wine, pay for it at the bodega, and tell them you're with Diego. In the late afternoon, the man himself drives by each bodega in his 4X4, and picks it all up—including any drunk, errant cyclists.
Although the day's efforts and consumptions were taking their toll and an evening hangover was imminent, neither could detract from everything we had seen and tasted on our completely legal, local tourism board approved drunk-biking tour of Mendoza. Needless to say, we were in bed by 6 ... in the afternoon.