Archive for March, 2007

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Uh Oh, Uco

Saturday, March 31st, 2007


We found a small premium wine tour with Ampora Tours to the Uco Valley, the supposed “next Napa Valley” and home to the highest vineyards in the world at 1,100 to 1,300 meters. The sandy soil, sunny days, cool nights, lack of rain, and abundant spring water all create perfect conditions for great grapes with concentrated sugars and thick skins. After picking up the three other tourists we visited three vineyards of different sizes with our guide.

The tour was nearly continuous hilarity from the beginning and wine only added to the Canadian humour. Upon finding out the other tourists in the group were staying at the Park Hyatt, we started hypothesizing who would stay at this elite bastean of elegant class. I guessed Americans and Janet guessed Germans. Both wrong: two youngish Canadian women, Sharon and Linda from Vancouver, travelling on their oil and gas money. They vowed revenge if we published this picture of them. So be it.


The first vineyard, Estancia Ancon, was the smallest vineyard with a production of 90,000 bottles. The Grande Reserve de la Familia blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and pinot noir, a limited edition of 6,000 bottles, was our favorite wine of the day, although our palettes were still fresh at the time. The atypical blend had a pleasant smoothness from the pinot noir and oak. The property’s villa can also accommodate tourists for an undisclosed sum.

cimg5495-320.jpgAndeluna, the second vineyard, was a little bigger. The suburban-country tasting room was warm, though a little contrived. We tried five wines with the 2005 Malbec and the 2003 Pasionado Blends being our favorites.
The last vineyard was O. Fournier. The owners told the architects that visitors should either hate it or love it, but never forget it. The ominous concrete structure fulfilled that mandate; it kind of looks like an airport terminal. To avoid pumping the wine, the lowest level is 20 meters underground. Whole grapes are crushed at the top level, then slide down to the fermentation vats on the next level, and then are aged in oak barrels on the last level. We toured the cellar on catwalks where we also viewed enourmous pieces of art from a local artist.

A highlight of the tour was the four course lunch at the winery’s by-appointment-only-restaurant. A colourful trio of warm soups—potato, pumpkin with pepper and greensquash with spring onion—were served in shot glasses and followed up with a few simple treads of julienned peppers and eggplant with oil and salt. We were surprised to find the Malbec held up to the red wine vinegar in the salmarejo, a cold gazpacho-like soup, which followed. Alfa Crux, a wine we tasted at Vines of Mendoza, accompanied the requisite beef entree. The dining room’s six meter high windows were intended to provide grand views of the Andes, but instead the clouds provided a white backdrop which only partially cleared.

After a day of wine we were noisely cracking jokes and laughing and the two Canadian women setting the pace. As the only male in a party of six, I couldn’t offset the natural tendency of the drunk women to get rowdy and talk about men. Somehow, one of the owners’ father at the next table managed to fall asleep over the ruckus at the next table. Fortunately, the ladies directed most of their interest to the driver, the waiter and the security guard, who one hoped would require sexual favors in place of a lost receipt.

Winey Senses Tingling

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

I can’t resist adding this post about the Sensory Tasting because it was some of the best fun we’ve had on this trip.

To learn how to properly taste wine, the Vines of Mendoza set up this flight of wine and provided us with an instructor to learn some of the finer details on how to properly taste wine. It turns out that just popping off the cork and slugging it back does not equal tasting.

cimg5461-320.jpgThe special tasting room (!!) was prepared with three different, non-blended local wines: a Torrontes, a Bonarda and a Malbec. However, in addition to the wines, there were tasting glasses filled with the flavours that one is meant to experience in each wine. For example, the glass of Bonarda was accompanied by a glass each of earth, dried leaves, quince jam, and pepper. So, after one swirls and takes notes on the wines appearance, one is meant to sniff the aroma and compare it to the raw elements. How much fun is THAT!

And then we got to taste. And taste and taste, and sniff and taste and note… yet another blissful afternoon. Funnily enough, our tolerance for alcohol seems to be increasing with our knowledge of wine.

Bacchanalian Bliss

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

cimg5450-320.jpgIn my present state of mind*, I find it hard to imagine a better place in the world than Mendoza. They get 300 days of sun a year, the city is filled with huge, gorgeous trees, parillas (Argentine BBQ restaurants which universally serve gargantuan steaks) hover around almost every corner, and they are surrounded by wineries. Oh, and they’re within spitting distance of the Andes, not that I would ever spit wine.

*We just returned to our hostel after having spent all day touring wineries; the last stop was for a 2-hour, 3-course lunch at a bodega’s French restaurant.

We knew we would like it here before we had even arrived because many people we had met had raved about the place. Of course, all they had to say was that the city is known as the Wine Capital of Argentina for us to visit. (Frankly, we would’ve flown to Argentina just for that.) So now we can confirm that, indeed, we do love it here. There are over 800 wineries in the near vicinity and the area is known as the Napa Valley of South America. Why is it that we had not visited sooner?

cimg5457-320.jpgAnyway, I could go on and on about the wine but will limit myself here to talking about one particular wine tasting facility: Vines of Mendoza. I don’t really know how to label this place; it’s sort of a wine club, tasting room, wine-tour arranger, enthusiasts’ meeting place, wine promoter type place. (They make money by exporting local wines to Europe and America.) But for us, it’s just a great, relaxed place to go to taste, and learn about wine.

Within two hours of our arrival in the city, we headed straight for the Vines based on a very high recommendation from fellow world travellers from Calgary. The atmosphere was not at all pretentious – as one kind of expects when speaking of a wine-reated facility – and we were completely comfortable as soon as we walked in. We got a brief tour and then were introduced to some of the services and tastings they had on offer. It didn’t take us long to decide that we would try the flight of Reserve wines immediately, followed by a Sensory Tasting the next day, and a reservation at the Wine & Cheese night the following day. We were like tipsy flies falling happily into their viney web.

cimg5444-320.jpgThe hour and a half that followed was magnificent. We tasted five of Argentina’s Best wines, complete with an educated and friendly host who walked us through the regions, the varietals, the aging, the aromas and the tasting. (I’m edumacated in the wine, now.) After being so long in Asia without a drop of decent wine to be found, this was an absolutely exquisite way to spend the afternoon.

Really, I can’t say enough how much fun we had and how lovely the wine was, and this was only our first day! The bliss continues unabated.

P.S. If anyone cares to know which are the best reserve wines of Argentina… Angelica Zapata Malbec Alta 2003, O’Fournier Alfa Crux 2002, Bressia Profundo 2003, Carmelo Patti Gran Assemblage 2002, Yacochuya Malbec 2001.

Korean Fusion

Monday, March 26th, 2007

cimg5424-320.jpgTwo random couples we met raved about La Cabrera, a barbeque restaurant in Buenos Aries, one fellow saying he would return to BA just to go there. We showed up at 9pm, an early arrival by Argentinian standards, just to ensure we could get a seat without waiting, which we barely managed.

The steaks are so big that it was recommended that we only order one to share, which we gratefully followed. Janet couldn’t even finish her half. We also ordered a salad which turned out to be nearly the size of a KFC bucket. Luckly we skipped the side of mashed potatoes with carmelized onions, which surely would have been bucket-sized as well. The steaks here were extremely good, but it is really the side dishes which made it an exceptional experience.

Most steaks in Argentina come without sides, which are ordered separately. At La Cabrera meat is served similarly to Korean food, with a dozen little ramekins filled with savory treats—antipasto, mashed potatoes, roasted garlic with a sweet sauce, carmelized pearl onions in demi glaze, sauteed mushrooms with gravy, picked beets, mashed squash, couscous and a couple of others that we didn´t even taste.

We’ll be trying to reproduce the experiece at home.

How We Got Lost, Then Spent $200

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

Before we had even set foot in Japan, I had compiled a list of things that we needed to do and see in our quick, 3-day stopover in Tokyo. Predictably, I listed things like “eat sushi” and “visit Imperial Palace” but the item that ended up being my favourite was “have drinks at Park Hyatt”.

The background here is that the bar in which the movie “Lost in Translation” was filmed is the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. I love that movie and so, in the same way that I insisted on visiting James Bond-related venues, I really wanted to see that bar. Plus, it has a great view of the city.

In order to cross this item off our list, we first needed to address the wardrobe situation. Being that we continue to travel exceedingly light (though I am now loathe to admit that we have had to purchase an extra bag to accommodate some newly acquired hiking boots required for South American treks), our wardrobe is limited, to say the least. My best clothes, my very best, are a skirt and black T-shirt. But I have no nice shoes and so the best clothes are downgraded even further to black pants, black T-shirt, black runners. Marc has a nice, collared shirt, but one pair of pants he has doesn’t match and the other pair is too small… Friends had told us that when they visited, they were asked to change into some clothes lent to them by the bar. We really didn’t relish being embarrassed by our clothes so did what we could to appear as stylish as possible and hoped for the best.

Then we set out on the journey to get to the hotel. The subway, including transfers, took nearly two hours to get across the city. By the time we got off the train, we knew we weren’t going to beat the 8 o’clock deadline, the point at which they start charging a $20 cover per person. Having already resigned ourselves to the extra charge, we started walking what we figured would be about a kilometer to the hotel. About a kilometer and a half later, we were lost. With some map checking and back-tracking, we finally found the hotel but had to further wend our way through the first floor to find the escalator to the lobby on the second floor, to catch the elevator to the 41st floor, to connect to a different elevator to the 52nd floor. One really has to want to get to this bar.

We arrived and were greeted without so much as a glance at our attire (whew!) and then were seated at the end of the long, high table near the back of the room (the one at which Bill Murray sits after he films “It’s Suntory time”, in the film). There was a live jazz quartet, a beautiful menu and a great cocktail and wine list. Marc veritably swooned when he had his glass of La Crema Pinot Nior and I was exceedingly pleased with my mangosteen martini. Midway through our drinks, we couldn’t resist ordering Crispy Veal Sweetbreads on Risotto and Fire Roasted Sardines with White Asparagus Salad.

cimg4865-320.jpgAccording to the menus, those were just appetizers but even in our alcohol infused state, we could not justify spending $80 for a rib eye steak or – perish the thought – $190 for the Kobe beef steak. We did have one more glass of wine, though. In total, for two people, two drinks each, two appetizers: $200CAD. Obscene, opulent, delicious, exquisite. Unrepeatable.

Tokyo Fish Market

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

cimg4810-320.jpgRising at dawn, we visited the Tsukiji Fish Market for the height of the morning rush. After navigating our way through the trucks, vans and motorized trolleys, we found the main fresh fish market with hundreds of vendors selling fish whole, filleted or still alive. Men ran frozen tuna through enormous band saws while others filleted eel after eel or sliced off chunks of fish with a knife three feet long, any of these jobs requiring rubber boats, plastic pants and a wet suit like jacket to keep warm and dry.

cimg4823-320.jpgSome of the tourists wore plastic bags on their shoes, but that is dangerous on slippery concrete floors running with water and blood. With fish and guts everywhere, I was surprised by the complete lack of smell. Perhaps it’s different in the summer, but on our visit everything was surprisingly fresh.

cimg4814-320.jpgIt was hard not to consider the enormity of it all—a vast industry cleaning the ocean of edible life. At no point could we see the entire market and this was only one market in one city. Live sea cucumber to whale bacon, all prepared or packaged to feed our enormous population.

cimg4828-320.jpgThose contemplations didn’t stop us from enjoying a sushi breakfast at one of the many restaurants that fringe the market. In Tokyo, few people speak English, but most people are used to dealing with people who don’t speak Japanese. In this case we were directed to the wall menu for a choice of the $20 set or the $30 set and an Engligh drink menu was provided. As the sushi chef completed a serving, he dropped it in front of us on a black laquered board that ran around the bar, which was used instead of a plate. Wow, so fresh. Most were the usual suspects, tuna and shrimp, but one animal we only reconginized from the fish market—a sort of dark flattened shrimp. It tasted much stronger than a shrimp, not something I’ll likely seek again.

Three for Three

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

For the first and probably only time in our lives, we ate three different ethnic foods in the countries from whence they came: Thai food in Thailand, Korean food in Korea and Japanese food in Japan.
cimg4790-320.jpgJust before we left Bangkok, we used up our last remaining bhat on a spicy green mango salad that was so spicy that I could see through time. We stopped in Seoul the next morning on a layover that was long enough to eat bibimbap with kimchi for breakfast, something we’ve been craving for months. Finally, we arrived in Japan and had a late lunch of a lot of sushi. I doubt we’ll be able to come close to replicating that phenomenon in the future, unless we have maple syrup in the morning and cross the border for American cheese in the afternoon. Doesn’t seem as exotic, though.

Central to My World

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

cimg4755-320.jpgOur last day in Bangkok was spent milling around CentralWorld, a new mall with a grocery store of culinary delights. It was rated the 3rd best food retailer in the world and best in Asia. Grocery aisles intertwine with sit-down options, where customers can order sushi, bistro food, or New York pizza. A liquor section had dozens of brands of beer we had never seen before. We mainly stayed near food court that overlooked the store.

cimg4756-320.jpgThe Murahata Fruit Boutique, which was attached to the store, was particularly intriguing. Rather than buying a dozen apples or a bag of kiwi, one buys one apple the size of a softball or perhaps a pair of different apples, including one with a chinese character printed on the side. Whether the fruit is apple, kiwi or melon, each piece is the best of the farmers’ craft, the pinnacle of a simple tradition. Each is perfect in appearance and exceptional in flavour. The melons have perfect T-shaped stems, the kiwis are the size of a fist and the strawberries are bright red. I was able to sample one small piece of apple, which was mild and sweet, not acidic or sharp. As tempted as a was, I couldn’t convince myself to buy the $4 apple or the $20 melon.

cimg4758-320.jpgWe did spend the extra $2 to get the sofa seat at the movie theatre when we watched Pursuit of Happiness. In addition to the typical cup holder, a small tray was provided and the seat backs reclined. And best of all, no arm rest to prevent snuggling.