A garden of poplars and vineyards
Source: Belle Epoque
By: Andre Denis
Like every region where vines are cultivated, San Rafael boasts poplars around estates as protection for crops. Where there's no wine, there's fruit and olive trees which preserve that flawless order imposed by men when he decided that the desolate land needed to be irrigated through canals in perfect quadrangles. The region gets rainy periods; however, irrigation from rivers is ideal to make the most of the strong summer sun with its cool nights, allowing fruits to ripen and intensify their flavors. High temperatures yield superior preserves and excellent wines.
Two full-flowing rivers run across San Rafael: the Diamante and the Atuel. The Diamante River irrigates most of the cultivated area in San Rafael, while water from the Atuel River is used in the south area and in Villa Atuel. The French who colonized the region in the XIX century just reorganized the understanding of the primitive inhabitants in the Cuyo region: firstly the aboriginals with vegetables and later the Spanish with crops and vines.
The Huarpes (extinct aboriginals) who inhabited northern Mendoza, were (from the last fraction of the XIV century until the beginning of the XV century) a part of the Inca Empire, hence they mastered irrigation techniques involving ditches in corn, quinoa, beans and squash crops. Shortly after the foundation of Mendoza in 1561, the Spanish brought diverse European fruits plants -among which was the grapevine- into Argentina. The climate and soil here were suitable for these plants. By the end of the XVIII century, wine and firewater were the main regional products.
A poplars shield
This neat geography of perfect quadrangles encircled by ditches and canals was widely favored at the beginning of the XIX century thanks to the insertion of poplar trees, propitious to offer shade and useful as a wind shield -in addition to their beauty and color, especially during fall. Vines were favored during the last part of the XIX century with the arrival of the railway, which brought in new immigrants. At the beginning of the XX century, Mendoza witnessed the naissance of the first Italian wineries: those big constructions with typical exposed brick façades and semicircular arches. These wineries replaced the old family wineries in houses' backyards.
In San Rafael, colonization begun at the start of the XIX century as a result of a treaty with the local aboriginals -pehuenches araucanizados(pehuenches intermixed with the araucanos from Chile)- which allowed for the construction of fort San Rafael (in honor of its creator, marquis Rafael de Sobremonte) in the first decade of the 1800's. Shortly after that, colonization began with the creation of pastures and irrigation canals in the areas adjoining the fort. In the second half of the century, a land survey was performed by French surveyor Julio Ballofet, responsible for the planning of the new city of Mendoza in 1863. Soon, Ballofet arranged for other French to colonize the region.
Ballofet settled in San Rafael to toil the lands he and his wife owned, and he quickly managed for his fellow men to establish the French colony in 1880; a few years later, the Italian colony was also founded. In 1903 the French colony was declared head of department to replace old Villa 25 de Mayo which had been raised around the fort since earliest times. The arrival of the railway that year caused a new immigration movement that would give San Rafael a decisive thrust.
"Had I been born a poet...! Nothing in your fertile land, nothing in your pure air, full of brightness, none of your generous and murmuring rivers, none of your proud and faithful mountains, guardian of your frontiers, none of your breathtaking dawns and dusks, oh, San Rafael, would have been left without a poem! (...) But I gave you the effort of my arms, which imposed themselves to daydreams. I gave you the biblical sweat of my forehead, which perhaps brutalized the spirit, but uplifted the matter imbuing it with edifying dynamism."
This is an excerpt from the book entitled "Valentín el Inmigrante" (Valentín the Immigrant). Valentín Bianchi arrived from Geneva, Italy in 1810, at age 22. After various jobs, next to his brother-in-law, in 1927 he decided to create the winery which now bears his name. Today, Bianchi is one of the highest-growing wineries in San Rafael; in it, industrial restructuring developed from the 90's is noticeable. Located at road No 143, on the outskirts of the city and surrounded by a huge park with water fountains and sculptures, close to the city's airport, the normally called "champagnera" Bianchi is a modern structure which combines its production with the traditional winery's, owned by the company and located in the heart of San Rafael. Almost all of Bianchi's sparkling wines are currently produced here. This is also where guided tours take place.
The novelty about this tour is that, unlike other exponents in Mendoza's Los Caminos del Vino (Wine Roads), here the visit starts in the vineyard itself, identified through signs indicating each variety and its characteristics. It can be seen here, easily explained, how the agronomist's work complements the oenologist's, once the characteristics of the wine to be produced with the grapes in each parcel are determined beforehand. The most moving part in the production of a good vine is the chores performed by the vineyard manager on each and every vine, to provide the grapes with the ideal conditions to meet the objective.
During dormancy, pruning takes place; in this process the canopy is pruned according to the target yield and the canopy management used. After that, canes are tied to the overhead trellis structure. As temperatures rise, the vine comes back to life and the sap in it runs once again. Soon, the first buds start to burst and -in late spring- flowering sets off giving way to the tiny chlorophyll-packed green berries. With time, color develops and sugar builds up. To allow for a better sunlight exposure, leaf removal and, in certain cases, crop thinning are performed increasing the level of sugar in the remaining berries.
Once acquainted with the art of growing the best vines, visitors will learn about operations during harvest; the reason why both baskets shown in old pictures and 20-kilo baskets are no longer used for bulk wine. Nowadays, quality-wine bunches are carefully placed in smaller boxes which -instead of getting dropped in the back of a truck- are transported in piles, thus avoiding any damage to the berries. Once in the winery, bunches are selected in the conveyor belt; then they are directed into the destemmer (device that separates the berries from the stems, so they can pass through a crushing machine). A system of rollers gently crushes the grapes and extracts the must without breaking the skins. This first must is taken to fermentation vats, while skins and the rest of the must that may have been left and the crushed berries are taken to the press, which will extract the remaining juice to be pumped into other vats.
At the Bianchi Sparkling Wine Winery the champenoise method (or traditional method) elaboration of the sparkling wine is shown, which differs from the Charmat method. The champenoise method consists of a first fermentation produced in the primary must until a base wine -properly clarified- is obtained. This wine is bottled after a mix of sugar and yeasts is added near the cork. The final skill consists of freezing the bottleneck and removing the cork; pressure in the sparkling wine expels the deposits and the bottle is topped up: before re-corking, syrup known as dosage is added, whose secret mix will determine the type of sparkling wine to obtain (demi sec, brut, extra brut). The difference with the other method -Charmat- is that with the latter, second fermentation in carried out in containers instead of tanks.
If Bianchi owes its origins to an Italian Pioneer, winery Jean Rivier owes it to a Sweden entrepreneur who was able to become the owner of a winery around the middle of the XX century and 27.1 acres of vineyards in the Rama Caída area -10 miles from downtown San Rafael- and 205 acres in Casas Viejas, in Valle de Uco. One of the most original wines of the Jean Rivier winery is the Tocai Friulano, a white wine from Friuli, Italy, produced here from 50-year-old and older vines. Chenin and Torrontés stand out as well. In reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Bonarda and Tempranillo. In 1993, the original winery was modified, adding new technology, and an expansion for the reception of visitors is pending. Jean Rivier is a family winery, with products present in the European market and participation in international events.
Alfredo Roca is similar in its origin and growth. The winery is run by the forth generation of a family with Italian and Spanish background. By the end of the 70's, Alfredo Roca purchased the winery jointedly with the Barral family, creating Barral y Roca; under this brand the first wines were commercialized. From the 90's on, the Roca family is left in charge of the family and maintains the objective of producing quality wines, both for the international and the Argentinean market. Located in Cañada Seca, approximately 8.6 miles from the city of San Rafael, the winery offers a small but elegant tasting tour where visitors can enjoy these wines, bearers of a full family name. Alfredo Roca presides over the company, and vice-presidency is held by Alejandro Roca -Bachelor's Degree in Oenology- who proudly exhibits wines of superb quality, in particular one produced -covertly- in honor of his parents, by his two sisters Graciela and Carolina, and himself. It's called Preciado; a blend containing 50% Malbec, 30% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 15 months of ageing in French oak barrels. The "Reserva Familiar" line deserves special attention, as well as the young varietals -with or without oak ageing.
Thirty-seven miles from San Rafael and a few miles from Alvear we find Villa Atuel, home of the traditional Goyenechea winery. The long drive -with poplar-shaded roads- is worth it, if you wish to visit this company, which this year celebrates 140 years of history in the hands of the family's fifth generation. In 1868 immigrants Santiago and NarcisoGoyenechea (in Basque "upstairs house") crowned their wine and spirits business activity and purchased the winery in Villa Atuel. The current construction dates back to the twentieth century, times which -with the arrival of the railway- undoubtedly lead to a major changes in the development of the company. Even these days, behind Alberto Goyenechea's house, you can find the railroads that were used to bring the winery's wine-loaded wagons to the railway station. During the first half of last century, the winery's first labels materialized. Surely, many will recall them with a smile on their face: "Marqués del Nevado", "Vasconia" and "Patria".
The most astounding thing about Goyenechea is the contrast between the casks (which date from the beginning of last century) and the new technologies. Even some of the big concrete and epoxi vats were reconditioned as ageing caves for bottled wines. It is unsettling to walk along the lengthy alley where wines rest in silence and darkness. The affability in the Goyenechea's is kind-hearted and genuine. The company continues to be run by the Goyenecheas, attentive to the demands of the national market and to exports: however, they desire to show visitors what they do and how they feel. To that aim, a new building will open by the end of this year where -along with wine tasting- the winery will offer hors d'oeuvre and snacks. It is an old-style house featuring a pleasant bar, a hall and a gallery to enjoy the fresh summer shade. Very close to the winery, in the estate called "La Vasconia" on the right margin of the Atuel River lay the 321 acres of vineyard owned by the Goyenecheas.
The Atuel River irrigates this entire region. This river, in the vicinity of San Rafael, runs in a canyon towards the Valle Grande and Nihuil dams. Passing through it produces an immense pleasure; diverse rock formations encircle the path. The swerving corridor runs between trees and hillsides, and in it you can spot a fair number of tourism cottages. Now and then, the river comes into sight -fresh and crystal-clear. Rough during summer, meltdown waters come down in rapids and turns; the Atuel is used by tourists for the practice of intermediate-level rafting. In the Valle Grande dam, visitors sail or bathe in its water to refresh.
The other river -the Diamante- holds one of the region's most beautiful dams. It's the large mirror of water formed by Los Reyunos dam, around which there are summer houses, a hostelry and various camping sites. During summer, visitors can swim in the lake, which is also cruised by tourist crafts; its bottom is stony and its waters are translucent-green color. Those who scuba-dive in this lake, as deep as 35 feet, have seen large carp, silverside and rainbow trout specimens, some of which have set records. Downstream, the Diamante River is interrupted again by El Tigre dam, and a short distance further down, by the Galileo Galilei, which distributes water into the canals that irrigate San Rafael.
Water and sun: the best combination for fruits to ripen full of flavor. Near the Bianchi Sparkling Wine Winery lives a lady who sun-cooks marmalades following a recipe from Middle East. In the backyard, you can see fruit pulp on drying racks, under a dry and blazing climate. Quite frequently, by the side of the road, you will find kiosks with local preserves, cold meats, honey, wine and home-made bread for sale. Some local residents sell young goats and even firewood for a slow-cooked "asado" (barbecue).
The idea involving natural products within a splendid setting was perfectly applied by Ricardo Jurado (Jr.) and his father -a traditional family of golf players- who carried out in the 90's a development called Viñas del Golf, which entailed de construction of a boutique winery next to a lodge, a restaurant and a 9-hole golf course. Later, Jurado entered into partnership with an American company and the idea of the brand Algodon Wine Estates was born. The development rests in a 1729-acre property and boasts golf holes strategically placed among olive trees and vineyards. Some holes present poplars, walnut trees and even willows next to a pond.
The entire course can be visited on golf carts, available for guests to drive around and to visit the winery or the restaurant. Service is excellent and food is prepared with regional products and flavors which combine creole dishes and international cuisine, based on creations by tourism manager Diego Coll Benegas. The original lodge was renewed from an old property house. It features an outdoor gallery, a swimming pool and a solarium, and a garden next to vineyards. Recently, a new building with four rooms and a living room was added. With a first-class rural style, the new premises are very comfortable and count with hand-crafted details of a refined design. Algodon Wine Estates is located approximately 9.3 miles from downtown San Rafael, in the district of Cuadro Benegas .
The time of the year is irrelevant. It is autumn now, but winter and summer are just as fit for visiting. San Rafael can be the starting point of a unique adventure which continues up to Malargüe and Las Leñas. In this trip, visitors can go to splendid places such as Laguna de la Niña Encantada, (with a legend of its own) the unsettling Pozo de las Ánimas and Caverna de las Brujas. During summer, from Malargüe city and also from El Sosneado's hostelry (located between San Rafael and Las Leñas) visitors can ride on horse-back up into the Andes range. Some horse-back trips reach the remains of the airplane that crashed there in the 70's with the players of the Uruguayan rugby team, setting off that amazing feat of survivorship.
There is a lot to do and a lot to delight in. Good Argentinean wine and a fresh and clean landscape in the south of Mendoza. To the best, the eternal mountain range. From there, the limpid rivers that irrigate the land, full with olive trees, fruit trees and vineyards. And of course, poplars, which bestow fall with a yellow hue which can be found only here.
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