Maipú by Bus
A new hop-on, hop-o bus service is ferrying wine lovers around Maipu.
Charlie O’Malley jumps on the gravy train and learns all about this historical wine region. For audio commentary listen to our podcast on www.wine-republic.com.
Maipu is no ordinary wine region. Home to the biggest winery in the World, it is a place where wine production reached gargantuan, industrial quantities over 100 years ago. Wine literally owed through its streets, with a suspended wine pipe carrying grape juice directly to the train station. Even the smallest family owned wineries had concrete wine tanks the size of olympic swimming pools. Some of the bigger wineries still have tanks the size of nightclubs – now unused, they sometimes hold events in them. It was not uncommon for a winery to have its own railway platform to ship the vino to thirsty Buenos Aires.
The Argentine capital was the key to the incredible wine boom in Maipu that exploded at the end of the 19th Century. Buenos Aires was bursting at the seams with Mediterranean immigrants who loved their wine and drank lots of it. Where else were they going to source that wine but Mendoza? Some canny immigrant families skipped Buenos Aires and set up shop making wine here and became millionaires in the process. The arrival of the railway meant that the wine could now be shipped in a few days to the Capital. Many visitors from Buenos Aires remarked that the wine tasted so much better at source. For good reason, Porteños were getting a diluted version. Pilfering from the wine tanks was endemic as the wine train shunted its way through the Pampas.
Opulence reigned. The nouveau Riche spent their vino pesos on luxury villas and mansions. Mendoza itself became rich and prosperous on the back of this one industry and a pre-planned city of garden plazas and tree-line avenues began to take shape. The wine harvest festival discarded its proletarian roots and became an extravagant party. Maipu did well out of wine.
And then it didn ́t. If Argentines drank wine like it was going out of fashion well then that is exactly what happened – it went out of fashion. Coca Cola, beer and fernet became popular and wine consumption dropped dramatically in the 1970s. This hit Maipu very hard and to this day you can see the old abandoned wineries of yesteryear. The drop in demand was compounded by poor economic policies. State intervention in the industry was counter-productive and a closed economy meant the industry became inef cient and outdated and the wine quality poor.
Maipu has yet to recover fully from the great wine crisis of the 1970s. Though the region has bene ted from the recent Malbec boom, this export-lead bonanza has been mostly bene cial to the higher regions of Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco. Saying that, the green shoots of recovery are obvious as you tour the area and wine tourism in particular has grown exponentially with Maipu easily the most accessible area, whether by bike, bus or car. Whilst the region may lack the picturesque scenery of its western neighbors, it does have some very pretty views, especially to the south, and most wineries have gorgeous historical interiors that ooze atmosphere and afford ample photo opportunities. Southern Maipu is now hosting new and adventurous wineries such as El Enemigo and Finca Agostino, challenging their neighbors to the west.
How to get there
To enjoy the Maipu hop-on hop-off service you must take a train to Maipu bus station. Known as the Metrotranvia, you can catch it on Belgrano and Rivadavia in Mendoza city center. A payment card known as Redbus is required and is supplied by the wine bus people at the city tour ticket of ce on Chile and Espejo in the city center. Trains are frequent and allow yourself 45 minutes to get to Maipu. The train and bus ticket cost $200 AR.
Departure times for Maipu wine bus from Estacion Gutierrez in Maipu.
10.10am; 11.30am; 12.50am; 14.10am; 3.30pm and 4.50pm.
The circuit takes one hour and 20 minutes. Currently the bus operates every day but this will change in April when it switches to a low season schedule.
At the end of the line is the main railway station Estacion Gutierrez, 18 blocks north of Maipu’s main plaza. The Maipu wine bus departs from here every hour and twenty minutes, starting at 10.10am. It travels south along avenue ozamis, named after one of the founders of the town – Jose Alberto ozamis.
The first winery we pass is Bodega Lopez (Bus stop 2), a well known brand within Argentina. This old and elegant winery produces a popular wine known as El Basque Viejo – the old basque. We continue south and turn right at Bodega Giol (Bus stop 3), the World’s biggest capacity winery. Largely unused today, it still makes for a fascinating visit as its faded grandeur illustrates just how rich Maipu’s wine culture is (see our text box for more information about Giol). next door are the two extravagant mansions built by the owners, one of which is now the national Museum of Wine.
The bus now turns west and passes the Maipu Arena complex (bus stop 4). This live music venue, shopping mall, cinema, hotel and casino is a recent addition to the borough’s increasing amount of attractions.
We now go east and into the heart of Maipu, its charming plaza (5) and council offices.
We now go south away from the urban sprawl and into the vineyards and olive groves, many of which have been over taken by housing developments, primarily gated communities. Here we pass another lovely family owned winery Maguay (6). Not far from here you’ll find an old historical winey called Cecchin, which specializes in organic wines and also the charming wine lodge and olive house Club Tapiz. Here you will see netting draped over the vineyards and olive groves. This is to protect the fruit and plants from the violent hail storms that plague Mendoza (see the text box “Hail Mary”).
As we go east again we stop at one of South America’s most famous wineries, Trivento (7), a Chilean-owned operation and sister company to Concha y Toro. This modern winery offers an excellent bike tour through the vineyard. Next stop is Vistandes (8) and 15 minutes walk away is the charming boutique operation Carinae.
Close by you will also find Argentina’s oldest winery DiTommasso which also offers lunches. Heading north you will see on either side examples of irrigation – the traditional open channels on the right and the modern drip system on the left (see text box Drip Versus Dyke for more info).
Next we get to the family run Tempus Alba (9) which has a charming terrace restaurant with view. Heading north again we pass South America’s biggest and most successful winery, Trapiche (10). Here you’ll find a fabulous gourmet restaurant and atmospheric cellar. Ask to see the biggest wine tank in the World – 5 million litres.
Nearby is the charming Alandes (11), operated by one of Argentina’s most interesting and innovative winemakers Karim Musi. The vineyards and olive groves now recede as we re-enter the city, but not until we pass the bucolic splendor of La Rural (12), possibly the best wine museum in the Americas. We now turn north on Ave. Urquiza where you will find many bike rental stores, a popular way to see wineries in Maipu. Last stop is Bodega Dominiciano (13) before we return to the bus station.
The most economical way to do a wine tour in Mendoza. Take bus (171, 172 or 173) from Catamarca and Rioja to Urquiza street (see below) where you’ll find several bike rental companies. Some are notorious for dodgy bikes. Check and double check you get a good mount as a puncture can cause a mini nightmare. Head south, as north of Maipu is urban and not pretty. RECOMMENDED WINERIES Rutini, Tempus Alba, Di Tommasso, Carinae and certainly Trapiche. When returning have a late lunch at the excellent “El Enemigo”.
Drip versus Dyke
“But the previous winery said the exact opposite!” remarked one confused wine tourist when hearing a winery guide singing the praises of drip irrigation and how it is much better than open water channels. The modern drip method, where water is taken directly by hose to each plant, is slowly encroaching on the traditional “acequia” method where water flows through the vineyard in mini streams. The dykes are definitely more picturesque and there is some substance to what some wineries say how the open method makes sure the vine roots are spread out and thus much better at picking up the rich variety of clay nutrients. However the drip irrigation system is much more efficient and less wasteful – an important point as the water source is increasingly stretched. Whatever the answer, whether you are a drip or a dyke, the fact that all Mendoza’s vineyards are irrigated is a big plus for winemakers. Rain is unreliable and often damaging and the fact that agronomists here can turn the water on and off at will makes for a better quality grape.
Mendoza´s climate is deceptively benign for growing grapes. Constant sunshine, little rain, healthy altitudes and an abundance of melted snow from the Andes are a winemaker’s wet dream. However that same dream turns into a nightmare when those same mountains help form a unique cloud system that regularly unleashes large rocks of ice over all and sundry. The problem is compounded by the fact that it usually happens just before harvest time. Maipu is particularly susceptible and here you`ll fine frequent car shelters to take refuge in.
Every year Argentina loses 10% of its crop to King Hail. The provincial government and the wineries spend millions protecting the vineyards with limited success. Net protection is the obvious answer but it is prohibitively expensive. $3000 US per hectare means even the richest wineries can only afford to cover a certain percentage of each crop. Some don´t bother at all and leave it to fate. Hail is one of the reasons why Mendoza produces so little single vineyard wines. It is best to spread your bets and source your grapes from different vineyards dotted all over the province, hoping one at least will be untouched by the dreaded hail.
As an indication of the problem´s seriousness and perhaps the province´s desperation, Russian made surface-to-air missiles were once shot into any threatening looking clouds. This was common practice for 18 years before it was decided to refine the system and carry the rockets by plane. An hour outside Mendoza is an anti-hail operations centre. It consists of two airstrips, a radar station and a fleet of four Piper Cheyenne airplanes. A team of pilots are on 24-hour alert for hail storms. Meteorologists scan a large computerised map of Mendoza. Cloud formations dot the screen, colour coded from green to blue. Grey means its time to scramble and there`s no time to lose. Pilots attack in pairs, one at the base of the clouds and one on top.
They launch flares of silver iodide into the cloud in the hope of reducing the hail to raindrops or snowflakes. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.