Friday, December 31, 2010

Argentine wine - a world of discovery


It is probably fair to say that when thinking of wine from South America, Chile is the first country which comes to mind. Along with South Africa, Australia and California, it has been a prominent figure on the new world shelves of supermarkets back in Europe for many years; while wine coming from neighbouring Argentina has not really featured. 

Actually Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer and with over 1,500 vineyards, is a wine guzzling country of epic proportions.

Wine production here started when the Spanish colonizers brought vines with them from Spain during the sixteenth century. Early experiments planting in Atlantic coastal regions near Buenos Aires were not successful, but in the dry, desert like Andean areas of the country, the grapes fared superbly.

The first commercial vineyard is recorded in Santiago del Estero in 1557. But it wasn’t until the completion of the Argentine rail network in 1885, when transportation to Buenos Aires became easier, that the wine industry truly started to grow; helped along throughout the nineteenth century by Italian, French and Spanish winemakers who fleeing the phylloxera epidemic that was wreaking havoc in the vineyards of their home countries, brought expertise to Argentine wine production.

It has to be said though, that despite all the European knowledge and the excellent climatic conditions, historically winemakers in Argentina were far more focused on quantity as opposed to quality.

Local taste buds were for a long time well accustomed to watery tabletop crap that was necked back merely as a means to wash down the kilos of beef that each Argentine devoured. That meant that 90% of Argentine wine was considered too poor to export, was more often than not mixed with soda water and drunk here; and hence did not gain international fame.

That is most definitely no longer the case and Argentine wine is now widely regarded as well, rather bloody tasty.

Nothing but Argentine wine here
During the 1990s as local demand for low quality wines declined, winemakers sought to improve their product, and to export. They made the most of the 1:1 peso-dollar exchange rate to purchase top quality equipment from abroad and set about sowing new plants and altering their production processes to end up with quality products.

With the 2001 economic crisis and the devaluation of the peso, new and improved Argentine wine exploded onto the international market (especially in the US and Canada, Argentina’s two main export markets) and figures have been rising steadily ever since.

In 2007, 27% of wine production here was destined for export, reaching a total of $US482.3 million. While during the first nine months of 2010 exports increased by 17.4% compared with the same period in 2009, according to data from Caucasia Wine Thinking.

The wine producing region in Argentina spreads down the side of the Andes from some of the world’s highest vineyards in the northern province of Salta, through San Juan, La Rioja, the renowned Mendoza, and all the way to Patagonia.

The country produces a variety of wines but is definitely most famous for its Malbec.

Hailing from Bordeaux, France, this grape was brought to Argentina in the 1800s on the instruction of then provincial governor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Here the Malbec grapes tend to grow in small tight clusters considered great for wine, and unlike in France, are irrigated with pure mountain water (well away from the sea), flourishing in ideal conditions in regions which enjoy over 300 days of sunshine per year. Often spending time in quality French or American oak, Malbec is well-known for its intensely deep colour, excellent nose, and unique and fruity taste. It is without doubt the wine of choice in Argentina.

Visiting and experiencing wine here for the first time can be a daunting experience. You will be confronted with wine lists sporting Malbecs, Merlots, Cabs, Bonardas, Syrahs, Tempranillos (and that’s just the reds) from bodegas (vineyards) you have probably never heard of. Making informed decisions can be difficult. Of course a wine tour in Mendoza is a typical tourist excursion where you will visit vineyards and soak up the whole process, but if you’ve just touched down in Buenos Aires and could use a little instruction before you hit the restaurants, then a great option is to do a wine tasting in the city.

Excellent presentation at Anuva Wines
Anuva Wines runs tastings out of the charming and stylish Rendez-Vous Hotel in the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. In small groups of two to eight people, their intimate, professional and very appetizing tasting is a super introduction to the glories of Argentine wine.

You will sit at a modishly decorated table while their host talks you through the five wines you will taste. A couple of whites to start and then three magnificent reds. All matched with perfectly chosen snacks to help bring out the intense flavours. Maybe a Torrontés with some peach sorbet, a Bonarda with salami and cheese, a Syrah with a meaty Argentine empanada and of course a marvellous Malbec, which always goes magnificently with some dark chocalate. With wine flowing freely, you will not only waddle out with a smile on your face, but after the great conversation and superb instruction, you'll have an improved knowledge about Argentine wine and culture. 

But for those of you who won't be visiting here anytime soon, don't fret. With exports to North America already doing well, and exports to Europe on the rise, there should be plenty of opportunity to sample some of the magnificent wine that is being produced here. 

Next time you're after a tipple for an evening in, ignore Chile and ask your local store about a bottle of Argentine Malbec, surely you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feliz Navidad


Buenos Aires is not the most festive place at Christmas. Of course the superfluous requirement of more than one layer of clothing, the excessive daylight and the missing sight of your own breath as you hit the streets shopping with a frozen nose and Nan-knitted scarf, make it all very hard to get into the Christmas mood if you’re used to a wintry December.

But even without the cold dark evenings wrapped up around the fire, it is just not Christmassy here; at least not in the commercial sense.

No giving and receiving of Christmas cards, no advent calendars for the kids as they eagerly count down the days until the twenty-fifth; shopping centres can hardly be called ‘decorated’ and the sound of Christmas songs echoing from brightly lit shops with Rudolf or Santa in the window is pretty much absent.

The city’s Obelisk may well be kind of Christmassied-up with some sort of tree next to it, but the truth is that a walk around the streets of Buenos Aires does not give any hint that Papa Noel is on his way.

Not that there is any real reason for the children to get that excited about the old guy with the beard. The Coca-Cola Christmas complete with a flying Santa shoving himself down chimneys is not really given much credence here, so leaving out a stocking, a mince pie and a carrot for the reindeers is not really the done thing. 

In Argentina, like in many other countries, the real Christmas celebration takes place on the night of the twenty-fourth. Youngsters won’t be up at the break of dawn to see what was left under the tree because they will be wide awake at midnight on Christmas Eve exchanging gifts, as fireworks and the popping of cider bottles start off the party. It's all largely reminiscent of New Year's Eve.

In general, it is really a time for families to get together, to reminisce, relax and eat. Typical Christmas food includes asado (barbeque), oven roasted chicken, salads and ice-cream.

But with December temperatures in Buenos Aires usually hitting the mid thirties, the most important Christmas ingredients of all are without doubt a shady corner and an ice-cold beverage. And if you’re lucky, a bob around in the swimming pool.

Merry Christmas, on what is really the morning after the night before.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dog Walking - The Profession



It's a pretty great sight to see a dozen or so dogs rambling down a busy avenue together, tugging on the leads that connect them to the lone dog-walker whose job it is to manage them for a couple of hours out of the city flats they each call home.

And the sight is an extremely common one on the streets of Buenos Aires, where professional dog walking is rather big business.

Every morning as the sun rises, eager beaver dog-walkers buzz the flats of their dog owning clients, gather up the canines and trek around the city streets, dodging in and out of the thousands of porteños on their way to work, as they hop between plazas and parks to give the pets some daily exercise.

Buenos Aires is a flat-living tower-block jam-packed city, and so dogs rarely enjoy the luxury of their own garden or outdoor space where they can bury a bone and dump at will. If their owners work all day then it’s hours on end cooped up between four walls, where they’ll no doubt leave their mark; or outings out with a professional joined to a lead with a handful of buddies.

Officially there are over 110 dog-walkers registered with the authorities in Capital Federal, though hundreds more work in black. It is nearly impossible to not commit some sort of illegal act while doing this work, say the walkers; so to avoid the inevitable fines, some feel it's better off not registering.

Registered or not, dog-walking is a tough and physical job, and one that takes great strength and fitness. Anyone who has walked one dog will know the force some of even the smallest breeds can have; so just imagine a group of them as they pull you along and tussle to cock a leg at the bottom of a lamppost.

However, according to the pros, it's far easier to manage more than it is less.

The Law states a lone dog-walker can walk a maximum of eight dogs at a time. But with an estimated one million dogs in the city (not including street dogs), demand is high, and many choose to take out more. It is occasionally possible to see the odd athletic chappy, or chapette, with over twenty dogs attached to the lead. That takes some doing.

Ilda walked my own dog for 2 years
Ilda, who has been running her own dog-walking business for thirteen years, would do nothing else. ‘The exercise and being with dogs that I love is a perfect way to spend every day,’ she says. 'It gives me the freedom to be my own boss. And well, unlike people; dogs don't let you down.'

The job has its down sides though. The city of Buenos Aires does not provide doggy bins on its streets, and more and more plazas are being closed to animals as local residents complain about constant barking.

Not to mention summer temperatures of up to 40°C and just-out-of-the shower-like humidity.

But whatever the situation, dogs always need exercise; and depending on the neighbourhood, dog-walkers can earn anywhere between $US30 - $US50 per month per dog. If they’re taking out say, twelve in the morning, then twelve in the afternoon, and maybe the odd one in the evening; then it can soon become a not too shabby way to make a living.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ireland - Remember Argentina


As Ireland faces the consequences of its economical difficulties and the harsh demands expected to come from its lenders, perhaps it should remember the case of Argentina.

When it faced financial ruin in 2001, it pulled out its middle finger and told the supposed saving grace known by the three famous letters I, M, and F (whose negligence had been one of the causes of Argentina’s problems in the first place), to pretty much stick it with the ridiculous austerity measures it tried to force on the country. Argentina spent the next five years enjoying an average growth in GDP of 8.5%.

For those who can’t recall the details of Argentina’s absolute meltdown in 2001, the somewhat basic history is this.

The Eighties and Nineties

After a return to democracy in 1983, the Argentine government of Alfonsín borrowed huge amounts of money. When the country struggled to repay the loans, confidence in the new currency, the Austral, was lost and inflation went through the roof. In July 1989 it was 200% alone, reaching a total of 5000% for the year.

To cope with the hyperinflation, Argentines would spend nearly every cent of their pay-check the same day they received it. If not, their hard earned cash would be worth nearly nothing by the next day as shop prices literally went up by the hour.

Desperate measures were necessary and in 1990, with a new government and mandate, the Argentine peso was restored, and so started the notorious experiment with convertibility. One Argentine peso was fixed as equal to one US dollar, and any citizen was able to exchange any amount of pesos to dollars as they pleased.   

Argentines smiled.

Get your pay-check in pesos, change it to dollars, stick it somewhere safe, travel abroad and feel rich all of a sudden. Everything in neighbouring Brazil for example was now dirt cheap with dollars in your hands, and Argentines could not only afford cheap imports, but were able to take out low interest loans in US dollars.  

On the surface, life was rosy in the nineties. But behind the scenes problems were bubbling away.

Inflation was soon back. And with prices for many consumer goods now lower in the USA, the famous expression ‘dame dos’, (give me two), took hold as Argentines marvelled at the cheaper shop prices abroad.

Cheap imports meant money was pouring out of the country, while dollar prices in Argentina meant the economy could not compete with other developing nations and so the export market crumbled. The country still had massive debts and South America’s old friend, the IMF, recklessly continued lending to Argentina, postponing payment dates and allowing the problem to brew.

The fund also put in place structural adjustment programmes so severe that they only served to lower GDP by 10%, and in 1999 Argentina entered recession. With corruption rife, huge unemployment and economic deflation, it all came crashing down with the 2001 crisis.

The Crisis

As investors lost faith in the country, money started flowing out across the borders. Suspicious and fearful of yet more financial problems, there was a run on the banks as Argentines withdrew their savings and also sent it abroad. The government reacted by freezing all bank accounts for twelve months; an act that became known as the corralito.

With mass protests and an economy spiralling out of control, a state of emergency was declared. Argentina defaulted on $95bn of debt and by 2002 the convertibility experiment was finally called off.

Argentines rushed to the banks in attempts to get out any pesos they had, and exchange them before the devaluation, but the banks literally closed their doors as they were left cashless.

Almost overnight, the national currency was devalued from one peso for a dollar, to four pesos for a dollar. 

Furthermore, the economy ministry declared that any dollars in bank accounts would be converted to pesos at the new rate of 4:1, and so the entire life savings of hundreds of thousands of Argentines pretty much disappeared.

The initial consequence was disastrous. Riots and looting ensued, and when half the entire population fell below the poverty line, unemployed and broke; a barter economy was born with second hand clothes exchanged for basic services, and home-baked bread for meat. It was even common to see those with nothing to trade eating from the rubbish bins outside McDonalds.

The situation was dire and the IMF saw the opportunity to enforce further neo-liberal policies and austerity cuts. As with the current situation in Europe, many suggested their policy of making the workers pay for a mess they had nothing to do with, was entirely politically motivated.

But in 2003, with newly elected president Nestor Kirchner, Argentina grew a pair. They refused any further help from the IMF, paid off the debt and told the un-elected and foreign monetary advisors to get the hell out of the country. Argentina would be governed by Argentina, and with some shrewd policies, the economy recovered.

Turning your back on the ECB in Europe and going it alone would not be so easy for Ireland. In Argentina it seemed to work, but despite its recent economic success; with the IMF constantly making bogus economic projections, combined with the old problems of corruption and inflation, the longevity of Argentina's prosperous situation is forever in doubt.

There's a general consensus here that a crisis hits the country every ten years. 2011 will tell.