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Where’s the beef? Try Argentina

With freezing temperatures forecast for Halifax County, it seemed like a good time to head south. After driving to the Raleigh-Durham Airport I boarded a plane and continued south finally landing in Mendoza, Argentina.

I chose Mendoza for my visit as it was a smaller town than Buenos Aires, the capital, and I had friends in Mendoza I haven’t seen in many years.

Argentina is the second largest country in Latin America and occupies most of the southern portion of the American continent. Its total area is about 1,068,300 square miles (about the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River).

Argentina is bordered by five countries — Chile to the west, Bolivia and Paraguay to the north, and Brazil and Uruguay to the northeast. On its east and south, Argentina has an extensive Atlantic coastline.

Its north-south length is about 2,270 miles, and its greatest width is about 890 miles. Approximately one-fourth of the total area is given to the flat, fertile Pampas of east and central Argentina. The soils of the Pampas are among the richest in the world and consist of a deep accumulation of loose, windblown materials and is nearly entirely free of stones.

This soil is used for both farming and ranching, with ranching extending into the Patagonia region, where the climate and soils are less rich and where farming is less profitable.

Argentina gained its independence from Spain nearly 200 years ago. The national language is Spanish, and the monetary unit is the Argentine peso. There are about four pesos to one U.S. dollar. The dominant religion is Catholicism. Besides Spanish, Argentina has a strong Italian and German influence.

Upon arrival at the Mendoza airport I was met by friends, Dyanne and Ray. Dyanne, a retired Alaska State Trooper, and Ray, a prominent Alaska attorney and wine aficionado, purchased a summer house near Mendoza six years ago.

Since Argentina is in the southern hemisphere, its summertime there is during the cold winters of Alaska. The afternoon temperature was near 90 when I arrived so we departed the airport and headed off for a late lunch and a cold drink.

Ray drove to the Mendoza Park Hyatt where I enjoyed a fresh grilled Argentinian ribeye steak along with several glasses of local wine. The grass fed Argentinian beef was unbelievably good. I enjoyed several more excellent steaks during my visit to Argentina.

Argentines are definitely all about the beef. Argentina’s citizens were once known to consume more meat annually than any other country in the world. Unlike feedlots found in the U.S., Argentina cattle, for the most part, are grass fed. This has been the case since the Spaniards introduced cattle to the area around 1536.

As the local ranchers in Halifax County know, beef prices are steadily climbing. One of the reasons is that the Argentinian government has decided to decrease the amount of meat exported by Argentina. Purportedly this was done so the citizens of Argentina could experience lower meat prices.

In reality many of the cuts of meat Argentina exports are not regularly consumed inside the country, so the government’s plan seems to have done more harm than good.

Ranchers in Argentina have decreased their beef production because they can’t export and have turned to crops they have found to be more profitable.

In my desire to learn more about farming, I was introduced to Alejandro Guidon.

Alejandro farms about 1,500 hectares of land (about 3,700 acres) and once maintained over 2,500 head of cattle. In order to stay profitable, he has increased his soybean and corn production and reduced his cattle to less than 200 head.

He says soybean production is very lucrative, however, his personal desire is to establish a business that he can someday leave in the hands of his children, who don’t enjoy the same passion for farming that he does.

Alejandro has put his large farm in the hands of a manager and is reestablishing a historic boutique winery.

In 1997 Alejandro and his wife, Sylvia, purchased at auction the Clos de Chacras winery. The winery has a building dating from 1921 which they have architecturally restored and have preserved the details from the original construction.

The original concrete vats from the 1900s have been preserved although updated with modern stainless steel equipment (doors, taps, radiator, etc.). Each vat’s individual capacity is not bigger than 14.000 liters.

The winery affords the family the opportunity to live near the city of Mendoza rather than their farm that is over seven hours away by car.

Winemaking in the Mendoza region is nothing new. Wine has been made there since the 1550s, a century before South Africa, and well over 200 years before the Australians, planted their first vines in 1788.

Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer. However until recent years few people outside Argentina had heard of their wine. In 1970, the average Argentine drank a third of a bottle of wine a day that consumed almost every drop produced. This amount has since dropped considerably which means there is now plenty to export.

Secondly, things have been a bit volatile at times on the political and economic front in Argentina, though really that has changed and the country is now far more stable. Of course what really matters is the wine, whose quality has got better and better as the centuries of experience finally bears fruit.

The first Argentine vineyards were planted in the north and around Mendoza by the Spanish to make communion wine. Wherever there was irrigation, these early pioneers found the conditions pretty much ideal for making wine. There were cloudless skies and over 300 days of sunshine a year. There were the right type of soils, and there were cool nights if you planted high enough. All that was needed was to match the right grape varieties with the right locations.

Enter a young French agronomist named Miguel Pouget who was hired to bring vine cuttings back from France in the 1860s. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and above all Malbec, which at the time was grown all across southern France.

Though Malbec has since lost its significance in France, in Argentina the grape has found a true heaven on earth. As of 2003 over 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of Malbec were in Argentina.

The Argentine wine industry shifted its focus to premium wine production for export. As the Argentine wine industry discovered the unique quality of wine that could be made from the grape, Malbec arose to greater prominence and is today the most widely planted red grape variety in the country.

Argentina’s most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza’s high altitude wine regions of Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These districts are located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains between 800 meters and 1500 meters elevation (2,800 to 5,000 feet).

Prior to my departure from Argentina, I was invited to the Los de Chacras winery to attend a genuine Argentinian Asado (barbecue) cooked in a traditional quincho (cooking area).

Asado is all about meat, multiple kinds and plenty of it. The meal began with grilled sweetbreads (from the throat of the cow) and various kinds of chorizo (sausages), then pork was served (from the belly of the pig), after that came ribs and then steak.

As the meat entries were cooked they were presented by the grillmaster on a long wooden serving board. Believe me it was a true afternoon meat fest that was enjoyed by all.

Of course it was accompanied by salads and vegetables and numerous bottles of wine. The wine was made on the premises by the winery’s renowned winemaker who joined us during the Asado. For dessert we had locally made Dulce de Leche ice cream. the best I have ever had.

The next day as I departed Mendoza my flight took me over the Andes Mountains. Off to my right I was able to view Aconcagua, “The Sentinel of Stone.”

Aconcagua, at 22,830 feet (6,959 meters) is the highest point in the western and southern hemisphere, towering above the surrounding peaks in the Argentine Andes.

In comparison at 20,320 feet Mt. McKinley in Alaska is North America’s highest peak. As the highest point in the Americas, Aconcagua is one of the much sought after “Seven Summits” and a world renowned peak that mountain climbers worldwide attempt to climb.

Argentina is a large country of which I only viewed a small portion. The people there were industrious and truly seemed to enjoy life. I can only hope to return again and see more of this diverse and beautiful country, that in the past was known to the world as, “the land of the beef.”