South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
On a crisp spring morning when the grapes hung heavy on the vines, I emerged from breakfast to find that my hire car had arrived. It was a Citroën 2CV with blue-and-gold bodywork and chequerboard upholstery, a “Prestige” model dating from 1974, parked somewhat incongruously on the gravel driveway outside the smart Cavas Wine Lodge in Mendoza, Argentina.
Beside the car stood Ramiro Marquesini, a rakish, wild-haired figure in battered brown leather jacket and aviator sunglasses. Marquesini’s day job is chief executive of Mattura, a wine industry consultancy with projects in Argentina, Chile and Peru. But his ruling passion, it’s not hard to see, lies elsewhere. Founder of Slowkar, a fleet of seven 2CVs that can be rented by the day for gentle safaris around the vines and wineries of Mendoza, his hobby is hunting down classic examples in the small ads, rebuilding and painting them in natty colours.
I sat in the driver’s seat while Marquesini gave me a crash course (so to speak) in the 2CV’s peculiar functioning, its primitive but ingenious design. The window that snaps open and shut, the notorious horizontal gear-stick, and the air-conditioning system – a flap in the dashboard which, when opened, directs a blast of fresh air straight at your face.
And then we were off, feeling every ridge and pothole of the dusty lanes that wound among the vineyards. It was the start of harvest time and the grape-pickers (mostly Bolivians) were already hard at work. Yet on this Monday morning we shared the roads with nothing more than a few battered country pickups.
The landscape in the departamento of Luján de Cuyo, half an hour out of Mendoza city, had a quiet, bucolic charm. We passed olive groves where the trees were laden with fat green fruit, orchards on the fringes of the vineyards, long avenues of plane trees and luxuriant weeping willow – originally planted to shade the grapes on their journey to the wineries.
The winelands of Mendoza are surely some of the loveliest in the world. Half-close your eyes and you could be in the Mediterranean; but raise them to the horizon and you are very far from southern Europe. A mighty mountain range – the Andes, no less – rises like a wall behind the vines, their white-capped peaks glistening in the clear air.
At a top speed of 90km/h, there was plenty of time to admire the scenery. But a vintage 2CV is also an object of admiration in itself: overtaking trucks beeped their horns; walkers on the roadside turned their heads in surprise. The push-pull gearbox crunched and screamed as I put the car through its paces but the 2CV proved surprisingly practical for the Argentine roads. Produced from 1948 to 1990, it was famously designed to enable French peasant farmers to drive 50kg of goods to market, and with suspension that would allow them to carry eggs across a ploughed field without danger of breakage. Though synonymous with rural France, it was also produced overseas in countries as diverse as Iran and Uruguay, and – from 1960 to 1980 – in Argentina (where one version was confusingly designated the 3CV).
Everywhere we drove there was evidence of wine’s importance in Mendoza, both as agriculture and culture. “El vino nos une” – wine unites us – proclaimed a billboard on the roadside. I had missed Mendoza’s famous harvest festival, the vendimia, a carnival-like event to which tourists flock from all over Argentina, but managed to catch its high-camp alternative, the vendimia para todos, in which drag queens parade to thundering techno in outfits inspired by the wine regions of the world.
Wine tourism in Mendoza is on a roll. There are balloon flights over the vineyards, picnics among the vines, even white-water rafting trips followed by wine tastings.Bodega restaurants are all the rage. So are wine hotels, both of the comfortable lodge type, and high-concept proposals such as the new Vines of Mendoza.
The Vines’ pioneering real estate plan, where you buy a patch of vineyard and the bodega makes the wine for you, has racked up 135 owners from all over the world. Its Winery Hotel meanwhile, superbly designed in stone and textured concrete, and barbecue-themed Siete Fuegos, run by star chef Francis Mallmann, are already shaping up as the region’s best hotel and restaurant.
We stopped at Trapiche, a grand old winery founded in 1883, where I learned that the Malbec grape, Argentina’s star red variety, originated in France but has never performed as well there as in the hot, dry climate here. The white Torrontés I tasted at Dominio del Plata winery, where Susana Balbo has built a reputation as Argentina’s leading female winemaker, had a combination of flowery, exotic fragrance and a rich, but dry palate unlike anything I’d drunk from the Old World.
Generally speaking, international consumers have given too little thought to Argentine wine. Yet Argentina is the world’s fifth-largest producer and Mendoza the country’s leading region, with 965 wineries making 70 per cent of the national total. With 300 days of sunshine a year and almost no rain, Mendoza has become a mecca in the last 10 years both for winemakers – Michel Rolland, world wine guru, has his fingers in several pies here – and for investors as diverse as Pernod Ricard, Swarovski and Sylvester Stallone.
French oak barrels in the cellar at Bodegas Salentein
After lunch at the Ruca Malén winery, we turned on to route 86, climbing the desert plain towards Tupungato and the Uco valley – idyllic heartland of Mendoza’s wine country and its most sought-after terroir. It is in Uco that Mendoza’s most forward-thinking new projects have taken root, from the Vines of Mendoza to the winery/gallery/hotel at Casa Antucurá and the winery/gallery/restaurant/guest-house at Bodegas Salentein.
As the 2CV rattled up the track to O Fournier, one of the most ambitious of the valley’s new wineries, the stark modernist shape of the bodega loomed up among the vines. Owned by Spanish entrepreneur José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier, this fabulous avant-garde edifice was designed by Mendoza architects Bórmida & Yanzón – the firm that is also behind the stone-and-concrete chic of the Vines of Mendoza hotel. Ortega’s project has a real estate dimension too, with 84 vineyard plots for sale, and building work on a hotel is scheduled to begin later this year.
At O Fournier’s winery restaurant I chatted to the executive chef, Nadia Harón (who is also Ortega’s wife). A few nights earlier I had eaten at her other restaurant, in a colonial-era house in Chacras de Coria, which was named Argentina’s best in 2012. I loved the discreet charm of her cooking, which bravely, in this land of meat, puts the emphasis on vegetables. Now, she told me, she was on the point of moving to a brand-new place in Mendoza city, a 1800s mansion with high ceilings, a patio and a palm tree.
The swimming pool at the new Vines resort in Mendoza
A tiny woman with an almond-shaped face betraying her Spanish-Moroccan parentage, Harón is a former pharmacist and self-taught cook who moved to Mendoza with her family in 2009.
They found it an easy adjustment from Spain. “The way of life here is Mediterranean – we have fitted in here so easily. There are some fantastic ingredients, great wines and olive oil. And the children’s playground has views of the Andes,” she said, pointing out of the restaurant’s plate-glass windows at the snowy cordillera.
As we drove back to Mendoza, Marquesini told me the story of his incredible journey by 2CV to the Laguna del Diamante, a lake below a volcano at 3,300 metres above sea level. The icy lagoon, beautiful and remote, is more usually reached in an off-road 4x4 vehicle – and even then it takes five hours.
Slowkar is a car-hire company with a difference – that much was abundantly clear. But there remained one doubt in my mind. What was its policy on the drink-drive issue, surely a potential hazard on any winery tour?
Marquesini waved away the question with a wicked smile.
Breathalysers were rarely encountered in Mendoza. “And if much wine is consumed, we recommend abandoning the car.”
Paul Richardson travelled as a guest of Miraviva (miravivatravel.com). One week in Argentina, including four nights at the Vines Resort and Spa in Mendoza, two nights at Legado Mîtico in Buenos Aires, domestic flights and transfers, costs from £1,500 per person based on two people sharing. British Airways (ba.com) offers return fights from London to Buenos Aires from around £920. Slowkar (slowkar.com) rents 2CVs from $200 for two days or $500 per week
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You cannot stay one day in Brazil without hearing someone complain about high taxes and poor public services. According to this narrative, the prices of everything from cars to beauty products are inflated by opaque taxes even as the nation struggles with sub-standard hospitals, inadequate public transport and other services.
Now a study from a consulting company, Brazilian Institute of Planning and Taxation (IBPT), seems to bear out the common perception about Brazil’s tax burden. It ranked Brazil last in a list of the 30 countries judged by taxation versus quality of services.
Topping the list was the US, Australia and South Korea. Among emerging markets, Slovakia ranked 11th and Uruguay 13th. Surprisingly, even Argentina, with its problems with inflation and chaotic economic policies, ranked higher than Brazil.
The IBPT based its study on figures measuring the tax burden (government revenue relative to gross domestic product) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) against the latest findings for the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme.
When Brazil returned from dictatorship to democracy in 1986, its tax burden was 22 per cent of GDP. Today this is over 36 per cent. Among its peers in the so-called BRICS group of large emerging nations, Russia’s tax burden is 23 per cent, China 20 per cent, India 13 per cent and South Africa 18 per cent.
Brazilians say they work five months a year to pay their taxes to the government. Now they are beginning to demand a return for their money. Last year, during nation-wide protests in June, citizens demanded “Fifa standard” hospitals, mimicking the international football organisation’s demands that Brazil build state-of-the-art stadiums for this year’s World Cup. But to some extent it is not only the government’s fault that Brazilians pay high taxes.
The problem is cultural. “It’s a problem of the government and the society. There is a mindset here that public resources belong to nobody. Brazilians don’t realize how much tax they actually pay,” says Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper.
Last year, the government passed a law forcing companies to spell out for consumers on receipts each tax included in their bill. In a receipt at a gas station at March this year, for example, from R$100 paid for the petrol, R$28.63 was taxes. “The state is too big and very inefficient, it raises a lot and ends up doing little,” says Melo.
The danger for the government will be when more Brazilians wake up to theproblem. If the information on the receipts is not enough, the IBPT spells it out even more plainly in another initiative, the “impostômetro” - an electronic display in the centre of São Paulo that shows in real-time the amount of tax collected at any givenmoment for that year.
If Brazil’s government keeps growing at this rate, one wonders how many more “0″s the impostômetro will have to add to keep pace.
The Olympic Park in Rio, where more than 2,000 workers have been on strike for weeks
In Rio de Janeiro’s Deodoro complex, at present a military training camp to the west of the city, there is nothing to indicate that in just under 850 days this will be one of the main venues for the Olympic Games.
Building has yet to start and the project is so far behind schedule that soldiers who live at the base have not even heard of it. “Olympics? No, not here – you must have got the wrong place,” shouts one soldier out of his truck, looking in bemusement at his colleagues.
Brazil has endured some well-publicised struggles to get ready for the football World Cup this June, but an even bigger crisis is emerging over Rio’s lack of preparation for the 2016 Olympics.
Last week, the International Olympic Committee announced a series of emergency measures, including the creation of a “high-level decision-making body”, to speed up the preparations as other sports federations call for events to be relocated to alternative cities.
Francesco Ricci Bitti, head of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations – an umbrella group for several governing sports organisations – has branded it “the most critical situation” for the games in at least two decades.
In 2009, when Rio won the bid to become the first South American city to host the Olympics, the IOC’s decision was celebrated as a coming-of-age moment – proof of the country’s new status on the world stage. Only two years earlier, Brazil had been named the host nation for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
However, a string of delays and growing resentment among Brazilians over the cost of these sporting extravaganzas have turned them into a lightning rod for protests at home – and a focus for those abroad on the country’s institutional weaknesses. Overspending on the World Cup was one of the many causes of the mass protests that erupted across the country last June.
Although hosting the Olympics should be easier than the World Cup – it involves only one city rather than 12 – it may in fact prove more problematic, says Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, an academic institution.
“Just as Brazil’s attention turns to the Olympics, all the scandals and the full cost of the World Cup will start to become public,” he says. “There will already be revulsion over how much was spent on the stadiums and we will have to spend more on the Olympics, so it could be an even more difficult situation,” says Mr Alcadipani.
Hosting this type of mega event just doesn’t make much sense any more
- Prof Rafael Alcadipani, Getulio Vargas Foundation
This week Rio announced the games will cost just over R$36bn ($16bn), up from an initial estimate of R$28bn, although part of this will be paid for by the private sector. But Brazil’s economic outlook has changed drastically since the country won the Olympics bid. After expanding at a rate of 7.5 per cent in 2010, it is expected to grow less than the UK and the US this year.
“Hosting this type of mega event just doesn’t make much sense any more,” said Mr Alcadipani.
While the sporting events are proving far less popular than Brazil’s ruling Workers’ party had hoped, they are also doing little to improve the country’s international image.
Aside from concerns over Deodoro – one of Rio’s four Olympic venues, which will host at least seven sports – there has also been complaints over pollution in the city’s Guanabara Bay, the location of the sailing events.
Sewage and rubbish flow directly into the bay from nearby favelas, posing a health risk for athletes and making the water difficult to navigate.
In a post entitled “Welcome to the dump that is Rio”, the German sailing team has posted pictures of the floating garbage on their blog, also complaining of difficulties in mapping surface currents.
The root problem is an old one in Brazil – a cultural lack of forward planning, made worse by labyrinthine bureaucracy and the complex structure of government.
The government’s Clean Guanabara Plan, which brings together 12 previous initiatives to clean 80 per cent of the bay by 2016, was only announced last year.
Similarly, Rio’s municipal government was only put in charge of the Deodoro development project in November after it was passed down from the state government, which initially took it over from the federal government.
The construction work was finally put out to tender on April 17 and will begin before December – more than five years since Rio won the bid to host the Olympics.
Strikes by workers at Rio’s main Olympic Park and a lack of qualified labour have created more delays.
Construction companies are also likely to take advantage of these inefficiencies, stalling further in the hope of charging higher rates for emergency contracts, says Prof Alcadipani. “It is not in any of their interests to deliver a project on time,” he says.
While Brazil’s difficulties may have served as a warning to the IOC and Fifa, football’s ruling body, about the risks of their forays into emerging markets, the delays have come as no surprise to Brazilians themselves, says Eduardo Padilha at Insper business school.
“People here know that things never happen as they are supposed to – it is a structural problem that is not easily fixed,” he says. “Developing countries don’t just suddenly become developed countries.”