Guide to Vale dos Vinhedos: Brazil’s unexpected wine region

Written for Around the World in 80 Harvests. Brazil’s main wine region, Vale dos Vinhedos, may well be what you least expect from the country known for its tropical beaches, flamboyant carnival and vast Amazon jungle. The landscape of Serra Gaucha, one of the southernmost states in Brazil, consists of hillsides and forest. It is humid, like all of Brazil, but the cloudy and rainy days … Continue reading Guide to Vale dos Vinhedos: Brazil’s unexpected wine region

Turn left before the gauchos: Casa de Uco

Written for Great Wine Capitals The best way to experience Mendoza is out in the vineyards overlooking the awesome Andes mountains, and the ultimate spot that combines the life of the vineyards with the remoteness and grandeur of the Andes is the Uco Valley. Since I moved to Mendoza in 2009, I’ve seen wineries and hotels laying roots closer and closer to the Andes each … Continue reading Turn left before the gauchos: Casa de Uco

San Pedro de Atacama

moon valley from insideThere is nowhere else in the world like San Pedro de Atacama.

It may be the driest desert on the planet, but the Atacama is also home to large white salt flats, steam spitting geyser fields, colorful Altiplano mountains and cactus valleys, extreme volcanoes, and clear, star-filled night skies.

Alongside the breathtaking landscapes, there is a plethora of wildlife: pink flamingos, serene guanacos and sun bathing lizards. But that isn’t the only life here. A vibrant community of locals and travelers create a welcoming and relaxing town that makes San Pedro de Atacama a world-class destination.

Written for 1756 Magazine, China: san pedro de atacama

The Sights

The Atacama seems to be an otherworldly destination. So otherworldly in fact that one of its most famous attractions is named after the moon: Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley).

It is not hard to see why this is called Moon Valley – the surface is virtually white. Covered in salt, this extraordinary landscape is part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt foothills). Formed over millions of years, water and wind shaped these unique formations: rock sculptures, caverns, caves, sand dunes and interesting patterns. This arid and barren land, with less than 1mm of rain a year, has a unique geography. Moon Valley is a beautiful spot for walking and at only 13kms from San Pedro, it is everyone’s favorite place for sunset.

Nearby is the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), which was originally called Valle de Martes (Mars Valley) however after being continuously mispronounced the name changed to Muerte. Both namesakes seem to have good reason, as this valley has dry, red rock and sand (like Mars appears) and barely any life form can live in such brutal conditions (hence Death). The valley has actually been used many times as a film set for movies based in Mars, and as a testing ground for new space expeditions!

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Discovering Barrio Italia

It is not surprising that with a name like ‘Barrio Italia’ (Italian Neighborhood) this corner of Chile is filled with designers and chefs! Chile has many immigrant influences, and one of the most stylish – and delicious – of those were the Italians. Famed for its Italian roots, excellent cafes and design shops, Barrio Italia in Santiago is an epicurean delight as well as a … Continue reading Discovering Barrio Italia

Keeping Cool in Casablanca

When imagining “cool climate” wines, what springs to my mind first is the image of soggy, wet vines and miserable days of drizzle that leave your head firmly in the clouds — and not in a good way. Spending the first 25 years of my life in England probably didn’t help that image.

casablanca poolsideBut in Chile, as I sat lapping up the sunshine by a glistening swimming pool under perfect blue skies, listening to birds squawk in the palm trees of Matetic winery’s boutique hotel in Casablanca/San Antonio, I started to question my initial impressions of cool climate. It wasn’t cold here. In fact, it was positively balmy.

Casablanca might be a cool climate wine region, but visiting the area is not a frosty experience: days are filled with sunshine and warm lazy afternoons drinking copious amounts of wine as you tuck into fine Chilean cuisine. On this particular afternoon I was tucking into fresh and buttery potted crab with a glass of tropical fruit-filled Chardonnay, followed by a rosemary-crusted lamb fillet with a smooth, spicy Syrah. I couldn’t keep my top button done up, let alone keep my jacket on.

Casablanca fogWhile the day time temperatures and sunny climes make Casablanca a perfect holiday destination, the cooler nights mean you won’t lose any hours of sleep and can still rest nicely with a big blanket — which is good news for both people and grapes. The big difference in temperature from the sunny, skin ripening days compared to the crisp nights is what makes these wines so racy. And in the morning when you do finally wake from a perfect slumber, a fresh fog lays over the valley keeping the grapes cool and not awakening them too rudely either. The sun slowly appears through the fog, and then we are back to sunbathing. I understand why grapes do so well here: they can rest at night, and get some color during the day. And that is the secret to the success of cool climate wines … maintaining the cool acidity while developing their color, sugar and flavor profiles in the summery afternoons.

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The plunging peso is like a Latin lothario

argentina_2805868bWritten for The Telegraph, 29 Jan 2014

Argentina’s economy is not easy to write about. I’ve had to rewrite this article 15 times. Not just because of my shoddy writing, but because of the shoddy state of the economy.

When I started putting pen to paper at the end of December, the exchange rate was 6.5 pesos to the dollar, yet last week it hit 8.5 pesos. Every time I reopen my laptop the rate has changed. On the verge of yet another economic crash you might suppose? Obviously, it’s Argentina.

This is a fact faced by everyone, expat and local, and probably explains the nation’s curious financial habits. The fragility of the value of the peso makes it – as my local friend says – a ‘hot potato’ currency: “No one wants to have it in their hands too long”. The longer you sleep on it, the less it means in the morning. There’s no point making any crude comparisons to the reputation of Latino lotharios, but this temporal nature of monetary value does make life here a lot of fun at the beginning of the month.

The biggest economic lesson I’ve learnt since moving here five years ago is that you should invest in stuff. Stuff will always be stuff, whereas you can’t say the same for money. When payday rolls around, the shopping centres are swarming with people investing in furniture, household goods, food, even cars and property. My friends completed payment for a new big house recently by swapping a smaller apartment and a car with the other owners. There were a few thousand pesos thrown in to sweeten the deal but they were mainly to pay the commissions of the real estate agents. In business transactions it’s also common to accept canje, a payment in goods rather than money. It’s the stuff you own that counts, not the cash.

While this means your friendly neighbour will always come up trumps whenever you need to borrow something, it also means people hoard a lot of junk. You don’t need to step further than the roadside to see cars that resemble hunks of junk being propelled around in a puff of black smoke. Even with an exposed spoiler and two missing doors, an old car is still worth more than its weight in pesos.

The soaring inflation is denied by the government, much to the annoyance of the IMF. Government statistics say it is only 10 per cent, while unofficial estimates are closer to 30 per cent. This means that the largest bill on offer – the AR$100 peso bill – is now only worth £7, or £4.50 on the unofficial rate. This makes buying a beer in cash (AR$40) reasonable, but trying to buy a fridge-freezer in cash for example (AR$6,000 for a mid-range model), becomes far harder, requiring big pockets, a rainbow and a leprechaun.

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Getting to grips with Argen-time

melting clck daliWritten for The Telegraph, 17 December

The first wedding invite is a cardinal moment for every expat. My excitement at opening the envelope was palpable.

“You are cordially invited to the happy couple’s wedding party at 01.00 hours.”

No, that must be a misprint. Surely that’s a typo for 18.00 hours? Or maybe 21.00? But 1am, really? Welcome to Argentina.

Argen-time, as I like to refer to it, is a curious thing for even the most indefatigable expat. You need stamina, a penchant for sleep deprivation and a lot of caffeine to survive it.

The time on the wedding invite was no mistake, as the bride told me when I called in a mild panic to tell her about the misprint.

In Argentina, no one sits down for dinner before 10pm and weddings are the same. The church service is generally around 8.30pm, dinner at 10.30pm and evening guests arrive in the wee hours of the morning.

What you do before 1am to stay awake and vaguely presentable still befuddles me, and try to wrap your head around this: no one at the wedding will be drunk yet. Not even close. They’ll keep going till 6 or 7am when it all finishes with pizza, fancy dress and carriages after dawn.

Most other social events follow the same pattern: late starts, and even later finishes. Restaurants don’t open till 9pm, and no nightclub dares to open much before 2am. That’s not just the rule for youngsters either. When going to someone’s house for a civilised dinner – at whatever age – guests should always estimate that the given time actually implies at least an hour later. Punctuality is an awkward shortcoming and elasticity when it comes to timing is a virtue.

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