Malbec and Mountains. Photo by Nicole Heyman
AFTER A WEEK in Buenos Aires dancing the tango and discovering just how delicious a malbec can be, it’s time to head to Mendoza to visit Argentina wine country.
Mendoza produces what is widely considered the best malbec in the world. Even though tons of foreign investment has poured in over the last few years, the commercialization of wine tourism has not yet caught up with the newfound popularity.
Visiting wineries in Mendoza is still an adventure, with the possibility of getting up close and personal with the winemaking process. Walk through the madness of crush during the peak of the harvest and you can see, touch, and taste the grapes as they make their transformation into wine.
Arriving In Wine Country
An overnight bus or quick 1 1/2 hour plane ride from B.A. will leave you face to face with the dramatic snow capped Andes. This towering mountain range protects the vines, while the runoff from its peaks irrigates the arid land.
Head straight to Aristedes Villanueva, the nexus of happening hostels and outdoor restaurants. Damajuana Hostel is a good pick for its clean, bright rooms; nice sized pool with adjoining ping pong table; attentive and friendly staff; and overall festive atmosphere (50 pesos/ $15 USD per night). Other guesthouses to consider are Break Point and Itaka House.
Wine Tasting Time
Start your wine education at Vines of Mendoza in the center of town, where you can sample a selection of the region’s best. The tasting room here gives a solid introduction to the Mendoza wine scene through guided pours.
I opted for ¨Los Malbec,¨ (45 pesos) a side-by-side tasting of the region’s infamous grape produced in 5 different styles. Continue tasting at Winery, a cooperative chain wine store, started in Buenos Aires.
Located just off the main plaza in a charming colonial building, one of the few that survived the devastating 1861 earthquake, Winery has a hip restaurant and a new center called ¨wine point¨ which focuses on tastings and seminars.
The route around Mendoza to visit wineries can be large and overwhelming, but with the right map and a bit of planning, it is easily navigable.
Splurge on the wine map, ¨caminos de las bodegas,¨ (30 pesos) found at any main wine store to begin planning your tour. You´ll find a set of 3 maps conveniently breaking down the three main wine destination areas: Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu, and Valle de Uco.
Plan on fitting 3 to 4 wineries into a day’s visit, since each bodega tour lasts an hour to an hour and a half. Many wineries are open to the public without reservation, but it’s best to call at least a day ahead to secure a booking.
You don´t want to make the same mistake I did, showing up to a winery ready for a day of fun only to be rejected by a gun-toting guard at the front gate.
Lujan de Cuyo
Begin your wine tour in Lujan, the closest region to Mendoza city, and the one with the highest concentration of quality wineries, not to mention the sunniest climate.
Wake up early to watch the clouds part over your first vineyard stop of the day, perhaps a traditional style adobe winery like Hacienda de la Plata or Lagarde. These historic buildings are rare since most were demolished in the earthquake, and new regulations don´t permit building with adobe.
For a stellar tour make your way to the larger production Tapiz winery. After a horse-drawn carriage ride through the vines, veteran tour guide Caroline will bring you into the vineyard to taste the difference between the ripe berries of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot; show you how their leaves vary in shape and color.
The tour ends with tank samples of juice that is in the process of being fermented into wine.
After two wine tours and an early morning buzz, it’s time for lunch, and several bodegas offer a sumptuous feast. My favorite, Ruça Malen, serves a 5 course gourmet interpretation of traditional fare, paired with their line of malbec, in the middle of the vineyards. Only a glass wall separates diners from the surrounding vines (90 pesos).
The Best Wine In Mendoza?
Achaval Ferrer produces the region’s highest scoring wine, and is also regarded by tourists and locals alike as the crème de la crème.
Here you will see the specially selected grapes gravity-fed into all-cement tanks. Their philosophy is that cement gives the most consistent temperature control, where open fermentation is conducted to bring out all of the flavors of the wine.
Even though they are in the heart of an area subject to hailstorms, the Achaval Ferrer team would rather risk losing all of their crop one year, than reduce the amount of sunshine — and therefore potentially the quality of the grape — by installing protective netting.
High standards and an excellent tour complete with barrel tasting of their exclusive wines make this winery an absolute must visit.
Round off the day with another version of ultra modern at Pulenta Estate. Here they employ all three methods of fermentation–barrel, tank, and cement—depending on the desired style and vintage.
Although once inside you might feel like you are on a space ship surrounded by aliens instead of in a tasting room surrounded by barrels, a sip of their ripe and clean sauvignon blanc will bring you right back down to earth.
For day two of wine touring, change the pace by throwing a bicycle into the equation. This is easy in Maipu where vendors have created bike and wine tours.
Since the wineries in Maipu are fewer and the area to cover less vast, biking is an ideal way to get around. The roads are scenic, especially those just off the main drag of Urquiza, lined with trees that once acted as a shady cover for the grapes being transported to and from the winery.
The streets can get a bit dusty — after all this is the desert — so go prepared with lots of water, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
A smart plan of attack for the day is to rent your bikes at the beginning of town where the bus lets you off (a 45 minute ride on #10 from city center), then head straight to the far end of Maipu. This way you limit your mileage the more you drink.
Start at Carinae, a quaint boutique winery owned by a French couple, and named after a constellation only visible during grape harvest. From here, it’s only a short journey down the road to Tempus Alba, where you can sit outside and enjoy some artisanal cheese and wine perched atop the vines at their outdoor terrace wine bar.
Many bikers dine at the gourmet Almacen del Sur, conveniently located in the middle of the bike route. I opted for Casa de Campo, a small country style restaurant serving home-made local fare like wild rabbit and suckling pig.
If you´re thirsting for more, La Rural is a grand old winery back at the beginning of Maipu with an extensive wine museum, where you can witness the revolution in technology and winemaking from a century ago.
Valle de Uco
Valle de Uco is about an hour south of Mendoza by direct bus, and is considered the up and coming wine region. The valley is known for greater temperature variation between day and night, creating thicker grape skins and in turn more complexity in the wine.
Many wineries have vineyards in all three regions, as a sort of security against hail and poor vintages. It’s common to create a blend from the different regions, although estate-single vineyard wines are also coming into fashion, catering to a discerning clientele.
Three state of the art wineries worth visiting for their striking architecture and wine are Andeluna, O´Fournier, and Salentein. Keep in mind that the distances between these wineries are great, so you´ll need a car or taxi to get around even if you bus it down to the Valle.
The perfect marriage between food and wine always discussed in culinary circles is brought to life at O´Fournier where the owner of the bodega is married to the chef of the restaurant. Needless to say, the food and wine pairing here is harmonious.
Salentein also boasts an excellent restaurant. Once you’ve completed a day in the Valle de Uco, you’ve covered the best of Mendoza wine country. You can return to wherever you came from full and buzzed, with back vintages of wine that would never show up at a wine store back home.
For more on sipping vino in Mendoza, check out Christian Denes’ article on MatadorTravel, Mendoza’s Secret or for a comical take on Maipu’s ‘wine and bike’ tours, check out this blog. Mendoza is also the jump-off place for big adventures such as rapelling, climbing Mt. Aconcagua or skiing in nearby Las Leñas.
For the very latest on Matador in Argentina, check out our Destinations section.