Mendoza, Mendoza, the heart of Argentina’s wine country. Yeah, we were looking forward to this – a degustation in the heart of Argentinian wine country. We’re no strangers to wine country, our previous visits reading like an expensive wine list – Champagne, Bourgogne and Alsace to name a few. Mendoza however was to prove a little more challenging to get to grips with.
Mendoza itself is a quiet provincial town in the foothills of the Andes in the west of Argentina. As cities go, there’s nothing much to impress, other than the long lines of leafy trees along its pleasant boulevards which provide a welcome shade from the hot Andean summer sun. We had arrived in the run-up to the annual Vendimia festival which celebrates the wine harvest, and stages were being built in the plazas and the majority of the Mendoza wine community had come in from the countryside to set up stall in the pedestrian centre for an evening degustation al fresco. It turned out we didn’t have to travel far to get started.
In fact we started in the excellent Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room a short walk away from our hotel in the centre of Mendoza. We had read about this place in other travel blogs prior to arriving and it’s certainly worth a visit. There are different tasting options available with prices varying on whether you want to exclusively taste Malbec, or sample a selection of Mendozan wines of different grades of quality. The staff are very professional and clearly know their stuff on wine. We opted to go straight for a glass of wine and asked the barman/sommelier for a recommendation. What followed was in fact a mini degustation during which we sampled no less than 5 wines ranging from Malbec roses to Malbec reds and ended up with a healthy sized glass of our favourites, before moving into the town centre for dinner. By the time we had finished our first parrilla (grilled meats) dinner in the popular if old-fashioned Florencia restaurant, we were just about up to our limit of wine. So instead of opting for an extensive degustation at the open-air event, we walked through the crowds asking different vineyard representatives for their opening hours so that we could organise a wine-tasting itinerary in the vineyards rather than the streets.
We were in Mendoza on the weekend, and a number of Argentinian traditions are alive and well in Mendoza which can make life difficult for a tourist, specifically lengthy siestas in the afternoon, and almost everything closing on weekends. When we asked in the tourist offices, the car-rental company, hotel, we were invariably told – all vineyards are closed on weekends. It wasn’t looking good. Fortunately, the vineyard representatives at the street degustation were able to provide better information, but even then some of their details were a little vague.
The Basics on Mendoza
The Mendoza wine country is split into three separate terroirs – Maipu which is closest to the city, Valle de Uco, the highest land which is also the furthest from the city, and Lujan de Cuyo which is somewhere in between the two. Based on our preliminary research, we had deduced that Maipu was the most accessible although was generally characterised by high output, medium quality wines, Lujan de Cuyo was the most established and generally had the best-reputed wines, and Valle de Uco was the youngest terroir which was the domain of adventurous, pioneering bodega owners who were producing excellent new wines thanks to the elevation, soil and temperature. In planning our degustation, we considered three options: self-drive, organised tour, or bus and bike. Bus and bike is a very popular option but only extends into Maipu and we felt it was going to be too hot for a lot of cycling. Tours, although they seem professionally organised and visit quality vineyards, are very expensive at over $150 per person including gourmet lunch. When we finally found a car-rental office open (who’ be open on a Saturday after all?!), we opted for the designated driver option which was also likely to save us some money. I lost my driver’s license earlier during the trip which made the independent chauffeur-driven wine tour option even more attractive for me. Another option that I haven’t mentioned is to hire a “remise”, a chauffeur-driven car for the day, but this is also very expensive, and I was in effect doing the same anyway thanks to my wonderful chauffeuse Ninfa.
On The Wine Road
On our consultations with the well-informed wine tourism agencies in Mendoza, we had taken mental note of the prestigious wineries on their itineraries, and followed up by making a reservation independently for a gourmet lunch at the Belasco de Baquedano winery in Lujan de Cuyo. For lunch or degustation, Belasco de Baquedano has to be on your itinerary. A unique and really helpful attraction to the amateur wine enthusiast is the Aromas Room. After a short tour through the workings of the modern winery, we were shown into the Aromas Room. Around the room are 50 clear containers with a wheel lid. We walked around the room turning wheels which wafted the scents to our nose and played a game guessing the correct aroma ranging from grass to lemon to musk to chocolate to pepper. The room is extensive but covers less than half of the aromas that can be found in wines, but it’s more than enough for the amateur and really helped us appreciate, evaluate and describe wines in our degustations thereafter.
Lunch at Belasco de Baquedano used all local Argentinian ingredients heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine which represented the owner’s origins. The food was delicious! and was accompanied by 5 different wines from the Belasco cellars, all Malbecs, the first a rose, the middle three of improving grades of Malbec, and the final wine was their late harvest of sweet red Malbec they call Anthracite. The wines were fantastic, with their headline aged Malbec accompanying our steak absolutely fantastic. All this in a wonderful restaurant setting with full-length windows overlooking the olive trees and vineyards against a backdrop of the snow-peaked Andes in the distance. Lunch cost $65 per person at Belasco including the tour and as much wine as you wanted to drink, as well as a copy of the menu and the wines we sampled.
From their we wandered according to our map, passing by Chandon (subsidiary of Champagne’s Moet & Chandon) which was closed, before making an unannounced stop at Norton, one of Argentina’s largest wine producers. Wine tourism in Mendoza is still in its infancy compared to its European counterparts, and here most vineyards require reservations as they generally include a tour of the vineyard and cellars. Spontaneous visits can be troublesome especially if you don’t speak Spanish, but Ninfa explained that we were there to purchase and not tour, Norton security guard radioed inside and eventually agreed to let us pass. The wines had less character than Belasco and it was quite obvious that the low and middle grades of wines were created for mass production. Tastings are arranged by quality grade, although the staff allowed us to mix and match from various wines of the same grade to create our own bespoke tasting. We appreciated the flexibility and opted for one of the lower priced options and purchased a couple of bottles of bubbly.
It was already 5pm so we continued south to the town of Tunuyán in Valle de Uco. Here, in a small country town seemingly trapped in the past, the tourist services far outperformed those in Mendoza and we received lots of information from the friendly Martin. He even gave us a bottle of the locally produced cider, Cortesia, courtesy of Tunuyan tourist office. Having said that, there is little of interest in Tunuyan other than some old pick-up trucks and shopfronts and its convenient location close to the Valle de Uco bodegas.
The following morning we rang around a few wineries in the area which gave proof to our suspicions that Valle de Uco’s Mondays are its Sundays. Everything was closed. We eventually found one (Andeluna) that was open, and drove out to it. Along the way we stopped at one of numerous small memorials that are a central part of Argentinian rural culture. The locals in Mendoza have great devotion to a legendary figure, Gauchito Gil, who seems to have been something of a Robin Hood figure, and people build little red-painted shelters along the roadside and deck them with their wishes, small figurines and red flags.
Valle de Uco is Mendoza’s youngest terroir and Andeluna’s suitably sleek modern exterior hides a classically decorated interior – an architectural metaphor of old meets new. The tour includes a description of the architecture and its trappings before bringing us into the cellars, the tank rooms and even a quick view of the laboratory – the modern age of wine. The tastings at Andeluna are organised by grade, the lowest grade priced at $11. Although the entry level grade was not spectacular, we wanted to at least buy one bottle of Valle de Uco so took one, and had one of our tour fees waived as a result.
Valle de Uco was closed, so we headed back over the ridge to Lujan de Cuyo. We were a little tight for time to get to Mendoza Champagne heaven at Chandon, but made a quick stop at Pulenta a few kilometres up the road and although unscheduled we had no problem getting in for a tasting. Although this was a rapid visit, for me it was the best. Pulenta has won the prize for best Sauvignon Blanc in Argentina for the past three years running and I enthusiastically endorse that judgement. Their entry level Malbec was very good, and the headline aged Malbec was outstanding, and I guess that’s why it costs $65 a bottle. The tasting at Pulenta cost $11 and includes one of their best wines as well as the entry level award-winning Sauvignon Blanc. It’s excellent value and a very well-reputed winery – include it on your list. We left with a bottle of headline Sauvignon Blanc.
Last stop was the icing on the cake, and as with all the best celebrations, it was champagne time. Well not literally champagne, as only Champagne has the right to that, so vino espumante. The Chandon visitor centre is all vogue and definitely lives up to the brand’s chic and stylish reputation. We had a quick tour of the production, before getting down to the fun bit – the tasting. We tasted the aged wine which is produced prior to the addition of sugar and all the modern method of making champagne, which was an interesting insight into the production process of sparkling wines. We also tasted the excellent Chandon Rose, a demi-sec, and an Extra Brut, which is the most popular of sparkling wines in Argentina. And because we were early, we even got a glass of their best of the best, Baron B, which is their best harvest elaborated by the traditional methode champenoise. Needless to say, we did make a purchase at Chandon, and with a bottle of rose costing only $12, we weren’t the only ones.
And so ended our wine tour in Mendoza. We literally had barrels of fun. Next stop Buenos Aires, but blame it on the booze or whatever you like, we’ll be writing about Uruguay first, as we’ll be visiting Buenos Aires a few times in the coming weeks. From Mendoza, bottoms up!
Mendoza still upholds the fine tradition of the siesta, so most businesses will be closed between 12pm and 4pm.
Accurate information on vineyard opening times is hard to come by in Mendoza. Vineyards operate on office hours, or sometimes Mendoza office hours (long midday siesta). Try to avoid weekends as a lot of vineyards are closed, but the folllowing general rule applies: Valle de Uco (the furthest from Mendoza) is closed on Mondays, and Lujan de Cuyo is closed on Sundays.
Wine tourism is surprisingly in its infancy in Mendoza. Reserving ahead will make your life a lot easier. Otherwise, speak some Spanish in order to negotiate with security for a spontaneous degustation. Maipu, which we didn’t visit, is probably more flexible given the prevalence of bike tours there, but Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco are better reputed for their wines.
The border crossing between Chile and Argentina is incredibly slow. On our overnight bus trip from Valparaiso to Mendoza, we spent more than 4 hours at the border crossing and this is standard. Immigration and bag checks collectively took around 15 minutes, but seemingly another 3h45min is also necessary. The weather conditions can be below freezing during the night so bring warm clothing even though you’re allowed wait on the bus.
Searching out hotels on foot is difficult in Mendoza as the hotels are quite spread out. Try to do some mapping and price-checking before you go, or be prepared for a few hours lugging around your luggage.
It seems all city-centre car rental offices are located on Avenida Rivadavia just near the Sheraton hotel. Only one was open on a Saturday afternoon (and that sporadically), so best bet on weekends is to go to airport to rent a car. Car rental prices are cheaper on-site than on internet.
For another point of view on Mendoza wine tours, we also recommend checking out this post.