Through the Grapevine
Take a sip-by-sip journey through Mendoza, Argentina, and discover much more than Malbec. By Laurel Delp
The flight from Buenos Aires was early, but my driver was waiting for me at Mendoza city’s small but modern new airport. Winds were just kicking up as we left, turning onto Route 40, one of the longest highways in the world, for the three-hour drive to San Rafael at the southern end of Mendoza province, which lies in the center west of Argentina.
To the east, the Andes towered over our route. We passed towns marking the wine centers of Luján de Cuyo and the Valle de Uco, where vineyards were lined with walls of poplars. Wherever there were rivers and creeks, weeping willows were whipped in the wind and severed branches snaked across the road. The aspens bent gracefully, shielding the vineyards from the punishing gusts.
Occasionally, a farm or orchard popped up next to a water source, forbidding as the terrain was. With the Andes ever-present, the snow-capped peaks changed hues with the setting sun. A lone cloud overhead turned vermillion and a full moon rose over the plains, which were taking on a blue tint. It was the kind of drive you never forget.
Like most foreigners, I thought the famed wine region of Mendoza was a confined area like the Napa Valley, or perhaps a bit more spread out, like Sonoma. In fact, the province is somewhere between the sizes of Georgia and Michigan, and distances between wineries can be formidable. And yes, Malbec is king, but expect to try Bonarda and Torrontés, among the usual suspects, and some truly great blends, especially GSMs (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre).
A Perfect Pairing
Combine two areas to make the journey simple. I chose San Rafael and the Valle de Uco. In San Rafael I checked into the Algodon Wine Estates in their small inn surrounded by vineyards and sweeping lawns with willows weeping by creeks. As I wandered around the property, birds swooped over my head protecting their newly-hatched chicks in nearby trees. The tasting room was closed for renovation, but I tried a new wine with each meal. A couple of historic vineyards are among San Rafael’s wineries, including Bodega la Abeja, founded in 1883, and Suter Family Winery, founded by Swiss immigrants in 1900.
The Valle de Uco is fast becoming Mendoza’s most famous wine area. I checked into The Vines, a sea of vineyards that seems to be halted only by the abrupt rise of the Andes. The area has been developed by an American and an Argentinian who have sold vineyards to a variety of owners, both amateur and professional. To further solve the distance problem, they have created a Winemaker’s Village, where several excellent wineries—some with art galleries—are within a short distance of one another, including Solo Contigo and Corazon del Sol. The Vines’ own Recuerdo Malbec always wins high scores, and a wonderful experience is a private blending session with wine director Mariana Onofri. The resort restaurant, Siete Fuegos, is run by Francis Mallmann, Argentina’s most famous chef, who’s a genius with the country’s open-fire cuisine.
I fell in love with Mendoza, the city, and its streets lined with trees and acéquias, the open irrigation channels. After a devastating earthquake in 1861, the city was rebuilt with five open squares for escape. The largest, Plaza Independencia, is an expansive shady park centered by a fountain. I spent hours on the pedestrian street, Sarmiento, which is lined with outdoor cafes and appealing shops. There’s no shortage of good restaurants, including 1884, Francis Mallmann’s Mendoza flagship in a 19th-century winery, or Argentine-Mediterranean cuisine at Maria Antonieta a few blocks away from the Plaza.
Within easy reach are the two original Mendoza wine regions, Luján de Cuyo and Maipú. Cavas Wine Lodge, a Relais & Chateaux property, is the place to stay in Luján de Cuyo, a 40-minute drive south from Mendoza city on the route that crosses the Andes to Chile. Just outside Mendoza, Maipú has wineries and olive oil factories that can easily be visited by bicycle.
Legendary as the city is, first-time visitors are always surprised by its diversity. First, don’t expect Spanish colonial architecture; once they had overthrown the Spanish, Argentinians favored Belle Epoque French architecture. The city is full of charming neighborhoods, each with its own personality, and there are wonderful restaurants throughout. And yes, you can learn to tango. But Buenos Aires is so much more than a dance. Recoleta is where you will find almost all the five-star hotels, and the Palermo neighborhoods (SoHo, Hollywood) are full of trendy boutiques and cafes. In the historic San Telmo district, the Sunday flea market is world-famous. Whatever you do, don’t miss the alfajores, delicious sandwich-style cookies filled with chocolate, dulce de leche, and more.
In the northwest of Argentina, Salta is a bucolic but stunning province. Some call it Mendoza 30 years ago, with possibly an even more beautiful capital city. Relax in the hammam at the House of Jasmines Estancia de Charme. You can ride with gauchos, take a cooking lesson, visit villages known for their weaving and crafts, then take in the wine country around Cafayate, some 6,000 feet above sea level, where vineyards lie at the foot of spectacular mountains in rugged, rocky countryside. Cafayete is the source of the best Torrontés grapes. Appropriately, five-star Grace Cafayete’s spa specializes in grape and local salt-based treatments. A special wine country surprise is the James Turrell Museum at the Hess Family Wine Estates Colomé.
One of the world’s most magnificent waterfalls, Iguazú on the border of Argentina and Brazil is second only in height to Victoria Falls and is the widest expanse of falls in existence. The area is a riot of birds and blossoms, and one of the great life experiences is heading into the falls by boat.
Southern Patagonia, The Glaciers
From El Calafate at the edge of Los Glaciares National Park, visit these awe-inspiring natural phenomena. You can view them by trekking across the ice, or from another perspective, by boat. Occasionally the advancing glacier at Perito Moreno sheds ice into Lake Argentino, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Northern Patagonia, The Lake District
If you want to be humbled by nature’s beauty and power, Patagonia is the place for you. The vast Patagonia region is radically different from north to south. Visit San Carlos del Bariloche, the famed ski area with its alpine lodges, ride horses through a cattle ranch, hike, or go fishing on one of the azure lakes.