Mendoza--Malbec, Mountains...and Much More | Mendoza | Argentina / by Michael Walz

How quickly can you get used to blue skies? Well, if you live in Mendoza, located in Argentina’s Central West, the answer is: sooner than you think. Speaking of blue skys, Mendoza offers an average of 320 days of sunshine per year. This explains the first half of Mendoza’s nickname Tierra del Sol y del Buen Vino (“The Land of Sun and Fine Wines”). As for the second half, Mendoza, due to its favorable climate, has been crucial for Argentine wine, since the Spanish priest Juan Cedrón brought the first vines to Argentina as early as 1556.

 

Wine growing in Mendoza basically coincided with the establishment of the city. Mendoza was founded in 1561 by the Spanish captain Pedro del Castillo, and one year later the first vines were planted, laying the foundation for what is today the largest wine producing region in South America. The Province of Mendoza (with a land area slightly larger than England) produces more wine than Chile and accounts for more than three quarters of Argentina’s annual wine production.

Wine is grown throughout the Province of Mendoza, but its most prominent zones are Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, just outside the city, and the fertile valley Valle de Uco, about one hour and a half by car from Mendoza. It makes sense to visit these areas on two separate days. Maipú and Luján are the cradle of Mendoza’s wine industry, with some of the oldest wineries in the country. Valle de Uco, on the other hand, has a relatively young history of wine growing and some of the most modern wineries that can be found in Argentina, often with spectacular architecture. However, it’s not just the wineries, but also the wines that are different. If you try a Malbec from Lújan or Maipú, fruity notes of red berry jam are quite common, whereas explicit mineral notes are typical features of a Malbec grown at the higher altitude and on the rockier soils of Valle de Uco.

Vineyards in the summer

Vineyards in the summer

Although Malbec is by far the most important and widely planted grape variety in Mendoza in particular and Argentina in general, some world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay can also be found in Mendoza. Within Argentina, Shiraz is associated with the Province San Juan, and Torrontés, Argentina’s genuine white grape variety, with Salta, in the Northwest of the country. You can taste these varieties and others in Mendoza’s numerous tasting rooms and restaurants.

Places to Eat

Speaking restaurants, Argentine cuisine is centered around steak and there are countless grills in downtown. You will find eateries ranging from the top-notch La Barra to the more affordable La Florencia and sophisticated small restaurants that offer excellent dishes from Argentina besides rib eye or skirt steak. You will also want to try Azafrán,  Maria Antonietta or Ocho Cepas. By the way, all of the above mentioned restaurants are located in the heart of downtown Mendoza and within a walking radius of five minutes from each other. So are Francesco and La Marchigiana, two of Mendoza’s best Italian restaurants. Two culinary temples which are not located in the city center but worth a visit are 1884, owned by Argentina’s most famous chef Francis Mallmann, and the more down-to-earth Don Mario, which is wildly popular among local carnivores.  

Walking Tour of Mendoza

Gates to Parque General San Martin

Gates to Parque General San Martin

What you might need on the morning, after dinner at any of these restaurants, is a little stroll through Mendoza. The city can easily be explored in half a day and it is best to start your walking tour at Mendoza’s main square. Plaza Independencia is surrounded by four other squares, Plazas Italia, España, Chile and San Martín. You can also hop aboard one of the colorful double decker buses run by Mendoza’s Ministry of Tourism and discover the city that way. There are interesting parts of Mendoza which might be a bit too far off from downtown to be visited on foot. The best example is the impressive monument commemorating General José San Martin’s crossing of the Andes with an army of 6,000 soldiers, which marked one of the first steps in liberating South America from the Spanish Crown. The monument was erected on the top of a hill in Mendoza’s largest park, named after General San Martín, which covers more acreage than New York City’s Central Park.

Although Mendoza is one of the oldest cities in Argentina, following the devastating earthquake in 1861, all architectural evidence of Mendoza’s colonial period was wiped off the city map. Downtown Mendoza, however, has a feature that makes the city unique in Argentina, maybe even in the world: the so-called acequias. These narrow irrigation canals provide the thousands of trees that line EVERY street in Mendoza with water. The trees make Mendoza an incredibly green city, providing plenty of shade in the scorching hot summers, and their roots prevent erosion. The soil used to wash down from the upper parts of the city during Mendoza’s infrequent but torrential rainfalls. In the countryside, the acequias are essential for wine growing and agriculture in general. In this dry climate, Mendoza’s more than 1,200 wineries depend on water from the irrigation canals.

Outside the City

Driving through the countryside, the acequias are not the only unique characteristics of Mendoza’s wine region. Seemingly endless rows of plane trees along line the roads, with their intertwining leaves forming natural tunnels. These were crucial in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the grapes had to be taken from the vineyards to the wineries in open carts pulled by horses, mules or oxen.  The grape harvest in Mendoza starts in late January and ends in late April or early May. Daytime maximum temperatures during the first half of that period are very high, with the sun beating down relentlessly, so the shade provided by the trees on the roads to the winery were necessary to avoid premature oxidation and fermentation.

Malbec vines in the spring

Malbec vines in the spring

Wine and the Introduction of Malbec

In addition to the creation of these “green tunnels”, the second half of the 19th century proved to be a watershed for Argentina’s wine industry in other, more important ways. Malbec, Argentina’s signature varietal, arrived in 1853. The French agronomist Michel Pouget was hired by the provincial government to introduce typical Bordeaux varieties in Mendoza. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. In and around Mendoza, it was the Malbec that found the perfect climatic conditions and there are almost no wineries that do not produce wines from that grape today.

Vineyards in the summer

Vineyards in the summer

Other factors that boosted the wine industry at the end of the 19th century were the railroads, which connected Mendoza to Buenos Aires. Thousands of families immigrated to Mendoza from Spain, Italy and France, where the phylloxera had robbed many families in the wine growing business of their livelihood. Many of the wineries founded at the end of the 19th century are open for visitors, and some of them still use the original buildings or concrete fermentation vats. Roughly one hundred years later, in the mid-1980s, visionaries like Nicolás Catena Zapata introduced barrique barrels in Argentina to age the wines and started planting vines at higher altitudes, to produce wine with a significantly lower yield and higher quality than in the plains of east of Mendoza.

Wine and Dine

Many wineries in Mendoza have their own restaurants, where chefs, winemakers and sommeliers collaborate to provide food pairings that best express the character of the local wines. Ruca Malén, Dominio del Plata, or Lagarde are some examples of wineries close to the city, where it is worth including lunch as part of your visit. Another, Alta Vista, offers gourmet picnics with their wines in a beautiful little park in front of the winery. In Valle de Uco, examples of highly regarded winery/restaurants include O. Fournier, which, from an architectural point of view, is probably the most spectacular winery in Argentina. Others are Domaine Bousquet and Andeluna. A winery that offers a culinary twist is Atamisque. The restaurant, Rincón Atamisque, is a stone throw away from the winery and has its own trout farm. It provides fresh fish that pair perfectly with their white wines and Pinot Noir. After lunch, you can go and play a round of golf or go horseback riding on the property.

Other Activities

These and other outdoor activities abound in the Province of Mendoza. One can engage in rafting, trekking, hiking, paragliding, mountain-biking, rock climbing and much more. What the city lacks in historical charm, it more than makes up for with its breathtaking surroundings. The Andes, the world’s longest mountain range, rise up like a wall west of the city.  Aconcagua, the world’s highest mountain outside the Himalayas (close to 23,000 feet or 7,000 meters tall), is just three hours from Mendoza.

When to Visit

When is it best to visit Mendoza? It is safe to say that a trip to Mendoza is worthwhile at any point in the year. In the Argentine winter is from June to September, but allows you to avoid crowds of tourists. Unfortunately, you will also miss out on many of Mendoza’s outdoor activities. During summer, from December to March, you escape the grey skies and low temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere, but might be overwhelmed by the heat (in January 2014, there were 20 consecutive days with temperatures above 95° Fahrenheit or 35° Celsius). Spring, from September to December, and fall, from March to June, offer the most agreeable temperatures. October and March provide optimal conditions. If you manage to make it to Mendoza during the second weekend of March, you will be in town for the city’s most important cultural event. The Vendimia is South America’s largest Grape Harvest Festival. It is a weekend, when young and old alike are united in celebrating Mendoza’s rich viticultural and agricultural traditions.

How to get there

How do you get to Mendoza? The fact that there are several flights between Santiago de Chile and Mendoza qualifies the city airport as “international.” Flying in from Santiago takes about 40 minutes and, due to turbulence over the mountains, might include a roller-coaster ride as you cross the Andes,. The bus ride from Santiago is without a doubt far more scenic, but strict controls at customs may turn it into a grueling day-long trip. It is sometimes said that feels like a day was shaved off the vacation. The flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza takes a bit more than an hour and a half and provides you great aerial views of Argentina’s central plains. The bus might be an alternative. The ticket is about half the price of an airline ticket, but the trip takes between 13 and 15 hours.

Where to Stay

Where can you stay in Mendoza? Three of Mendoza’s top hotels, the Park Hyatt, the Diplomatic and the Sheraton are located downtown and a short walk from some of Mendoza’s best restaurants and the shopping district. Other hotels that offering great amenities and a convenient location are the Amérian Executive, the Huentala and the Villaggio. Increasingly popular in recent years, as far as high-end accommodations are concerned, are lodge-like hotels (often with a spa) located amid the vineyards in Mendoza’s wine country. Those nearest the city, located in the districts Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, are Entre Cielos, Club Tapíz and Cavas Wine Lodge. In Valle de Uco, Casa Antucura, The Vines Resort & Spa and Posada Salentein provide a similar experience.

Planning your Trip

How should you plan your stay in Mendoza? Only few people travel exclusively to Mendoza without visiting other parts of Argentina or South America. Four days will be sufficient to get more than a glimpse of Mendoza and its wine country. Count on one day to discover the city, one day for wineries in Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, another day for wineries in Valle de Uco, and maybe an additional day for a trip to the mountains. Serious wine enthusiasts might add a fifth day to visit Mendoza’s neighboring province of San Juan, where they can visit wineries like the quaint Merced del Estero (where some of Argentina’s best Cabernet Sauvignon is made) or the powerhouse Graffigna (with a fascinating museum and unique tasting room). If wine, and wine alone is your reason for visiting the Southern Cone, your itinerary should also include a few days more around Santiago de Chile, with the nearby Valle de Casablanca producing stellar Sauvignon Blanc, and a few days in Salta, located in Argentina’s Northwest, where you can find the highest vineyards in the world (located above 9,000 feet or 3,000 meters).

If you are planning to visit wine regions in South America, be sure to include Mendoza. It is  one of the world’s Great Wine Capitals. The combination of a charming and culturally rich urban environment, fantastic wine and food combined with stunning landscapes is hard to beat. And let us not forget the annual average of 320 days of sunshine.