You arrive in Mendoza. You know nothing about wine, other than you like drinking it, and the number of bodegas to visit is mind-boggling.
Even worse, they are all coming up with more and more creative ideas to make you visit their bodega above the rest, and all of them sound tempting. Add the tour companies that are springing up all over the place, promising to take you around 17 bodegas in under three hours and your head might just explode.
Let us help break it down for you.
It is not really necessary to be carted around like cattle on a tour bus – you can easily visit the bodegas yourself with the help of a hire car, and a decent map. This is also the best way to explore the region, and allows you to stop for an afternoon snooze at the side of one of the sycamore-tree-lined roads.
Geographically the main areas for visiting wineries are Maipú, just 20 minutes south-east of the city of Mendoza, Lujan de Cuyo, around half an hour south-west of the city, and Valle de Uco, a couple of hours drive south along the Ruta 40.
The bodegas are notoriously badly signposted, and with the distances – and drinking – involved, it is wise to seriously consider which ones are worth the visit, and not over-fill your day. You’re supposed to be on holiday, remember! We have picked a handful of bogedas to give you a good overview of the range on offer.
First stop should be Catena Zapata bodega, in Lujan de Cuyo. One of the oldest bodegas, this is a good place to start, and the setting is stunning. The bodega itself is styled on a Mayan temple, and the views of the Andes from the top of the pyramid are a treat.
As the tours are group-based, rather than private, I would advise doing this tour near the beginning of your stay, as, although it gives you all the background information you will need on winemaking, it does little to stray from the classic tour.
However, due to the location and setting, and the fact that it produces some of the region’s finest wines, it really should be visited, especially if you are short on time, as it provides you with everything you need to know.
Around the corner from Catena Zapata is Ruca Malen. A new vineyard, it can’t market itself on the history or architecture that Catena Zapata can. However, it has something else to offer the visitor that should not be missed: the degustación (tasting) lunch.
The fact that wine is generally enjoyed with food is something a few of the vineyards have been quick to take advantage of, realising a good lunch is a sure-fire way to get the tourists in if you don’t have the history or architecture, or a well-known brand of wine.
Ruca Malen is a perfect example of a bodega which has done just that, and done it very well. The concept is five courses, with white or lighter red wines to accompany the first courses, ending with a crescendo of rouge, usually accompanying a good slab of steak, in the form of the bodega’s signature malbec.
Lunch is preceded by a tour, but it doesn’t mess around – and let’s face it, we were all there for the food anyway.
After a snooze under the sycamores,
finish off the day with a visit to Tapiz, where Carolina will bowl you over with her energy. Despite the fact that we were probably her 42nd tour that day, she was as fresh as if it had been her first. And this lady knows her stuff. We visited the vines and got to see the grapes, so we could compare leaves and sizes, helping us understand the wine making process further. We saw the difference between oak from the US and from France, and how they change the flavour of the wine. Carolina’s energy and encyclopaedic knowledge, meant this tour was definitely worth a visit.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay or dine afterwards, affiliated Club Tapiz in neighbouring Maipu is a great option for accommodation. Complete with pool and mini-spa, the simple stylish feel of this place is perfect for relaxing after a hard day of drinking. And if you can fit in more food, dinner in the old restaurant is the perfect way to finish off a day. The views from the first floor dining room are a highlight.
After such wine-riddled first day, a drive along Ruta 40, Argentina’s Route 66, will clear your head and take you south to Valle de Uco for your second day. A couple of hours south, these vineyards are at higher altitude making for an entirely different grape.
However, as you already know the basics by now, head to a place where a bit of extra knowledge will go the extra mile.
After a couple of hours drive, and a right-hand turn along the way, the remarkable architecture of O’Fournier vineyard will rise out of the ground to greet you. Looking like the baddie from a James Bond film’s lair, the architecture seems odd at first. Until it is explained to you that is.
This modern bodega has thought out everything to make the building work in harmony with the landscape. The barrel basement has an art exhibition, and the more you learn about the design of the bodega the more it makes sense – gravity is used wherever possible, from the crushing of the grapes to the slightly sloping floor to allow water to run off more easily. The concrete pillars are used to house barrels, the cement keeping the temperature steady. And then the degustación lunch – the food, like the wine, is simply stunning. You’ll be arguing over who has to drive after this one, as the wine that complements the lunch is too drinkable.
After such a taxing couple of days, relaxation is probably required, and the perfect place to chill out is nearby, towards the north of Valle de Uco, up in the Andean foothills.
Estancia El Puesto, where Raul and his team will cater to your every need, is a little haven away from talk of barrels, oak ageing and the like. Fresh mountain air with a stream running past the front door, this truly is an escape. The decoration perfectly balances sleek modernity with rustic design, with the small touches, such as the dried flowers on your napkins, making all the difference. While away the hours flipping through Raul’s photo albums and listening as he explains the history of the region, or reading a book whilst eating homemade pastries and drinking steaming coffee. Or homemade casserole and red wine. Or homemade cake and champagne. Yes, the food is delicious, and you can expect to be spoilt.
The next day you can truly enter into the spirit of the country by going for a horseback ride with Raul and his right hand man, Cristobal. The horses are used to all levels of riders, and are good-mannered and docile. Riding with them is the best way to see the surrounding countryside, and with treks available lasting from just two hours to a week or more, you can explore and get as saddle-sore as much as you wish.
When you can’t take the silence anymore, have read all of your books, and eaten your fill, escape back to the bustle of Mendoza city and perhaps head to The Vines of Mendoza. A wine bar in the truest sense, The Vines offers most of the region’s best wines, and have tasting menus in different price brackets to cater for all budgets. They also host cheese and wine nights and other events throughout the week. It is a perfect place to socialise whilst getting your palate around the wines from all the vineyards you didn’t get to.
Before you leave though, there is one more stop worth making. Set aside either a morning and lunch, or afternoon and dinner for a bodega in the city. Yes, Escorihuela Gascón, one of the oldest bodegas in the region, used to be in the country, but has now been consumed by the sprawling suburbs.
This place is all about the history – we all know how wine is made by this stage (although the tours are generally private, so you can go over it all again if you wish). The giant old carved oak barrel and black and white photos of how the bodega used to be are highlights.
Follow this tour with lunch in adjoining 1884, top Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s signature restaurant. Set around a beautiful courtyard, the interior decoration compliments the garden views. The menu is pure exuberance, and the selection of Escorihuela Gascón’s finest wines complement the divine dishes, often Argentine takes on French-style cuisine.
At lunch the restaurant is very relaxing, although perhaps a little quiet – it is at night when the place really gets going. As it is right in the city, there can be no reason not to head down there and give yourself one more hangover, before the detox begins.