Wine Tasting in Mendoza, Argentina: Going Beyond Malbec and Loving It

Maybe you’d like to visit wine country in Argentina. You’ve heard about Mendoza, but you wonder: How to I go about wine tasting and touring wineries there? The options are many, but if you’d like to have a meaningful, enlightening wine tasting experience and an awesome time, here are a few tips on how to do so without blowing a ton of cash.

Fall Colors at the Vineyards Near Mendoza on the Way to Santiago - Argentina/Chile
Mendoza Vineyards Against the Andean Mountains

When we visited Argentina, we saved Mendoza, the country’s oldest and best-known wine region, for our last stop. Mendoza is one of those familiar names — it’s the epicenter of Malbec, Argentina’s most famous red wine varietal, and as the autumn harvest begins to fade into winter, the snow-covered Andes frame something simply stunning.

But there’s always hype, isn’t there? Due to feedback from other travelers, we’d tempered our expectations of Mendoza prior to our visit. In actual experience, we were pleasantly surprised to find not only some excellent wines but also some warm, passionate people working in the industry who were keen to open their world to us.

How did we do this? We took a three-pronged approach: seek out a tasting room for orientation, go deep with a public transport tour of Lujan de Cuyo, and wind things up on a bicycle down the wine roads of Maipu Valley. For sure, we’d taste Malbec, but we also went offbeat with Cabernet, Bonarda, Petit Verdot and Viognier, too.

Whatever you choose to do in Mendoza and wherever you choose to go, we offer this general bit of advice: show your curiosity, don’t be afraid of exposing your inexperience, ask lots of questions and always seek out tastings beyond the standard offer.

Note: Many wineries close down over the weekend. If your stay overlaps with a weekend, do your research or call in advance to be sure the winery you want to visit is indeed open.

1) An Orientation: Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room

When you first arrive in Mendoza, make a beeline to this place. With close to 100 wines by the glass served by savvy sommeliers, Vines of Mendoza Tasting Room is the place to go for an orientation on Mendoza wine regions, wineries, wines and varietals. However deep or broad you’d like to go, Vines of Mendoza is thorough and approachable.

Take a seat at the bar up close to the action, and let the fun begin.

Wine Tasting at the Vines of Mendoza - Argentina
Tasting Mendoza Wines at Vines of Mendoza Bar

In our experience, the bartender-sommeliers are what seal the experience. The ones we’d spoken to weren’t just trying to push the most expensive glasses of wine our way. They spoke intelligently and passionately, but never to the point of overdoing it. They had fun and so did we.

Tell them what you’re looking for in a wine and they’ll usually recommend three to four wines to try. If you ask nicely, they will give you small tasting of each (a sort of mini-flight) so that you can choose the one you like most. Buy a full, generously poured glass. You’ll be surprised; it’s often not the most expensive wine you’ll choose. The whole process works particularly well for couples and small groups.

On our first day, we were drawn to a Viognier, a white wine varietal. An unlikely pick in a country known mainly for its reds, but that Viognier (Lorca Poetico 2008, 40% oaked) would remain with us as one of our favorites. We made our way through various styles of Malbecs (we had to, didn’t we?) and we went further afield to Bonarda, a traditional blending varietal we’d become fond of.

The standard tasting flight costs 60 pesos ($15), while wines by the glass run from 15 pesos ($4) upwards to 80 ($20) pesos. Although flights offer an overview, wines by the glass (particularly those that happen to be on daily special) are ones that will likely leave a chop-licking impression.

Vines of Mendoza also hands out nifty maps of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo which include recommended wineries and restaurants. The Vines of Mendoza staff will even give hints as to which vineyards to visit, depending on what type of wines you are looking to experience.

If you really adore a specific wine or winemaker, they can also arrange shipping around the world.

Address: Espejo 567, Mendoza; tel: +54 (261)4381031

Helpful Tips:
– Time your visits to Vines of Mendoza on Happy Hour evenings, from 7-9 PM which feature a 50% off list of select wines by the glass. Happy Hour days change (Wednesday and Saturday during our visit; last we heard, Tuesday and Friday), so call in advance to confirm.
– Visit the Vines of Mendoza location at the Hilton Mendoza on Thursday nights for all you can eat tapas and two glasses of wine for 45 pesos ($12). A terrific value — and an experience that left us feeling spiffier and more refined than we actually are.

Tasting highlights:

  • 2006 Bonarda Marrena: red fruit and a hint of spice
  • Sagre de los Andes, Malbec 2008: smoke, leather, flowers, even a faint essence of elastic bandages (we kid, sort of)
  • Rothschild, Flecha de los Andes, 2008 Gran Malbec: mmm, chocolate
  • Lorca Poetico, 2008 Viognier: fresh hints of citrus fruit, 40% aged in oak barrels, lending the wine body and firmness

2) Wineries in Lujan de Cuyo

Outside of Uco Valley, Lujan de Cuyo is the highest quality wine-growing sub-region in Mendoza. It’s also a place where a slew of mid- and high-end wineries operate. Although having a car will make things easier, it is possible to get to Lujan by public bus from Mendoza (just ask at your guest house or hotel). After the bus drops you off in town, things can get a bit tricky. This is where you’ll have to walk and ask questions for wineries in town, or hire a taxi to take you to the vineyards on the town’s outskirts.

If you plan to visit several wineries, our suggestion would be to hire a taxi for the day to drive you around as distances between wineries can be vast.

Autumn in the Vineyards - Mendoza, Argentina
Autumn in Lujan de Cuyo

Among the Lujan wineries we visited below, all export wine abroad, with Alta Vista wines being the easiest to find in the U.S.

Achaval Ferrar

Achaval Ferrer is an example of one of the boutique high-end wineries emerging in this area. The Argentine owners came from backgrounds altogether different than wine (the cement business), but they decided to follow their passion. They understood their limitations and brought in talent from Italy and Argentina to craft the high-end wines they envisioned.

Achaval Ferrer operates vineyards in both Lujan and Uco Valleys, their wines drawing characteristics from old vines, distinct soil types and high-altitude climates — all of which find expression in a more subtle French style rather than the bold, fruit-forward one common to many Argentine wines. Achaval Ferrer wines are geared toward longevity and export, so the winemaker keeps alcohol levels low.

Good to the Last Drop - Mendoza, Argentina
Wine Tasting at Achaval Ferrer, Lujan.

Achaval Ferrer seems also to be on the itinerary of big wine buyers and spectators (i.e., those with private drivers and deeper pockets), but the atmosphere was not at all stuffy. The hosts were very welcoming to two independent travelers like us who showed up at the door without a reservation. And there is a nice personal touch: one of the owners led us on the tour and through the tasting.

Tour and Tasting: Call ahead to make a reservation or find out when tours are scheduled. We lucked out and arrived five minutes before a tour was set to begin. English language tours are available. Our tour was free, but the Achaval Ferrer website now indicates that tastings cost $10.
Tasting highlights: Quimera Blend (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot),
Contact information: Calle Cobos 2601, Pedriel (about 10 km outside Lujan de Cuyo), tel: +54 9 261 5 53 55 65 (Patricia Lambert)

Carmelo Patti

Running a one-man-show winery doesn’t leave much time for the details, including putting up a sign outside. But if you are looking for character, story and some unique quality wine, you’ll have to pay Carmelo Patti a visit. Just as we entered the courtyard, Carmelo walked out from a garage with a thief full of young Cabernet Sauvignon taken straight from the barrel. Without skipping a beat, he handed it to Audrey as if they’d been old friends: “Try it. It will be a good wine, but it needs time. Maybe another year or more.”

He was of course right in all respects.

Talking with Carmelo Patti - Mendoza, Argentina
Speaking with Carmelo Patti at his winery

As Carmelo explains it, his marketing is all boca a boca (word of mouth); it’s the quality of his wines and the energy of charismatic personality that has thrust his one-man operation into the pages of the major press and wine magazine circuit.

Even after working his whole life in the wine industry (and working very hard, if our visit was any indication), Carmelo Patti struck us as passionate as ever about wine. To age like this, the stuff of dreams.

Tour and Tasting: Free. Show up during the day and Carmelo will take you around the entire operation (he and his helper were cleaning the tanks from the crush when we arrived). Carmelo doesn’t speak much English, although he’s so friendly that we imagine language is hardly a barrier to non-Spanish speakers.
Tasting highlights: Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($17) – smooth, sophisticated, and very much a product of the soil the vines are grown in.
Contact information: San Martin 2614, Lujan de Cuyo, (0261)498-1379/155601020

Alta Vista

AltaVista was by far the largest of the wineries we’d visited that day. We arrived late and had seen more than our share of winery facilities that week. We skipped the tour and went straight for the tasting, which included four wines in the low and mid range of AltaVista’s vast offerings. This was OK, but we asked some questions to poke around the possibilities of tasting something else by the glass.

We’re glad we did.

Sensing our curiosity, our hostess told us about Los Escasos, a limited line of inexpensive estate wines. The line was a result of deliberate experimentation — winemakers had free range to create their dream wines. Each label was designed with a character to express the personality of the varietal inside. We were intrigued, but unfortunately the wine we wanted to try most – the Petit Verdot – was not on the wines-by-the-glass menu.

Los Escasos Wines at Alta Vista - Mendoza, Argentina
Los Escasos Wines at Alta Vista Winery

Sensing our disappointment, our hostess looked around, shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “What the heck?” and reached for the corkscrew.

She poured herself a glass as well. As she swirled it and took in the aroma, you could tell she was thoroughly enjoying herself. She confided with a smile, “This is a really unique wine, my favorite of the group. Good choice.”

Tour and Tasting: Standard tasting is 30 pesos. Tours available throughout the day.
Tasting Highlights:

  • Terrior Selection, Malbec 2007: nice body and tannins, a good reliable Malbec
  • Los Escasos Petit Verdot 2004: tropical, red fruit, lot of tannins, needs time to open
  • Los Escasos Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: unique and fruity. We shared a bottle of this with a Mendoza-based caterer who prepares dishes expressly for wine-pairing. And judging by his reaction, he was quite impressed. Not bad for a $10 bottle.
  • Alta Vista Temporal Blend 2007: tasty, well-balanced tannins and fruit ($15)

Contact information: Alzaga 3972, Lujan de Cuyo; Tel: +54 261 496 4684

3) A Leisurely Cycle-and-Taste in Maipu Valley

Biking from winery to winery, with tastings in between, is fun and oddly amusing. Keep in mind, however, that we recommend this more for the overall experience rather than the quality of many of the wines you’ll taste along this route.

Biking and Wining - Mendoza, Argentina
Biking from winery to winery in Maipu Valley

The truth is this: because of the large quantity of travelers taking this route, tours and tastings can be crowded. We also found that many of the groups of travelers we ran into seemed more interested in the quantity of wine they could down, rather than the quality of wine they’d be exposed to. The wineries obviously understand this and many often serve their lowest quality stuff.

Can you really blame them?

So if you have a sincere interest in wine tasting and getting a better feel for the wines in Maipu, ask for a wines-by-the-glass menu (often reasonably priced), allow the crowds to scatter, and enjoy a taste or two of something a bit higher quality.

Whatever wineries you choose to visit on your biking path, consider stopping off at Tempus Alba for lunch. Their rooftop restaurant features a nice view of the vineyards, a calm atmosphere and a rather excellent lamb burger and steak sandwich.

Delicious Meal at Tempus Alba Winery - Mendoza, Argentina
Lunch at Tempus Alba, Maipu Valley

Order a tasting flight to go along with your meal and enjoy a nice break (we particularly enjoyed the Tempus Pleno — a Cabernet-Malbec blend — and a rather unusual Malbec Rose). Beware though; you may not be able to leave without a barrage of kisses and hugs from Christian, one of the winemakers.

Uco Valley

If we had more time in Mendoza, we would have gone to Uco Valley (and probably done so first). It’s a bit further afield, but because of the high altitude, wines made from grapes grown here are said to generally be among the best that Mendoza has to offer.

Rent a car or driver for the day or book tickets on the Bus Viniviticola that visits several wineries in the course of the day for 100 pesos ($25).

—-

Mendoza could indeed keep you for weeks with its collection of wineries and wine bars. Even if you only have a couple of days, you can still get a solid overview and taste of some excellent wines. And the whole experience just might change the way you think about the sophistication and diversity of Argentine wines.

In fact, you may just find that there’s more to Mendoza than Malbec.

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Comments

  1. says

    What a great writeup! We are really looking forward to Mendoza, and we’ve really benefitted from all your advice on South America so far. Thanks for paving the way. :)

  2. Andrea says

    Wow, excellent information…thank you! We are headed there in a couple of months and will definitely heed your advice for Mendoza wine tasting. Can’t wait to try these.

  3. says

    Glad you guys had a good time in Mendoza, but as you allude in the writeup, not all travelers have the same experience and Mendoza is definitely one of those places you either love or hate. On our own visit around the same time you went, despite our best attempts to like the place and the wine, we really did not enjoy it. Won’t go into the details here (plenty of negative feedback on Mendoza is already out there) but what’s important to mention to your readers here is that Mendoza and the surrounding wineries essentially shut down for the weekend. That’s right, if you want to visit any winery on a Saturday it pretty much has to be before 10a.m. and unless you are super lucky you had darn well better arranged for the tour a few days in advance (and, of course, you’ll be paying fees for both the visit and the tasting). On Sunday the place is dead! Apparently, the Argentinians are wholly unfamiliar with the idea of a wine-tasting weekend. We can’t imagine that Argentinians or tourists would not enjoy arriving in town on a Friday afternoon and spending the weekend at leisure visiting wineries and tasting. But it is totally impossible in Argentina and, unless you are a tourist it’s really not that much fun to be going wine tasting during the week (no interaction with the locals who are busy working).

    Now if you want a country that really knows how to have amazing wine tasting weekends where you can have unlimited tastings of even the priciest of wines (talking over $150/bottle here) for the low price of only $20 for an entire weekend, check out the wine regions around Cape Town, South Africa! Amazing!!! And the wines taste better than Argentina too (but that’s a subjective opinion, of course, and the better atmosphere in South Africa probably contributes to the “taste” of the wine :-) )

  4. Jane says

    Looks like my husband would love to meet Mr. Carmelo Patti, Thanks for the share of this lovely experince and information.

  5. says

    @Betsy and Andrea: Glad this write up was helpful for your upcoming visits to Mendoza. The trick is to go beyond the Maipu biking trip to really get a feel for the quality of wines and to get to smaller wineries without loads of visitors at one time. Enjoy!

    @Ognen: Yes, Mendoza is either a hit or miss with travelers. I think it helped us that we had already visited Argentina’a other two wine regions (Patagonia/Neuquen and Cafayate) so we knew to expect a few tweaks here and there. Many of the other travelers we met who were disappointed by Mendoza seemed to only do the Maipu bike tour, which completely makes sense to us – that is more like mob wine tasting rather than a relaxing experience where you’re talking with the winemakers or owners (very glad we did Maip after the experience in Lujan de Cuyo).

    But, I hadn’t thought about the weekend closure issue – thank you for bringing that up. I’ve added a note in the post for this.

    I checked the wineries where we visited and about 70% do have Saturday openings, but only one had Sunday openings in high season. But the reality is that weekend openings are always less secure than weekday openings. I also noticed that some are closed on Mondays, so that’s another consideration.

    Regarding wine tasting with locals, our experience in the other two wine regions and Mendoza was that this wasn’t yet a common or popular thing for locals to do (when we couchsurfed in Neuquen our hosts found our wine tasting activities kind of amusing). We did meet up with some tour groups from Buenos Aires in a few place. Hopefully wine tasting as a local activity will change as it’s fun to chat with locals as part of the experience.

    Thanks for the tip on Cape Town- sounds like the whole experience is great! Hope to get there later this year!

    @Jane: Carmelo Patti makes you feel like one of the family. Definitely worth a visit – hope you and your husband make it out to meet him!

  6. says

    Thanks for the great tips! I wasn’t familiar with this region before reading your post, but I must say I’d definitely like to check it out when we are in Argentina. Do you know if one season is better than others for visiting the wineries?

  7. says

    @Randy: The high season for Mendoza wineries is October to April, but the wineries are usually open throughout the year and have fewer crowds. If you go around the grape harvest (usually March), there are some festivals and events going on that might be fun.

    If you’re going to be in Argentina and are interested in wines, also consider checking out the wine areas of Cafayate and Neuquen (Patagonia).

  8. says

    I visited Mendoza during my RTW trip and toured the wineries independently (taking the public bus from the city center and then renting a bike). I am among the travelers who felt the experience did not live up to the hype. After visiting Mendoza we made our way to Cafayate, in northern Argentina. It’s a small, quaint town with few tourists, beautiful views and a number of wineries. If you liked Mendoza, you will love Cafayate!

  9. Cindy says

    Thanks for following me on twitter so that I could find you! This website is fantastic…please don’t tell me it is fake ok?! I am so sick of finding lame websites that yours is such a breath of fresh air..actual usable information! my hat is off to you!

  10. says

    @Leslie: I completely understand the disappointment felt by other travelers to Mendoza. Actually, the main motivation for writing such a long piece like this was to help steer other travelers to Lujan de Cuyo and to Vines of Mendoza (in addition to biking) as these were the highlights of our visit and we thought others may enjoy this as well. If we had just done the biking tour in Mendoza we would have also been quite disappointed with our visit.

    Yes, we also really enjoyed wine tasting in Cafayate (you can read about it all here). Not only is the wine fantastic, but the northwestern part of Argentina was our favorite area of the country.

    @Cindy: Thanks so much for stopping by. Comments like this make our day! Yes, we are the real deal! We only write about things that we’ve experienced along our journey around the world – all information is 100% tested :)

  11. says

    Its like you guys can read my mind. Although I’m still in Lima I’ve been thinking about how I can do Mendoza well but not break my budget.

    Bookmarked on delicious!

  12. says

    @Ayngelina: Mendoza is one of those towns in Argentina where you can blow a lot of cash quickly on wine and food. That’s why we loved finding the all-you-can-eat tapas night at the Hyatt for $12 and the happy hour nights at Vines of Mendoza. And, if you take the bus out to Lujan de Cuyo, there are quite a few wineries on the main street to visit that you can walk to if you don’t want to hire a taxi. Enjoy!!

  13. says

    Wow this is an amazing write-up! My wife and I are going to Mendoza in exactly one month from today. We have 6 nights there, so we expect to do a ton of wine tasting as well as other activities. Having an insider / “real person’s” perspective on this is so valuable and will save us a ton of time and money. Thank you so much!

  14. says

    @Joe: So glad that this information is useful and timely! You will be in Mendoza around the time of the harvest – should be quite interesting and lively. There is a lot of websites with information on wine tasting, but many are connected with a tour or some other company. The best advice we got was from other travelers and the sommeliers at Vines of Mendoza, so we wanted to pass this information on to other people so they know the options and can create their own great experiences. Enjoy!

  15. says

    Hi Audrey,
    Catching up on the net… Just wanted to let you know that we took your tips in Mendoza and they were very useful. Thanks! We even got the barmen from your pic in The Tasting Room. Wanted to let you know put a link to your article in our post, but I see it already got back to you.

    Cheers,

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