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.
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.
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
– 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.
- 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.
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 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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.