Mendoza: Malbec and more

by Jobina.Bardai

The heart of Argentina's wine industry lies in the spectacular high-altitude desert of Mendoza, which is home to its finest wineries

Mendoza is the heartland of Argentina’s wine region, producing some of the world’s top drops. It’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, with huge stretches of vineyards guarded by the towering Andes mountains. Wine-tasting opportunities and other unique Argentine experiences like the asado - the country’s traditional barbecue - are plentiful. Whether you’re a wine connoisseur, a first-time wine tourist or a couple seeking a romantic pastime, Mendoza offers something for everyone.

Ready, steady, taste

Mendoza, home to most of the country’s finest wineries, produces 80 per cent of Argentina’s wines. The landscape is more than just stunning to the eye; it is also the reason for the outstanding quality of the wine. With little rain and searing hot days, the high altitude creates a contrast of warm days and cool nights, giving the grapes a flavour concentration and high acidity. Wines here have intense colour, heady aromas and savoury fruit flavours.

Mendoza is most famous for its Malbec, a juicy wine with black fruit and peppery flavours made to marry with the country’s prized beef. Other famous reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Bonarda. For white wines, Mendoza is known for Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The region overflows with grapes and vineyards, from big internationally-known brands to boutique wineries and traditional bodegas. My favourite wineries, Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer and Bodega Norton, are all located in Lujan de Cuyo, which is only 25 minutes by car from Mendoza city.

Three of the best

Catena Zapata tops the list of any wine connoisseur. Its innovations in viticulture and wine-making in the 1980s revolutionised Argentina’s wine industry. The wines have won many international awards and have been compared to top French brands like Haut-Brion in blind tastings. Catena’s La Pyramide winery offers the first real taste of Mendoza’s breathtaking scenery. The 180-degree panoramic view of the vineyards, set against the 22,000ft peak of Aconcagua, is awe-inspiring.

The tasting offers both domestic and international brands such as Angelica Zapata, Alamos and Catena Zapata and Catena Alta. The microclimate tastings, like Malbec-Malbec-Malbec, are a real treat; clones of the same grape varietals are planted at different altitudes and then blended to create one wine.

Argentina’s top boutique winery is the intimate Achaval Ferrer, whose wines are consistently listed among the country's best by wine magazines throughout the world. The friendly staff offered us Malbec grapes to munch on during the chilled-out introduction in their airy boardroom, and owners Santiago Achaval and Manuel Ferrer even popped in to say hello. Wines are tasted directly from the barrel, and include the Quimera, which usually sells for over £50 a bottle in London restaurants. Others to try are Cabernet Franc (Achaval Ferrer is one of the few wineries in Mendoza to make it) and the stunning sweet Dolce. Purchase any favourite wines here, as they can be difficult to locate in your home country.

At Bodega Norton, the tour started in the vineyard, and our guide encouraged us to pick and eat grapes right off the vines! Wine connoisseurs will swoon as they discover first-hand the difference in textures and flavours between Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. But even novices will enjoy savouring the grapes, surrounded by luscious canopies of fruit, and enjoy the view of snow-capped Aconcagua underneath the hot sunshine.

We sampled a variety of wines, vintages and styles, including Malbec and Chardonnay, reserve wines and sparkling wines. They were stunning, but the best was yet to come, as we feasted on the asado - the traditional, no-holds-barred barbecue. A table was set up for us under a weeping willow tree, right next to the vineyards, and with a sweeping view of Aconcagua. Our own waiter served up a feast of meats, empanadas and other Argentinean delicacies, as well as the winery’s outstanding still and sparkling wines.

Mendoza: the city

Mendoza city is a graceful place, with wide tree-lined streets, pretty squares, a vibrant terrace culture, and great nightlife. It is also a fantastic base to enjoy the region’s spoils, including winery visits, mountain-climbing, white-water rafting and horseback riding.

Choose from a plethora of restaurants where you can also try most of the wines that you’ve just tasted at the wineries. For a traditional parillada, try Don Mario, where you’ll mingle with the locals. La Marchigiana is Mendoza’s top Italian restaurant, run for decades by the same family, who serve outstanding cannelloni and tiramisu. Step slightly out of town, and head to Francis Mallman 1884, an ultra-chic wine bar and restaurant that is also one of Argentina’s top eateries.

Best time to go

For a true South American party, visit Mendoza during the Vendimia festival. It begins in January and culminates on the first weekend in March with an extravaganza of parades, dancing spectaculars and the crowning of the Harvest Queen. Accommodation costs around Mendoza spike around this time, so visiting just after the Vendimia weekend is also a good alternative.

Where to stay

There is accommodation to suit every budget in and around Mendoza. Quinto Rufino is a B&B in a converted villa near the trendy nightlife. Or pamper yourself in style at the celebrated Park Hyatt Hotel, on Mendoza’s central plaza. For something really special, stay at the Posada Salentein in Tunuyan, 100 km south of Mendoza city, where you can go horseback riding and cycling, or simply relax with a drink overlooking the Merlot and Pinot Noir vineyards. 

Top tips

Do some research before you go - try the wines and check out the wineries’ websites.  Find tours that also include the vineyards, as the inside of the wineries will eventually start to look the same. Visit a mix of wineries, such as a large international brand, a champagne house and a local boutique winery. Try the wines at Familia Zuccardi (rumour has it you can stomp grapes during the harvest!), Salentein, Trapiche, Luigi Bosca, and Lurton.

Mendoza wineries are spread out over five zones and as many departments, and it can be confusing to map out your visits. The best plan is to stick to one department and visit a maximum of three to four wineries a day.

You can either join group tours or organise you own. Either way, pre-booking is essential, especially if you want to visit top wineries such as Catena Zapata. Many bodegas also host asados, including Ruca Malen, which offers a five-course lunch with wine in its airy restaurant. Bodega Norton offers both a full lunch and picnics in the garden. If you do not choose an asado, bring a packed lunch along, as there is a poor choice of restaurants along the way.

If you’re travelling solo, the best way to get to the wineries is by taxi, which leaves you free to enjoy the scenery as well as taste as much wine as you like (especially important if you’re planning to enjoy an asado). You can book ahead with the wineries directly over email, or have your hotel help with tours, transport and asados.