Mendoza: a province where the Andes are at their highest, the wines at their best and the gaucho still gallops free
Holding court in his garage, Carmelo Patti greeted me with a vigorous handshake, his roughened, purple-stained hand swamping mine.
An old-school Argentine winemaking legend – “I have been treading grapes since I was a child” – Patti arrived from Sicily as a baby and has been making wine for more than 40 years. His winery is essentially a one-man enterprise and he enjoys talking about his wines almost as much as he loves making them.
Outside, grapes from the recent harvest were being pressed in an archaic wooden contraption; errant juice ran in rivulets across the concrete. Patti led us past steel fermentation tanks down into the basement that doubles as a wine cellar, the sudden chill coming as a welcome respite from the torpid heat of the day. Then back to the garage, where the bottles are labelled by hand.
Vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina (Shutterstock)
Despite its diminutive size, the winery is known for producing some of the best wines in Mendoza. His reputation, Patti said, proudly showing me yellowing newspaper cuttings from around the globe, has grown “boca a boca”, from mouth to mouth. He handed me a glass of deep-purple-hued 2004 malbec straight from the barrel; amid its fruity richness I could taste ripe plums and tart cherries.
Argentina’s vineyards stretch from the subtropical valleys of Salta, in the north-west, to northern Patagonia. But it’s the province of Mendoza that has become one of the key grape-growing and wine-producing areas in the southern hemisphere, accounting for up to 70% of Argentina’s wine industry.
In 1901, a young Italian immigrant to Argentina wrote to his parents from Mendoza to tell them, “You see nothing but mountains in the distance, like home.” He added, “You drink very well here; the wine costs half what it does in Buenos Aires and is pure and delicious.”
Little has changed.
A semi-arid desert, Mendoza lies in the rain shadow of one of the Andes’ greatest elevations, with hot, cloudless days and cool nights. It’s the region’s terroir – diverse terrain, altitude and climate – and the man-made irrigation channels that utilise snowmelt that make it the ideal zone for growing a variety of the finest winemaking grapes. But it’s not just for oenophiles: Mendoza’s mountains, glaciers, canyons and fast-flowing rivers make the ideal terroir for adventure sports as well as vines. People travel here to scale the heights of fearsome Aconcagua – at 6,962m the highest peak on the continent – and swoosh down the slopes of Penitentes and Las Leñas, home to some of South America’s finest skiing.
Vineyards, Mendoza, Argentina (Shutterstock)
The Spanish criolla grape was planted here as far back as the 1550s and harvested by the Jesuits. In the late 19th century, a wave of mass immigration brought Europeans – particularly Italians – to Mendoza, who introduced bonarda and the almost-forgotten malbec to replace the original grapes. Gradually more classic varietals – cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, pinot noir – were introduced, but it was about producing quantity rather than quality for the domestic market until the late 1990s.
Now Argentina is the fifth-largest producer in the world. In Mendoza province alone, over 1,000 wineries of every kind sit side by side, from family and artisanal to boutique bodegas and huge producers. Part of Mendoza City’s charm is its proximity to several of the main wine-producing areas – Luján de Cuyo, Valle de Uco and Maipú are all within day-trip distance.
The area’s bucolic beauty may be reminiscent of the Napa Valley of 50 years ago but it’s a less regimented, more intimate experience. You can’t just jump on a bus and ride from winery to winery – they’re spread out down bumpy dirt roads, with signs in short supply; for some you need an appointment. But you can visit them on group tours, with a private driver, in a hire car or even by bike. I was here for a taster.
In 1895 Edmund Norton, a British engineer who had arrived in Mendoza to help construct a railway over the Andes to Chile, established Bodega Norton, the first winery in Luján de Cuyo, with vines imported from France. Now it’s a global operation.
Here, I played ‘Winemaker for a Day’, starting in the vineyard among the heady scent of maturing grapes, to see the irrigation lines that the grape growers have used for centuries. I learned about the sorting, crushing, fermentation and ageing processes, before blending and labelling my own vintage in the colonial home that remains just as Norton left it.
The following day, I swapped old-world Luján for Valle de Uco, an hour or so outside the city and Mendoza’s new kid on the block. It’s the youngest of the wine regions, and also the highest, dotted with sprawling wineries that are over 1,250m above sea level.
I was visiting Bodegas Salentein, a cross-shaped, low-slung building known as the ‘cathedral of wine’. Established in the late 1990s, it’s where Dutch investment, French experience and Argentinian agricultural know-how have combined to create a state-of-the-art winery. Each wing of the cross is devoted to barrels of different wine, but perhaps its most surprising feature is the temple-like Killka Gallery, which houses the owners’ lavish contemporary art collection. After the tour, I feasted alfresco on a trio of crispy empanadas (stuffed breads), salmon and portobello ceviche marinated in chardonnay, topped off with a gigantic rib-eye with a black-olive crust. This feast was served against an epic backdrop of snow-capped mountains that was almost as intoxicating as the wine.
Sunrise in Medoza (Shutterstock)
Later that evening, as the sunset turned the vines to glorious gold, I sat on a comfortable sofa at Finca Adalgisa and sipped on a velvety malbec from the small estate (only 5,000 bottles a year), while nibbling on matured goat’s cheese and plump black olives. Sat just 20 minutes outside of Mendoza, this century-old manor house, boutique B&B and winery in Chacras de Coria has been in Gabriela Furlotti’s family for four generations. Her latest project is Soluna, Argentina’s first Fair Trade winery, and she’s been travelling from finca to finca negotiating with small producers and convincing them to join her collective.
“Our natural resources shouldn’t just benefit foreign investors,” Gabriela told me. “This way, I’m not only continuing my family’s winemaking tradition but I’m also helping Mendoza’s small family vineyards to survive.”
After a few days of pure gluttony, it was time to start working off Mendoza’s gastronomic delights. I could have abseiled down sheer rock walls or mountain-biked along desert back roads and challenging downhill runs, but I opted for a hike.
Within easy reach of Mendoza City, Cordón del Plata is an Andean range of 80 mountains with hiking routes ranging from easy treks to technical rock climbing and high-altitude ascents that are often a forerunner to tackling Aconcagua. The area is dotted with refugios, rustic mountain huts with dorm rooms and lounges where adventurers sit before open fires to ward off the evening chill. Yet that afternoon the trail was almost mine alone.
I wound my way along a river, cutting through a rocky gorge where a miniature waterfall was already frozen into icy stalactites. Then I walked in a gentle zigzag up the steep slope, the only sound being the crunch of my boots on shale and my own ragged breathing. High above, a majestic condor soared on rising thermals.
As I climbed, the landscape shifted: the ground became more parched. I settled on a craggy promontory, surrounded by scrub-covered slopes and endless jagged peaks, facing a horizon dominated by Cerro El Plata. As the sun began to sink behind the highest peak, planes of intense light and dense shadow fell across the valley, while at the summit of a far-off mountain, a stately llama-like guanaco surveyed its terrain.
Snaking its way down from the mountains, gushing with snowmelt, the Mendoza River irrigates the Luján and Maipú vineyards en route. A natural slalom course of exposed rock, it’s also ideal for whitewater rafting – my next challenge.
Driving upriver from the Potrerillos Dam, my group nervously eyed the river while our laid-back guides sipped mate tea through steel straws from traditional calabash gourds. After the safety talk and a run-through of all the possible ways there were to drown, Pablo reassured us that, while the river gives way to rapids of increasing difficulty, none would exceed Class IV. In high summer – December and January – it’s a different story, with rapids reaching Class V and the almost impassable Class VI, with the word’s finest rafters battling it out to conquer them.
But even at its lowest ebb, the river packs a heady shot of adrenalin. We began to paddle and, after an initial stretch of flat water, we were in the maelstrom. One second I was plunging straight down into the trough of a wave, the next I was getting drenched with ice-cold spray as the raft shot up and over the crest. It was an exhilarating ride that had me screaming with the thrill of it, while Pablo barked his commands: “Adelante!” (forward); “Atrás!” (backwards); “Manos arriba!” (hands up). And, when things got particularly sticky, “Todos adentro!” – everyone inside.
Beyond rapids such as The Labyrinth – where a sucking rush pulled us through a watery chute strung between boulders, slammed us into a 1m wave, spinning the raft around until another wave set us straight – there were peaceful sections that allowed us to drift for a while on our trip back to terra firma. I savoured the heat of the sun on my face as I gazed up at the steep walls of the canyon, rising in layers of buff and dark brown under the cobalt-blue sky.
The gaucho is as inherent to Argentine life as malbec, and my final experience of Mendoza was to be from the saddle. Down a bumpy lane in Maipú is Cabaña La Guatana, the working estancia (estate) of César Fernández. After a tour of the estancia and its resident throng of cows, sheep and goats we were introduced to the criollo horses, a stocky but agile breed designed for working the land. We’d be riding them around the Lunlunta Valley that day.
Looking dapper in his traditional beret, historically borrowed by gauchos from Basque shepherds, César guided us through a pastoral idyll of Maipú’s picturesque vineyards: rows of aged vines of malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes, protected by silver-grey lines of gnarled olive trees.
Horseriding in the Andes (Shutterstock)
Reaching a gallop, we splashed through the icy, shallow river into small rocky bays and up through native scrub, until we arrived at the almost-dry Mendoza River. The landscape spread out below us: a fertile valley, its vineyards flanked by statuesque poplars, and the foothills of the Lunlunta mountains facing the magnificent wall of the Andes.
At lunchtime we stopped under a pocket of trees to feast on barbecued beef and platters of salad and olives, washed down with red wine while the ebullient César told us tales of crossing the Andes on horseback. Then it was time for a siesta; I kicked off my boots and sank into a somnolent haze.
Later, we rode through plantations of chestnuts and fruit trees. As the setting sun streaked the cordillera pink and gold, my horse began to pull at the reins, eager and excited to be nearing home.
That evening, over another bottle of hearty malbec at 1884 Restaurante – where renowned chef Francis Mallmann has taken grilling techniques to a new level – I contemplated galloping across the mountains to Chile, perhaps even tackling Aconcagua. That is, until I was distracted by the arrival of an enormous slab of prime beef slathered in rich chimichurri sauce. As César said, there are few places that combine wilderness and wine with such consummate ease as Mendoza. And I’ll drink to that.
At 6,962m, Mount Aconcagua is the ‘roof of the Americas’ and one of the world’s highest trekking peaks – and it deserves respect, as the little Cemetery of the Andinistas at its foot testifies.
Although the ‘Normal Route’ via the basecamp at Plaza de Mulas (4,350m) is non-technical, and a favourite with trekking organisations, it’s the extreme altitude and sometimes vicious weather that poses problems.
Aconcagua National Park, Andes Mountains (Shutterstock)
Climbers need to obtain a permit to enter Parque Provincial Aconcagua (available from Mendoza City). The ascent takes at least two weeks including acclimatisation, and you’ll need to be physically fit and mentally determined.
The final ascent is a long, tough, weather-dependent hike: consider going with an operator that has contingency days built into your trip.
The author travelled with Audley Travel.
Main image: Volcano Aconcagua and Vineyard, Mendoza (Shutterstock)