In the shadow of the magnificent snowcapped Andes in Argentina, the high-altitude vineyards of Mendoza are a stunning alternative to the well-trodden wine trails of California’s Napa Valley
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Mendoza lies in the foothills of the Andes in western Argentina, 440 miles (710 km) northwest of Buenos Aires
NUMBER OF WINERIES 700
DAYTIME TEMPERATURE During the autumn harvest festival in March, expect a daytime average of 82°F (28° C)
Whatever happened to the romance and charm of Napa Valley? It’s an all-too-familiar lament, and one with a simple answer: they’ve been put in the shade by Mendoza, Argentina’s premier wine- growing region. Likened to the pre-boom Napa Valley of the early 1980s, Mendoza is an emerging destination of empty roads and fabulous, exotic wines. And the vineyards here, set against a splendid backdrop of the soaring, white-tipped Andes, are some of the most scenic in the world.
Mendoza’s roads, many of which are prettily lined with poplars and sycamores, gently wind their way up to 5,577 ft (1,700 m) above sea level. They cross deep fertile valleys and high plains and skirt around enormous vineyards that sweep for miles across the picturesque foothills, boasting fabulous Andean panoramas at virtually every turn.
This dramatic landscape has hundreds of vineyards, from large, family-owned estates to state-of-the-art boutique wineries and little rustic bodegas. A lazy vineyard walk is the perfect prelude to intimate tastings with wine experts who speak passionately about their produce. There is little show here, only great wine. Stop at a high-end estate for an evening rooftop tasting.
Watching the sun set behind the towering Andes as aromatic premium varietals roll across your tongue is an exquisite experience. Stay overnight at a luxury wine spa before visiting a small bodega that has remained unchanged for a century, with cobbled courtyards that open directly onto the vineyard.
Here, sweating mules still plough between the vines, grapes are pressed by hand, and ice-cold run-off from the Andes irrigates the fertile land. Mendoza’s wines have at last won the global recognition they deserve. The region produces abundant varietals, but its most outstanding wine is a deep, rich red, made from the Malbec grape, which flourishes in the dry air and high altitude.
Malbec enthusiasts can attend gourmet lunches hosted by winery owners who pair the wine with local cuisine, or travel on horseback to vineyards where the grape thrives. The riding routes skirt herds of guanacos beneath the gaze of Andean condors gliding high in the sky. Ahead, among a whirl of soaring rock faces, is Aconcagua, the highest peak in the world outside Asia. It’s a dizzyingly beautiful scene
FORGET NAPA VALLEY?
Napa Valley, which is just an hour north of San Francisco by car, is renowned for its world-class wines. Each year, hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts visit its 300 or so wineries by bicycle, luxury 4WD, hot-air balloon, or aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. Rolling green hills provide a picturesque backdrop to wine crawls in the area.
Napa has sadly shed much of its original charm. Tours emphasize entertainment over wine and tastings have a happy-hour feel, led by volunteers that are more like bartenders than wine experts. Highway 29, the region’s main road, is bumper to bumper with cars during the high season.
Try to visit outside the peak season. Spring is a great time to go, when the weather is warm, there are fewer tourists and the winery owners are less busy. If you plan on traveling in the high season, aim for a midweek stay and book early-morning tastings to avoid the crowds. Try the wineries on the Silverado Trail, a more scenic, less-traveled alternative to Highway 29.
Getting There and Around
There are regular flights from Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, to Mendoza City. Shuttle buses run from Mendoza’s airport to the city center. The region’s three main wine-growing areas – Luján de Cuyo, Valle de Uco, and Maipú – are only a short drive away. Tour agencies run tours of varying lengths and provide itineraries should you wish to explore alone.
Where to Eat
Housed within the Escorihuela Winery – one of Mendoza’s oldest wineries – is the sumptuous Francis Mallman 1884 restaurant, which serves classic Argentinian cuisine. Order a succulent steak or chivita (kid goat), a local specialty, and accompany with a rich Malbec.
Where to Stay
Nestled at the foot of the Andes in its own vineyards, Cavas Wine Lodge (www.cavaswinelodge. com) boasts luxury suites and a spa with wine-therapy treatments.
When to Go
Visit during the harvest season from February to March, when visitors help with grape-picking and take part in Vendimia, the area’s lively wine-harvest festival.
Budget per Day for Two
US$375 including wine tours, accommodations, and dining out.