From Buenos Aires to Patagonia, travelers are cashing in on Argentina's cheap currency as the country has become a go-to destination. But it's not just tango and football, mountain hikes and glacial adventures, increasing numbers of foreign tourists are flocking to the iconic wine-producing province of Mendoza and its award-winning wineries attracted by a devalued Peso and acclaimed wines at bargain prices in the wake of Argentina's latest economic meltdown.
Earlier this year we spent a week in Mendoza, our first visit to this high mountain terroir to learn about Malbec that, despite is French origins, has become uniquely identified with Argentinian wine.
The province is highly regarded as Argentina's premier wine region, but it is also a desert. The narrow section of Argentina's famed Highway 40, taking visitors from the city to nearby Maipu, to Lujan de Cuyo, and further south to the Uco valley, is a dusty witness to the harsh landscape and the efforts of the local population to survive where water is rationed.
For many laborers the opportunity to work at one of the wineries, in an economy rapidly descending (again) into a tailspin, is prized and hard to come by.
Whenever possible, we try to visit wineries at the height of the harvest season. Both as a wine photographer and as a student of wine it is the best time to experience the very wine-making process itself. The opportunity should not be missed to taste the grapes in the vineyard, during fermentation and then a previous harvest's wine - it gives one a broader understanding and appreciation of all the efforts and factors that go into making a great wine.
Leaving the city on the crowded highway, filled with trucks laden with farm produce and a populace heading to work in vans and cars that had seen better days, it is only after the last ramshackle homes disappeared behind us when we crossed the largely dry Mendoza River that we begin to appreciate the majestic splendor of the region. Look to the right and the Andes Mountains tower dramatically, some of the peaks still dusted with snow. On the plains below are vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see.
From time-to-time a simple sign, or perhaps an ornate stone portal, announces another bodega, another finca. There are an estimated 1,500 wineries in the region with more than 356,000 acres (144,000 hectares) of planted vineyards producing nearly two-thirds of the country's wine production. But despite its European heritage, it is as distant from conventional wine tourism as Mendoza is from Europe itself.
The drawback when visiting Mendoza is lack of infrastructure between the wineries themselves. Apart from hotel and winery restaurants there are no roadside cafe's where one can relax with a welcoming cup of coffee and few quaint restaurants where one can sit alongside locals and enjoy regional fare. At best there might be a village store where one might get a cold beer or bottle of water to drink in the car. To minimize driving we stayed for a few nights at Salentein winery, about 100 km from Mendoza airport, which put us in the heart of the wine country.
Bodega Zuccardi Valle de Uco was voted the World's Best Vineyard in 2019. The modern, all-concrete winery, which sits in the Andes Mountains foothills, has a futuristic design and is surrounded by its vineyards. A visitors' experience can include a generous four-course gourmet lunch with regional products paired with Zuccardi wines. Their charcoal-grilled steak served with the winery's iconic Concreto Malbec, a wine fermented and aged in concrete vats, is a summary of the best of traditional Argentinian cuisine.
Bodega Matervini, surrounded by its own vineyards in a mystical rural setting, offers guided tastings with its view of the Andes. This boutique winery was founded in 2008 by Santiago Achával and Roberto Cipresso with the philosophy of showing Malbec wines from different places, each with different personalities.
The world-renowned Catena Zapata winery with its iconic distinguished by its pyramid-like design based on Mayan architecture and a tasting of their award-winning wines should not be missed. We had the unique opportunity to spend some time in the on-site Catena Institute of Wine where winemaker Ernesto Bajda took time off from managing the harvest to enlighten us on their winemaking philosophy.
We visited Ruca Malen winery to celebrate our birthdays at their pioneering on-site chef restaurant. There is a choice of dining options from a five-course tasting menu to a picnic lunch by the vineyards. We reserved our table for the tasting menu as soon as we knew we would be in Mendoza, and were not disappointed. Chef Lucas Bustos is renowned for pairing his locally sourced food with Ruca Malen's exciting selection of wines.
Planning your trip is important and reserving winery visits a must. We were happy to limit ourselves to no more than two wineries a day, morning and late afternoon, which gave us the opportunity to relax, to enjoy the beautiful setting and appreciate the unique wine experience that Mendoza has to offer.