Fantastic Food and Wine in Mendoza, Argentina

The next stop on our Argentinian tour after Iguazu Falls was the town of Mendoza to check out the premier Argentine wine region. Mendoza is in the far west of Argentina, close to the Andes Mountains. In addition to grabbing an extra day in Mendoza to rest up from the day drinking, we visited the Andes because we were so close. But you’ll have to wait until next the post to hear about that.

Why Mendoza? For the love of wine!

I first learned of Mendoza by trolling the bargain sections of Trader Joe’s and Total Wine. Mendoza wine is typically among the better values I have found. After taking a class about wines of the region from a sommelier, it became one of the wine destinations I really wanted to check out.

While the Mendoza region is one of the great wine capitals of the world, there are not many wineries close to town. The wine-tasting experiences in town are priced quite high and really targeted at foreign tourists. To really experience wine here, you gotta get out to the vineyards.

Mendoza Winery Tours

Our original plan to visit Mendoza was foiled by Diana’s Big Fall in 2019. Even then, the multi-day winery tour we had planned was quite expensive. I can’t break out the cost of our stay in Mendoza from the overall tour of Argentina, but I’m sure it wasn’t cheap. Two factors contribute to the expense: the wine region is spread out and the day invariably includes a fabulous wine-paired lunch.

The prime spots for Mendoza wine are Maipu, Lujan, and Uco Valley. The first two are about a half-hour from central Mendoza and not far from each other. Uco Valley is 90+ minutes away. But having made it this far, you gotta go. You could probably rent a car and arrange your own winery visits, although comparing winery experiences and lining it all up would be quite time-consuming. It’s a make-vs-buy choice, really.

Mendoza Wine 101

Malbec is king in the region, still, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have their place. You can also get white wines, but they often cost more than the reds, and really, you came for the reds. Because of the struggling economy, you can get decent bottles of wine in stores and restaurants for $10-20 US.  Knowing what to pick, however, is difficult to do without guidance. It’s always good to ask for help to find something aligned with your tastes.

I was curious to see if the rootstock had any impact. You see, as far back as 1860, an insect called phylloxera destroyed most of the grape vines in the world. Only vines with American rootstock and plants in higher elevations survived. The vines in Europe had to be replanted with American rootstock, which is still in use today. Owing to its elevation of over 2000 feet, some vines in Mendoza survived, meaning it is one of the few places you can get wine from European root stock.

So, I asked guides at a couple of wineries I visited about finding wine from European stock and they said “What“? It seems rootstock is not something they care about. Perhaps I could find some such wines if I tried harder, but I suspect the impact is negligible and so the distinction is more a marketing gimmick than a discernable difference.

From Plonk to Pleasing

I was surprised to learn fine Mendoza wine is a recent phenomenon. Not unlike wine history in Sicily, it is only in the past 30 years that Mendoza wines began to elevate from alcoholic grape juice, aka plonk, to something more. In Sicily, the bulk grape juice was sent to Northern Italy to be blended with better-known Tuscan varietals. With Mendoza, the plonk was sent to Turkey to be blended. In both cases, bulk wine led to poor quality and low prices for production.

Things began to change when a handful of young French and Italian winemakers decided to plant vineyards and open wineries in the region. They came and invested Euros and sweat to get things going. The wine landscape in Argentina today is much better, but still emerging. I didn’t really taste anything that blew my socks off. And while Malbec grapes can produce a nice wine, it’s not clear to me that Malbec wine has the legs to be great, so to speak. I will keep tabs and let you know. Never forget, it is all about drinking what you like.

Mendoza Day Drinking, Day 1

It seemed fitting to do our first day of Mendoza wine touring on my birthday. I got to enjoy a day with Diana and some of my favorite beverages and we had a designated driver. Even though our destinations of Lujan and Maipu were nearby, we got an early start so we could fit in 2 wineries before the wine-paired lunch.

Alta Vista Winery

Our first visit was to Alta Vista Winery. One of the new old wineries of the area, where one of the French studs came to sow vines and produce higher quality wine. The winery itself was in production from 1900 to the mid-Sixties, when the original owner went defunct. The new owner snapped up the property and restored the facility, keeping what he could of the original buildings and cellars.

On our winery tour, we saw an interesting, ball-shaped maceration tank imported from France. Apparently, the shape promotes circulation during fermentation, meaning no intervention is needed to punch down the grape must, the grape skins, and the stems. I am curious why I haven’t seen this elsewhere. We enjoyed our tour of the beautiful facilities and the ensuing wine tasting. Certainly worth a stop if you are in the area.

Bodega Kontriras

Our next stop was at an unusual winery owned by a Greek family, Bodega Kontriras. The guide started out by discussing how many natural phenomena occur in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence. For those of you who forgot that part of math class, the Fibonacci sequence is created when adding the two prior numbers to create the next, e.g. 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc. Natural elements that occur in such a manner include petals in a flower or the growth of a nautilus shell. The idea is that nature tends to follow this sequence, so why not align with nature and let it influence how the winery operates? Okay…

Next, however, the guide talked about how the winery decided to make everything round so there wouldn’t be any dead spots in the corners. Sure, but, how is that related to Fibonacci? Then we were shown how the barrel room was actually an echo chamber. Does that make the wine age better? The mysticism continued and I just tuned it out. When we finally tried the wine, it was OK, but nothing I would have brought home if I lived nearby. Scratch this spot.

Lunch at Maris Restaurant at Bodega Bonfanti

Our last stop was for a late lunch at Maris restaurant at Bodega Bonfanti. Our tour included a vineyard-side, outdoor, 6-course lunch with wine pairing. OMG, what a feast. The food was great and beautifully presented. It would be hard to find a better outdoor dining experience. After this spread, all we could manage was to head back to our room for a nap. No nighttime birthday revelry, we were both wiped out. That said, my birthday ended on a high note with a fabulous meal in an idyllic setting. We thought the wine was the best here, but it could have been other things influencing our opinions.

All of the wines and pairings were good, too. For comparison to your local restaurant-in-vineyard, take a look at the wine menu. The most expensive bottle is $30k Argentine pesos, roughly $30 US. Thirty bucks might cover just corkage in many such spots stateside.

Again! Again!

The following day we were up even earlier, as we had a 90-minute drive down to Uco Valley. Since it is far from Mendoza, Uco Valley is decidedly low-key. The terrain is wide and flat, reminiscent of the California Central Valley. There are even oil pumps along the roadside. Basically a farming community, we were again surprised to learn wine production didn’t ramp up here until about 30 years ago.

La Vigilia

Our first stop was at La Vigilia winery. The building was so new I was concerned about staining my clothes by touching wet paint. Well, not quite, but close. The winery is classic wood and black metal, the building is gorgeous. Their fermentation process involved using large amphora vats as well as larger, concrete, wine-glass-shaped vats. The choice of material had to do with temperature control.

Again, we enjoyed our wine tasting with a view of the vineyard. It was a pleasant experience, but we wouldn’t have purchased anything for later, especially since we had nowhere to drink it.

Gimenez Riili

We then went next door to Gimenez Riili for another wine-paired, vineyard-side, outdoor lunch. This time, there were only four courses, but the repast was just as good as the day before. I got to see them grill my ribeye to perfection and, the sweet, cool, fresh corn soup was fantastic. Diana might have fallen asleep in the nearby hammock had the final course, dessert, not arrived. As before, we didn’t need any more wine that day, so we skipped the final winery and hopped in the car for the long ride back to Mendoza.

Final Thoughts on Mendoza

Overall, we enjoyed our jam-packed duo days of wine tasting in the Mendoza region of Argentina. I had been looking forward to it for years. That said, we weren’t really blown away by the Malbec. If I return to Argentina, I would probably come to Mendoza again, but I would rent a car to explore on my own and spread out the drinking. One’s palette fatigues and it becomes more difficult to truly experience the taste differences. Also, maybe I could hit the links between wine days to whet my appetite for those amazing lunches.

What are your experiences with Malbec?

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