After hearing about the city of Mendoza from a November 2010 New York Times article and then getting multiple recommendations from friends in Buenos Aires, I realized that I had to visit before the end of my semester abroad. Mendoza, described as “Napa 30 or 40 years ago,” is a region that offers vineyards, and architecturally award-winning wineries all along a mountainous backdrop of the Andes.
While my parents and I missed the harvest season, which begins in early March with a large wine festival, we realized that late autumn was the perfect time to visit. With the tourist crowds long gone and last-minute bookings easily found, my family and I had private tours at each of the wineries we visited. Moreover, the Fall colors of orange, red and gold were a picturesque juxtaposition to newly planted vines.
On the first day, we drove about 20 minutes from the city of Mendoza to Maipu, the closest cluster of bodegas from downtown. We started off with a lunch at Familia Zuccardi restaurant whose floor to ceiling windows made you feel as though you were dining outdoors. While my Dad opted for the traditional Argentine meal of empanadas, a meat-filled pastry, carne, or meat, with a side of verduras, or vegetables, my Mom and I each chose the tasting menu. Our lunch consisted of six bite-sized courses paired with eight different wines, which ranged from red to white to sparkling wine to rosé and even dessert wines.
At the end of our meal, we started chatting with an American expat employee, who gave us a private tour of the bodega. We learned that the crushed grapes are funneled into vats where the sugar is converted into alcohol over the course of a month. The highlight was watching the one vineyard worker empty the tanks to remove the leftover grape skin and seeds with a shovel. The fermented juice is then poured into oak barrels where it sits for an extended period of time–depending on how long the wine-maker intends to age the wine. At the Familia Zuccardi Bodega, they have over 7,000 barrels filled with wine at any given time. As our tour guide explained, the oak barrels can only be used five times before the oak has lost its ability to flavor the wine. Like a tea bag, oak flavor is strong the first time, and progressively becomes less potent.
The second day we ventured further towards the mountains to an area known as the Valle de Uco to visit two bodegas: Salentein and Fournier, known for not only their wine, but also their contemporary architecture. Not only were the visits to the bodegas themselves interesting, we also had several adventures along the way. We saw gauchos, Argentine cowboys in traditional dress riding into town on their caballos, or horses, for the feriado, or holiday. The feriado, the 25 de mayo (25th of May), added to the excitement because each pueblo, or small town, that we passed hosted a parade to celebrate the revolution at the Plaza de Mayo in 1810.
As we first entered the Valle de Uco, we actually had to stop at a police checkpoint where they inspected our car trunk to ensure that we were not transporting any fruit with fruit-flies capable of destroying the area’s crops. (In addition to the grapes, the region is also known for its apple, peach, and nut orchards). According to our guide, Miguel, the soil nearest to the mountains is much richer in nutrients than that closer to the city of Mendoza. These minerals nourish the grapes, ultimately enhancing the flavor of the wine.
Life in Mendoza epitomizes the phrase, “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” Each day you visit a winery, do a tasting, have a late leisurely lunch, and partake in a siesta all the while trying to make room for the inevitably, incredible dinner that follows. All in all, it was a great experience and I am not sure if Napa will live up to the charm and rustic nature of the Argentine bodegas.