For any winos with an obsession. This IS the Mendoza guide you’ll need!
While planning for a quick trip to Puerto Vallarta for our friends Edwin and Clarissa’s wedding, we realized we could actually take 3 weeks off work so needed a bigger destination. My wife and I always wanted to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina and Punta del Este, Uruguay. Then our wine obsession came, in comes Mendoza. Then we have extra time on the trip, in comes Florianopolis, Brazil. So we ended up booking this little prelude to the big wedding trip!
We fly through Santiago, Chile (check that country off my list, technically) and over the majestic snow capped Andes! It is a gorgeous view from the plane, but I can’t help looking around for who I might eat first if necessary (ala Alive and the Uruguayan rugby team tragedy), but we land in Mendoza without a hitch. Uber doesn’t work like we thought it might, so into a cheap taxi we go.
STAY: Hotel Huentala
DRINK: Huentala Wines
We arrive at Hotel Huentala and are greeted with a welcome glass of house Malbec. Huentala is conglomerate that owns Huentala Wines as well, so house is pretty darn good! Hotel is great, reasonably priced, has a small/cold plunge pool (nice in the heat of summer), and is centrally located near good restaurants and bars
Hotel booking tip: Filter Tripadvisor for area/amenities you need, sort rating high to low and pick the first one that is abnormally cheap!
Mendoza is a pretty non-descriptive city, no big high rises, but doesn’t look like wine country to me. We decide to walk around to an area recommended by the hotel and end up at a local parilla, Estancia La Florencia. We have the empanadas and Asado de Tira (roughly like the Korean short rib cut, but thicker, wider, and longer, meaning more ribs!) and wine, which will become somewhat of a theme throughout Argentina. Amazing meal and upon later research turns out this is the best, local parilla in town that we lucked into!
SHOP: Plaza Independencia
Back to the hotel for some pool time and a nap, then we head to Azafrán restaurant and wine bar. No wine list, you just go into the wine room with the sommelier and he helps you pick something out, very cool. They give us a welcome glass of Espumoso (what they call sparkling), I then have a Malbec wine flight and my wife discovers Torrontés, a white Italian grape grown more prevalently in the North near Salta. She now wants to go to Salta… We have rabbit and osso bucco empanadas, ceviche, trout (man can not live on red meat alone, even in Argentina, especially after that lunch!). They have a beautiful Christmas tree made entirely of corks right in front of the Argentina flag, which reminds us the holidays are upon us even if it is 80 degrees outside at night and we are somewhere fantastic! We walk by Plaza Independencia (every town has one) to see the night market of small crafts, eats, etc. Great first day!
We wake up bright an early to an amazing full breakfast spread and wait for pick up for our Uco Valley wine tour with Experience Mendoza. Turns out to be 9 of us in a comfortable van with our great guide Martin who deftly switches between Portuguese and Spanish and English for the group. Overcast start, we arrive at Domaine Bousquet with a full tour of the property and process, a thorough tasting at a beautifully laid out table in the wine cave where all tastings are a half a glass, not a drop, and they refill whatever, whenever you want. We come to find that this royal treatment is standard in Mendoza! They don’t believe in little sips, they think you need a good amount in the glass to get the full nose, palette experience. We could not agree more! So the wine starts flowing and everybody becomes a little more talkative.
Next up is Bodega Salentein, the winery is architecturally stunning, with beautiful artwork throughout. We get the same royal treatment, and the group is getting a bit more boisterous. Unexpectedly the Pinot Noir is what the group finds amazing, people are refilling that most often. Next up is Andeluna Cellars and the sky is clearing and we can now see a full view of the juxtaposition of the snow-capped Andes over the ever-expansive green vineyards. Breathtaking and pictures don’t do it justice. After the wine tour and tasting, we sit down in their dining room for a 6 course wine paired lunch. Now they are pouring full glasses, in addition to refilling… The food is amazing and we take our 2 dessert courses on the patio closer to the vineyards and the Andes. Nobody wants to leave, but our tour has come to a close. Sigh. One note, one thing we regret is not going to boutique winery La Azul for tasting, meal or both, it looked amazing by the side of the road when we drove by and we heard many people recommend it.
EAT: Los Chocos
DRINK: Manuel Ricarrdi
Back to the hotel for a cat nap ahead of hitting Los Chocos for dinner. This is a closed door restaurant, which is a thing in Argentina, similar to food trucks in the US, where chefs can’t afford other brick and mortar so they open their homes to guests. 6 courses, wine paired, because that is how the Canters do things. We sit at the only table, a community table with the son of the winemaker for our Manuel Ricarrdi wines, and another couple from Portland who we realize had dinner next to us the night before. Turns out to be great dinner company and we may even set up a love connection between their friend Sam and our friend Mike in NY (as of writing this, first date was a success!) The chef brings us really inventive, colorful dishes like chicken liver pate on fried bread with braised pears, sweetbreads (it is a gland near the neck, definitely not sweet or bread like, but definitely delicious when grilled well), and chivitos (goat) all washed down with excellent wines, especially the pinot blend and port!
DRINK: Wine Not?
We wake up the next morning, ready Argentine River Rafting on the Mendoza. Anne-Marie is not feeling well after the over indulgence of all things the day before, so just me today! Van heads through the Uco Valley, into the foothills by the Andes. The Mendoza is the lifeblood of this area. It is fed by the Andes snow pack as Mendoza is essentially a desert that gets 12” rain a year, which is great for grape growing, but ultimately you need some water. The river is reminiscent of chocolate milk from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory due to sediment. Spray everywhere, it certainly doesn’t taste like chocolate milk, but we are in full wetsuits so it is refreshing and not freezing. This is the best river rafting I have ever done, it is constant class 2-3 the entire time and mostly 3-4, and there was a lot of rafting time before and after the lunch break (that had wine, of course, and a paddle themed version of musical chairs. Great rafting, the only knock is the hour before put in and after take out waiting, but if you have your own car, this won’t be a problem, if you don’t, whatever, still all good.
From there we check out Wine Not? A place we heard about from the Portland couple. It was started by a couple of locals who wanted to showcase smaller wineries from around Argentina. Very cool place, great wines, some nibbles like empanadas, tell Matias we said hi!
DO: Baccus Biking
DRINK: Nieto Senetiner, Bodega Lagarde, Carmelo Patti
Wake up and taxi the 20 minutes for a self guided wine tour with Baccus Biking in the Luján de Cuyo wine region. Wineries are not very close to each other; you are actually biking through a city, but if you are comfortable doing so, this is fantastic. It is warm out already and a great ride to Nieto Senetiner for great Malbec. Mendoza does a lot of cement fermentation we come to find out, interesting. Kaiken is recommended but too far, so we hit Bodega Lagarde for (another) wine paired lunch, including Rosé, Torrontés, a Pinot Noir/Malbec blend, and a Malbec. We then hit Carmelo Patti. This is the place that locals all recommend, so you know it will be good. The 97-degree day is catching up with AM, she sits in the wine cave while I taste/tour. His daughter gives majority of tour, explains how meticulous they are about corks given they specialize in Bordeaux varietals (2008 is their current blend release!) meant for cellaring. Then Carmelo shows up midway through tasting and although he speaks no English, we are communicating just fine for some reason! AM now officially is developing heatstroke, so we call Baccus Biking, who is used to this type of distress call (heatstroke, drunk, all the same to them) and they say no problem, they will just pick up the bikes later. In hindsight, great idea to avoid riding bikes back through the city in the heat of the day!
Back to the room for a quick nap (sense a theme?) and AM is refreshed enough to go to 1884 by Francis Mallman, who is apparently the most famous Argentine chef and restaurateur. Go for the garden seating by the kitchen, as this is no kitchen like you have ever seen before. The kitchen is a series of outdoor fire sources including a traditional Asado (throw in wood on the left, scrape the resulting embers under the grill), a brick oven, and an open pit (think Salt Lick in Austin, but they are also using the sides of the pit to cook directly on like griddles). Sweetbreads, tender charred octopus, and ojo de bife (rib eye!) to die for. All washed down with house Espumoso and Malbec. Again house is a good thing, since they share a property with his joint venture winery Bodegas Escorihuela Gascon. We cheers with a couple from another table we recognize from Carmelo Patti, a daily occurrence for us as many are doing the same tours around Mendoza.
DRINK: Bodega Benegas, CarineE, El Enemigo
The next day I book an impromptu tour of the Maipu valley with Cintia at Vistabla Wine Tours. AM is feeling better enough to go, but not to drink. This is the less critically acclaimed area compared to the other two, but is still beautiful and we found many gems along the way. We first hit Bodega Benegas with our guide Ramiro. Federico Benegas Lynch’s family founded Trapiche in 1883, but he left in the 1990’s to start this exclusively high end winery. The (current release) 2007 Cab Franc is as good as their Malbec and Bourdeaux blend. We find almost every winery has 3 levels, mass distribution, good, and fine/hard to find. With free shipping on the high end line, we can’t resist shipping a mixed case home. Next we hit CarineE with our tour guide Franie. Brigitte y Philippe Subra moved from France in 1998 to live in Mendoza for a non-wine related job and fell in love with the wine here and stayed. The Syrah and Cuvee Brigitte are the best. Franie happens to be from Punta del Este so validates everything I know about our trip plans there, including no need to hit wineries in Uruguay if I have already been to Mendoza… Then to El Enemigo for tour (beautiful art and architecture). History here is that Alejandro Vigil was the head winemaker at Catena Zapata, then partnered with Adrianna Catena to open this project. We find our tour guide very impersonal and by the book. She tells us the new events kitchen is going to open this week, when what looks like the lead contractor interrupts her and says roughly fat chance, it will be a few more weeks. She blows him off. We later learn that was Alejandro Vigil! Not sure our guide even knew it! Anyway, then off another spectacular 3 course (can’t do 6 every day…) wine paired lunch in the garden.
Another great day in paradise! Back to the hotel to catch our flight to Buenos Aires. Speaking of which, stay tuned for my next article on Buenos Aires!