The first time I came to Mendoza on a wine tour in Argentina I planned to travel over the Andes by bus. I had heard much about that road trip. The road reaches 3000 metres (9000 ft). The landscape is deserted, devoid of vegetation, almost as a moonscape. You should be careful to not make any kind of physical effort since the air is thin. But you have fantastic views over the 6000 m (18 000 ft) summits of the Andes.
It was not to be.
The very week when I was in Mendoza it rained in the mountains. Rain? I saw no rain at all when I was travelling from vineyard to vineyard. Clear blue skies, hot weather. But in the mountains they had rain. Rain like almost never before. For the first time in some one hundred years they had closed the road over the Andes for traffic. There had been avalanches.
This was in the middle of summer, just before harvest time. It was stone avalanches. I did not feel tempted to jump the road blocks and attempt the road passage… So a short airplane hop over the Andes it was. Not bad in itself. Beautiful views on the mountains from above.
But luck changes.
I got to do the road trip over the Andes the following year. The road was repaired but there were still big scars where from the stone avalanches. It was absolutely worth coming back and worth spending a day on the road across the Andes. Absolutely breath-taking views, and not because of the thin air. Actually, unless you do some serious exercise (or have to rush to the lavatories) you don’t feel the low air pressure at all.
The Mendoza wine region in itself is a fascinating landscape. We went to visit the Domaine Jean Bousquet in the Uco Valley. Today this is a lush green vineyard with a magnificent view from below over the Andes’ snow-capped mountains. Jean Bousquet came here in the 90s, émigré from France, and started planting vines. Today he is one of Argentina’s biggest organic wine producers.
But if you look across the road you can see how it must have looked when Bousquet came here 25 years ago. Nothing much grows here without irrigation. Uncultivated land is dry, with a few cacti, some low bushes and a lot of stones and sand. Thankfully they have plentiful water coming from the Andes that makes it possible to grow wines. Nothing grows here without water.
Bousquet’s winemaker Miguel Lenin Martinez took us around the winery and showed us all the work that he has done to bring the winery up to one of the most respected in the region. And then we tasted their wines of course. Starting with their sparkling, having a view over their lake, the vineyard and the Andes is a hard thing to beat. They have several different ranges of wines, from fresh and fruity to more ambitious special selections, some barrel aged, some not.
It was the perfect aperitif before lunch that we had on the terrace at Bousquet’s private restaurant.
Some more mouth-watering views from Domaine Bousquet:
Next door there is another interesting winery. Well, next-door in Mendoza terms. Perhaps four or five kilometres (2-3 miles) away. Salentein vineyards. I thought that Bodegas Salentein did not look particularly impressive when arriving, except that there was a surprisingly large parking. I understood why when I saw that it was not only a winery but also an art museum.
The underground winery, that you don’t see much of from above ground, is built like an amphitheatre. All the barrels are stacked in circles around the middle. In the middle there is …. a grand piano.
The first time I see a grand piano in a wine cellar. It has its explanation. The cellar is built with the acoustics of a concert hall and it is sometimes also used as such. If you stand in the spot in the middle and talk you hear your own voice reflected from all directions. Very curious. Almost spooky.
Another very memorable visit we did in Mendoza was at Bodegas Tempus Alba. Many bodegas (wineries) in Mendoza are very big and impressive, at least compared to most wineries in Europe. Tempus Alba is also impressive, but tiny, in comparison. It is a family vineyard, owned by the Biondolillo family, making some very ambitious wines. Mostly reds but also some whites, for example the very curious sauvignon blanc, unlike any other sauvignon blanc I have tasted.
Sibila Genolet and Mariano Biondolillo also showed us a very interesting research project that they are working on: several hundred different clones of malbec, to refine the best clones on the best soils. I have only seen a similar research project once before at a winery, when I was wine-touring in the Rioja in Spain where Bodegas Roda is doing similar research on tempranillo.
The vineyards in Mendoza actually spreads out over a very large area with several valleys and sub-regions. The most famous place-names are Maipú, Lujan de Cuyo, Uco Valley and Tupungato. We stayed in the city of Mendoza which is in the Central Region. Although it is quite far away from some parts of the wine country it is a very convenient place to stay. There is a good choice of hotels and there are plenty of restaurants.
Wherever we went we were excellently received. Some more wineries that I can recommend to visit: Bodegas Krontiras, a brand-new biodynamic winery; Trapiche, perhaps the biggest of all with a very impressive winery; Bodega Carinae, created by another Frenchman; the big Zuccardi; Catena Zapata with its famous pyramid, Portuguese-owned Finca Flichman, elegant Bodega Melipal; family-owned Bodega Chakana and many more.
But wherever you go in Mendoza, do try to cross the Andes on road and hope for not too much rain!
Links and information:
- Domaine Jean Bousquet
- Bodega Tempus Alba
- Bodega Salentein
- Bodegas Krontiras
- Bodega Carinae
- Catena Zapata
- Finca Flichman
- Bodega Melipal
- Bodega Chakana
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