Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

tango show buenos aires

Dreams and desires in Buenos Aires

El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…

(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)

– Gotan Project, Mi Confesión

We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.

Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.

A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.

I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.

But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.

A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?

Buenos Aires sunset

I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.

Buenos Aires market San Telmo

Grafitti in Buenos Aires

But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.

Buenos Aires architecture

San Telmo flea market

Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.

Buenos Aires opera house

La Boca Buenos Aires

In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.

Palermo, Buenos Aires

La Bombonera

Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.

For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

La Boca Buenos Aires

La Recoleta Buenos Aires

Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.

Street art in Buenos Aires