Learn where to go—and where not to—based on the author’s recent four-day exploration of Mendoza.
During my Argentina vacation this past April, I made sure to include a long weekend in Mendoza, the country’s preeminent wine-producing region. In recent years, it has become renown around the world for its excellent malbecs, among other red varietals. Friends who ventured to Mendoza before me had recommended quite a few wineries (known as bodegas) and restaurants to visit, and based on those, along with my own research, I made an ambitious list for my intended gastronomic feast.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, and incorrect assumptions, I didn’t get to about half the venues I had intended. Still, I had incredible experiences and can’t wait to go back.
So you can be better prepared for your Mendoza wine-tasting visit, here are a few highlights from my trip, integrated into a tip list to make sure you plan the best vacation possible to the region.
Unlike some other wine regions around the world, where you can drive up and get a tour and/or tasting, the wineries in Mendoza require reservations. There are limited slots available, which fill up quickly, with 3 p.m. often the last tour of the day. Plus, many places are not open on Sundays, and some close regularly for special events. The top wineries all have Web sites where you can request your reservation, and many have an English-speaking person on staff to handle phone calls.
Mendoza is a large district, with multiple wine regions and towns within it: Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, San Juan and Valle de Uco are just a few. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to get from one place to another, depending on location and traffic. For one day I had booked a tour and lunch at Familia Zuccardi, located north of Mendoza, starting at 11 a.m., to be followed by a tasting at Catena Zapata, about 30 minutes south at 2 p.m., then one at Achaval Ferrer at 3 p.m. I had been assured that even though it might be a tight fit, I could get all three in.
A friend in the food and wine industry had strongly recommended Familia Zuccardi, saying it was the best meal she had had during her visit. While it was interesting to see a tour of the modernized facilities for mass-produced labels, the meal left much to be desired. (Perhaps the chef she had is no longer at the facility, because all her previous recommendations have been top notch.) The bread served had mold on it, and not only were the dishes mediocre, at best—avoid the olive oil ice cream at all costs—but they were sloppily prepared and took forever to be served, even though we had indicated that we needed to finished with lunch by 1:30 at the latest.
We had to ask for our check no fewer than four times, and it took nearly 40 minutes to receive it and another 10 for the credit card to get processed because the receptionist was on the phone with her boyfriend. During this time, I got locked in one of its bathroom stalls for 15 minutes, and the person who finally came to let me out didn’t even stick around to apologize or see if I was okay. Needless to say, we missed both the Catena and Ferrer tastings, much to my dismay. All this for more than $60 a head.
Some wineries are remotely located down gravel roads with minimal signage. You don’t want to spend your day getting lost. And besides, you’d then have to limit the amount of wine you could indulge in. Your hotel will be able to book a driver for you. We stayed at the Park Hyatt Mendoza—definitely recommended—and our driver was a terrific woman who used to work in the hospitality industry in Miami. It cost about $125 for the day; some places may charge a bit less, but we found $100 to be the average. It was totally worth it, as she not only shared sites and history along the drive, she also called around to find a winery we could get into to make up for our missed tastings the day we visited Zuccardi. We visited LaGarde, which was okay, but a far cry from the quality of the bodegas we missed.
If you live in a culinary capital, such as New York or San Francisco, you probably have standards that are a bit above average because you’re used to getting superior quality and service when dining out. We had dinner one night at 1884 Francis Mallmann, a top-rated restaurant that’s located within Bodega Escorihuela, on the outskirts of Mendoza city. It’s a beautiful, romantic restaurant with a courtyard where chefs grill the succulent meats. Most of the meal was excellent, especially paired with wines from the bodega: try its 2005 Malbec. Our favorites were the ring of fresh bread, the melt-in-your-mouth empanadas, grilled squid with a tomato/avocado salsa, and a sirloin steak marinated in mustard. However, though my roast suckling pig was tender, it was flavorless and had skin that was tough and tasted funky, and the accompanying salad was drenched in dressing. For dessert though, don’t miss the chocolate cake with a liquid center and homemade vanilla ice cream.
I cannot recommend this experience enough. For a set price per person, anywhere from about $150 and up, you can stay at a working ranch or winery, get three fantastic meals per day, including wine parings from the bodegas, and enjoy activities set amid the gorgeous foothills of the Andes Mountain, such as horseback riding, jeep tours, treks or fishing. We stayed at the delightful and authentic El Puesto in Valle de Uco, a little more than an hour south of Mendoza, near Bodega Salentein (another highly recommended winery, but one for which we were not able to get reservations).
The owners Raúl and Raquel Labat are lovely hosts and made us feel right at home. El Puesto’s multitalented ranchhand, Cristobal, led us on a gorgeous horseback ride through the property, with stunning views of the Andes in the near distance, then returned to grill what was arguably the best meal of our entire vacation. (And because one of the Labat daughters works at Catena Zapata, we were able to enjoy its excellent wines with our lunch and dinner after all!) During the summer season, Raul also leads six-day horseback treks across the Andres and into Chile. I’m definitely putting that high on my list of activities for a return trip. Our stay was US$180 per person, plus $60 each for our hotel pick-up in Mendoza and drop-off the next day. Well worth it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum compared to our initial wine-tasting experience, touring and dining at O. Fournier turned out to be bliss in the middle of nowhere. It took nearly an hour from El Puesto to reach its remote location in San Carlos. The ultra-modern buildings of O. Fournier, opened in late 2006, seem to rise out of the stark landscape like an alien spaceship, while most of the processing is done in state-of-the-art facilities underground, complete with stylized lighting and contemporary artwork hung throughout.
The six-course lunch paired with its top-line wines (A$120/US$40) at the sleek Urban en O. Fournier—the bodega’s restaurant that sits over a man-made lake with floor-to-ceiling windows offering unblemished views of the Andes—was unparalleled: from potato croquettes paired with a 2006 Urban Uco sauvignon blanc, to a pea soup with tempura and ham paired with a good and dry B Cruz malbec and merlot blend, to the roast pork served with thinly sliced apples and a dollop of rich cream sauce with a hint of apricot paired with a 2004 Spiga from the owner’s vineyard in Spain. A simple but stunning dessert is vanilla ice cream covered in malbec served with a crisp sugar wafer.
The facilities include meeting and conference rooms, and limited lodging. Plans are in the works for a boutique hotel and spa. Sign me up now.
Private Wine tour I organized with Mendoza Holidays (www.mendozaholidays.com) a special program of wine tasting to help celebrate a milestone birthday. I was impressed with their follow through after I had contacted them for a price quote, which was extremely fair. They spent hours with me on the phone and via email creating and re-adjusting the plan for my husband and I. They were flexible all the way from planning the trip through to the end of our wine tasting day. From the moment I started to arrange the trip with Mendoza Holidays, I knew I could completely trust them to offer us the best Wine Country experience possible. Their thoughtful suggestions and two way communications with choosing the wineries, food pairings and their attention to detail was second to none. I would highly recommend Mendoza Holidays to anyone visiting Mendoza wine country (Argentina) who values customer service and prefers something other than your every day private wine tour.