Mendoza, Argentina's Ruta del Vino

Frederick, a HomeAway staffer, takes a trip through Mendoza's Ruta del Vino

Wines are to northern California what wines are to Mendoza. We took the long distance bus ( Chevallier ) 307 pesos roundtrip out of Buenos Aires on Thursday, arriving in Mendoza early in the morning after a somewhat longer than anticipated bus ride. 

Mendoza is 665 miles (1,074 km) west of Buenos Aires, in the foothills of the Andes. Since it is at a higher elevation (746 meters or 2,449 ft) you could guess it would be cooler than Buenos Aires, but that isn’t the case. This is high desert and the forecast was for low 80s F (upper 20s C), which would be perfect for visiting wine country.

From the city you can see the front range of the Andes and some of the snow capped second range. You have to take a tour to get to the highest, third range. 

After getting settled into our hotel and walking around the town for about 45 minutes I think I had seen most of Mendoza. It is a city of a bit over 100,000 with 800,000 in the metro region, but there isn’t too much to the city itself. All its wonder lies in the outskirts and within the province which shares the same name.

Day 1—Maipu

There are two big wine regions in Mendoza; Maipu and Lujan. If you know northern California wines you can compare Maipu to Sonoma and Lujan to Napa. Maipu generally has smaller wineries that are not well known outside Argentina (or inside Argentina, in many cases). Lujan sports the bigger names and production of Chandon, Norton, Séptima and many others. If you have been lucky enough to have an Argentine wine it will probably have been from Lujan.

What Cabernet Sauvignon grape is to Bordeaux the Malbec grape is to Mendoza. It is a wonderful product that produces a fruity, lightly tannic wine. While very approachable it has a big character that stands up to the heaviest meat dishes.

It was suggested to me to rent a bike and ride from winery to winery. On Friday we took the number 10 bus to Maipu, which is what the other people on the net, and the reception lady told us to take. It is really pretty straighforward, but make sure you take 10/173, otherwise, you might be taking the round about, and will add more time to your trip.

There are numerous versions of the number 10 bus. There are the 10/169, 10/173, 10/174 and several others. We were trying to get to the police station in area of Maipu near where all the bike rentals were. I didn’t realize there was an actual town by that name, which also had a police station. So, make sure that you tell your bus driver, that you are going to be dropped off at the station. If you do happen to miss it, don't worry, for the next km or so, there are an abundance 3-4 bike shops that you can rent your bike from.

Ok, so now I get to the bike rental place. There are several in this area and we chose Coco bike rentals, owned by a very nice and willing to bargain older lady. She was being helped by her grandson. They speak no english, so please have some handy Spanish words, so that the entire process is a breeze. Our hotel did make a reservation to Mr Hugo's bike shop. Which, in retrospect, probably would have rented from him, as he has more of a selection, and newer bikes. The bikes cost us 20 pesos for the whole day. Normally, it is 25 pesos. For those so inclined, he also had a tandem bike available. We did check the prices, it was 45 pesos for the whole day.

We were hurting, as the padding on the bikes, was a little uncomfortable, but the scenic route, and the wine, might have lessen the impact on pain. Tylenol effect, you can say. For the ladies, I would recommend shorts, or capris jeans, that goes a little higher than your ankle. My wife, had to fold down her jeans, to make sure, the chains don't break it in pieces.

First on the list was Bodega Tempus Alba, and to La Rural. At this winery they had a self guided tour through their modern facility. For 25 pesos (about $8 USD) I enjoyed healthy pours of their Tempranillo, Malbec and a blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon called Tempus. I was literally the only person in the winery—I had it all to myself. La Rural, was really good at the same time. The guide did speak English and Spanish. La Rural was also Maipu's designated museum for the area. It shows the vast history of Italian immigrants who came in, and really did back breaking manual labor, so that we can enjoy the wines of Mendoza, as it is now.

After quaffing these world class wines in a perfect setting I proceeded down the road 200 meters to Bodega Viña el Cerno. This was most certainly not a modern operation. I received the tour from an Argentinean who grew up in Toronto and had now come home to Argentina to discover his roots. He showed me around the winery. The most interesting thing. which I found common in many wineries, was the type of fermenters they use. They are concrete blocks of fermenter size that are lined with an inert epoxy. No stainless steel at many of the wineries and el Cerno is one of the old school wineries. The wines were good, but the tasting was free and quite light on ambience and pour amount (poor amount), a theme that would repeat later. I bought a bottle knowing I was going to have to lug it around for the rest of the day.

Riding around and drinking wine gets you hungry. We stopped into Bodega Familia di Tommaso for a late lunch. When we saw “pork with malbec” on the menu we jumped at the chance to eat something green for a change. It turned out to be delicious, especially with a glass of their top of the line Malbec. The wine worked out to be about $6 USD for the glass, a price we were happy to pay.

Since the glass at lunch was so good we decided to buy a bottle of the top line Cab and the Malbec (now I am up to lugging three bottles around and still on a bike). But they had a special stack of bottles that had gone through extensive barrel aging, 3 years, which they were going to label next year and sell as better than their best. I just had to ask, and yes, it was for sale, without the label, for 80 pesos (about $27 USD). I now have a bottle of Don Angelo. And that brought me to four bottles, well beyond my intended limit of zero. I am still on the bike, mind you.

Finishing up the day at Bodega Boutique Carinae was a great way to finish, but I should have heeded the advice in the guidebooks. Carinae was the furthest from Mr. Hugo, and with four bottles weighing me down I chalked off the higher work load to more intense training.

I thought that would be about it, return the bike, get on the 10/173 to Mendoza and crash for the night. Yes, we returned the bike but out came a bottle from a small vineyard that isn’t on anybody’s map.

Day 2 – Lujan

If Day 1 was framed by beautiful weather Day 2 showed how that our beautiful weather can repeat itself in Mendoza. Having not checked the weather we headed out to eat breakfast, at McDonalds. Yes, you got it right, McDonalds. We wanted something fast, economical, so be it. We all got the ham,cheese,bacon bagel. On so we went, to get to get Bus 173, back to Maipu. From Mendoza, you could actually take Bus 1, to go all the way to Lujan. It will drop you off, at Parque San Martin, on their main square on the city of Lujan. 

Having gone through Maipu to get a flavor of that region we decided day two would focus on Lujan. Bigger wineries, more customer focused, open on Saturday which is when day 2 was. Wrong, wrong, wrong again. It is odd to me that the easiest days for customers to get to you, Saturday and Sunday, is when most of the wineries close to visitors. If they are open it is by appointment only. And only on their terms. Really strange. Quite Argentine.

We stood outside the gate of Alta Vista, our first port-o-call for at least half an hour. The guard had told us the guide would let us join another group, but instead of inviting us inside we dutifully stood outside in the heat. Outside meaning outside the gate. Not even on the property.

We eventually got in and took the tour of this well designed facility. They have all the gold and silver competition medals to show for their hard work. Knowing I would have to get the wine into my suitcase to get back to BA. 

We called a couple other wineries we were interested in visiting but no one was home. Again, I just can’t quite believe it, but there you go. This is of course, with Remis, that we pick up in Maipu, was still running its meter. At this time, we have a 50 peso tab. But, we would not change it one bit, as cab drivers, in my case for example, was very knowledgeable of the area, and give you tidbits of information about the bodegas.

So on we went. We walked back out to the main drag, San Martin, and up toward a restaurant recommended by Alta Vista. It turned out to be much more a hike than we anticipated, but when we got there we were told they were closed. Now we are cold, hungry, thirsty and getting more of each by the minute. We need food. We want wine. It didn’t matter. Nowhere to go.

Eventually, after walking for what felt like days we came upon Bodega Lagarde. They were pretty close to closing but we convinced them it was in their best interest to ply us with liquor. Their wines were good but very expensive no matter what currency you were using.

With our attitudes appropriately adjusted we headed out to what turned a harsh, hot day into a magical treat. Carmelo Patti is a family owned bodega. Really family owned. Dad was away on business and in his absence his estate was ably managed by his three daughters. It wasn’t always that way.

One of his daughters was our guide. She told us that the entire operation was her father and one other employee and that when he would travel for business they closed the winery. The three daughters noticed customers were interested but were getting turned away, so they started getting more active in the company and kept it running, especially when dad was away. Today it is open every day but Sunday which is reserved for family. At the winery we saw kids playing soccer, riding bikes, someone was grilling meats for the family dinner. Real, normal, family stuff.

Inside the bodega we saw a mixture of old and new styles. They had the concrete/epoxy fermenters side-by-side with new stainless fermenters. Everything is hand done, including every single label, cork and foil capsule of their 60,000 bottle production. According to dad’s quality control, every label must be straight or it is removed to be relabeled. You should see the intricate three label set up for their sparkling wine. It looked absolutely perfect—better than a machine. And I guess that’s the point.

These wines were quite expensive, as well, but the taste put them into the top tier of wines worldwide and worth every penny. They have the press and ratings to support their prices. We were guaranteed their products are available in BA, so I intend to search them out.

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