By Marcela Gómez
Photos: Demian Colman
We bid farewell to Luján de Cuyo on a sunny afternoon, savoring the abundant menu on the terrace of the Otaviano Winery. The timing was perfect: the winds had died down, the temperature was deliciously warm, and the valleys —dry and without grapes, since the 2017 harvest had already been collected— served as an atrium for the imposing backdrop of the Andes Mountains, the snowy peaks of which were shining like never before.
As we had for the three days prior to our departure, we drank rivers of wine and ate in bulk. The chef spoke of the importance of fire in Argentine gastronomy as he stirred the aromatic chops on a disk inside the fireplace. He served empanadas as an appetizer and lunch was accompanied by more than four kinds of wine for a meal that combined the best of everything: the Penedo Borges wine went well with the empanadas (perhaps a varietal), the meat (the iconic Malbec), the vegetables grilled in the fireplace (probably an Expresión Parcela), and the exquisite dessert (the Expresión Terroir…? Impossible to remember which was which). And so it went during our time in Mendoza, visiting the wine routes just before Copa Airlines launched its new flight to this southern destination.
Not only does Mendoza produce 70% of Argentina’s wine, it is also one of the world’s nineGreat Wine Capitals, chosen for the high quality of the wine they produce. The other capitals are Bilbao-Rioja (Spain), Bordeaux (France), Verona (Italy), Adelaide (Australia), Mainz-Rheinhessen (Germany), Porto (Portugal), San Francisco-Napa Valley (United States), and Valparaíso-Casablanca Valley (Chile). Together, they constitute a global network aimed at promoting tourism, culture, and wine-related commercial exchanges.
Those interested in visiting Mendoza to learn more about this culture must begin by choosing either the North, South, East, or Uco Valley routes. We began in the North, on the route from Luján de Cuyo to Maipú, in Malbec territory, where the country’s characteristic grape grows. Here, more than half of the wineries are open to the public and offer delights for all the senses.
In Luján de Cuyo, we visited Entre Cielos, which is the result of one of those dreams that only rarely becomes reality. In this case, it was the dream of a group of Swiss businessmen who one day decided that it was time for them to have their own vineyard. They went out into the world to look for their dream place and, as they now recall, “We knew as soon as we saw the property, with its incredible views of the mountains and its starry night sky, that this was where we wanted to stay.”
In 2009, a commission of twelve, including grandparents, grandchildren, and brothers and sisters, settled here to create the Entre Cielos Luxury Wine Hotel + Spa. The development is built on a total of 20 acres sown with Malbec vines and featuring a 16-room boutique hotel. The best of these rooms is the Vineyard Loft, a platform suspended over the vineyard with skylights to allow guests to enjoy the starry sky at night. There is also a hamam (traditional Turkish bath set up in stages of heat-massage-cold), which, they claim, is the only truly complete hamam in all of Latin America.
From Entre Cielos we move on to Cecchin, a traditional farm that prides itself on producing wines free of chemical aggregates. The vineyards are old, dating from 1923, and sown and harvested using totally traditional methods. The guide explains that an organic wine can only be created in a setting of natural harmony, where the vines coexist with herbs and other fruit trees, in an ecologically balanced environment. The fruit must be harvested at the precise moment, respecting space and time. This vineyard has a limited production, just 40 bunches per plant, but the grapes are of the highest quality. A total of 27 acres are planted with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and white grapes. They produce 700,000 bottles per year (80% for export), labeled and bottled by hand. Some 3,120 gallons are stored in 70 concrete tanks; only the “reserve” wines are aged in oak barrels.
No visit to Cecchin is complete without tasting the cuisine of chef Victor Hugo, the local alchemist. He expounds, with a traditional tango paying in the background, on his idea of making diners feel at home by giving them a “taste of grandmother’s cooking.”
The Wonderful Uco Valley
We had enough time for a visit to the Uco Valley, one of Mendoza’s invaluable oases, where the human touch has rendered the desert productive. Irrigation, since pre-Columbian times, has been achieved by channeling melted ice through the famous irrigation canals that crisscross the valley. The Andes, and the perfect white cone of the Tupungato volcano, are therefore more than just a backdrop; they are also essential to the regional economy.
We arrive next at Piedra Infinita, the Zuccardi wine cellar, in the department of San Carlos. There, Fernando Raganato Mendoza and Eduardo Vera, architects and landscapers, took advantage of the land’s natural rocks and the desert plants to create a garden that leads, between mirrors of water, up to the building. The entire complex was built in harmony with the surroundings using materials provided by the earth. The walls represent the different faces of the mountains and the windows represent caverns. Upon reaching the front door, the visitor is greeted by the final work of sculptor Roberto Rosas, delivered shortly before his death: a beautiful portal inspired by the farm’s vegetation. The complex was awarded an international architectural prize in 2016, and for good reason: inside, even the forklifts resemble museum pieces.
Since 20018, the winery has maintained a ‚Äã‚Äãresearch and development department dedicated to the study of the terroir and the variables that account for the quality of the wine. The goal, according to Sebastián Zuccardi, third generation descendant of the founder, is “not to look for perfect wines, but for those that express the land where the grape grew.” In fact, the conjugation of multiple microclimates, altitudes, and soil types, as well as the care given the vineyard, results in multiple terroirs. Efforts are made to respect this heterogeneity, highlighting the essence of the terroir and managing each plant in a unique way to ensure that the grapes express the identity of their origin.
Our tour continues and we witness once again how Mendoza has served as a utopian setting for so many dreamers. Alpasión is further proof of this. About ten years ago, after a few glasses of fine wine, a group of friends of different nationalities decided to create emblematic wines bearing their “fingerprint” and signature. They searched for the finest territory to make their dream come true and today, the label on their wines bears the mark and signature of the owners. Passion is, in fact, so central to the whole project that they decided to name their inaugural wine “Alpasión,” a combination of the words for “soul” and “passion” in Spanish. The exquisitely decorated rooms in the lodge and the mountainous desert landscape out the windows convince even the most skeptical to enjoy the experience.
Andeluna is another of the many wineries that has opened its doors to tourism. In the midst of this 200-acre property stands the 48,000 square foot cellar, where temperature and humidity are controlled and some 265 million gallons of wine are stored in stainless steel tanks and 1,200 barrels. In addition to the exceptional landscape, there is a bar and wine shop, a cellar for tastings, and an open kitchen that connects the dining room and the conference room.
I can’t say how many days it would take to visit all the Mendoza wineries, but I doubt there is a liver that could handle it. Tastings usually include from three to six wines and the snacks that accompany them are as tempting as the exquisite menus of their kitchens. We recommend consulting the guide found at www.caminosdelvino.org.ar/ and making a random selection. None of the routes on offer will disappoint the traveler.
Copa Airlines offers four weekly flights to Mendoza from North, Central, South America and the Caribbean through the Hub of the Americas in Panama City.
The city of Mendoza has many comfortable hotels such as the Park Hyatt, the Intercontinental, and the Sheraton, where wine tasting bars provide a good idea of the regional viticulture.
Travel agencies offer complete packages with visits to the various wine routes as well as other activities such as mountaineering, speleology, rafting, and mountain biking.
In late February, during the harvest season, Mendoza celebrates the National Harvest Festival with ten nights of shows, parties, and parades.