Traditional and rapidly modernizing in the same breath, Mendoza's wineries have embraced tourism over the past few years. Many now have English-speaking guides and extensive barrel tastings, and have begun to charge for visits. They are generally easily accessible along wine roads, known locally as Los Caminos del Vino. These roads are as enticing as the wine itself, weaving and winding through tunnels of trees to vast dry valleys dominated by breathtaking views of the snowcapped Andes. Some roads climb as high as 1,524m (4,999 ft.) in the High Zone surrounding the Mendoza River, while others lead to lower-level vineyards in the south. Mendoza's wine region is divided into four zones: the High Zone, Mendoza South, Uco Valley, and Mendoza East. We cover the first three: Mendoza East is mostly large industrial vineyards that make Argentine "table wine" (low in both quality and price) and aren't set up for tourists. To the south, San Rafael is a somewhat distant and off-the-beaten track fourth area covered here. Be sure to pick up the essential collection of maps, "Caminos del Vino." At $8 (£5.40), they're the best investment you'll make in Mendoza. They're available at most hotels and at the wine shops in Mendoza. The mapmaker's new website, www.caminosdelvino.com, is an excellent place to get a head start on your planning.
Taking Wine Home
Argentine wines are becoming more and more popular in North America and Europe, but you won't find many of the best vintages at home yet. Here are some tips for bringing a few bottles home with you.
- Although Customs rules depend on your home country, in general you can take as many bottles back as you can carry, provided they are for personal use. Legally, you are usually allowed to bring three bottles duty-free, but if you bring more (say, up to six), just declare them at Customs. If the charge isn't waived completely, it's usually small, based either on the alcohol-per-liter ratio or on the price of the bottle. More than six bottles and you're likely to be paying a visit to Customs officers, who will tax you.
- Exporting more than a dozen bottles is more complicated. You should discuss the logistics thoroughly with authorities in your country before your trip.
- Due to recent changes in airline security, you need to limit the amount of liquid you take with you as a carry-on. Therefore, I recommend you put the wine bottles in your checked luggage, keeping weight limits in mind. Pack them well! You can buy wine bags and Styrofoam spacers from wine stores in Mendoza. Try Pura Cepa, Sarmiento 644 (tel. 261/423-8282), or Marcelino, at the corner of Zapata y Benegas (tel. 261/429-3648). They run about $15 (£10) each. Many bodegas will also help you package special bottles for international travel, and they can help arrange for larger purchases as well. The best option is to buy special boxes with foam hollows for 6 or 12 bottles. These boxes come with handles for comfortable traveling.
- Another option is to send bottles directly home via a courier service. Ask at the bodega or wine store for more information. It runs about $15 (£10) a bottle.
- Know that your home state or province determines the regulations you must follow. To be 100% certain you're not treading into dark waters, consult local authorities before your trip.
How to See the Vineyards
The list of vineyards is enormous, the road maps unfamiliar, and the options endless. How exactly should you plan to make the most of your time in Mendoza? You have choices. First, you can sign up for a fully organized multiday trip led by a local guide, who takes care of all the logistics and leads you into the heart of the wine land. This is the easiest way to do it. You can also just join an organized tour for a day or two. Going on your own is another option. You can hire a remise for the day, call in advance to book your reservations, and head out. Renting a car is another alternative, but beware of drinking and driving! Finally, renting a bike gives the day a leisurely pace, but be weary of Mendocino drivers!
Practically all local bodegas now open their doors to tourists; some even offer guest rooms -- a fabulous trend that is definitely on the rise. If you fall in love with a particular vineyard, ask if they have guest rooms and see if you can stay the night. What makes a good bodega tour is a bilingual, educated, and charming guide, and an opportunity to taste some of their best wines at the end.
Make the Most of Your Bodega Day!
- Schedule three or four bodegas to visit per day at the most. Select a variety of sizes (large, medium, small) and styles (modern, traditional, boutique). Stop for lunch at the middle bodega or at a restaurant in the wine areas.
- Rest well the night before you hit the bodegas. Tours provide plenty of information and sampling, and you will want to be alert enough to soak it all in.
- The sun is hot in Mendoza, and weather can be dry, given the high altitude. The wineries and cellars can be chilly, however, so bring a sweater, even if it's hot outside.
- Hire a remise driver or guide for most days, but treat yourself to 1 day spent roaming the vineyards on bicycle. You will be forced to go at a slower pace and to ride the back roads of the rolling countryside.
- Don't wear perfume or lipstick, which distract from the aroma of the wines.
- Note that many bodegas accept only cash for wine purchases, particularly those that do not have on-site restaurants. Be sure to stop by an ATM before heading out.
The High Zone that surrounds the Mendoza River includes Luján de Cuyo and Maipú. This first zone is best regarded for its production of Malbec, although cabernet sauvignon, chenin, merlot, chardonnay, and Syrah are all bottled here as well. Many of the bodegas in this zone lie within 1 hour's drive of Mendoza, making tours very convenient. I suggest you begin your touring here, where there is great variety and many visitor-friendly bodegas to choose from. South of Mendoza, the beautiful and rural Uco Valley Region, including Tunuyán, Tupungato, and San Carlos, produces excellent Malbec, Semillon (a white), and Torrontés (another white, very floral, like a Muscadet, and more common in Salta). Allow at least 2 hours to reach this area. It's a long drive but certainly worth the effort. Farthest away, the South Region, between San Rafael and General Alvear, is fed by the Atuel and Diamante rivers. Its best varieties are Malbec, Bonarda, and cabernet sauvignon. Off the tourist track, you will need at least a day to visit this region.
The Mendoza East Region is the province's largest wine-producing area in terms of quantity (not necessarily quality). There is little tourism infrastructure here.
With so many wineries (more than 650 at last count), it can be difficult to figure out which to visit. Some are massive, modern industrial complexes funded by foreign investors. Others are traditional "boutique" wineries run by the same family for generations. Most are open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and Saturdays 10am to 3pm; some are now open from noon to 3pm on Sundays, although the Sunday visit slots are usually booked up early. Reservations are usually required for visits. Wineries are increasingly charging for visits, partly to offset the fact that visitors are buying less wine in-house due to luggage restrictions. Still, compared to elsewhere in the world, a $7 (£4.75) tasting remains a bargain.
Sunday Hours -- Sunday is a day for Argentines to be with family and have an asado barbecue. In Mendoza, as in most of the country, most shops, restaurants, and wineries are not open, with the exception of a handful of bodegas and the local mall (Mendoza Shopping Plaza).
Local tour operators have the inside scoop on everything from booking rural inns to in-depth presentations on the local wine scene. They can make your time in Mendoza more carefree, helping you navigate the rural roads of Mendoza, and narrowing down the hundreds of bodegas to choose from. All you have to do is relax, soak up the gorgeous views, and indulge in some fabulous food and wine.
Ampora Wine Tours (tel. 261/429-2931; www.mendozawinetours.com) offers small-group wine tours that visit some of the most interesting wineries in the area. Groups run from two to eight, and trips to either Luján-Maipú or the Valle de Uco, go out just about every day. Their guides are friendly and trips include a big lunch, with wine of course.
Bikes and Wines (tel. 261/410-6686; www.bikesandwines.com) rents bikes from a handful of spots in the wine country (you can take a local bus to get their hubs), provides an easy-to-follow self-guided route map that includes a handful of close-by bodega visits, and books you for lunch. The first winery visit is "free," and then the rest have a charge. While the concept of bike tours in wine country may be successful in other parts of the world, it's still problematic here. Mendocinos are notoriously aggressive drivers, and bike lanes are nonexistent! This is the most budget-conscious (if adrenaline-charging) way to see the wineries.
Mendoza Holidays (tel. 261/429-7730; www.mendozaholidays.com) has private 1-day tours in the wine country starting at $165 (£112) and multiday tours in wine country that include lodging. It also organizes ski trips to Las Leñas, starting at $1,000 (£676) a week.
Trout & Wine (tel. 261/429-8302; www.troutandwine.com) runs in-depth and personalized wine tours in Maipú, Uco Valley, and Luján de Cuyo. They know the people behind almost every vineyard in the area, offering a chance to get a more personalized, close-up experience. Tours are limited to six people, and special tastings are arranged. Guests also get a gift pack of wine. As their name suggests, they also run fly-fishing tours.
Uncorking Argentina (tel. 916/396-0456 or 261/429-6955; www.uncorkingargentina.com) is run by a transplanted Californian who has a deep knowledge of wine and has friends throughout the local wine country -- a "wine educator" whose trips are informative, in-depth, and fun. All-inclusive 9-day tours start at $2,800 (£1,893). She also teaches short wine-tasting classes if you have a free evening and want to brush up before you head out.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.