Tag Archive: Mendoza wine country

For reasons unclear this remaining blog entry from my Argentina trip has remained parked in “draft” mode for over two years, but the experience is far too rich not to share, and it’s a fitting epilogue!

Bodega Norton Mendoza grapes on the vine

A taste for Malbec honed during my visit to Mendoza and regularly refreshed to this day is a constant reminder of a entire delightful day spent winery-hopping. A privately guided tour and tastings at three Mendoza wineries is my only real splurge on this trip.

The cultivation of grapes and the making of wine has been a part of Argentina since the Spaniards and Jesuits first arrived almost 500 years ago. British investment funded the development Argentina’s railroads and Edmund Norton was the British engineer responsible for pushing the track through the Andes. In 1895 he began importing French vines to establish the winery in Mendoza which still bears his name. It’s just one more aspect of the Anglo-Argentine connection which emphatically contradicts the message of the brief Malvinas conflict.

All of the Mendoza vineyards I visit have two things in common. One is the canopy screens suspended above the vineyards to protect them from frequent hailstorms peculiar to this microclimate. I’m told that the Argentine air force is actually employed to seed storm clouds in order to blunt storm development. The other is an irrigation system that stores mountain runoff in dammed lakes and delivers it to the otherwise arid region either as drip irrigation or the older field-flooding method. Interestingly enough, historical accounts confirm that the Spaniards found upon first arriving in the area that indigenous peoples had employed a similar method to irrigate their crops there for centuries.

Bodega Norton Mendoza vineyards with Andes backdrop

The quality of this memorable day has lots to do with my tour guide Cecilia and her remise driver Roberto.(Find her company here.)

Cecilia speaks excellent English and patiently endures my torrent of questions about daily life in Argentina that have nothing whatsoever to do with Mendoza or winemaking. A designated driver notwithstanding, they wisely determine that a scheduled first tasting a bit before noon strongly suggests a 3-winery limit to my day. They couldn’t have chosen three wineries capable of delivering a more diverse experience.

Bodega Norton. The view from the Norton vineyards of the snow-capped Andes, rising high above the two lower, nearer ranges, is postively breathtaking.   Norton was among the first of the Argentine wineries to make a name for itself in the States when Argentina began in the ’90’s to shift from production of inexpensive wines for domestic consumption to quality wines for export.

State-of-the-art equipment at Bodega Norton

The vineyards and winery are now privately held by the Swarovski family of crystal glass fame, and their investment has updated it into a state-of-the-art winery.

Bodega Norton cellars

The tasting room is contemporary in its design and the vats are all stainless steel, but there’s lots of charm remaining in cellars racked with miles of bottles!

Find more on Bodega Norton here.

Bodega Alta Vista cellar

Bodega Alta Vista.  More history remains intact at Bodega Alta Vista than at  Norton even though it, too, is now owned by a multi-national winemaker.

Bodega Alta Vista concrete vats

Bodega Alta Vista tasting room

Most interesting here were the old concrete vats still in use. In order to maintain the proper temperature during the coolest months of the year, the original owners stoked wood fires under the vats.

Find more on Bodega Alta Vista here.

Lids from old casks at Bodega LaGarde

Bodega La Garde.  If I had in my mind’s eye an image of the quintessential Mendoza winery it’s Bodega LaGarde, which has been family owned and operated since 1897.

Old wine press at Bodega LaGarde

The city has crept to the winery’s edge in the years since it was built, but it still retains all of the charm of an old country chateau.

Old pump at Bodega LaGarde

Scattered across the grounds are winemaking implements from a bygone age.

Bread ovens Bodega LaGarde

A master chef serves gourment meals in a beautiful dining room, and it is here that we lunch fashionably late in the day.  The atmosphere is serenely other-wordly, authentic and timeless.

Restaurant at Bodega LaGarde

I could sit here until the moon rises, but I have a morning flight back to Buenos Aires.   The Malbec here is exquisite, and three bottles of the 2007 D.O.C. are headed for my bags and on to the States.

Find more on Bodega La Garde here.

Read my other posts from Mendoza:

• “The Omnibus.” Forget everything you’ve learned about bus travel in the States and take a luxury bus across the Pampas. Cappuccino, anyone?

• “Mendoza First Impressions.” European architecture and the casual class of winemaking towns all over the world make for a hugely pleasant surprise here at the far edge of the Pampas.

• “The End Of West.” Travel into the Andes past hot springs used by the Incas and on to the Chilean border.

• “Leaving Mendoza”. Magical light and lively music fills the air on my last evening stroll around the city.


Leaving Mendoza

Mendoza may sit at the periphery of Argentine geography, but is also the subcontinental crossroads.  As such it seems to look more to the west and to connect more closely to the region’s indigenous cultures than does Buenos Aires.

The earthquake which in 1861 wiped Mendoza’s geographic slate almost cleans seems also to have freed it of many vestiges of Spanish colonialism.  The ornate architecture that everywhere else marks the alliance of the Hapsburg monarchy and Jesuits is noticeably absent in the orderly geometry of its broad streets and public parks, and in the Latin contemporary lines of a more subdued skyline that conforms to the land rather than imposes upon it.

Mendoza vineyard against Andes Mountains backdrop

Few crops require a more highly tuned sensibility to the relationship between harvest and end product as the one between grapes and wine.  That same sensibility seems to have translated into an aesthetic reflected in parks, monuments, performing arts, and dining that far exceed expectations of a city this size.

Andean earthquakes and avalanches, a propensity for harvest-threatening hailstorms, and the vineyards’ ever-present thirst for irrigation seem to have instilled in this place a clearer sense of man’s vulnerability to nature, and a longer view of its own economic rhythms.


Restaurant along the Plaza Independencia, Mendoza

It is after sunset as I venture out onto Mendoza’s streets.  Warm light spills over diners seated in stylish sidewalk cafes as aproned waiters ferry meals out to them.  I wander down the block to the Plaza Independencia where a Christmas tableau stands outlined in colorful lights.




Arrayed in a semicircle around the vast square are artisans at their booths, many working at their crafts as residents of all ages stroll among them.

Puppet artisan booth, Plaza Independence, Mendoza





A young guitarist strums soulful American blues as the beat of Latin drums begins to pulse at the opposite end of the plaza.  A Christmas theme headlines at the performing arts theater across the way, but American jazz appears prominently in its schedule of upcoming shows.

Tonight I fly back to Buenos Aires, and it will be interesting to see how it will now feel in contrast to this place… and how this place will look as seen in B.A.’s rear-view mirror.

The end of west

As the wheels roll it’s about 100 miles from Mendoza to the Chilean border, but that’s only the short of it.

Andes Mountains near Mendoza, Argentina

Most of the serpentine route winds upward into the Andes, sometimes for miles at a time behind a semi truck or tour bus, and on the way it passes through several micro-climates and a thousand or so years of human history.  Even now in the heart of the Argentine summer there is snow on every peak in sight at the far end of the trip and a couple of the waystations resume their real lives as ski lodges every winter.  There you can stop for coffee and a hot meal, purchase bottles of Malbec or boxes of chocolates made in local villages along the route, or collect campy souvenirs.

The trip starts out feeling like the westward drive from Northern California or the state of Washington; the first vineyards appear within twenty minutes or so.  In fifteen minutes more, though, they give way abruptly to an arid landscape in which grows only sagebrush and wisps of desert grasses.  Later in the trip lichens and button-sized flowers  join this minimalist botanical garden and in a few small, fertile valleys oases of trees briefly appear, but these are not your Doug-fir-and-redwoods kind of mountains.

Here the earth is laid open in great, tilted slabs.  Sometimes it is stratified like slices of a giant layer cake and sometimes it lies congealed like icing dripped down its slides, but everywhere it is awe-inspiring in its grand scope.  Here primeval, molten earth is set in stone as a palette of  ochre and basalt and teal.  Where aeons of erosion have dissolved it into flake and silt, the cracks and crags and crevices are filled in smooth with a rainbow array of watercolor streaks.  Boulders ranging in size from refrigerator to boxcar litter the landscape, sometimes interrupted mid-slope in their rolling fall and elsewhere littered in mounds at the mountain’s base.

Bridge used to pass into Peru by liberator José de San Martín

A third or more of the way to the border a section of the old highway makes an off-road loop.  I follow it to the remnants of a stone bridge built across a tributary of the Rio Mendoza in 1817 by the army of General José de San Martin as his army, fresh from the liberation of Argentina from the Spanish, went on to liberate Chile and much of Peru.

Two-thirds of the way I encounter along the roadside clustered sheds and lean-tos of a bazaar from which hang brightly colored blankets and clothing in native patterns.

The work of artisans in leather and wood and silver and glass is displayed among them upon dozens of tables, but at the first I see everyday objects like running shoes that look as if they have been wetted and dipped in mustard-colored sand.

Shoes calcified by the hot springs, El Puente de los Incas, Andes

Just beyond the tables and booths lies a giant crevasse split by a stream, and from a building perched on the opposite side giant, fantastic shapes in the same color seem to drip into the water below, streaked also with white and pink and gold.  It is a hot spring, and the molten shapes are mineral deposits laid down over the centuries.  The running shoe sculptures that first greeted me have been suspended in their water until covered by petrified mineral shells.

El Puente de los Incas, Andes Mountains near Mendoza

This place was known to the Spaniards and long before them regularly visited by the Incas in their western-most travels.  It is in fact called El Puente de los Incas: Inca Point.  Ruins on the opposite side in the shadow of the mountain beyond are the remains of a modern spa crushed in 1971 by a landslide.

A railroad once ran alongside the river back in the day when Butch and Sundance were robbing banks to the north in Bolivia, but now only its skeleton tracks and decaying bridges remain, crisscrossing the road carrying the busses and semis and cars  that have replaced it.  Fallen timbers and rockpile foundations of  long-gone depots and coaling stations punctuate the tracks.  In places the split ends of rails curve upward like coiled springs sprung.  In others they lie draped like melted strands over gullies where wooden bridges have long ago decayed or their timber has been pilfered.  Decades of falling rock have in some places obliterated the railbed with piles of stone and in others made swiss chees of corrugated iron rock-fall shields as if in some giant shooting gallery.

Abaondone rail terminal at Chilean-Argentinian border

At Las Cuevas, the last station before the Chilean border, a faded sign at a long-closed customs station whispers “Bienvenido a Argentina.”

The new highway border station looks a lot like a toll-booth, and this is the place to turn around unless you’re going on to Santiago, Chile.  Even as a non-stop drive the trip back feels long, but it’s a one-of-a-kind that can be experienced no other way.  To come this far and miss it is to leave an important page missing in your catalogue of the Argentine experience.

Mendoza first impressions

Like Denver, Mendoza is nested tightly against the east side of a spectacular mountain range whose foothills spill over to within a few miles.  As in Denver, I notice for the first time mixed among the bus terminal throngs faces that are clearly indigeno – native American.  On the way from the bus terminal to the hotel, my taxista tells me that 1.6 million people live here and I believe him, but the open skies of this sprawling low-rise city belie it.

My hotel is situated along a broad main street and on this Saturday mid-afternoon I venture out between a nap and a city tour scheduled to follow before evening begins.  Traffic on the avenida is light, and the next block down is occupied by hostels and restaurants and lined by late-model parked cars. Early Bird dinner specials may just be beginning back in the States, but here the Latin lunch is barely ended.

Streetside dining, Avenida Sarmiento, Mendoza

In contrast to B.A., where restauranteurs drag a few extra tables onto the sidewalk when the weather’s good, it’s clear that sidewalk dining is a fixture here.  Sidewalks separate restaurants from outdoor tables stacked three and four deep and covered by permanent-looking awnings with foul weather flaps neatly rolled up underneath. The main dining rooms are decorated in a casual brand of Old World elegance.  I lazily pick the one nearest to the hotel, where the menu runs a dozen pages and includes not only traditional Argentine dishes, but Continental specialties.  And then there’s the wine list, which runs even longer.  It’s ordered not by variety, but by local chateau, and I now know that I am in serious wine country.

Parched from the long bus ride,  I commit the ultimate blasphemy by first ordering a beer to quench my thirst.  The waiter arrives with a bottle of the local Quilmes that I swear is 750 ml large and served in an iced bucket as if it was champagne… along with a pair of empanadas that has also somehow sneaked onto my order.  I tell myself that I’m saving my appetite for dinner.  The crowd here is both young and old and clearly far more casual and laid-back than even in mellow B.A.  This place feels so much like Northern California that I wonder if some secret society of vintners stamps its cultural imprint on every place in which the grape is grown.  Think Big Sur or Mendocino with a gaucho twist:  Two tables down a striking,olive-skinned Latina in European designer glasses sits opposite a bearded guy in a plaid short-sleeved shirt , his baseball cap planted firmly over a bandana headdress.  Los viejos – the older ones – wear polo shirts beneath their sports coats.  If B.A. has wrung the pretension out of its European roots, then Mendoza has wrung from B.A. its essence, erasing the lines and leaving only the light and color as if in some Impressionist painting.

The empanadas hit the spot.  I apologize to my waiter for my poor Spanish, a tack which invariably earns both sympathy and magnanimity, before forging ahead.  I’m tempted to order una copa de vino – a glass of wine – but I can’t seem to find on the menu any selections by the glass and the price of a full bottle here is less than that of a tasteless Stateside flight.  I ask the waiter to pick me out a Malbec and for good measure to tack onto my order  two yet-untried flavors of empanadas.  He brings me a half-split that’s on par with the best bottle I’ve yet tasted Stateside. I spoon some killer salsa chimichurra over the empanadas, uncaring that it’s probably intended just for steak.  A joke spreads from the diners a couple of tables away to their waiter and from him to the next table and their waiter and to the table beyond.  This is decidedly looser than even mellow B.A. and I am enjoying the tableau as much as if I was a participant. I’m prepared to die at this moment a very happy man.

The empanadas have fallen short of absorbing the Quilmes + Malbec, but I’ve committed to the City Tour at 4 and I’m a man of my word.  I exchange names and shake hands with my waiter Mario, tip him generously, and haul myself and my fresh buzz back to the hotel.  All of this, incidentally, has cost me little more than US$15… with tip.

Parque San Martin, Mendoza

The City Tour turns out to be much more about listening to the guide lecture than about photo opps, which does not bode well for a gringo with bad Spanish and a camera, but it gives me the lay of the land for forays to follow.  It also includes a magnificent view of the city from a mountainside monument and one of the most spectacular metropolitan parks I’ve seen anywhere. Satisfying as my sleep on the bus may have felt, I’m apparently still running a sleep deficit because I’m catapulted into an impromptu nap as soon as I reach my hotel room; I emphatically deny that the Malbec had any part in this.

My “short” nap ends when I awaken abruptly nearly 4 hours later at 10:45PM.  In the States my dining options would now be limited to IHOP or Denny’s, but I am thankfully in Argentina.  I pop out onto the sidewalk where lights are blazing up and down the block and patio dining is raging at full tilt.  I’m torn between my newfound loyalty to the Estancia La Florentine and the equally tempting Giovanni’s across the street.  I rationalize that my La Florentine waiter Mario is now off-duty and that it’s not really cheating on him if I sample Giovanni’s, where the lighting is not quite as bright nor the tables quite as packed with large parties.

It’s late, so I pass over entrees like the quarter chicken – I’m certain that buried somewhere among the entrees is also a quarter steer – and take the easy way out. I graze my way tapas-style through a fistful of empanadas and some pumpkin soup.  Once again I do the I-only-want-a-glass-of-wine routine and once again I end up with a tasty Malbec split.  The empanadas – the spiced meat criolla is fast becoming a new favorite – are outstanding, but the pumpkin soup is exquisite.  As he clears the table my waiter asks how I like it.  I tell him more truthfully than he knows Spanish words fail me, and – arm outstretched – pantomime myself mainlining it directly into my veins.  He laughs at the crazy gringo, but I think he’s warming up to me.

Now the moment of truth has arrived:  To dessert or not to dessert.  It quickly become obvious that my waiter Diego’s practice of reciting the choices in Spanish isn’t going to fly, and we retreat to the menu where I pick out the flan de casera.  It is, however, not that simple:  I can have it con crema or con dulce de leche.  It’s already a foregone conclusion that before the trip is done I’ll have to return to the jogging trail at that magnificent urban park and do penance for the sins I’ve already committed, so I take the plunge and go for the dulce de leche.  I decline an accompanying coffee; these guys are purists who refuse to serve decaf and the gargantuan dollop of  dulce de leche containsenough sugar to keep me bouncing off the hotel room walls for the rest of the night.  And anyway it’s now past midnight and I leave at (OUCH!) 7AM for the High Mountain tour.  I ask reluctantly for the check and find that I’ve yet again failed to break the US$20 barrier, with tip.

My hotel is mercifully within eyesight of Giovanni’s, which is a good thing because the dulce de leche has just hooked up with the Malbec somewhere just south of my aorta and my brain isn’t quite certain if I’m coming or going.  I stand waiting in front of the elevator for the longest time until I remember that it’s one of those quant antiques which requires you to open a hinged door, pull back an accordion gate, and navigate yourself to your floor of choice. I have to remind myself to close the door and the gate behind me upon entering.

On the way up I replay the phone call received from the tour operator earlier in the day recommending that I substitute the High Mountain tour for the Canyon Tour.  It turns out, she tells me, that the photogenic clouds I saw on the bus ride here were the remnants of a storm that washed out some roads normally used by the Canyon Tour.  Then she blows completely past the TMI (too-much-information) threshold to tell me that as a result of the storm it took two days for them to retrieve the guests from last Thursday’s 1-day Canyon Tour.  Then she breaks her own freshly-minted TMI record to share with me that 4 casualties ( as in “mortalities”) resulted from a storm-induced the landslide.

I’m thinking that tomorrow morning I may forego my ritual cappuccino and instead get myself down to the local cathedral to light a few candles for them… and perhaps for myself.

I’ve previously travelled by bus into Mexico and there was pleasantly surprised both by the spacious seats and video entertainment of its premier class service, and by bus terminals that rivaled many U.S. airports in size.  This still left me unprepared for the scope and quality of bus service in Argentina.  (For the record, this overnight trip of around 600 miles with two meals costs approximately US$80.)

The B.A. Omnibus Terminal sits downtown very near the railroad’s Retiro Station and is a city unto itself.  When I arrive around 6:30PM for my 7:45 departure the crowds in the pre-boarding areas are heavy but orderly.  Dozens of shops, snack bars, and restaurants are doing a brisk business, and waiting passengers watch pay-per-view video at chairside kiosks. Outbound schedules for each departure lounge flicker across giant reader-boards, and arrivals and departures for the entire terminal appear on video screens everywhere.  The volume is awesome.  Just to display all current departures the screens must refresh three times. Upcoming departures are added and old ones retired every three or four minutes and only about 20 minutes pass between each new posting, so this is not a travel choice for the inattentive!

Through the lounge windows I see big tourist-sized busses parked side-by-side in angled rows as far as the eye can see in either direction.  If the crowd inside is heavy, the crowd in the boarding area outside can only be described as a quiet riot.  Out there is not a single unoccupied foot of pavement and processions of people making their way to each departing bus move like currents through the vast human ocean.  It is only possible to advance by pressing against those around you, and yet even here is the same Argentine civility I have experienced throughout my visit; voices are rarely raised and there is no shoving.

I check my larger bag with the curbside porter, tip him, and board.  There are two levels and my assigned seat is on the upper.  At the top of the stairs I do a double-take:  A broad aisle separates leather seats so wide that there are only three per row.  Every other row has been extracted to allow the seats to fully recline and leg rests to rise fully horizontal.  Large video monitors are scattered about and music videos are already playing as we await departure.

The bus pulls out of the station precisely on schedule, joining a throng of 20 or 30 others also outbound and passing a similar number inbound as it makes its way through downtown traffic toward the autopista.  A uniformed steward rises to make announcements, and then to pass the time spent in city traffic he distributes cards for what turns out to be a game of bingo.  He calls out the numbers in his best TV game show host tradition and the winning passenger is awarded a bottle of wine.  He passes through the cabin to take hot beverage orders for breakfast:  coffee, café con leche, hot chocolate, or cappuccino.

Once we’re on the autopista he serves dinner, first a cold plate and then a hot entrée and wine with refills.  Afterwards he cues up an English language movie with Spanish subtitles and sometime around 11 it’s lights out as we make our way through the very last of the suburbs.  Past my window roll the neon signs of motor hotels and Argentina’s ubiquitous parrilladas; I can almost smell the aroma of grilling beef through the glass.  Passengers around me have already pulled their curtains and from somewhere ahead I hear a gentle snore. I kick my seat into a prone position, tuck a fat pillow under my head, pull up a blanket, and nod off to the hum of the engine and spinning wheels.

I awaken from a satisfying sleep in darkness broken only by the line of streetlights stretching endlessly down the autopista median and small patches of light spaced in farmhouse-and-outbuilding clusters against the silhouette of a dead-level horizon.  As we move they are unblinking as they can be only on a treeless plain and I know that we are now crossing the Pampas.  From time to time we pass an ornamented gate and arch bearing the name of an estancia or a billboard picturing heavy farm machinery.  On rare occasion we pass through a toll booth. Near most exits are villages and many boast a light manufacturing facility; even in the darkness it is clear that there is economic substance here.  I doze off.

When I awaken the sunrise has already come and gone, but the sun is obscured by magnificently ominous, low-hanging clouds that run from horizon to horizon.  They’re not formed in bursts and billows, but in layered shades of gray and white that swoop and swirl like sand-painted snowdrifts.

The passengers are beginning to stir and soft American pop-rock drips through the speakers above.  The steward serves juice and pastries and hot beverages.  Outside the ceiling is lifting and the clouds brightening.  The grasslands have burst into sage broken by occasional stands of trees and truck farm patches.  The farmhouses have become more modest, the toll booths have vanished, and the highway has narrowed from four lanes to two.  Trucks and busses.  Trucks and busses.

The first, small vineyard appears.  An hour or so ahead lies Mendoza, and beyond it the Andes.