Below: Catena Zapata vines in Lujan de Cuyo.
A few days in Mendoza was the price I extracted for agreeing to go trekking in Patagonia. A preparatory base camp for the mind and body. If I swallowed enough Malbec and beef, surely I could survive on the fat in my stomach for a few weeks if things went tits up in the icy south.
Mendoza accounts for about 70 per cent of Argentina's wine production and is the home of Malbec. Although good examples of Cabernet Sauvignan and Chardonnay exist in Mendoza, the best wines are made with Malbec. The Argentinians didn't always think this was the case. In the 1980s lots of Malbec vines were ripped out and replaced with the more fashionable Cabernet Sauvignan. By the 1990s the locals seemed to be convinced that Malbec ought be top billing.
Good Malbec is deeply coloured, rich, ripe, juicy, velvety, has soft tannins and is often peppery and spicy. The Andes has some of its highest peaks around Mendoza and most of the Malbec vines are planted at high altitudes. The resulting warm days and cool nights help Malbec retain its acidity and enhance its aroma.
Wine tourism in Mendoza is quite sophisticated, more so than I'd expected. The big players offer tours and tastings in English and are astute at merchandising their wines and other New-World brand enhancing bits and bobs, such as hats and t-shirts. Quite a few offer lunches with more than 24 hours notice, which is a civilised way to round off a morning of tasting.
As with most wineries in France and Italy, it's generally not possible to drive past the front gate without an appointment. A few weeks before setting off for Mendoza I tried to make five or so appointments via e-mail (most wineries in Mendoza have web-sites with contact details), but didn't receive a single response. Not quite sure where things stood on arriving in Mendoza, I asked the concierge and Hotel Villagio (relatively cheap and highly recommended) to make a few phone calls to set up some appointments at short notice, which she did with a smile.
Most of the established wineries in Mendoza are located in Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, each about 10 - 20 minutes out of the town of Mendoza by car. These wineries will generally have lots of different vineyards scattered about Mendoza. The cooler climate Uco Valley is Mendoza's latest vinous G-spot and home to significant new plantings over the last decade or so. It also happens to be much prettier than Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu. The downside is that it's at least an hour by car from the town of Mendoza, though the drive is well worth it.
How then to get to the wineries? We hired a car for a week, which cost about £200. The roads were mostly well marked and the wineries quite easy to find - apart from Bodega Catena Zapata. Most good hotels will give you a map of greater Mendoza which shows pretty clearly where all the wineries are. Be warned that Mendoza is no sleepy rural town, and like driving out of the town of Bordeaux, you'll need to drive along some busy highways, some with tricky entry and exit points, to get to and from the wineries.
If you're planning on really tucking into the tasting wines or a long lunch, most hotels will arrange drivers to take you to Lujan de Cuyo or Maipu, wait around as long as you like, then take you back to Mendoza, all for about 120 pesos (20 quid). The Uco Valley will cost a bit more.
If you're less independently minded, there are fliers scattered all throughout Mendoza touting various organised wine tours where you jump on a bus with a group and a guide.
We visited only four wineries in Mendoza. Our choices were based on recommendations on jancisrobinson.com forums and a desire to visit the homes of a few wines we've recently enjoyed in London.
Some thoughts on the tours, tastings and lunches are set out below. Fuller reviews of the wines and the food will follow in separate postings.
Bodegas Lopez, Maipu
Started more than 100 years ago and is still in the hands of the same family. The winery is very close to the town of Mendoza in a run-down and unattractive part of Maipu. There are no vines for the eyes here. Although the wines are quite traditional, the winemaking facilities are very modern. The tour was ok, but not one of the best we had.
We were offered a tasting of two of Lopez's entry level wines in the impressive tasting room: the 2003 Casana Lopez Cabernet and the 2003 Casana Lopez Malbec. Not sure why they're unwilling to open their best wine, the Montchenot, given they sell it in their wine shop for a mere 35 pesos (£6).
Bodegas Lopez offers lunch with notice, though given the rather scratchy location and no surrounding vines, lunch here would be a strange choice. If you're hungry, head down the road to Almacien del Sur, which has a beautiful setting, tasty food and a good wine list.
Below: inside Bodegas Lopez.
Familia Zuccardi, Maipu (towards San Martin)
Founded by Alberto Zuccardi in the 1960s when he set out to create an irrigation system for the area. The tour, tasting and merchandising were very sophisticated. The place was rammed with wine tourists. The winery is modern and, unlike Lopez, there are plenty of lush Zuccardi vines surrounding it.
The tasting was a real treat. We were offered free samples of eight wines: a sparkling rose; 2007 Pinot Grigio; 2006 Santa Julia Reserve Merlot; 2006 Textual Carmenere; 2006 Santa Julia Reserve Chardonnay; port made from viognier; port made from Malbec; 2002 Tempranillo/Malbec. We were also lucky enough to try barrel samples of some experimental wines - Pinot Noir, Negro Amaro and Aglianico - none of which seem destined for the bright lights.
Don't leave Zuccardi without eating lunch at their restaurant set among their vines. The restaurant serves a traditional asado, which is very good. More wineries offering lunch should serve this sort of food rather than more French influenced food. The lunch price of about 80 pesos (£14) includes unlimited glasses of the reasonable Santa Julia range - the Torrontes being the highlight. If you have a few extra pesos in the pocket it's well worth looking through the wine list and treating yourself to an aged Malbec - we had a delightful 2000 Q Malbec for 120 pesos (£20) - as you just don't find these wines in shops or on restaurant wine lists.
Below: after mains we retired to this outdoor area of Zuccardi's restaurant for coffee, dessert and a crafty viognier port.
Terrazas de los Andes, Lujan de Cuyo
Owned by LVMH since about 1999 and is easily the most French influenced of the bodegas we visited. Informative tour in English, but we could have been in Bordeaux rather than Argentina.
The real highlight of Terrazas was the lunch and tasting, which included the the 2006 Riserva Chardonnay; the 2005 Riserva Malbec; and the 2005 Riserva Cabernet. The food was excellent, very French in style and exceptional value - about 95 pesos (£15) each for food and wine. The dining room is beautifully done and very new. I suspect not many wine tourists know of it, otherwise it would have been rammed with people. Ask to sit outside if the weather is good.
Below: the combined lunch and tasting at Terrazas de los Andes.
Bodega Catena Zapata, Lujan de Cuyo
In a world of its own as the most spectacular Bodega to visit if you can find it. The winery and visitor center is designed in the style of a Mayan pyramid. It oozes money, serious money. Christ knows what the labourers residing in make-shift tents down the back street leading to the winery think of it.
I can't tell you much about the tour as we got lost on the way to the winery - a longish lunch at Terrazas de los Andes probably had something to do with this - and arrived just as the tour for our large English speaking group ended. For the tasting, we were offered a complimentary glass of the ubiquitous Alamos Malbec (2006) and the chance to try most of the wines in the extensive Catena Zapata range for about 25 - 30 pesos a pop (£5). Of course we rose to the challenge and tried quite a few of the wines.
Having tasted most of the Catena Zapata red range over three weeks in Argentina, this producer stands out above all other Argentinian producers for the quality of its reds, which are deeply coloured and concentrated but soft, balanced and elegant.
Be warned that the top wine in the Catena Zapata range, the Nicolas Catena Zapata, a Malbec and Cabernet blend from Catena's best grapes is much more expensive in Argentina generally (including at the Bodega where it sells for about £80) than in London - I recently bought the 2003 at the Sampler in Islington for £44.
Catena Zapata doesn't offer lunch.
Below: the 20 year old vines surrounding the spectacular Catena Zapata winery.
Below: two rocks in a barn or the rather comfortable lounges in Catena Zapata's tasting room?