Bodega hopping in the Valle de Uco

There are still parts of the Valle de Uco that resemble the semi-arid desert that existed here before vineyards and fruit trees blazed colour across the valley floor. When you see the landscape as it once was, it’s hard to imagine how this area became famed for being one of the largest producers of exceptional wines in Argentina. It took visionary people to see in this scrubby landscape, a thousand or more metres above sea level, the perfect location for viticulture.

As unpromising as it looks at first glance, fed by snow melt from the Andes, the terroir of the Uco Valley is perfect for several grape varieties, most famously Malbec, and today produces some of the finest Argentine wines. One of the first pioneers of Uco’s booming wine business is the Bodega Piedra Negra, named for the black stone soils that are typical of the area. Its owners, Jacques and Francois Lurton, arrived in the area from France in 1992 and brought with them a family winemaking tradition dating back to the 17th century.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

It was to here we headed for yet another wine tasting, in particular we were keen to sample their prestigious Malbec varieties, but also far less common wines like Pinot Gris. We hadn’t booked, but when we arrived the security guard called the colonial-style villa and arranged a guided tour. We were the only people there, and were shown around by Emma, a knowledgeable young French woman who had recently arrived in the valley to learn about the wine trade. We ended the tour with a tasting of several wines, and the purchase of several bottles more.

One of the unintended consequences of our visit to the Valle de Uco was buying more bottles of wine than we could reasonably hope to carry home in a suitcase, never mind  lugging them around on the final leg of our trip to the Argentinian Lake District. Still, if you can’t make inadvisable purchases of wines while sipping them under an Andean sun in the middle of the vineyard where they’re produced, when can you? Adding to our earlier purchases from the previous day, the suspension of our tiny hire car looked under severe strain.

On our way to Bodega Piedra Negra we’d passed through a strange place marked on the map as Manzano Historico, or Historic Apple Tree. This seemed a bit improbable, but in this dusty corner of the Valle de Uco is an apple tree that General San Martin is supposed to have sat under on his return from liberating Chile from the Spanish. The alleged tree is still there, as is a big monument to San Martin and an unnecessarily large Christ statue. There was a big school party misbehaving to add extra surrealism to the scene.

After our tasting we drove towards the small town of Vista Flores, passing numerous vineyards on the arrow-straight roads of the region. This is a vast place with huge skies, we saw very few cars and few signs of life, but did come across a man hitching a lift in the middle of nowhere. We gave him a lift to the town before deciding our time would be better spent by the pool at the Finca La Azul, where we were staying. This was our final night in the Valle de Uco and the chef had prepared a delicious farewell dinner, accompanied by a bottle of Malbec.

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Gauchos, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

The next morning we packed our bags and bottles and set off for Mendoza airport, taking a route through the foothills of the Andes that would allow us to explore more of this magnificent region. We hadn’t gone far when we came across gangs of gauchos riding in the opposite direction. We stopped to take a photo and they stopped to chat. There was a big fiesta happening in one of the bodegas further down the valley. It was tempting to turn around and head towards the party … sadly common sense prevailed.

Valle de Uco, wine tasting in the shadow of the Andes

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, the vineyards of the Valle de Uco stretch across a vast landscape under an immense sky. This is one of the premier wine growing regions in Argentina, producing some of the country’s most famous and delicious wines; and it’s dotted with fantastic bodegas that offer high quality accommodation, great food and, of course, plenty of wine tasting opportunities. If you have the time, and the cash, it makes for a truly luxurious few days in lovely countryside only a 100km south of Mendoza.

We had three nights booked at the Casa de Huespedes Finca La Azul, which sits in the middle of vineyards interspersed with peach and plum trees. It’s one of the friendliest and most relaxing places we’ve ever stayed. It set the tone for a lazy few days in the valley, hopping from bodega to bodega tasting extraordinary wines, and having some of the most delicious food of our trip, all locally sourced. Best of all, we spent time sitting in the garden at La Azul trying their range of excellent wines produced a few hundred meters away. We didn’t want to leave.

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the finca late in the evening. Turning off one of the long straight roads in the Valle de Uco, we crunched down a gravel track in the darkness of a country night just able to see the rows of vineyards on either side. Once inside we were offered a late dinner and had a bottle of something red and tasty while we chatted to the chef and the owner. It’s always disorienting arriving somewhere in the dark, and I was keen to see our surroundings in daylight.

The next morning I went for a walk through the vineyards as the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the mountains in the background. It was beautiful. As in Mendoza, the weather was a bit hit-and-miss, with rain and shine. Luckily, when the weather is bad in the Valle de Uco, wine tasting is an indoor activity. A couple of kilometres down the road is one of the more unusual wine producers at the Bodega Salentein. This is a famous Uco producer, but the twist is that it’s owned by an aristocratic Dutch family.

It’s the descendants of Heribert Van Westervelt, a prominent 18th century aristocrat from the Dutch province of Gelderland, who founded the Bodega Salentein, and who are credited as pioneers of the recent transformation of the Uco Valley into one of the world’s wine hotspots. The state of the art facility we toured produces some excellent wines – they were served at the wedding of the current Dutch King and Queen – and sits amidst vineyards overshadowed by the Andes.

The huge circular underground cellar is a bit like a Roman temple, creating a sense of religious reverence for the barrels of wine stacked all around. There’s a nice art gallery on site, as well as art in the grounds of the bodega, but compared to other places we visited its modernity felt a little soulless. Afterwards we strolled back to the car under a now ferocious sun, and headed for a six course tasting menu paired with tremendous wines at the Bodegas Andeluna Vineyard. The Valle de Uco is a pretty upmarket place, and fine dining options abound, but food at the Andeluna was exceptional.

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Wine, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Dinner from the parrilla, Finca La Azul, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina

By the time we emerged from the Andeluna, and it was a long lunch, it was raining hard. Luckily, we were staying only a short distance away and we staggered back to relax and digest our lunch in time to have another excellent dinner at the La Azul, which included an extraordinary piece of meat from the barbecue … I could get used to this kind of luxury travel.