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.

Drinking with the pinguino in Mendoza’s historic streets

The funny thing about Mendoza is that, despite being founded in 1561, thanks to a series of earthquakes that have periodically flattened the city, few historic buildings have survived into the 21st century. The most devastating came in 1861, levelling the town, killing approximately 5,000 people and leaving many thousands more destitute. A number of 20th century earthquakes caused further damage, including a big one in 1985. The entire region is seismically very active, the effects of which have shaped the face of modern Mendoza – which is not always pleasing to the eye.

Mendoza was founded by one of the second wave of Spanish conquistadors, Pedro del Castillo. In search of ever greater wealth, the Spanish were expanding their empire southwards from the now devastated Inca Empire in Peru. Castillo crossed over from Chile and discovered an area with an ingenious irrigation system using water from the glaciers in the Andes. The system was the creation of the native Huarpe and Puelche peoples, whom the Spanish displaced by war and disease. They kept and developed the irrigation system, which continues to make Mendoza a green city.

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza Espana, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza Espana, Mendoza, Argentina

More settlers arrived and Mendoza became an important agricultural region, which is amazing given that it barely receives any rain and without that ingenious irrigation system would resemble a barren wasteland. Its growing prosperity made it politically and economically important. During the War for Independence from Spain, Mendoza was the headquarters of independence hero, General José de San Martín. It was from here in 1817 that his expeditionary force crossed the Andes to liberate Chile. A victory celebrated in statues and street names across the city.

While it destroyed all the old colonial-era buildings and forced the town to relocate to a nearby site, the 1861 earthquake bequeathed Mendoza its quintet of leafy plazas in today’s city centre. At the heart of the town is the large Plaza Independencia, radiating out from its corners are four smaller plazas: Italia, Chile, San Martin and España. Only a few blocks from any of these squares are most of Mendoza’s best restaurants, bars and museums. This includes Avenida Aristides Villanueva, a street that seems to be nothing but bars and restaurants catering to the town’s youthful population.

On our second day in town the weather continued to be unpredictable. The morning was grey and drizzly as we set out for a walk through the streets. It was a Sunday and there was little life in the town which, coupled with the weather, made it feel a little down at heel. On days like this you notice the old buildings that are crumbling thanks to a lack of investment, the homeless rooting through trash bins, and the beggars on pedestrianised Paseo Sarmiento going from table to table outside cafes. Mendoza seems to still be in the maw of the economic crisis.

Of course it also meant that no museums were open and many shops remained closed, leaving us with few options for entertainment. We were beginning to feel deflated when, as if by magic, the sun burst through the cloud and brought a whole new feeling to the city. The spring in our step restored, we headed to Avenida Aristides Villanueva for food, and were able to sit at an outside table to enjoy one of the great Argentinian treats – lunch accompanied by a pinguino of wine.

Microbrewery, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery art, Mendoza, Argentina

Microbrewery art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Street art, Mendoza, Argentina

Pinguino of wine, Mendoza, Argentina

Pinguino of wine, Mendoza, Argentina

Restaurant Maria Antonieta, Mendoza, Argentina

Restaurant Maria Antonieta, Mendoza, Argentina

For anyone who’s never drunk from a porcelain pitcher in the shape of a penguin, a sort of kitsch Argentinian decanter, it’s a lot of fun. Possibly too much fun for adults over a certain age. We decided there was little to occupy us elsewhere in town so spent a long lunch to fully enjoy our pinguino. We were leaving early the next day for a few days in the Valle de Uco wine region, so after lunch walked off our meal in Parque San Martin before returning to the B&B. We had time for one final meal at the fabulous Restaurant Maria Antonieta, the perfect way to say goodbye to Mendoza.

Mendoza, into Argentina’s wine country

I have a couple of very memorable memories from our first visit to Mendoza a dozen years ago. One is that the city famed as the epicentre of Argentina’s wine industry was still reeling from the economic crash of a few years earlier, and poverty never seemed to be far from view. The other was getting trapped seven floors up on the roof of the Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Mendoza building, which offers views over the city to the Andes in the distance.

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Plaza San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

Grape statue, Mendoza, Argentina

We arrived at the City Hall early enough for it not to be open, but we spotted a security guard who let us in. Our Spanish was pretty poor in those days, but despite the lack of communication we managed to convince him to let us visit the roof. Deciding to join us, he locked the front door and took us to the roof. The view was fabulous but without shade the Andean sun was relentless. After he’d pointed out all the sights, we made our way back to the roof door. It was then the guard realised he’d left the door key on his desk on the ground floor.

The guard called someone, but forty-five minutes later we were still on the roof and getting desperate. Finally, a man arrived at the entrance and the front door keys were dropped seven floors down so he could get in, retrieve the roof door keys, take the elevator seven floors up and  liberate us. That experience has always made me very fond of Mendoza. The city feels like it hasn’t fully recovered from the economic crash, but this youthful, bustling place has much going for it, including an excellent night life and culinary scene.

We were staying at the B&B Plaza Italia, found on a corner of the leafy Plaza Italia, one of a quartet of pleasant plazas that frame the town’s main Plaza Independencia. The owners, an old Mendoza family, gave us lots of local insight into the best places to visit. Unusually, it was raining, so we postponed exploring the town in favour of a long lunch and wine tasting. A short walk brought us to one of Mendoza’s finest restaurants. The Azafrán has superb food and a bewildering array of wine from vineyards in Luján de Cuyo, Godoy Cruz, Maipú and the Uco Valley.

When we emerged some time later, the sun had replaced the rain so we made our way to the Bodega La Rural in the Maipú district. There’s something odd about vineyards so close to a big city, even one with the towering backdrop of the Andes, but this is prime wine country. Maipu’s rich, mineral soils and grape-friendly microclimate made it one of the first areas in Argentina where vines were cultivated. They’ve been making wine here since the early 1800s.

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural, Maipu, Mendoza, Argentina

Bodega La Rural was founded in 1885 by Felipe Rutini. Today, the Rutini brand is one of the most famous in Argentina’s wine industry. The bodega has an interesting museum of wine that is home to 5,000 pieces of winemaking memorabilia. There are short tours but the informative tastings of exceptional wines really makes a visit special. Vineyards sit picturesquely just behind the bodega for added dramatic effect. If you’ve got time, visiting any of the numerous nearby vineyards is easy, and you can rent bikes to cycle between them.

Despite the changeable weather, we reckoned our first day in Mendoza was a success. We made our way back to our B&B where the landlady proudly informed us that she’d secured us a table for dinner at another top Mendoza restaurant, María Antonieta. We probably could have gone for a couple of days without eating after our extravagant lunch, but this was a good opportunity to sample more of Mendoza’s famed culinary delights. One thing is certain, you will not want for good food in this town.