SIT IN ONE of the many quiet squares of Mendoza and you feel a long way from anywhere.
Although it’s not the prettiest of towns – there are one or two bustling avenues of anonymous shops, vibrant with identikit Internet cafés, and a few interesting colonial churches and municipal buildings – the land around it stretches out for miles.
The flat, empty desert land, 1,000km west of Argentina’s capital city Buenos Aires, eventually folds into the mighty Andes. The land is featureless apart from some great wineries, and these are the secret of Mendoza’s appeal during the skiing off-season.
On a crisp, clear morning, I ride through rows of vines in the Familia Zuccardi vineyard. www.familiazuccardi.com.
Mendoza is waking up to wine tourism and, lacking the restaurant culture of the Old World, or the surf of the New, they have to make their own entertainment.
Tasting a bottle of wine in the exact spot from which the grapes were picked is very entertaining. As is riding a horse after four glasses of wine before lunch. (I know you’re not supposed to swallow it but, come on, today I’m a rough-riding cowboy – and when was the last time you saw John Wayne spit out perfectly good alcohol?)
Argentina’s wine industry is now the fifth largest in the world and three-quarters of the country’s wine is grown in the Mendoza region, itself the size of Spain.
In recent decades, the region’s producers have aimed firmly at the export market, achieving ever higher standards and helping to nurture local talent while also attracting world-class winemakers and their ideas to the area.
To ensure they achieve the best quality wine, and get the best from the grapes, one particular winery, Bodega Salentein in the Valle de Uco in the south-west of Mendoza, has been built – with the help of a £50million investment – in a large hole in the ground.
This means the grapes are fed into the winery from above and so, with the help of gravity, there is less chance of them being handled, moved and bruised. It’s also split into four mini-wineries – one in each wing of the cross-shaped building – to help reduce handling and improve quality.
At 1,200m above sea level, the Bodega is in the foothills of the Andes, which provide a scenic backdrop for its guest house. Posada Salentein is set in pleasant woodland and offers trekking, fishing and four-wheel drive or horse rides into the mountains. www.bodegasalentein.com
The snow from the Andes irrigates Mendoza with mountain spring water, so it’s as if the grapes were fed on Evian. Add to that the desert climate, with low humidity and high altitude, the lack of any real disease problems (very few chemicals are used) and you have the recipe for some fine wines.
Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot are the major red varieties – the region’s strength – but Argentina’s most distinctive varietal is the black, spicy Malbec. One of the finest is from the Catena vineyard, which dates back to 1902. Its owner, Nicolás Catena, is another Mendoza pioneer and his ultra-modern building is in the shape of a Mayan pyramid. www.catenawines.com
The nod towards ancient traditions in the midst of the very highest tech is the perfect symbol for Mendoza.