Most of us dream of places like Mendoza: beautiful mountains, peaceful countryside and handsome winemakers (maybe that’s just me?). But let’s not forget about the wine itself, especially Mendoza’s most notable, the Malbec.
I spent last weekend in Mendoza (rough, I know), an area I’ve wanted to explore for some time. I’ve been to many wine regions (no rookie stats here), and Mendoza marks my fifth continent to taste on. Mendoza has also been one of the most stunning.
To take some of the pain points out of planning your travels, I’ve put together some helpful information, planning tips and recommendations on what I loved.
Getting to Mendoza & How Long to Stay
The most common way to get to Mendoza is to fly. You’ll want to fly into Mendoza’s El Plumerillo (MDZ) Airport, about five miles from Mendoza’s city center. However, if you’re within Argentinian borders and coming from a city like Buenos Aires or Cordoba, you do have other, but more extended, options. So, how many days is enough? I chose a three day, three-night adventure and felt that was plenty. Anything longer gets a little lengthy, and one can only consume so much wine within the course of a handful of days. (Believe me, even I have limits.) However, depending on arrival times and how you plan your trip (more on that below), you might be able to get away with two.
Roundtrip tickets range from $150 during low season to about $400 during peak season. (I flew Aerolineas Argentinas Airlines and found a roundtrip ticket for $175.)
Travel Time to Mendoza: Buenos Aires,1.5 hours; Cordoba,1 hour; Santiago, Chile, 30 minutes
Rent a car, rally your friends and road trip into wine country. The cost of renting a car from within Argentina is relatively cheap, especially since you won’t be crossing any borders, but make sure you have at least one fluent Spanish-speaking individual with you. If nothing else, for safety reasons. Roadsigns, especially in wine country, aren’t always well-marked and you may need to stop for directions.
Travel Time: 7-8 hours (from Cordoba)
If it’s peak wine tasting season, taking the bus might not be all that bad of an option. You can find tickets for as low as $100 roundtrip and, rumor has it, the fully reclining seats in these buses are quite comfy.
Travel Time: Buenos Aires: 10-14 hours, Cordoba: 8-10 hours, Santiago, Chile: 5-7 hours
Mendoza’s Three Key Wine Regions
Luján de Cuyo
The region most recognized for Malbec and only a 30-40 minute drive south of Mendoza’s city center. Lujan de Cuyo is considered the high zone (above the Mendoza River) and houses century old wineries, some of the oldest in all of Mendoza. This region put Argentina on the map for wine production. In Lujan, you can also expect to find a fair amount of great fruit forward Chardonnays and rich Cabernet Sauvignons.
The region smallest in size and closest to Mendoza city. Maipu is only a short 20-25 minute drive and also not far from Lujan de Cuyo. This southeastern wine region is popular among those who like to explore on their own. Maipu is very easy to navigate solo (you can even take a bus from the city center, no driver needed) and bounce from vineyard to vineyard by bike! If you want something other than wine tasting, Maipu offers olive oil tastings, too.
Most coveted for its snowcapped mountain views and palace-esque wineries, Uco Valley, though the longest distance from Mendoza’s City Center at about 75 minutes, is not to be missed. Each winery in this region offers a vast portfolio of tastings, from Malbecs to Torrontes to (my new favorite) Bornarda, and also many unique blends. Uco Valley is easily the most stunning of Mendoza’s three regions, especially with the mountainous backdrop.
Wine Tasting Protocol in Medoza
Tasting in Argentina, or most countries outside of the US for that matter, follow different protocols. If there’s one piece of advice I can offer, it’s to plan ahead and schedule appointments before your arrival. Do not expect to roll up to a vineyard’s doorsteps as you might in California. That shiz just doesn’t fly here, and you’ll likely be turned away. A few things to prepare for and expect:
- Make appointments in advance and arrive on time.
- Expect a full tour of the vineyard and its production methods before tasting. (This lasts 30-45 minutes.) Some wineries also facilitate an interactive discussion around the wine productions, varietals and tasting notes during the tasting.
- Some wineries offer discounts for tastings or wine lunches if you pay in cash. Be sure to ask.
Driver or Tour?
There are easily both pros and cons whether you hire a driver or book through a tour service, so why not do one of both if you’ve got the time? I found one day of each was an excellent balance of activity, conversation and learning. You’ll find the drivers in Mendoza have extensive wine region knowledge (no, really, pretty much anything you’ve ever wanted to know about grape varietals, Argentinean exportation, and everything in between) and can recommend places you might not otherwise discover on your own. Booking a tour is an effortless and cost-effective way to see a lot without all the moving parts and pieces.
Here are a few things to think about when making your decision:
- Flexibility in scheduling what vineyards to visit – and anything else you’d like to see or do!
- Your driver will schedule and arrange all your appointments once you tell him or her where you’d like to visit. Be sure to ask for (and take) their recommendations, as they are likely to find (and get you into) places you can’t locate your own.
- You pay for the driver but then cover the cost of your tastings and any food or lunches along the way. The price of your day will vary on what level of tasting (standard vs. reserve, etc.) or meal you choose.
- Door to door pick up and drop off without all the other stops. A very nice perk when Siesta comes knocking at your door.
- Click and pay for the day and region you want to visit. The tour will put the details together for you. It’s as easy as that.
- Unfortunately, you don’t get to pick the wineries you visit or where your wine pairing lunch will be but, more often than not, you won’t be disappointed.
- Some tour companies book quite large groups. If you’re booking a tour, I recommend booking with Trout & Wine (you’ll see a link to their site on my sidebar) as they cap their tours at eight people, making it an intimate and small group affair. Trout & Wine offers a variety of tours between wine regions, among other excursions, and are extremely easy to work with. (If you book with them, please tell them that Carin from Pairs Well With… sent you! It helps my street cred immensely, and you won’t be sorry. Please and thanks.)
- You meet some great people and spend the day drinking, laughing and sharing stories in some of the most beautiful vineyards.
Okay, okay. Details out of the way and onto the good stuff. At this point, you’re probably wondering what I did, what I loved and now want to see the pictures. Here’s what my three days in Mendoza looked like:
Day 1: Laying Low in the Heart of Mendoza city
The city of Mendoza is cute and quaint, but there’s not a ton to do. Knowing that I had two big wine days ahead of me, I chose to take it easy, stroll around, find a nice dinner and call it an early night so I was well rested and ready for my 9 am pick up. A couple of great local spots include:
Stop into Wine Not? For an early evening glass of wine and snack before dinner. Try the Bonarda wine (offered under reds by the glass) and either the cheese assortments or tapas; both were fantastic!
Best restaurant in the heart of Mendoza. Extensive menu with a lovely entree offering and a can’t beat wine menu. Best of all? The outdoor dining and twinkle lights!
Day 2: Private Driver for Lujan de Cuyo
I hired a lovely private driver for a three-stop adventure into Lujan de Cuyo. His highly affordable rate of just over $100 USD made it an easy decision to hire him for my three hand selected stops. His wine knowledge was unbeatable – and he even brought tortitas, a Mendoza specialty, to munch on for the drive.
Carin’s Selected Stops of the Day
- Bodega Renacer (Most in-depth tour)
- Achaval Ferrer (Best Unique Malbec Tasting)
- Bodega Lagarde (Best wine pairing lunch – I just can’t brag about this place enough!)
The minute you arrive on site, you’re immediately taken aback by the beautiful tower and moat surroundings. It’s a lovely place and certainly worth a visit. Renacer, I was told, is the first winery in Argentina to certify their carbon footprint, making them one of the few presently active in caring for the environment. The tour before the tasting was one of the most technical and thorough, and they winery takes great pride in their production. Renacer has a beautiful portfolio of citrusy whites and spicy reds.
Noted for being one of the most acclaimed Malbec tastings in Mendoza, Achaval Ferrer is the motherland of Malbec production. Achaval is a well-respected winery and known for both its new and vintage Malbecs, in addition to their blends. Some may think sampling the same varietal can be overkill, but let me assure you that each of the wines within the tasting offered something distinguishable from the next.
Both in wine and food, this was my favorite stop of the day. (High five to you, Lagarde! You delivered in EVERY way.) I had heard and read many great things about Lagarde but felt it was my wine drinking duty to see for myself. Not only were the wines delightful, but their six-course tasting menu on their garden patio was also beyond my wildest dreams. Don’t hold back – get the six courses but be sure to upgrade to the reserve wine pairings. Those were perfection – and so was the filet!
On my second day of wine tasting, I was picked up bright and early (like, 8:15 am early) by Trout & Wine. Our guide was energetic and excited for the day ahead and gave us a quick rundown of what we could expect throughout the day. After picking up two others, we were packed up and on our way to Uco Valley. A four-person “group” tour was about as perfect in number as you could ask for.
Throughout the drive into the valley, we were armed with additional knowledge from the day prior until we stopped at a lookout point for a few quick snapshots. The van was comfy, not stuffy, and it was a better set up than I had even imagined in my head. Finally, we made it to the first of our three stops of the day.
Trout & Wine’s Selected Stops of the Day
- Domaine Bousquet (Favorite end-to-end wine flight and tasting experience ambiance)
- Gimenez Riili (Best tasting overall experience)
- Monteviejo (Best dining views)
Talk about zen vibes to get the day started! Domaine Bousquet has a lovely landscape that gets you in the mood. (As if you weren’t already.) The tour was of reasonable length but the tasting, which took place in the basement wine cellar, was the best part. The entire wine flight was perfect, making it hard to leave with only one bottle, but I did manage to find just the white I was looking for. End to end, this was my favorite wine tasting flight.
Not on my radar, nor found in any research I had done, Gimenez Riili was a solid find made on behalf of Trout & Wine – and my favorite overall stop of the day. The tour guide was playful, yet informative, and she made the tour a lot of fun. The tasting space is an incredibly intimate one (think winter cabin overlooking the mountain with smells of freshly baked woodfire pizza) and the tasting itself was of wine, cheese and the most perfect empanada I’ve had to date. Gimenez Riili wins on the overall experience for the day.
You really can’t get any closer to the mountains than at Monteviejo! Walk outside on their upstairs terrace, and you’ve got yourself a framer for life. Monteviejo was our last stop of the day and our tasting lunch, which left a little something to be desired in the main course, but none the less enjoyable. If nothing else, visit for the views and the wine!
See, I told you I covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time! (That includes eating and drinking as well.) Have questions? Don’t hesitate to drop me a message! But before I let you go, a few last things you should know.
A Few Last Things…
- Many wineries close on the weekend. If you are coming for a weekend trip, I suggest Lujan on a Saturday and Uco on Sunday. There are many more wineries open in Uco Valley on Sunday than anywhere else. Plan your regions in advance of your trip and book accordingly to when they are open.
- Cash is king in Argentina. Even if excursions and tours are prepaid for, it’s always good to have some money on hand for tipping or anything else you might like to purchase. Most wineries accept credit card, but tips (even for meals) are left in cash.
- Visits per day: cap at three. (I tried for four, and it would have been way too much.)
- The pours seem to be bottomless and far more plentiful than a sampling in the U.S. Sip with caution and care.
- Keep your eyes out for two wines you may not have heard of until now: Torrontes and Bonarda. They will become your best friends and both, I anticipate, will make a big splash between 2018 and 2019. Get acquainted before they become trendy.
- This has easily been my longest post – ever. So with that, I bid you adieu and wish you a great time frolicking through the vineyards of Mendoza.
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