Reggae music plays as I watch a harvest scene unfold at one of Argentina’s trendiest wineries, Passionate Wine. We’re south of Mendoza in a region called Tupungato, touring the tiny winery with Ramiro, who is excited to share the company’s passion for wine. Inside the building, machines crush grapes beneath brightly painted walls depicting far-out creatures and scenes, graffiti-style. The vibe here is chill, a bit cutting edge, like Passionate’s unique wines and its winemaker, Matias Michelini, who likes to shake up the status quo.
On a trip to France, Matias discovered wineries there used 12-foot concrete eggs to ferment wines. The egg shape maintains a stable temperature and gives the wine more intense flavors, aromas, and colors, Ramiro explained. It also allows the “energies of the universe” to engage with the wine. Besides fermenting wines in these strange vessels, Matias and his team at Passionate Wines resurrect historic grapes, harvest earlier than traditional wineries, and create wines that break all the rules. In a glass-walled tasting bar, Ramiro lets us taste a few of their wines, including Via Revolutionaria, featuring the Bonarda grape. I love its fresh mouthfeel and acidic yet fruity notes. A lovely, layered red blend called Demente features Malbec and Cabernet Franc grapes. It’s nicely balanced, not too tannic. Ramiro says at night the wine bar comes alive with locals and tourists, who spread out across the grassy yard and drink wine under the stars. Sounds like heaven.
It is heavenly here in Mendoza. After 10 days exploring the fabulous wine regions of Chile, I wasn’t sure whether Mendoza’s scenic views of the Andes and great wines would measure up to its neighbor’s. But after a few days, I am falling in love with Mendoza, its people, and of course its luscious wines. Come along with Peter and me as we explore the other side of the Andes.
Once we met a couple who told us they’d ridden horses over the Andes. After our one-day horseback adventure in Chile, I can’t imagine spending 6-8 days crossing these monstrous mountains in the saddle. Instead Peter and I hop on a plane in Santiago for the short, 45-minute flight east to Mendoza, Argentina. A $10 taxi ride brings us to our hotel, the Park Hyatt Mendoza in the center of town, and we already love the city’s cozy vibe. The Park Hyatt is across from a green, leafy park filled with families strolling and kids playing. Businesses, restaurants, bars, and shops line the streets, and the city feels safe and tranquil.
One night while walking around we find ourselves in a smaller park, where young adults are swaying and swirling to tunes on a portable radio. I’ve no idea what the different dances are, but these kids are having a ball, smiling and spinning around in dizzying circles as sultry dance music keeps the beat. You gotta love a country where young people choose to enjoy a healthy activity like dancing outside with their friends.
An attorney from San Francisco I met on the rooftop bar at the W Santiago recommended a restaurant in Mendoza called Maria Antonieta. “It’s popular, though, so you better make reservations,” he said. Well, Peter and I like to live dangerously, so we show up at 8 p.m. one night. The place is empty. Argentineans enjoy their dinner late, a Spanish tradition we never seem to get used to. We get lucky, score a table, and watch the place fill up as the night unfolds.
When the food arrives, we know why this charming restaurant is so popular. The cuisine rocks! For appetizers we enjoy rustic bread with a beet purée, golden-orange gazpacho for Peter, and, for me, the best-ever grilled endive salad featuring greens, bleu cheese, prosciutto, and slices of pear. Perfection! Peter’s main is grilled sea bass with mounds of roasted veggies—eggplant, carrots, onions, and squash. I order a ribeye steak medium rare, which is full of flavor. Even though the restaurant is busy, we never feel rushed. Its laid back vibe and jazzy background music encourages us to linger over the last drop of wine. We hear brunch is also crazy-good, but our hotel stay includes breakfast so that’s where we start our day.
The Park Hyatt’s breakfast buffet is varied and delicious—eggs, cheese, fruit, and yummy pastries—and we love our spacious room at the hotel. Besides its central location, the Park Hyatt is super fancy, its grand exterior gleaming white and featuring Spanish Colonial architecture. Thanks to a good exchange rate, it’s not too expensive—from $150 a night. The hotel has all the amenities you’d expect from a first-class property: sparkling outdoor pool, a serene spa where Victoria gives me a fabulous massage, and a casino right next door for those who like games of chance.
We take it easy in Mendoza, catching our breath and exploring the neighborhoods. It’s a walkable city, and we love getting to know the local culture, visiting the market, and tasting local cuisine. Many travelers who come to Mendoza take advantage of tours or hop-on buses to visit area wineries. Outfitters are also happy to pick you up in Mendoza and take you on adventurous outings—think white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Peter and I plan to go a bit further afield so we enjoy relaxing in the city for three days before renting a car and heading south.
A SEA OF VINEYARDS
Wineries are everywhere in Mendoza, it seems. Close to the city is Bodega Catena Zapata, a state-of-the-art winery my friend Kal, who owns Croc’s 19th Street Bistro, told me to visit. Turns out many of the most popular wineries require advance reservations. Wine tourism is big in Mendoza, and that means wine tastings, tours, and even lunch reservations sell out. Next time we’ll know better and make plans in advance.
To be honest, Peter and I are happy enough winging it. Our next lodging is a beautiful boutique hotel called Auberge du Vin located in Tupungato about an hour south of Mendoza. It’s a chic, modern property surrounded by vineyards with incredible views of the Andes. Our first night we dine at their restaurant, Epic, and our meal definitely is! The eight-course tasting menu features a gamut of dishes designed to wow your palate, especially if you are a protein fan. Octopus, salmon, mushroom risotto, crispy sweetbread, veal, and braised lamb. The house Malbec is a perfect accompaniment.
Auberge du Vin makes a great home base for exploring nearby wineries. Besides Passionate Wine, we visit Andeluna, an impressive winery housed in a huge stone building that rises up from a sea of grapevines. Besides the wine-making facilities, the building is home to their amazing restaurant featuring a romantic veranda with views of the cloud-shrouded Andes to the west. It’s a warm fall afternoon, and piano music tinkles in the background mingling with the murmur of conversation and the clinking of glasses. It’s the kind of place I could stay all day. And yes, there’s wine, too!
Luciana, Andeluna’s marketing specialist, takes Peter and me through a tasting of their fabulous wines out on the veranda. Luciana is passionate about wine and says there’s always more to learn about wine. I agree! Here in Mendoza the combination of altitude, rocky soil, rainfall, and sunlight create a terroir where high-quality grapes grow almost effortlessly. Red varietals include Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Andeluna’s white varietals include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Torrontés, an acidic, complex white with floral notes. My favorite red is the Pasionado Cuatro Cepas, a spicy blend of the four red varietals with notes of anise and local herbs. It’s one of their top wines, and I can see why. But you may have to go to Mendoza to find it. A quick check online shows none is available in the states.
One windy afternoon on a whim, we follow a small wooden sign near our hotel down dusty, dirt roads towards the Andes. Our goal? A Monasterio. I asked about it at the hotel, but they couldn’t tell me much more other than yes, there’s a monastery further down the road. We drive a few minutes, finally spy another sign, and pull into a nearly deserted parking lot. The wind is kicking up clouds of dust as we follow a path past a small fountain through tidy, landscaped grounds leading to a lovely little chapel. Inside the walls are frescoed with simple paintings of angels and saints, and wooden benches face the altar where a crucifix hangs. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and Peter and I are the only ones here.
Outside we meet the Padré, a monk wearing a traditional hooded robe and a big smile. He welcomes us into the humble gift shop, where a nice lady sells candles, wine, honey, and chocolate to visitors. We buy a few goodies, and Peter and I chat with the Padré whose English is quite good. We ask if we can walk around the grounds, and he says, “Of course.”
We stroll through woods and over meadows and find ourselves in view of the monastery, where the monks live, work, and study. It’s on top of ridge with the Andes rising beyond, and I can’t think of a better place to live a contemplative life. No cell phones here, you can be sure. Besides their religious activities, the monks also tend grapes and bees and make chocolate. Visitors are welcome to attend Mass, in Spanish, of course, but Peter and I feel holy just walking around in this special place with the fresh, wind blowing down from the mountain range and a landscape around us that looks like a fairytale.
Our final four nights we chose to stay in a private lodging in Chacras de Coria, which is a suburb of Mendoza. The property’s lovely backyard is lined with tall poplar trees whose leaves rustle in the wind. The weather has remained perfect throughout our South American adventure: cool nights, sunny days, and practically no humidity. Our idea is to take it easy these last few days before we return home.
But it’s hard for me to sit still. So we head west up into the Andes for a hike to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere (22,838 feet tall). Mind you, we aren’t climbing to the top—I’m not crazy. We journey by car to a park about an hour this side of the Chilean border. The sky is piercingly blue studded by a few fluffy clouds, but what impresses us most as we hike a windswept trail are the colors of the Andes. Sheer cliffs show layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock that exhibit almost every color of the rainbow: green, pink, blue, gray, gold. Who knew rocks could be so colorful?
Overhead a few condors fly in slow, spiraling patterns. In the distance Aconcagua rises up like a snowy mirage. From our vantage point about 12 miles away, it’s hard to grasp its true height, but signs along the trail say the glacier on its south face is 6 miles long. It’s a beautiful day for a hike—warm, a bit breezy—but weather changes quickly at nearly 10,000 feet in the sky, so we’re happy to have picked such a perfect day.
Another day we visit a boutique hotel and winery in Chacras de Coria owned by a Swiss family, who moved to Argentina a few years ago. One of the owners, Cecile, invites us for a tour of the hotel, which also features a spa, restaurant, and meeting space. Called Entre Cielos, it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. When you arrive, you park at the front of the property and stroll along tidy paths past rows of grapes, art installations, and playful water features. Art is a big part of the décor at the hotel, where cutting-edge artists exhibit paintings, sculptures, and textiles.
Peter and I are invited to enjoy the spa’s hamam, a Turkish steam bath with a ritualized bathing protocol. At each of the stations, you have tasks to do from sweating to washing to rinsing to swimming to relaxing on a warm tile surface while thermal heat permeates deep into your bones. Couples and/or same sex groups take turns going through the stations, and it’s supremely relaxing and therapeutic. We loved it!
Afterwards Cecile shows us some of the 16 rooms of the hotel. Its chic, modern architecture utilizes lots of natural materials—wood, tiles, and stone—and its furnishings and bedding are super luxurious. The most amazing room is actually a pod on stilts that juts up from the vineyard. Cecile says, “It’s like a treehouse. The vines are the trees.” It’s a romantic spot with a jetted tub on the outdoor balcony for bathing under the stars while sipping on glasses of wine—from the Entre Cielos winery, of course.
Speaking of wine, Cecile treats us to a delicious lunch at Katharina Bistro. We sit on the terrace overlooking the hotel’s turquoise pool and grapevines shimmering like gold in the afternoon sunlight. In the distance the Andes rise up like sentinels in the sky. Our lunch is as magnificent as the view. Peter has roasted veggies with pumpkin that pops with flavor followed by a veggie burger. I enjoy fabulous tomatoes served with burrata and then a filet mignon with a Malbec sauce that is insanely good. Cecile serves Marantal Malbec, named after a star in the constellation Orion. And, yes, the wine is stellar, just like everything else at Entre Cielos.
The next morning as we pack up the car before heading to the airport, our landlord brings us a bottle of red wine with a handwritten label and says, “It’s from our family winery. It’s a gift.” We thank her and wonder whether the wine will be any good. Back home in Virginia we open her bottle—along with the wine from the Monasterio. Both bottles are amazing and transport us instantly back to the vineyards of Argentina. Something tells me we will be back one day.
Read about Peggy’s adventures in Chile’s wine country here!