Our revised plan to travel longer in South America included a flight down to Santiago Chile. From there, we planned to travel through northern Chile and into Bolivia, followed by Peru. Before any of that was to happen, and since we were basically right next to Mendoza, we decided it was absolutely necessary to make a stopover in wine country. To get there, we booked ourselves a front row seat on the upper deck of a classy coach bus. The ride from Santiago to Mendoza was nine hours long. Usually we would do a trip like that on an overnight bus, but not this time.
This bus ride was an experience in itself, especially from the front row. The drive up into the Andes was incredible and would have been a shame to sleep through. The highway, which must be one of the windiest roads in the world, leads you high up into the mountains to the Chile/Argentina border.
From there you descend through a beautiful canyon, passing Aconcagua on your way down, South America’s highest peak. In fact, Aconcagua happens to be the highest point in the southern and western hemispheres, towering over everything at a staggering 6,961 meters, or 22,837 feet. Turned out to be a pretty cool added bonus to an already awesome ride.
As we descended further towards Mendoza, the landscape grew more colorful, with stunning reddish canyon walls highlighted by the sparkling blue river that raged through the base. Once through the Andes, the landscape dramatically switches to flat planes filled with vineyards as far as the eye can see. Needless to say, we were beyond excited to be swimming in malbec for the next four days.
Our time was limited, giving ourselves only four days to get our fill, so we got right to work. For the first night, we planned to hang out in downtown Mendoza, leaving the remainder of our time to be spent in the more rural wine valleys. We arrived just before dusk, which worked out perfectly because we were hungry, and without a doubt ready to find out what all the hype was about with these Argentinian steak houses.
A little bit of online research for the best steak houses in Mendoza lead me to La Lucia, and it did not disappoint. When we got there, I was a little concerned because the place was super classy and looked like it would be way to expensive for our budget. Luckily, we were in Mendoza Argentina where steak and wine is sold at fancy restaurants for wholesale prices.
Being unfamiliar with metric sizing for meat cuts, and not wanting to get too little, we each ordered our own rib-eye along with a side of creamy spinach, Parmesan garlic potatoes, and of course, a fine bottle of malbec. The steaks came out on big wooden planks; two fat, juicy, two-inch-thick rib-eye’s, enough to feed a family of four! Apparently 450 grams is kind of a big steak!
Now, I have had some delicious chops in my day, but none compared to this, at least as of yet. Argentina truly lived up to its reputation, as these rib-eye’s were the most tender and flavorful cuts we have ever had. Add to that the incredible sides, the fantastic malbec, and of the fact that the entire thing only cost us fifty bucks, and I would say we hit a homerun with our first Argentinian steakhouse experience.
Beyond the meal, we didn’t spend all that much time exploring downtown. We did however enjoy walking through the main plaza and the pedestrian street that cuts through the heart of town. It was one of the wider pedestrian streets we have seen, filled with cozy little cafes and tons of restaurants spilling out into the sidewalks. With more time, we could have easily spent a few days around there, but with the time we had, we wanted to get to the wine tasting as fast as possible.
There are three main wine regions in the greater Mendoza area; Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and Uco Valley. In doing my internet research, I was dissuaded from spending any of our time in the Maipu area because it sounded a bit more urban, so we planned on our first two days exploring Lujan de Cuyo.
Lujan de Cuyo
The best option for accommodations on a budget was hands down Airbnb. Of course, if you have the money, there are plenty of classy hotel options that are probably incredible. For us though, on a budget, we were excited to see lots of cool home rentals all over the region. We found a private backyard cottage for rent by a lovely Argentinian couple and paid only a fraction of what we would have at a local hotel.
The location was great, pretty much smack in the middle of the Lujan region, and was made even better by the neighboring restaurant, Terrada Mar y Campo. Here, we had our second Argentinian meat experience, but this time it came in the form of pizza. Tender steak with sautéed peppers and onions, on a pizza. Probably the best tasting specialty slice I have ever had, and I’m from New York (which is blasphemy, I know, but it’s true!).
Our wine tasting adventures began with a self-guided cycling tour around Lujan de Cuyo. There are a handful of companies that offer this service, but we went with Baccus Bikes and had a great experience. The shop is in the heart of Chacras de Coria, a small village in Lujan, and they do a great job of setting you up for a fun day of tasting.
As it turns out, wine tasting in Mendoza is quite different from how they do it in California. In Cali, you just show up to any winery and go to the tasting room where you do your thing. In Mendoza, most of these wineries require reservations, and they don’t have typical tasting rooms. Instead, they make you reserve and go through a tour that includes tastings, usually at the end. To make it even more challenging for us, it happened to be Easter weekend, and we hadn’t made any reservations anywhere. We barely were even able to rent the bikes, getting the last two available when we showed up. Fortunately, Baccus Bikes sets you up with a list of places you can visit, either with a phone call from them, or at places that normally work with them and allow bike-in appointments.
When we finally got it all sorted out, we started our escapades with a nice long ride towards a small family run winery called Carmelo Patti. It was mid-late April at the time, which would be equivalent to mid-late October in the northern hemisphere. That meant we were there just after the harvest, and right in the middle of grape processing at most of these wineries. That was brought to our attention as we pulled into the first stop and were greeted by a six-foot-high pile of smashed grapes that just got through juicing. Even with all the wine tasting we had done back home, it was our first time seeing this side of the process, so we were pretty excited about it.
After a quick stop for lunch, we made our way to our next stop at Viamonte Winery. This place was much larger than the previous one and had a gorgeous grassy lawn enclosed by fields of grapevines on all sides. We weren’t really interested in doing tours, so instead we just went to the wine shop and picked out a bottle to enjoy out on the lawn. In all honesty, drinking a nice bottle on a beautiful lawn with an amazing view sounds way better than a tour and tasting, so we decided this would be our plan for the rest of the weekend. Screw reservations, we would just show up, buy wine, and drink it…seemed like a fool proof plan to me.
The bike tour took us to one more spot on our ride back to the village, Canepa Martin Family Winery. We did a short tour and tasting, which was nice, but it was the bike rides themselves that truly made the bike tour worthwhile. Biking through vineyards during fall while the leaves are changing with the Andes Mountains in the background, um…yes please!
On our second day in Lujan we decided to rent a car so we could access some of the more remote wineries that bikes couldn’t reach. Now we were on our own though, ready to put our method of no reservations to the test. Our first attempted failed, but not because of reservations or lack thereof. Apparently, a lot of the wineries are closed on Saturdays, which I can’t seem to make any sense of, but that’s what we were told. It was too bad because that first stop was at Catena Zapata, a beautiful winery whose main structure was a replica of a huge Mayan pyramid. Also, they are most well-known for their brand Alamos, a wine commonly found in the states that is delicious and affordable. It would have been cool tasting this commonly drank wine at its source.
It wasn’t until our third stop that we finally scored. The guard at the gate told us we needed reservations at first, but when I told him we just wanted to buy wine, the gates flew open and we were welcomed with open arms. Budenguer is a boutique winery with a smaller facility, but has a great little patio overlooking their pond and vineyards in the distance. A perfect place to enjoy a nice bottle of estate malbec.
Right next-store we found our next spot, Dolium Winery. The place was also a small boutique winery, and one of the owners greeted us when we arrived, offering to give us a tour and tasting. The tasting was unique compared to our normal experiences, and we still aren’t sure if we actually enjoyed it. He would bring out two different unlabeled wines, have us taste them, then ask us what we thought about each. The hardest part being that we were speaking Spanish, and while our skills with the language had greatly improved, we most certainly didn’t know how say all the words that describe wine. I mean, I barely know all the words to describe wine in English, so it was a challenge to say the least. We didn’t want to seem like we didn’t know our shit, so just as we do in California, we made up as much as we could about the flavors, bodies and tannin’s we tasted. A lot of nodding and agreeing, that’s for sure!
By the time we finished up at Dolium, it was already five o’clock and the wineries were closing, all that Spanish wine talk worked up our appetites so we decided to head to the village of Chacras for what we thought would be an early dinner. When we got there we were starved, not having eaten since breakfast, so immediately searched for a spot to eat. After some failed attempts at finding a restaurant, we finally caught on that Argentina works much like Spain, where all the meal times are shifted. Breakfast is at 10 or 11, lunch is at 2 or 3, and dinner is at 8 or 9pm. The only place we found serving food was offering a brunch menu at 8pm! To add to the confusion, when we asked a waitress what time it was, we discovered that we had entered a different time zone when we crossed into Argentina and had no idea. It was now one hour ahead of EST, and it had been that way for the past two days, but we somehow hadn’t figured it out til now!
We were dying for some food when eventually we came upon a little café on the main square where we could get a charcuterie board. This couldn’t have worked out better because Linds must have mentioned that she wanted one at least four times a day since her birthday. Seemed to be perfect timing and saved us from a near meltdown. Crisis averted.
We were happy that we decided on the car to explore Lujan de Cuyo a bit more, it is necessary if you want to see the bigger better wineries. It worked out great, but real reason we rented the car was so we could visit the pride and joy of Mendoza’s wine country, the famed Uco Valley.
Uco Valley is a little over an hour drive south of downtown Mendoza and is home to some of the biggest and best wineries in Argentina. The only way to access the area is via an organized tour, or to do it on your own with a vehicle. For us, with our wine tasting experience in California, there was no other way to do it but with our own ride.
The night before I decided to put some last-minute effort into contacting a few wineries to see if we could make reservations. We were still going to show up unannounced as planned, but it couldn’t hurt to put the feelers out. Out of the six places I messaged, four responded. Two said they had no space for us. The other two said the tours were full, but we could come by anyway to see if something opens up, or just to buy some wine if we so desired.
Our first destination was an absolutely gorgeous winery called O. Fournier. We arrived at 10:30am on Easter Sunday morning, and were satisfied with our visit before we even got out of the car. After getting through the entrance gate, you navigate through endless fields of grapevines and eventually the modern, beautifully architect-ed structure comes into view. In the distance, the picturesque landscape is completed by the rugged Andes. Truly the stuff screensavers are made of.
We couldn’t join any tours, which worked out for the best because all we wanted to do was drink wine anyhow. A private tasting had just begun, and they allowed us to piggy back onto that, which was amazing. Grade “A” vino, and absolutely worth a purchase if you ever come across the brand in a store.
From there we pulled up google maps to see what was nearby and threw a dart to decide on our next stop. Monteviejo Winery turned out to be a great random choice, as they didn’t turn us away without reservations. Instead, they let us wander around their facility on our own, and even gave us a couple free glasses of wine to enjoy from the roof top lounge. No reservations, no problem, it was working out thus far!
Our next destination was less random, as I had read a bit about it while doing my earlier research. Salentein came highly recommended, and for good reason too. Another stunning property, and this one didn’t require any reservations. When we showed up we had the option to book a tour, do a tasting, or simply buy a bottle and enjoy it at our leisure. As you may have guessed, we opted for the bottle, and drank it as we wandered through the grapevines.
They even had a nice little restaurant, but being midday on Easter Sunday, that part did need a reservation. Didn’t matter to us because on our drive over, we stopped at a roadside vendor who was selling his homemade beef empanadas. Ten for a dollar and they were amazing! Perfect thing to keep our appetites at bay while we focused on drinking more malbec.
For our final spot of the day we settled on Casa Petrini, another location that came highly recommended through online research. At this winery, we ended up getting a table at their little café and chose to go a different route than the standard bottle of red. Being our final stop, it felt appropriate to try out one of their amazing looking desserts, paired with their award-winning rosé. I’m not typically one for a blush wine, but theirs was fantastic, made all the better with some strawberry lemon pie!
That evening, thanks to a hotels.com gift card given to me by my sister as a birthday gift over a year prior, we were living it up at the Auberge du Vin luxury hotel. To get there, you had to drive twenty minutes down a dirt road through endless vineyards before arriving at this little slice of heaven. Our room let out directly into the vineyards and had a beautiful view of the Andes in the distance. For dinner, we were treated to this incredibly unique steakhouse just down the road from the hotel.
La Matera de Cabalgatas del Alma is ran by a husband and wife that live in the cottage next store. Each night, the husband fires up is wood fire grill and cooks up an array of meats and homemade sausages. There is no menu, instead he just serves portions of the grilled meats as each one is ready to eat, giving each table in the restaurant a little taste of everything. The place only seemed to have five or six tables, so it was an extremely intimate and tasteful evening of Argentina meat.
I will be honest, the entire thing was sort of off the cuff, so we didn’t know it was a set menu, and therefore didn’t know the price, which was a bit higher then we would have liked. On top of that, it was cool to try all the different cuts he served, but it didn’t compare to that fat rib-eye we had in Mendoza. Either way, getting past the pricey bill, I can still say I really enjoyed the intimate unique experience and would recommend it to anyone.
As we got home, we got hit with the outskirts of a storm that was covering the mountain range to the west of us. It turned out to be extremely fortunate, because prior to that storm, the mountains had not seen their first snow of the winter season yet. The next morning, the clouds began to clear and the view of those snow-capped Andes in the distance, over the fields of grapevines whose leaves were turning those autumn shades of red and orange, was just incredible.
It was a short four-day venture into Argentina, but we hit it so hard that we both couldn’t take another bite of steak, and definitely needed a day or two before our next glass of wine. With that checked off the list, we were ready to start exploring Chile, which was packed with all sorts of pleasant surprises.