Magical Mendoza: How to catch the best of it

Mendoza is often associated with the other Argentinian M-word: Malbec. The region is indeed the heart of Argentina’s  prodigious wine production and the focus of many a trip. The wine tasting was certainly high on my list and I did plenty of it.

But there is more to explore: Mendoza is sophisticated yet laid-back; beautiful parks reflect the regions’ rich history and Spanish heritage. Culinary expertise pairs nicely with the renown wine. Traveling with the expertise of Yampu Tours, here’s how two friends and I caught the best of Mendoza, from Malbec to aflajores.

Where we stayed…

With Yampu-arranged pickup at the airport (this part is pure heaven) we were whisked to Club Tapiz lovely small hotel and bodega (winery) in Maipú, a town just west of Mendoza, toward the Andes.

It’s worth noting that Maipú is arguably ground zero for Malbec grape production in Argentina. More on that later in the post, but we were definitely in the right place.

Tapiz is set in a 1890´s Renaissance villa surrounded by 10 acres of vineyards and olive groves. It’s a bit rustic in the best sense of the word: a quiet, country atmosphere simply decorated yet with all the creature comforts at hand.  Great breakfasts – robust continental or other options to order.

The restaurant is open to the general public and destination in itself.

Upon arrival, Alesandra had kitchen rustle up a fresh salad to tide us over.   The Malbec rose was just what was needed to rinse off the road dust, so to speak, and acclimate to the region. 

Believe me, nothing restores body and soul than a lovely afternoon and a sparkling rose.

Dinner didn’t get underway until 9 PM, “early” for Argentines yet  a tad late for U.S. habits.  We fell into the local custom with nary a murmur.

The flank steak was served with the freshest of grilled vegetables; I was assured that a spoon was the only utensil needed.

Really? In what universe does that happen?  This one.  We all slept like ninos.

TIP: Even if you don’t book into Club Tapiz to stay, carve out a night for dinner.

For a night in town, I recommend  Maria Antoineta.  It was suggested by Club Tapiz manager who kindly arranged a cab.  She was right and for the most part, these reviews agree.

Fresh and inventive Italian – pasta dishes are stand-out –  and the buzz of this bistro was zippy and fun.  Nice to mix with the Mendoza millennials as well as tourists.

Mendoza Musings

Night time in Mendoza: city seal ablaze in neon.

On a beautiful early autumn morning our guide Martin, arranged by Yampu,  picked us up in his spotless Toyota for a day exploring Mendoza and a few local bodegas (again, winery). Martin was a personable, dapper young man with excellent English and a passion for his home town of nearly 2 million.

Mendoza is a city full of public spaces created in the 19th century as Spanish colonial rule ended.  Inspired by Enlightenment thinking and by the American bid to gain independence from Great Britain, parks were created to both beautify and commemorate. Here are some highlights:

Plaza Independencia is the city’s center, a rambling park of exquisite mermaids playing in fountains….

 

…and bright pink dancing waters falling back into a raspberry pool.

 

Mendoza celebrates its heroes in elaborate bronze statuary.

At the José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, spent considerable time in Mendoza prepping to cross the Andes. A striking statue of San Martín as The Liberator, astride in all his equestrian glory.

And, to literally top it off, the Cerro de la Gloria by Uruguayan sculptor Juan Ferrari honors the victorious Martín and his Army of the Andes.

 

While at the park, a culinary curiosity –  as common as a Coke can – demanded my attention: what were these delicacies? Aflajores, it turns out, a snack staple throughout South America. A small soft cookie with dulce de leche filling and rolled in finely shredded coconut. The cookie is delicious with the region’s ubiquitous strong coffee and the perfect pick-me-up.   For the ambitious, here’s the (pretty simple)  recipe that will bring a bit of Mendoza right to your kitchen.

Off to the wineries!

After lunch, we set off to visit two wineries selected by Yampu. With so many in the area,  a bit of research before hand (which I did not do) would have been helpful to inform the choice,  then leaving it to Yampu to arrange.

That said, Yampu did a great job in selecting both Weinert and Domiciano – with tastings of wine and oil produced on site. Delicious Malbecs!

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A bit of what we learned:

  • Mendoza’s hot, dry climate, compliant soil, and altitude have worked their magic on this thin-skinned, dark purple French varietal, making a bold, fruity wine resonate with blackberry, black cherry, and plum flavors.
  • The first Malbec was planted in Mendoza in 1868 by a French botanist; it is now Argentina’s flagship wine, known around the world. It has become thoroughly “Argentinian” as the country boasts approximately 75% of the world’s Malbec acreage.
  • Clarification of wine demarcation:
    • “Classic” is drunk young
    • “Reserve” and “Grand Reserve” often designate a better quality wine from a particular year,  a wine suited to longer aging, or produced from older vines.
    • Good years for Argentinian Malbecs: 2007, 2009, 2013.
    • White wines are meant to be consumed while “young” – look for whites no more than 2 years old.

To the  Andes – and (a glimpse) beyond

Was it ever windy up there! The group tour to the Chilean frontier in the Andes was a concession to the budget limits.  Yampu’s in-depth knowledge of the region allowed us to economize on this side trip. Their commitment to a customization gives their clientele the last word on price points yet delivering a quality experience.

Our first stop toward the pass was the small town of Uspallata, and a chance to pick up a reminder of its Inca heritage.

The day was filled with natural beauty. Along the high rocky plateau, we stopped to admire (and photo-opp)  Cerro Aconcagua at nearly 23,000 ft (6,800 meters)  the highest peak in all of the Americas;  that’s both the Western and Southern hemispheres. 

 

As we chugged further west, a quite amazing striated stone, forming a  natural bridge over the Río Mendoza, came into view. It is the result of leeching minerals: green – copper, red – iron, yellow – sulfur.  The abandoned building was home to the Cementario de los Andinistas, commemorating climbers lost to Aconcagua.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Zeiler

In this barren yet stunning landscape, we started the climb to the border, eventually ascending to 13,780 feet (approx 4,200 meters) above sea level along hairpin curves of the gravel road leading to the summit. Yes, breath was short and ears a-poppin’!

And looking back over our progress…

Along the way, another striking outcropping: can you see the horsehead in the black basalt relief on the hillside? Courtesy of Mother Nature.

Finally at the Argentine/Chilean frontier under the watchful gaze of Cristo Redentor, erected as Argentina and Chile finally settled a long-standing border dispute in 1902.  Fittingly, the sculptor, Mateo Alonso, used cannon as his medium for the statue.  Talk about turning guns into plowshares….

 

This post on Mendoza is the third of a series on my Yampu trip to Argentina, which included Buenos Aires and the magnificent Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian border. Having Yampu customize the details, provide excellent guides, lovely accommodation, and arrange airport transfers was worth every penny.

Have you been to South America?  I’m thinking Patagonia next…..or maybe Peru….yet the Amazon and Galapagos are calling my name….. it’s a big continent.

Adios; I’ll let you know what happens!

Cheers,

Jane

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