There are several very attractive reasons to visit Mendoza. Situated in the shadow of the Andes, and just two hours’ drive from the foot of mighty mount Aconcagua, it’s the perfect spot for the more adventurous to base themselves for a gruelling trek up South America’s highest peak. For the less active/more sane, there are numerous daily tours leaving from the city’s hotels and hostels to Aconcagua National Park, where from the mountain’s foothills the views are spectacular and the air is still thick enough that you don’t need a siesta every five paces.
The nightlife, like the climate, is hot and spills from bustling bars onto tree lined streets where the party goes on until dawn. In stark contrast to the steepling, barren Andes which rise to the west of the city, the region is also world famed for its vast expanse of sun soaked vineyards. And like many of Mendoza’s annual visitors, it wasn’t so much the mountains as the Malbec which brought me here.
Around two thirds of Argentina’s entire wine production comes from this state. Perfect soils, a temperate climate with chilly nights and the high altitude of the vineyards provide ideal conditions for Malbec growing, and boy does it grow! Of Mendoza’s 140,000 hectares of vineyards, the vast majority is Malbec.
Wine tourism is naturally big business here, and many of the wineries open their doors to thirsty tourists who arrive daily in droves to nose around the cellars, learn how the wine is made, and of course taste the finished product. Bus tours, which include talks (and tastings) in select wineries, vary in price and quality. Generally the more you pay, the smaller the group and the better the wine you taste.
A lot of independent travellers, however, choose to spend one of their free days by hopping on a public bus to one of the major wine areas (Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo), rent a bicycle and visit the vineyards off their own steam.
Being a bike nut and starved of cycling for two months, this was the only option for me. And so it was that, accompanied by a hastily assembled group of Swedish medical students, a fellow Londoner and a Californian, I made for Maipu. Just a 40 minute public bus ride from downtown Mendoza, and with a high concentration of vineyards and a couple of bike rental spots, this small town is easily accessible and an excellent starting point for any tour.
Our first stop was Mr Hugo’s bike rental, opposite the bus stop – a friendly and very reasonable place to pick up wheels for the day. The bikes are nothing to write home about, but at 30 pesos a day, including a bottle of water and a seemingly endless supply of wine as you are fitted out, you take the rough with the smooth! Following a heavy night in the bars on Calle Aristotle and Colon, all good intentions of setting off for this trip at the crack of dawn had predictably gone to pot, and the midday sun tipped the mercury at around 35degrees C.
Do NOT forget sunscreen! Following one last beaker of plonk for the road, we were given basic maps of the area with a handful of the more visited wineries clearly marked, and set on our way. We soon learned that there are hundreds to see, ranging in size greatly from the vast Trapiche operation, Argentina’s largest exporter of wine, to the small, family owned farms, for which tourists form a large part of their business. Although there are around 1200 registered wineries in the province of Mendoza, we found that visiting three or four in a day is probably enough.
The tours were all interesting, informative and different, but as the day rolled, all the talk of techniques, processes and history did become increasingly like foreplay for the tasting!
For me this day was as much about the cycling as the wine, and it didn’t disappoint. 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of the buses and rental hubs and you are surrounded in all directions by the luminescent green of the beautifully regimented vines as far as the eye can see.
The majority of the wineries are situated on, or a short diversion from, the main rd, so there’s not much chance of getting lost and you can take in several within a 10 or 12km circuit. For those with a little more in the tank, there are a smattering of further flung vineyards at around 20/30km from the rental stations.
Maipu’s roads are not generally busy, but they are iffy to say the least with potholes a plenty, and big dusty trucks rumble past at speed. With the ‘warm welcome’ at Mr Hugo’s and the day’s various tastings it’s pretty easy to get through a fair few glasses of vino without realising it. Without wanting to sound patronising, do take care – add the 35 degree heat to the wine/bike equation and it is all too easy for a gentle day on the road to descend into something resembling the wacky races. After around 30km of pedalling, and with wine stained lips and teeth, we decided to bring our five hour round trip to a close with a delicious locally brewed ale in a somewhat out of place, but very welcome none the less, beer garden.
If you can make it out of bed earlier than this traveller, then there are also olive oil and chocolate factories to visit along the way.
If you are interested in Mendoza wine tours, check our favorite tours here.
Written by Aaron Moore