The Smooth Guide to Mendoza (Financial Times How to Spend it)

That Mendoza City exists at all is a rather persuasive reason to visit, because really it shouldn’t. For all its dancing fountains and lush green squares, it’s a desert town, 750m above sea level, that should, by rights, sustain less life than Mars. Blessed with an ingenious man made system of irrigation, channelling water from the Andes through the medieval-looking cobbled gutters that line every street, it thrives. Mendoza is nothing less than an urban miracle and something of an unlikely twenty first century gourmet paradise.

Mendoza City has a compact European beauty with a touch of the raw drive of a frontier town and one very specific focus: Wine. It’s the lifeblood that flows through everything, from the bottles of Malbec that stand ornamentally next to leather goods in the windows of the shops of the Microcentro, to the breakfast-time blind Sauvignon tastings that you’ll just have to get used to if you’re coming here to visit. The heart of the city is tiny, but its veins spread way out to the surrounding vineyards and into the dramatic snow capped mountainscape in the distance.

Mendoza is going places fast. A few years ago there were none of the high end pursuits and diversions that there are now, but as the world’s tastebuds attune to the magic being worked with Mendoza’s grapes, there has been a ripple effect through its urban core as well as through its vineyards.

All journeys begin at the Plaza Independencia, the biggest square in a city that’s big on squares. Mendoza has long since become accustomed to regular seismic jolts and shudders but once in a while there is a far ruder awakening. The 1861 earthquake wiped out virtually everything and everyone, so when Mendoza was rebuilt, it was designed around a grid system of squares that are as functional as they are photogenic; when the ground shakes, everyone heads for the nearest open space, as far away from crumbling buildings as possible. It’s a simple common sense approach to town planning. It also happens to look rather lovely.

The very essence of the wine business is all about space and distance, so the psyche of the city spreads far beyond the so called ‘Resto Bars’ and pavement cafes of the centre. Locals think nothing of driving across country for an hour for lunch. A high percentage of visitors to the city stay in fully serviced high end suites on their vineyard of choice. New ones spring up every few months and the bar of luxury is being raised ever higher; think Mark of Zorro meets Japanese minimalist. Drivers are easily arranged to get from A to B, not so much at the drop of a hat but at the micro oxygenating swirl of a goblet full of Pinot Noir, either by the lodge you’re staying in, or the bodega you’re visiting. The celebrated Cavas Wine Lodge attracts a high fashion crowd, while Club Tapiz is as famous for its fantastic restaurant as it is for the modern luxury of its 7 suites. Both are fine choices for a stay in the area.

In terms of making a temporary base within city limits, the Park Hyatt, which dominates Plaza Independencia, is the only game in town. Along with the Edificio Gómez tower a few blocks east, a building which resembles a cross between a deco folly and an electrical power station, it is the most iconic structure in Mendoza. With its palatial façade and sleek modern quadrangle interior, it’s the only five star hotel in the immediate area. As well as a world class spa and casino, it houses one of the best restaurants (Bistro M) and the best wine stores (Azafran) in the city and an unusually good boutique. You can drive for miles into the desert to find the KDS steel workshop amidst the wilds of Tupangato to order a set of the best steak knives in the world, only to find that KDS have a capsule range at the Park Hyatt boutique. But still, there’s nothing like a little adventure in the Argentine wild west, so both options are worth considering.

From Plaza Independencia take a taxi to the Museo del Area Fundacional and the San Francisco ruins, the only visible remains of the original 19th century city. The museum here eruditely tells the city’s story with plenty of glass bits and ceramic bobs in glass cabinets dug from the ruins to illustrate the point. It’s a perfect pit stop history lesson, while the surrounding area is beautiful enough to warrant a visit in itself, with impromptu barbecues taking place at the weekend. From here, drive over to the Parque General San Martin, the 865 acre wide lungs of the city. Here is the real miracle of the irrigation system, constructed after the 1861 quake by Carlos Thays using a blend of English and French style landscaping; it’s perennially green and pleasant. Pass under the iron condor that sits guard on the grand entrance gates, pass the football teams in local team kit working their way around one of the many jogging trails, and head to the Cerro de La Gloria, the highest point in the city. The view across the suburbs and out to the Andes is fantastic and gives an idea of how scorched everything not blessed by that elaborate sprinkler system is: It’s cacti and desert shrub as far as the eye can see.

The weather can be somewhat bipolar in Mendoza. When the Zonda wind blows in from the Andes, bringing with it a small mountain of dust and 100 degree temperatures, the city boils. The day after, it shivers. When blessed with sunshine and clarity (which is on most days), a stroll around the Microcentro in the noticeably fresh air is a delight. Each square has its own personality, but Plaza Espana is by far the prettiest. At weekends stallholders sell homemade beauty products, jewellery and leather goods while couples and families relax on the ceramic ornate tiled benches that line the pathways. With its vivid Mediterranean mosaic fountains and murals its both a riot of colour and totally tranquil.

Mendoza is far from being a Buenos Aires-style shopping mecca, but there are some essential retail diversions here. While on Argentine soil (lest we forget this is the land of polo), you must visit the local branch of La Martina. The candy coloured knitwear and button down shirts produced by the official supplier to the nation’s polo teams are quite, quite delicious. As is the Italianate, feminine womenswear produced by local designer Dalila Tahan and sold in her central Mendoza store. More and more boutiques are opening up close to Tahan’s store, and a whole stretch of Aristides Villanueva is developing into the city’s most interesting shopping thoroughfare.

Over on the Plaza San Martin, the smart financial district has been given a twist with the conversion of one of the most imposing banks into the Espacio Contemporaneo de Art. Exhibitions are sometimes geared to filling the volumes of the high domed ceiling in the single space more than with concerns of what’s cutting edge, but there’s always something worth the visit, and it sets a dramatically different visual pace from the city streets outside.

As the sun sets, back on Plaza Independencia, crowds gather at its west end to watch musical or circus acts in an open air amphitheatre. From the cocktail terrace of the Park Hyatt, streaking flames from fire jugglers batons in the park opposite catch the corner of the eye late, late into the night.

Mendoza closes down for siesta from midday to 3pm so the knock on effect makes kick off for dinner a late affair – 10pm or later. The most apparent ripple affect of vineyard prosperity has been felt, and tasted, in the Mendoza the dining scene. For a city that still barely registers on all but the most adventurous tourist’s radar, there’s some revelatory food to be had here. Argentine chef Francis Mallmann set up his restaurant 1884 within the imposing castle-like walls of the Bodega Escorihuel to create the kind of French food so engineered that it should come with a handbook rather than a menu. Then he scrapped the whole thing and refocused on comfort food. Sausage and mash though, it is not. Mallman has brought the same genius and level of invention he’d levied before to the new menu.  Sitting in the romantic garden or in the milk chocolate coloured dining room, eating almond and garlic soup, peasant humita (a mashed corn dish with chilli) and rib eye steak with Patagonian potato (essentially poshed up, painstakingly presented steak and chips), you’ll experience a new kind of foodie bliss.

The garden at Francesco is another some enchanted dining experience: Chef Maria Teresa creates rustic Italian classics like campestre lasagna, goat stew in chardonnay and pannecotta with broiled fruit syrup alcayota and serves them up to families and anniversary couples alike while a pianist plays ‘As Times Goes By’. The whole experience is a lush touch of La Dolce Vita in the desert.

If Francesco is where families go for a special occasion, Il Patio de Jesus Maria is where they go when they just can’t be bothered to cook but want to eat fabulously well. This is the famed Argentine barbecue parilla restaurant par excellence. Effectively you’re dining in a curtained off glass box next to a petrol station, though the room does have a modicum more charm than its geographical reality suggests. No matter though, this is about meat, a subject the Argentine people take very seriously indeed. The perfectly barbecued beef and pork keeps hitting the communal wooden serving block on the table until you’ve had enough. It’s one rather fantastic aspect of Mendoza culture condensed into a single 2 hour experience. This being Mendoza, there’s also a killer wine list.

Nightlife in Mendoza centres around Aristides Villanueva which, though worth a stroll along in the evening to capture the buzz, can veer towards the boisterously teenage in the early hours. Head instead, via taxi, to Optimo in the well heeled suburb of Caracas, a very mod sushi restaurant with a rooftop nightclub and open air terrace; the perfect location to sip flutes of the local Chandon under a starlit sky.

To come to Mendoza and not to find time to visit a couple of vineyards, if not to buy, then at least to taste, is to miss some of the finest experiences South America has to offer. You can get a grasp of some of the most interesting Chardonnays, Malbecs and blends with one of the many varied tutored sessions in the Tasting Room at the Vines of Mendoza, right in the heart of town. It’s a great starting point before emptying the ATM (many vintners only accept cash – check before setting off) and going on to a fully fledged bodega.

Of those closest to the centre of town, Luigi Bosca produces some of the finest wines in the whole country. The tours of this family business start in the vineyard, take you through the vast gleaming fermentation tanks with their accompanying intoxicatingly sweet and wonderful smell of grape, and end with the tasting room. Invest in high end Finca Les Nobles Chardonnay, Malbec Verdot and Cabernet Bouchet, some of which rarely make their way to Europe. Excess luggage with this kind of shopping isn’t, of course, an issue: As with most bodegas, or at Wines of Mendoza in town, cases of your choice can be easily arranged for shipping directly back to your home. Alternatively, they can put you in touch with their European importers so you can make the purchases back home. After all, acquiring the taste is the most important part. So enjoy it.

The Zuccardi family allow visitors to cycle through the vineyards as well as help with the harvest at the end of the summer, but if that’s too energetic, you’re more than welcome to merely taste the product. Their wine – particularly the Q range of very finest wines – is as wonderful as their vineyards are handsome, and their olive groves are a beauty too. By the time you’ve settled down for lunch inside the Visitor’s House, you’ll have been seduced into loving everything with the Zuccardi moniker for a lifetime.

For the most memorable of vineyard lunches, book a table at Jean-Paul Bondoux’s La Bourgogne, which serves an inventive and modern take on classic French food. The local winemaking regulars bring their own product to pare with the veal rib or rabbit, but the wine list for visiting civilians is pretty hard to beat as it is. The scenery from the terrace is as impressive as Bondoux’s dishes; a painterly horizon of vineyards is broken up with vertical brush strokes of poplar tree and the jagged Andes behind. Ravishing.

Though it’s been a long day of tasting, purchasing and lunching, there is still one more culinary stop that must be made before leaving town. Just as tasty as all those Malbec blends that you’ve stocked up on (but twice as moreish!), are Alfajores; dulce du leche filled cookies from the Havanna store and café in the Mendoza Microcentro. Alfajores are basically the old British favourite Wagon Wheels, but with boiled-down super sweet condensed milk in the filling. Unwrap the silvered foil on just one, and you’ll be hooked. Suitably in line with most of the other fine-wined and red-meat dined style recreational pursuits of the Mendoza region, they may not be great for you, but when something tastes this good, the diet can start tomorrow. And after all, a weekend of such heady fresh mountain air really does stimulate the appetite.

 

 

 

HOTELS

 

Park Hyatt, Chile 1124 (54 261 441 1234; mendoza.park.hyatt.com), from £140 per night double.

 

Cavas Wine Lodge, Costaflores s/n, Alto Agrelo M5507 (54 261 410 6927; http://www.cavaswinelodge.com), From £150 per night double.

 

Club Tapiz, Lujan de Cuyo (54 11 4005 0050; http://www.tapiz.com) From £150 per night double.

 

RESTAURANTS AND BARS (prices are for a three course meal for one with half a bottle of wine)

 

La Bourgogne, Vistalba Carlos Pulenta Winery, R.Saenz Pena 3531, Vistalba (54 261 498 9421), £35.

 

Francesco, Chile 1268 (54 261 429 7182), £25.

 

1884 Francis Mallmann, Belgrano 1188 (54 261 424 2698), £35.

 

Optimo, Ruta Panamericana 7010 (54 261 524 0201), £25.

 

Il Patio des Jesus Maria, Calle Bodeguita S/No Parque General San Martin (54 261 444 2581), £15.

 

SHOPS

 

Havanna, Av Las Heras 293 esq. Patricias Mendocinas (54 261 420 4678)

 

La Martina, Palmares Open Mall (54 261 413 9008)

 

Dalila Tahan, Aristides Villaneuva 373 (tel ???? tbc)

 

KDS, C Correo 61, Tupangato (54 262 248 8852)

 

 

SIGHTS AND VINTNERS

 

Museo del Area Fundacional, Aliberdi y V.Castillo (54 261 425 6927)

 

Parque General San Martin, E Civit Ave

 

Espacio Contemporaneo de Art, corner of Gutiérrez (54 261 429 0117)

 

Vines of Mendoza, 567 Espejo (54 261 438 1031)

 

Luigi Bosca, San Martin 2044 (54 498 1974)

 

Familia Zuccardi, Ruta Prov 33, Maipú (54 261 441 0000)

 

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY


To see some of the absolute finest art treasures in the whole of the country, take a half hour taxi ride to Casa Fader, a museum devoted to the work of Fernando Fader, the European born Expressionist-inspired Argentine master of the early 20th century. You’ll definitely know when you’ve arrived: the building, in the midst of wine country, is an imposing spectacle in itself. Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes, Casa Emiliano Guinazu, San Martin 3651, Greater Drumond, Luján. T: 54 261 496 0224.

Further afield, around 90 minutes drive from the Microcentro, is Ande Luna, one of the newest, and easily one of the most stunning bodegas anywhere in the world. This is no ordinary wine making operation, this is quite simply spectacular. At 1,300 meters above sea level, right at the foot of the Andes, Ande Luna looks like some kind of science fiction fortress or palace with fabulous lawns. It’s a breathtakingly elegant brick Star Wars bunker in a totally Martian setting. The wines are still quite scarce in Europe, making the drive even more worthwhile. Tours and tastings are by appointment only. Ande Luna, Ruta Provincial 89 (54 2622 423226)


WHEN TO GO

 

Mendoza is a southern equator city so seasons are reversed. Though the weather is usually fine year round, spring (September-November) and late summer (February-May) are particularly good times to visit, especially with the bulk of the wine harvest around March.

 

HOW TO GET THERE

 

Mendoza is easily reachable via a 90 minute domestic flight from Buenos Aires. LAN fly three times a day between the two cities, from US$250.86 (www.lan.com)

 

Air France fly to Buenos Aires via Paris, from £573 economy return (www.airfrance.co.uk).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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