A wine tour three ways

A wine tour three ways

cover_final1-2014There are a handful of ways to get out to Mendoza’s vineyards: on a hot and sweaty bike journey, on a hop-on hop-off bus journey and on a luxury private tour with air con. Christopher Davies decides to try all three on for size.

Bike: Cheap, fun and a little messy

For many travellers coming to Mendoza, top of the agenda will be a bike wine tour. As this is arguably the easiest and cheapest way to visit the bodegas of Mendoza, it is extremely popular with backpackers on a South American adventure who happen to be passing through Argentina’s greatest wine region. Ask any traveller that has been here in recent years and you’ll soon discover that biking from bodega to bodega is a somewhat compulsory affair.

Therefore, I had little choice than to give it a go myself. Catching a bus (number 171, 172 or 173 on Catamarca and Rioja) to nearby Maipu, which is the oldest of the different wine regions.  There I hired a bike from the numerous rental firms along the town’s mainstreet . Although I timed it just right, busses can be infrequent later on in the day, so you might need to take a taxi costing around 70 pesos if you’re not an early riser.  Remember to bring exact change for the bus which costs 4 pesos.

Considering the amount of miles these rental bikes cover, checking the brakes, gears, tyre pressures, chain tension and seat height is absolutely essential. A bike in poor condition could potentially ruin the whole day, so make sure you’ve got a sturdy and reliable ride. The majority of rental firms will provide you with a map of the area and may even recommended a winery to visit, often with a discount for tastings or lunch. But the first port of call on this particular day was Carinae at the other end of Maipu.

As I started to clock up a few miles, it became apparent that Maipu is not your typical country bike ride. The area is mostly urban with no vineyards and many wineries are located on streets, not country roads. There are no close-up views of the ice-capped Andes like you have on the Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley tours. Although there is a bike lane for the initial stretch of road, as soon as you break free from town and go deeper into the tree-lined countryside, there is no protection from fast moving vehicles. On this day, the majority of drivers overtook with ample room to spare, but it is a good idea to be mindful of every approaching vehicle.

After a good 45 minutes of pedalling, Carinae suddenly appeared. This boutique winery was established in 2003 by French couple Brigitte and Philippe Subra, who both fell in love with Mendoza since moving here for work. After learning about their take on wine, as well as an insight into Philippe’s hobby of astronomy, it was time for the day’s first tasting. This ranges from 40 to 150 pesos depending on how many wines you try, but the Torrontés and Gran Reserva Syrah were personal favourites.

Following on from a busy morning, it was time to head back towards Maipu, stopping off for some lunch at Tempus Alba along the way. Although it was tempting to go on another tour, I headed straight to the rooftop restaurant of this beautifully modern building, which was the perfect spot for a bit of much-needed sustenance. Sit back and relax with some steak and Malbec, two quintessential aspects of any wine tour in Mendoza.

An afternoon on this sun-drenched terrace was certainly appealing, but I still had one more winery on my itinerary. Not far from the centre of Maipu is La Rural, a bodega that was established in 1885 and still has all manner of winemaking equipment on display. Here you can discover more about the history of wine making in the region and enjoy a final tasting of the day.

Overall, renting a bike and cycling round Maipu is a great way to visit Mendoza’s vineyards and sample some great wines. You can see why it is so popular with backpackers that come to the region, as the sense of adventure in the great outdoors coupled with some endearing scenery and good company is an ideal day-out for many. Just be careful on the roads, drink plenty of water, prepare yourself for a sweaty and dirty day with lot of pedalling and don’t get too carried away with the wine!

Pros – A cheap way to get out and see some of Mendoza´s oldest wineries.

Cons – Maipu is not as pretty as Lujan de Cuyo or Valle de Uco and the wines are of lesser quality.

Total Expenditure: $358 pesos. 8 wines tasted, 3 wineries and 1 course lunch.

Details: Carinae (Videla Aranda 2899, www.carinaevinos.com), Tempus Alba (Perito Moreno 572, www.tempusalba.com), La Rural (Montecaseros 2625, www.bodegalarural.com)


Hopping between the bodegas by bus

If you are not too keen on the idea of pedalling around bodegas all day on a rented bicycle, then a different mode of transport is necessary. Unfortunately, Mendoza’s fine wine making regions Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley are spread quite far apart and there is no way of making public transportation work.

Thankfully, there is alternative, which is relatively new for both visitors of Mendoza and the surrounding wineries. Bus Vitivinicola is a hop on/hop off bus service that picks up tourists from designated pick up points in the city, heads out to the countryside and enables wine-lovers to visit up to three bodegas in a day, and pay as they go for whatever tastings and lunch they desire. What’s more, this particular service drives around Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu’s more prestigious brother and famous for its intense, concentrated Malbecs.

The day I decided to give Bus Vitivinicola a try started at 08:00am with the first pick-up at the Diplomatic Hotel. Even though the hop on/hop off service means you can pick and choose which wineries to visit, you also have to pass through every single stop on the journey, including Mendoza’s most popular hotels and various wineries. Even though this day we were only 9 people and no-one else got on after the first three stops we still had to go through the pick up points and therefore I reached my first bodega two and a half hours after the day started, which some people may consider a bit of a drag.

The small and personal Montequito was the perfect place to start, as its intimate atmosphere coupled with fantastic scenery is incredibly welcoming. After learning more about Montequito ‘s history and unique approach to combining different varieties, it was time for the day’s first tasting. While the two-hour wait between bus pick-ups might be considered a little lengthy for your standard tasting, this was the perfect opportunity to enjoy Montequito’s truly original blend of Cabernet France, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon in the warm Mendoza sun.

After this leisurely start, the bus pulled up right on time to carry on with the day’s busy schedule. Next up on the agenda was Terrazas de los Andes, yet another historical vineyard that boasts beautiful gardens and picturesque architecture. While the standard of my surroundings gave me high hopes for lunch, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sensational four-course meal ahead, which featured some perfect wine pairings. From the beef with smoked cheese, sundried tomatoes and Malbec main, to the chocolate parfait with orange zabaglione and sparkling wine dessert, the whole meal was exceptional. There was even time for a quick look around the wonderfully restored bodega, which now features the latest in wine making technology.

Before long, the bus was patiently waiting outside for a very satisfied tourist to climb on board and finish the day in style at Bodega Tapiz. Upon arrival, it became apparent that I would be experiencing a different mode of transport altogether, as a horse drawn carriage was ready to conduct a tour around the vineyards.

This was once again appropriate for the unhurried and relaxed approach to the day, even though Tapiz is one of the most technological wineries in Argentina. However, it is also in touch with nature, as there are around 40 lamas on site. Wool products are available to purchase in the shop alongside a superb range of wines including the standout Zolo collection. But soon I was back on the bus heading back to the city, where the biggest challenge of the whole day was staying awake. We arrived back at the Diplomatic at 7pm.

Overall, Bus Vitivinicola is a fine way to visit Lujan de Cuyo’s wineries if you’re not a fan of the alternative options. The driver and guide provide information about each bodega (in Spanish) en-route and do everything they can to stick to the schedule. Although this means you’ll have spent around 10 hours on the tour, there is very little cause for concern, worry or even responsibility, just make sure you’re ready to leave when the bus turns up. Also if you have any particular wineries in mind, you may want to book your visits in advance as some other travellers in the group found no availability where they wanted to go.

Some visitors to Mendoza may not be too keen on the amount of travelling and stops en route, but a little compromise is required.

Pros –  Direct transport to some excellent wineries in the heart of Malbec Country

Cons – Large groups in Spanish and a long day may test your stamina. The pay as you go format also means its not as cheap as it appears, especially if you want to try the best wines and have a good lunch.

Total Expenditure: $620 pesos. 10 wines tasted, 3 wineries visited and a four course lunch.

Details: www.busvitivinicola.com, Montequieto (Cobos 12290, www.montequieto.com), Terrazas de los Andes (Thames and Cochabamba, www.terrazasdelosandes.com), Tapiz (Ruta 15, www.tapiz.com)


Cruising VIP with aircon on a private tour

Last but by no means least, I had the opportunity to experience my third type of wine tour in quick succession. While I thoroughly enjoyed pedalling around the streets of Maipu and catching the hop on/hop off bus service in Lujan de Cuyo, now was the time sit back, relax and trust the experts. Although there are several private wine tour operators in and around Mendoza, Trout & Wine were on hand to show me why they come so highly recommended.  The tours are all inclusive, with small groups, one language and the focus very much on the best possible tastings in some of the region’s most venerable wineries.

Once again, I would be heading to Lujan de Cuyo on Trout & Wine’s ‘Perfect Wine Tour’, which visits four bodegas in the space of eight hours. They also offer a similar tour further afield in Uco Valley which is famous for its scenery and architecture. Thankfully, there are never more than eight people on a tour, so the 9am hotel pick-ups were over in no time and we were soon on the road out of the city. This gave our guide for the day Charlie O’Malley, owner of Trout & Wine, the opportunity to give the group a little history lesson about Mendoza and how it’s winemaking industry became so big and prosperous. Although this entertaining question and answer session could have gone on for quite some time, myself and my new friends soon arrived at our first destination for a wine-tasting breakfast.

Mendel was established in 2003 by Roberto de la Motta, one of the most well-known and well-respected winemakers in Argentina. After the group heard how Mendel strives to produce Malbec and Cabernet varieties of the finest quality by carefully sorting bunches, fermenting in small tanks and using the finest French oak, it was time to taste the fruits of de la Motta’s labour. I had come accustomed to spitting out wine on my previous tastings, but it was impossible not to savour every last drop of the Mendel Unus Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, which is made from 100-year old vines and rated 94-points by Robert Parker Jr.

With another tour and tasting in the offing, we soon departed our first winery to visit Renacer, yet another prestigious bodega but with a more modern aesthetic. However, we soon discovered that despite Renacer’s commitment towards energy efficiency and green initiatives, including environmentally friendly bottles, solar power and recycled materials, tradition is never far away as some of the 29 hectares of Malbec vines are more than 50 years old. Our guide and oenologist then conducted an interactive tasting session where we had the opportunity to create our own unique blend based on personal preference of oak-aged or stainless steel tank wines. Needless to say, everyone around the table felt that their own creation was the best.

At this point, hunger had started to set in, so we made our way to our third destination of the day where we would indulge in some fantastic cuisine. Our lunchtime setting was Club Tapiz, a boutique wine lodge and hotel situated on an estate built in 1890. Even though we would dine in a beautifully restored Renaissance-style Villa, there was still time to look around the old winery, which features a stunning 22 x 4 metre mural painted by local artist Sergio Roggerone. At the table, the food and wine pairings were just as impressive. Highlights included pumpkin soup with Tapiz Torrontes and spice rubbed grilled beef with Casa Zolo Malbec.

By now, a quick siesta wouldn’t have gone amiss, but today I was being spoilt rotten and there was one more winery on the list. Often thought of as royalty in Argentine wine having been in the industry for over 100 years, the Arizu family run the old and elegant Bodega Luigi Bosca. Now in its third and fourth generation, the family utilise a great depth of knowledge passed on through the decades to produce a ‘constant and homogeneous’ quality of wines. And it is easy to see why Luigi Bosca expansive collection reaches over 50 countries around the world, as our tasting, featuring a glass of the Brut sparkling wine, was worthy of any wine lover’s palate.  We finished the day with a glass of the winery’s top label, Los Nobles, an icon wine that had our group sighing with pleasure. By the time I was dropped off at my hotel at 5pm I was ready for a deep and blissful wine nap.

So for the ultimate Mendoza wine tour, where all you have to do is enjoy the sumptuous wine and delectable food on offer whilst receiving an informative yet entertaining commentary, Trout & Wine is the only way to go.  The fact that the day is effortless, the wines are the best you can taste, and the small group concept is fun and informal, makes it the most enjoyable way to tour the wineries.

Pros – A seamless and effortless way to experience the best of Mendoza’s wine scene. A good guide will also reveal facets of Mendoza`s history and wine industry that you otherwise would not learn if you go independently.

Cons – Relatively expensive. It is good value – you try 16 wines, but just not suitable for everybody’s budget. 

Total Expenditure: $1200 pesos. 16 wines tasted, 4 wineries visited and a 4 course lunch.

Details: Trout and Wine (Espejo 266, www.troutandwine.com)