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Sanctuary in the Desert

Sanctuary in the Desert


San Juan is a city in a wild landscape of bare mountains and flat plains two hours north of Mendoza City. You’ll see a few tumbleweeds roll past on a Sunday afternoon in San Juan and that’s not just because of its dusty surroundings and sleepy lifestyle but also because San Juan is characterised by its winds.

If you have been in Argentina for long you will have heard about the infamous ‘Zonda’. It sounds like a caped fox from a Spanish cartoon, but the Zonda is a wind so fierce it can run at 40km per hour, and so hot it can reach 45 degrees Celsius. It is a wind of biblical proportions at times – especially those that last 3 days and tear apart roofs of houses – and if you go to the village of Zonda and it’s surroundings you’ll see how this wind has shaped the lands into dramatic clay sculptures. The best example of how the Zonda has shaped the landscape over the years is the outstanding Valle de la Luna, Ischigualasto Park, 250kms further north.

The most popular tourist route near San Juan is the Quedabra del Zonda, a mountainous setting near the Ullum dam where you’ll find beautiful nature walks, and outdoors activities like dirt biking, cycling, kayaking, paragliding and windsurfing. The winds that blow across the dams in the area make it one of the top windsurfing and kitesurfing spots in South America, especially in the nearby dam called Cuesta del Viento.

Although in the winter the landscape might look like an ancient crater where a dinosaur dropped an A bomb a few millenia ago, in the summer it transforms into fertile valleys and resplendent vineyards producing some of Argentina’s top Syrah. When it isn’t blowing a Zonda gale – which fortunately is only a dozen times a year and usually in the less critical winter months – San Juan is impeccably sunny and dry with almost no rainfall and perfect sunshine. This gives its wines a unique character.

Some Serious Syrah

“San Juan has some of the clearest and most unpolluted skies, with over 300 days of sun so it gives a longer maturity and UV exposure which produces more antioxidants and makes the tannins much sweeter,” says winemaker Gustavo Daroni about the easy-to-drink style of San Juan wines. The antioxidant levels also give you a great excuse to drink more as they are proven to reduce risk of cancer.

Hot sun isn’t ideal for all grapes and summer temperatures can soar to an overwhelming 46 degrees Celsius. The varietal that’s really made its home here, is Syrah. More heat resilient than other varieties, it continues working and producing even on the hottest days. You’ll also find good Torrontes, Cabernet Franc and Malbec in these parts, amongst others. The vineyards near Zonda village are in fact considered some of the best quality for their high altitude and there’s an old sparkling wine cava built into the mountains nearby too (Cavas del Zonda, Ruta 12, Km 15).


San Juan’s surroundings have been planted with vines since the mid-1500s and the province has a strong history in wine production as well as other agricultural products. You can get a good idea of its history by visiting Graffigna winery just outside the city centre (Colon 1342 Norte, Their wine history museum is well set up to give people a taste of the past. Tours run every hour and they start off with a video showing old footage of the winery since it was founded in 1870 by Italian immigrant Santiago Graffigna, offering an insight into what was one of the biggest and most modern wine operations in the early 20th century Americas. Graffigna was one of the pioneers of winemaking in San Juan and he named one label Colon after the boat that brought him here. Colon remains one of the most recognised wine labels in Argentina. The 1944 earthquake tore down almost everything in the city including this winery. The tragedy is now remembered at the Museo de la Memoria in the city centre and re-enacated in an earthquake simulator.

Since then Graffigna has been rebuilt into a large winery making millions of litres of both table and fine wine. There aren’t many original features of the winery left but throughout the museum you can see different wine tools and relics previously used in the old winery.  Artefacts include winemaking equipment and even the big beautiful administration books from the early 1900s. The jewel of the museum though is the old barrel room where you have large, wood tanks that were made by their own coopers. The biggest beast is the 200,000 litre tank (that would fit about 70 people in it if you need a more visual image) constructed in 1910, which, at the time, was the biggest in the Americas. The free tour finishes off inside a barrel that has been smartly converted into a tasting room for a tasting of their top line wines under the Graffigna label.

Merced del Estero

Wineries in San Juan aren’t all big and old though. For a more boutique feel head to Merced del Estero (Av. Moron 432, in Tulum Valley.  A family winery started by Carlos Rodriguez after inheriting some of his grandfather’s vineyards in this well-known San Juan valley. Carlos’ dream was to make wine with grapes that he owned and so in 2003 this attractive but simple winery was built (which reassuringly looks identical to the winery appearing on the label) and in 2005 they had their first harvest.

The wine is aptly called Mil Vientos (A Thousand Winds) after Carlos was searching for a name for the winery and happened across a poem talking about the Mil Vientos of the area while, yes – you guessed it, a Zonda was blowing outside. The Zonda wind can be a problem in burning the vine shoots if it arrives at an inopportune time, however Carlos says the name is rather more of a poetic reflection of the many winds that traverse this land. Merced del Estero produces a fruit forward and well balanced Torrontes as well as some smooth and spicy reds. The winery is definitely worth a visit not only for the good wines but for the family feel where you are usually attended by Carlos or one of his sons.


On the other side of the city there is another winery that cannot go without mention in the ‘ruta de vino’ of San Juan, Bodegas Callia (Tulum Valley next to the Pie de Palo hills, One of the biggest producers of Syrah in the Americas and one of the wineries that deserves credit for making San Juan famous for this variety. This modern winery uses big, new technology and is owned by the Valle de Uco based Salentein.  It produces very drinkable wines at good prices, with certainly one of the best Syrahs you can find in Argentina for $30 pesos. Making a variety of different wines (including a tropical Torrontes, sweet bubbly and a good top blend that includes a bit of Tannat) Callia offers free tours with a tasting of a variety of wines made from the many different valleys of San Juan.


The Shrines of Diffunta Correa

Once you’ve quenched your thirst at Callia, there is one nearby site that begs to be visited and could be described as the Lourdes of Argentina, Difunta Correa. You’ll see the best footpath and cycle route in possibly the whole country running alongside the main road. It caters for the floods of religious tourists that take a pilgrimage to the site every weekend, whether by foot, bike, tour bus or car. The powerful truck drivers union hold their annual jamboree here.

In the middle of nowhere in a dusty landscape appears a scrappy, makeshift town with parillas (steakhouses) and souvineer shops as well as a chapel and an odd museum with gifts donated to the popular saint, but the real spot is up on a mound of earth in front. A spectacular entrance covered in license plates and red ribbons marks the ascent to Difunta Correa which is a five-minute walk uphill looking over a mini metropolis of miniature houses which have been left there in dedication to her. As you reach the top there’s a big rock with a cross on the top and a pool of wax from burnt candles below. Here appears the present day refuge of Difunta Correa, a shrine for the popular pagan saint Deolinda Correa.

La Difunta Correa (meaning the deceased Deolinda Correa), is the iconic wife and mother who sacrificed everything for her family.  Legend has it she walked across the deserts of San Juan with her baby child in search of her unfortunate husband. Her husband had been drafted into one of the the myriad Argentine civil wars in the 9th Century and when he grew sick he was abandoned by his men. Deolinda refused to leave him in peril and walked hundreds of kilometers in search of him. She finally perished in the heat of the desert but her young child stayed alive suckling on her breast and the baby was discovered by gauchos days later, alive and well drinking milk from her deceased corpse. Thus a cult was born with millions believing her to be a saint and that keeping her child alive was her first of many small miracles.

Thousands of people come each year to visit La Difunta Correa, bring her water, money and a personal promise or a request. Locals say she’s quite a vindictive saint and if you don’t do what you promise to do in exchange for your request you’ll soon die. The avid dedication she provokes makes this a very impressive shrine to visit and quite a unique sight.

San Martin & Sarmiento

All along the roads in and out of San Juan you’ll find popular saints celebrated on the highway, and even in the city itself there is a feeling of sainthood for many of the historical figures in Argentina’s history. The city centre is home to a multitude of statues of two men in particular, who also have their own museums: San Martin and Sarmiento. San Martin is regarded as the liberator of Argentina and on Laprida 57 Oeste you’ll find his home where he stayed in 1815 with documents and monuments relating to his history. Only a few blocks away is the birth place of Sarmiento, acknowledged for having created the modern education system in Argentina, on Sarmiento 21 Sur. You can see different displays of his books and busts in this commemorative house.

Whether you want an education in saints, Syrah or simply just to soak up some sun, San Juan is a good destination for a few days away.

San Juan Travel Guide

Where to Stay:
Del Bono hotels has three different types of accommodation which are the best in and out of town. Pick the only five-star resort in San Juan, Del Bono Park, conveniently on the ring road, with its spa and casino with top notch accommodation; or stay by the ‘beach’ of San Juan in the Del Bono Beach resort with private cabins next to the glistening milky turquoise waters of Ullum dam. If you want to stay in the heart of the city though make sure to book yourself a room at Del Bono Suites, a modern development right next to the main Plaza where your room comes with a kitchenette and Jacuzzi bathroom, and you can enjoy one of the best views over the city from the rooftop pool and hot tub.

Where to eat:
De Sanchez (Rivadavia 61): One of the more gourmet options in town with a cool interior and traditional Argentine dishes with flavour. Right on the Plaza 25 de Mayo.

Un Rincon de Napoli (Rivadavia 175 Oeste): For a down and dirty diner, this is your place. Pizza actually comes out in the way that Napolitanos would be reasonably happy about – crispy based and with a bit of attitude on the side.

How to get there (from Mendoza):

By Bus: A bus runs at least every hour between Mendoza and San Juan bus terminals taking two hours and costing just under $100 pesos.

By Car: Take the Ruta 40 straight up till you hit San Juan. The city sits inside a ring road that joins all the exits to different destinations inside the country and towards the mountains.


Read more about Windsports in San Juan

Read more about The Zonda Wind


By Amanda Barnes

Published in the October/November 2013 edition of Wine Republic

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