It's the very picture of sophisticated rusticity: a small table, topped with a white table cloth, set between rows of grapevines heavy with fruit. Near the table a wooden marker reads "Cabernet Sauvignon.'' Overhead a pale yellow springtime sun shines in a pure blue sky. Rising above it all are the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains, the highest among them soaring past 20,000 feet.
"Wouldn't it be great to taste wine here, right in the middle of the vineyards where the grapes were picked?'' I say to my wife, Georgina.
"You will,'' says our host, a guide at Familia Zuccardi, a leading Argentine winery. "It's your table.''
This is Mendoza, an arid province 600 miles northwest of Buenos Aires and just east of the Andes, whose snowmelt makes Argentina's wine industry possible. Malbec, a transplant from France, is the reigning grape, grown mainly in the foothills of the Andes at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. The Malbec grape is the source of robust but softly finished, inky-purple wines -- a perfect match for hearty Argentine beef.
Mendoza is also the name of the province's largest city, a leafy oasis of 120,000 people that offers a prime base for exploring wineries in the surrounding countryside. Mendoza city has the biggest airport for miles around, a cluster of toothsome restaurants, attractive shops and some good places to stay. We stayed at the Park Hyatt, a bustling, modern business hotel rising behind a historic facade and located on the Plaza de la Independencia, the park in the heart of town.
From the hotel, we set off each day with Mendoza native Fernando Paz, a knowledgeable guide who drove the car and translated our English and notional Spanish. Visitors need a car to get to Mendoza's gleaming, modern wineries, some of which are an hour or two out of town. You also need to call ahead and book winery tastings and tours, as many Mendoza vintners are just getting used to hosting visitors from afar.
Georgina used to live in California's Napa Valley and our home is just an hour's drive from Napa and Sonoma, so we thought we knew the wine-country drill, but Mendoza is wine country with a difference. Because it is far removed from big cities, and Malbecs are just now becoming known overseas, there are no huge tour-group buses; winery walk-arounds are much more intimate. There are often no regularly scheduled tour hours, so you must be on time; latecomers may literally find the front gate closed.
It's worth making the extra effort to enjoy Mendoza's wineries (known locally as "bodegas''). The bigger Mendoza operations, unlike their North American counterparts, don't try to clone Tuscan villas and French chateaus. They commission original architecture or quote structural forms from cultures not usually associated with wine. Catena Zapata is housed in a striking pyramid inspired by the Mayans; it's hardly indigenous to South America, but it works, with the angular structure holding its own on the expansive plateau and providing wraparound views of the vineyards and the mountains.
Salentein has built an attractive modern winery with a companion structure 100 yards away that houses the company art gallery; the holdings, mostly paintings, are not bland corporate fare, but ambitious new work worth seeing.
Most wineries boast nicely appointed tasting rooms that take advantage of the sheer space of the wide-open Mendoza plain, with huge windows to admit the mountain-refracted light. But each winery is refreshingly distinctive. We liked Vistalba, with its beautifully rounded reds and crisp whites, not to mention its superb French-accented restaurant, La Bourgogne, located near a stand of olive trees. Vistalba is also one of many Mendoza wineries with its own posada: a small, upscale inn for guests who want to stay right on the property.
We visited half a dozen wineries over three days, returning to Mendoza city by late afternoon to walk off all that food and drink. Avenida Emilio Civit, which runs between Plaza de la Independencia and Parque General San Martin, the city's largest park, is a fine place for a stroll, with big, shady trees, fine early 20th-century houses and curbside irrigation ditches that bring mountain water to the trees. Parque General San Martin, with its heroic statuary, food pavilion, curving roads and spacious fields, is a relaxing break from urban bustle. Plaza de la Independencia is a central gathering place, showcasing well-maintained landscaping and a small modern art museum tucked underneath a concrete expanse.
On the plaza's northern edge is the Park Hyatt. The city's first international hotel, it will get competition from a Sheraton under construction nearby, which should raise the bar for big hotels in this still-provincial market. The Park Hyatt Mendoza doesn't match its big-city namesakes -- Georgina found the hotel's spa well off the mark -- but it has a buzzy mezzanine bar and the featured restaurant, Bistro M, is skillful at preparing beef and lamb, and well-stocked with Mendoza wines. Other city dining options include Francesca Ristorante, for Italian food, and Francis Mallman Restaurant 1884, for reinvented Argentine meat dishes. All are good, though diners in search of fresh vegetables will have a hard time -- as they do throughout meat-mad Argentina.
The memory that lingers most fondly is that vineyard table at Familia Zuccardi, where we sampled locally sourced food and, of course, sipped Zuccardi vintages. (Look for the Zuccardi offerings with a Q for quality on the label.) A three-hour lunch followed, this time on the terrace of the winery's restaurant, with more vino and savory meats from the outdoor asada, expertly grilled.
For more information, contact the Argentina Government Tourist Office at (212) 603-0443.