MENDOZA is a mostly low-rise city, spread across the wide valley of the Río Mendoza, over 1000km west of Buenos Aires and less than 100km east of the Andean cordillera – whose perennially snowcapped peaks are clearly visible from downtown. Its airy microcentro is less compact than that of most comparable cities, partly because the streets, squares and avenues were deliberately made wide when the city was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, following a major earthquake. Every street is lined by bushy sycamore and plane trees – providing vital shade in the scorching summer, they are watered by over 500km of acequias, or irrigation ditches, which form a natural, outdoor air-cooling system. Watch out when you cross the city’s streets, as the narrow gutters are up to a metre deep and often full of gushing water, especially in the spring when the upland snows melt.
The centre of the urban layout is the vast Plaza Independencia, and its four orbital squares, plazas Chile, San Martín, España and Italia, each with its own distinctive character. The Museo del Pasado Cuyano offers an insight into late nineteenth-century life for the city’s richer families, while the Museo de Ciencias Naturales y Antropológicas is a natural history museum. The latter sits in the handsome Parque General San Martín, which commands views of the city and its surroundings. The park is also the venue for the city’s major annual event, the Fiesta de la Vendimia, held every March. The ruins of colonial Mendoza’s nucleus have been preserved as the Área Fundacional, where there’s another small museum. The most impressive sight is the historic Bodega Escorihuela, a beautiful winery in a southern suburb.
Most people visit Mendoza principally to do a wine-tasting tour at the many bodegas in or near the city. Within easy reach to the south of the city are two small satellite towns, Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, where, in addition to the majority of the region’s wineries, you’ll find a couple more interesting museums, one displaying the paintings of Fernando Fader – a kind of Argentine Van Gogh – and the other focusing on the wine industry. The city also acts as a base for some of the world’s most thrilling mountain-climbing opportunities.
Mendoza started out as part of the Spanish colony of Chile. In 1561 García Hurtado de Mendoza, captain-general of Chile, sent over an expedition led by Pedro del Castillo to establish a colony from which to “civilize” the indigenous Huarpe; Castillo named the town he founded after his boss. Soon flourishing, Mendoza continued to be ruled from across the Andes, though its isolation enabled it to live a life of its own. The extensive network of pre-Hispanic irrigation canals was exploited by the colonizers, who planted vineyards that soon became South America’s most productive. By 1700, the city’s merchants were selling wine to Santiago, Córdoba and Buenos Aires. After the Viceroyalty of the River Plate was created in 1777, Mendoza was incorporated into the huge Córdoba Intendencia. Mendocinos are still proud of the fact that San Martín’s Army of the Andes was trained in their city before thrashing the Spanish royalist troops at the Battle of Maipú, Chile, in 1818. Once Argentina gained its independence, however, Mendoza began to suffer from its relative isolation, stagnating by the mid-nineteenth century.
Worse was to come, though: as night fell on March 20, 1861, three hundred years after the city’s founding, an earthquake smashed every building in Mendoza to rubble, and some four thousand people, a third of the population, lost their lives. It’s believed to have been one of the worst ever to have hit South America in recorded history, an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale. Seismologists now believe that the epicentre lay right in the middle of the city, explaining why the damage was so terrible and yet restricted in radius. Pandemonium ensued, God-fearing Mendocinos seeing the timing – the city’s anniversary and Eastertide – as double proof of divine retribution. Remarkably, a new city was quickly built, overseen by the French urban planner Ballofet, who created wide streets, open squares and low buildings for the new-look Mendoza. The city’s isolation ended soon afterwards, with the arrival of the railway in 1884. The earth continues to shake noticeably at frequent intervals, but all construction in modern Mendoza is designed to be earthquake resistant.
Gran Mendoza (or “Greater Mendoza”), with a population of close to one million, includes the city centre – home to around 150,000 people – plus leafy suburbs such as Chacras de Coria and Las Heras, and industrial districts, such as Godoy Cruz. Wine, petrochemicals, a thriving university and, more recently, tourism have been the mainstays of the city’s thriving economy.
Fiesta de la Vendimia
Fiesta de la Vendimia
Mendoza’s main festival is the giant Fiesta de la Vendimia, or Wine Harvest Festival, which reaches its climax during the first weekend of March every year. Wine takes over the city and the tourist trade shifts into high gear. On the Sunday before the carnival proper (the last Sun in Feb), the Bendición de los Frutos, or Blessing of the Grapes, takes place, in a ceremony involving the bishop of Mendoza. During the week leading up to the grand finale, events range from folklore concerts in the centro cívico to Italian food and entertainment in the Plaza Italia. On Friday evening is the Vía Blanca, a parade of illuminated floats through the central streets, while on Saturday it’s the Carrusel, when a carnival parade winds along the same route, each department in the province sending a float from which a previously elected beauty queen and her entourage of runners-up fling local produce, ranging from grapes and flowers to watermelons and packets of pasta, into the cheering crowds lining the road. On Saturday evening, the Acto Central is held in an amphitheatre in the Parque San Martín; it’s a gala performance of song, dance and general kitsch-o-rama, hosted by local TV celebs, eventually leading up to a drawn-out vote – by political leaders representing each department in the province – to elect the queen of the festival. The same show is re-run, minus the election, and therefore less tedium, on Sunday evening. The spectacle costs millions of pesos and is a huge investment by the local wine-growers, but as it’s attended by some 25,000 people it seems to be financially viable. The organizers boast that it’s the biggest such festival in South America and one of the most lavish wine-related celebrations in the world. For more information contact the city’s tourist office.
Bodegas in and around Mendoza
Bodegas in and around Mendoza
There are dozens of wineries in the Mendoza area that are open to visitors. The easiest way to visit bodegas is on a tour organized by an agency in Mendoza. A typical half-day trip visits two or three bodegas, while a full day visits five or six and includes lunch; full-day trips are better value.
If you’re going under your own steam, call ahead to check times, to book a visit and to ask for an English-speaking guide, if necessary. The bodegas are concentrated in Guaymallén, in Maipú and in Luján de Cuyo.
Some visits and tastings are free, but you’re pointedly steered to a sales area at the end (cash only; surcharge for the best tipples). Try and see different kinds of wineries, ranging from the old-fashioned, traditional bodegas to the highly mechanized, ultramodern producers; at the former you’re more likely to receive personal attention and get a chance to taste finer wines. Best of all is staying the night at one of the several wineries offering accommodation – some of it highly luxurious.
Argentina is now the world’s fifth-largest wine producer (after Italy, France, Spain and the US), with three-quarters of the country’s total production coming from Mendoza Province, focused on Maipú and Luján de Cuyo in the south of the city. San Rafael, La Rioja and San Juan are also major wine-growing centres.
Many wine experts would agree that Argentina’s vintages are improving rapidly as a result of both a domestic market that’s fast becoming more discerning and the lure of exports. Table wines still dominate, often sold at the budget end of the market in huge, refillable flagons called damajuanas, and sometimes marketed under usurped names such as borgoña, or burgundy, and chablis. Younger Argentines often only drink wine on special occasions, plumping for lighter New Wave wines such as Chandón’s Nuevo Mundo. Many upmarket restaurants offer extensive wine lists including older vintages – but beware of exorbitant corkage charges. Commonly found bodega names to look for include Chandón, Graffigna, Navarro Correas, Salentein, Finca Flichmann and Weinert.
Although the most attractive wineries to visit are the old-fashioned ones, with musty cellars crammed with oak barrels, some of the finest vintages are now produced by growers using the latest equipment, including storage tanks lined with epoxy resin and computerized temperature controls. They tend to concentrate on making varietal wines, the main grape varieties being riesling, chenin blanc and chardonnay, for whites, and pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and malbec, for reds – the reds tend to be better than whites. Malbec is often regarded as the Argentine grape par excellence, giving rich fruity wines, with overtones of blackcurrant and prune that are the perfect partner for a juicy steak. The latest trend is for a balanced combination of two grapes: for example, mixing malbec for its fruitiness and cabernet for its body, while toning down the sometimes excessive oakiness that used to characterize Argentine wines. Growers have also been experimenting with varieties such as tempranillo, san gervase, gewürztraminer, syrah and merlot, and very convincing sparkling wines are being made locally by the méthode champenoise, including those produced by Chandón and Mumm, the French champagne-makers.