Argentina’s midwestern provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja stretch all the way from the chocolate-brown pampas of La Payunia, on the northern borders of Patagonia, to the remote highland steppes of the Reserva Las Vicuñas, on the edge of the altiplano, more than a thousand kilometres to the north. Extending across vast, thinly populated territories of bone-dry desert, they are dotted with vibrant oases of farmland and the region’s famous vineyards: the sophisticated metropolis of Mendoza, one of Argentina’s biggest cities, is the epicentre of the country’s blossoming wine – and wine tourism – industry, while the two smaller provincial capitals, San Juan and La Rioja, continue to be quiet backwaters by comparison.
More than towns and cities, though, the area’s dynamics are about its highly varied landscapes and wildlife. In the west of the provinces loom the world’s loftiest peaks outside the Himalayas, culminating in the defiant Aconcagua, whose summit is only a shade under 7000m. Ranging from these snowy Andean heights to totally flat pampas in the east, from green, fertile valleys to barren volcanoes – including the world’s second-highest cone, extinct Monte Pissis – the scenery also includes two of the country’s most photographed national parks: the sheer red sandstone cliffs of Talampaya and the moonscapes of Ischigualasto. All this provides a backdrop for some of Argentina’s best opportunities for extreme sport – from skiing in exclusive Las Leñas, to whitewater rafting, rock-climbing, and even the ascent of Aconcagua or the Mercedario and Tupungato peaks.
European settlers have wrought changes to the environment, bringing the grape vine, the Lombardy poplar and all kinds of fruit trees with them, but the thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels that water the region existed long before Columbus “discovered” America. Pumas and vicuñas, condors and ñandús, plus hundreds of colourful bird species inhabit the thoroughly unspoilt wildernesses of the region, where some of the biggest known dinosaurs prowled millions of years ago. Countless flowering cacti and the dazzling yellow brea, a broom-like shrub, add colour to the browns and greys of the desert in the spring.
Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja provinces make up three quarters of a region known as El Nuevo Cuyo, and you will often see the words Cuyo and Cuyano here, particularly in names of travel companies. The etymological origins of the word cuyo are not entirely clear, but it probably comes from the native Huarpe word xuyu, meaning riverbed. The area has strong historical ties with Chile, and the accent in much of the region reflects this – with, for example, the “-ll” and “-y” being pronounced as the “y” in yellow, as it is in Chile, rather than the “sh” sound you hear in Buenos Aires.
As legend would have it, during the Civil War in the 1840s, a local man named Baudilio Correa was captured, taken to La Rioja and killed; his widow Deolinda decided to walk to La Rioja with their baby boy to recover Baudilio’s corpse. Unable to find water she dropped dead by the roadside, where a passerby found her, the baby still sucking from her breast. Her grave soon became a holy place and lost travellers began to invoke her protection, claiming miraculous escapes from death on the road. The story of the widow Correa is believed to be Amerindian in origin but has been mingled with Catholic hagiography in a country where the borderline between religion and superstition can often be very faint. The Difunta Correa – difunta meaning deceased – is now the unofficial saint of all travellers, but especially bus- and truck-drivers, and thousands of people visit the shrine every year, over 100,000 of them during Holy Week alone, many of them covering part of the journey on their knees; national truck-drivers’ day in early November also sees huge crowds arriving here. Some people visit the shrine itself – where a hideous statue of the Difunta, complete with sucking infant, lies among melted candles, prayers on pieces of paper and votive offerings including people’s driving licences, the remains of tyres and photographs of mangled cars from which the occupants miraculously got out alive – while others just deposit a bottle of mineral water on the huge collection that is creeping along like a small-scale replica of the Perito Moreno glacier.
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.
The city has an attractive park and one or two museums that are worth visiting, but most people come to Mendoza principally to do a wine-tasting tour at the many bodegas in or near the city (see Argentine wine). Mendoza’s leading restaurants serve seafood from the Pacific coast and delicious, fresh produce, all accompanied by the outstanding local wines. 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. And, in a very different vein, the city also acts as a base for some of the world’s most thrilling mountain-climbing opportunities.