"We're trying to make people rethink their lives" Daniel tells me, eyes pondering a splendid pink Andean skyline, as it towers above of us in Mendoza's Valle de Uco.
Bold intentions maybe, but if you can spend a week here in this magical region and not contemplate flogging it all for a plot of scorched Argentinian soil, you might just be too sensible for your own good.
Wide, tree-lined boulevards and ample plazas punctuating a smart urban sprawl betray the story of a borough built when times were good. A region now famous for the pinnacle of Malbec production actually earned its plata in the early 20th century supplying quantity rather than quality to the insatiable thirst of a burgeoning Buenos Aires.
What’s left is a majestic city that’s a pleasure to stroll with green space everywhere or, in the case of my autumnal visit, more of an chestnut hue. And of course these days world class wine is slowly coming of age in oak for many miles in every direction.
Before heading further afield though, enjoy a day of acclimatisation exploring the charm and character of a place exuding that fascinating Argentine mix of European culture and South American attitude.
Breakfast on coffee and medialunas, the croissant-like pastries you can find on every street corner, before browsing the bar and restaurant-lined Avenue Aristides Villanueva making your way towards tranquil Parque General San Martin – named, like most public spaces here, for the exalted liberator of Chile, Argentina and Peru.
For more nationalist pride, and a gorgeous view too, head a little further to Cerro de la Gloria, a monument to revolution well deserving of the climb.
If on the other hand you prefer your vistas obscured by a large glass of vino tinto then Hotel Premium Tower Suites is the top floor terrace to seek out. During your stroll satiate appetites by picking on empanadas or join the crowds succumbing to the local obsession for panchos, hot dogs to you or me, with all the trimmings.
More advisable still, would be to save yourself for a meal at Ceibo Restaurante, a real favourite of Mendocinos, and the perfect place to sample some of the best regional drinks and delicacies.
The platter of empanadas alone is pretty much guaranteed to conjure meat-soaked, flaky pastry-induced daydreams for weeks to come.
After that, don’t miss the 36 hour baked osobucco, which achieves new heights of succulence, and a rib eye topped with Argentina’s favourite spicy sauce chimichurri and provolone, proving once again that everything good in this world is improved with a generous layer of melted cheese.
Chocolate and Malbec (what else?) biscuits with sharp strawberry sorbet add the sweetness and light required for dessert.
You can, unsurprisingly, pick up a bottle or two to take home from pretty much anywhere handling pesos but the best spots I found to browse or enjoy a degustation include Wine Up Tienda de Vinos and Sol y Vino. Arrive on the right day and you might just find cheese to taste too.
To get your nose firmly in the rim of a glass and really start sensing what this province has to offer you must first make your way out to where the work gets done. A few short miles south of the city you’ll find Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo and, within those two areas, enough bodegas to keep you swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting ’til harvest season comes back round.
I left myself in the capable hands of Kahuak Tours for the day and we visited an intriguing array of different wineries, each with an alternative vision for the perfect copa de vino.
To begin with, an excellent in depth tour of boutique winery Tempus Alba, where the team have been selectively breeding vines for the last two decades with the aim to produce their perfection of Malbec for this ultra-dry high-altitude Andean terroir – judging by our tasting session there’s method in the madness of their highly scientific approach.
Bodega Luigi Bosca is a much larger operation, but with no lesser focus on precision. Over almost 120 years this family run operation has sought to produce wines of excellence and now even offers impressive sparkling wines alongside the more traditional varietals of Malbec and Torrentes (a white grape grown exclusively in Argentina).
A booze-free stop was probably advisable for all involved, seeing as we got started fairly early, and everyone was certainly swallowing.
There is a wonderful proliferation of delicacies in the area – olive oil, dried fruits and nuts for example – and visiting a finca is a great opportunity to sample and stock up on some non-alcoholic souvenirs. If you can countenance losing the luggage space, Pasrai Olivicola is a great place to do both.
We finished our tour with a delicious meal at Clos de Chacras, the leafy quaint surrounds are ideal to appreciate good food, wine and company – all in abundance. Our descent to the atmospheric, dusty wine cellar afterwards felt more ghost hunt than bottle run but the post-lunch tales imparted proved an apt end to a day delving in to the ever evolving history of oenological philosophies.
This land’s most iconic road is the Ruta 40 – think of it as Argentina’s Route 66. You can drive the full length of the country on this highway alone, but jump on outside Mendoza and head south to find yourself in the Valle de Uco, an area renowned for producing the best grapes in the country and the sort of snow scarred mountain backdrops that can make you lose your train of thought.
A stay at Casa de Uco Vineyards & Wine Resort is the ideal way to enjoy the outdoors and its tranquillity from within the cosseted confines of five star luxury.
The modernity and clean design of the building somehow blends perfectly to a seemingly never-ending landscape, flanked by eye-catching water features all visible from the high-ceilinged contemporary dining area, this hotel feels part of nature’s furniture.
Splendidly appointed rooms with vineyard views are the perfect place to relax after a day exploring the expansive grounds and further afield on horseback or bike.
Despite the obvious human intervention of a few hundred thousand grapevines, the sounds, sights, smells and ambience here is that of the wilderness. Fittingly one of the most popular lines at Casa de Uco is El Salvaje which, as general manager Daniel Marquez explains over a glass or two, translates as ‘the wild’.
Later I learn from winery host, Andres Puldain, who has generations of experience in the field behind him, that a little of the Casa de Uco ideology is present in each bottle – a commitment to let the terroir do the talking – with minimal use of oak and a movement towards yeast-free, organic wines where possible that allow the grape alone to provide complexity through exciting varietal blends.
There is also a clear aim is to produce something which is unmistakably from the valley – so expect bags of flavour. These are desert-grown wines, they experience an arid climate which can see massive fluctuations in temperature from above 40°C to almost freezing during a 24 hour period. This strong sun produces lots and sugar, which translates to higher alcohol content, and the rapid drop in degrees leads to thicker grapeskins, adding more tannins to the finished product.
The result, red wines that make the perfect accompaniment to Argentina’s other national obsession – no not football – beef. Highlights of dining at Casa de Uco include sweetbreads so good they’ll have everyone ordering offal, delightfully fresh locally caught rainbow trout and a quite frankly ludicrous t-bone steak milanesa, certainly to my knowledge the most magnificent piece of meat ever to be coated in breadcrumbs. There is a passion that exists here to create the best possible food, wine and for those who choose to linger longer, an enviable lifestyle.
And if that’s for just for a few days, there can’t be many better spots to watch the sun drift westwards, grasping a goblet and appreciating the boundless expanse in all directions.
Mendoza has been on the world’s lips a good few years now, by the time you leave there’s no doubt that you’ll have found out exactly why.
Tim stayed at Casa de Uco Vineyards & Wine Resort, for more information and to book click here.
Tim enjoyed a winery and olive oil factory tour including gourmet lunch courtesy of Kahuak Tours, for more information and the book click here.
Tim enjoyed a meal at Ceibo Restaurante, for more information and to book click here.