Urbane In The Andes

Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Travel Writer

There was a time when a vacation in Argentina automatically meant Buenos Aires. The country’s capital city — home to tango, Latin America’s biggest Jewish community and a third of the Argentine population — was, for many North Americans, the only place on the tourism radar.

But it didn’t surprise me when a friend recently departed for Argentina, and the capital wasn’t even on her agenda. “I’m going to Mendoza,” she confided, as she scoured L.L. Bean’s website for camping gear. “It’s harvest season. I’m going to tour wineries, go mountain-climbing and stay at a bodega with vineyards and a view of the Andes.”

Indeed, Mendoza — on the country’s far western border — may just be the most sophisticated town in the Andean region. Whereas the Peruvian and Ecuadorean Andes towns tend to be rustic, even indigenous in feel, Mendoza has a distinctly upscale sensibility; the city itself is urbane and elegant, and the surrounding wine country is maturing into a connoisseur’s destination (with affordable prices).

Winery tourism has exploded here over the past decade — due perhaps equally to the rising global popularity of Argentine wines, the exoticism of Mendoza’s natural landscapes and the friendly exchange rate for the Argentine peso.

Mendoza’s myriad wine producers, in turn, have responded with ever-more-enticing offerings for malbec-sipping tourists. In what was once largely an industrial outpost, you could now easily fill a week with guided winery tours, gastronomic pairings, even guesthouses where visitors can relax amid vineyards and mountain air.

And it is a truly spectacular setting. Endless golden fields, laced with grapevines and olive trees, spread out along valleys at the foot of jagged, snow-capped peaks. This arid, sunny climate has made for some of the world’s finest red wines. Malbec is the signature grape, but cabernet, merlot and syrah are also first-class, complementing the rich, meat-heavy Argentine cuisine.

Many of Mendoza’s wines are kosher, and more than one bodega — the local term for a winery — was founded by Jews of Ashkenazic descent, who brought their European tastes and entrepreneurship to this fertile corner of the New World. As vintages and kosher certifications are constantly changing, I hesitate to make particular recommendations, but those interested in kosher wine tastings should find the Mendoza tourism center helpful.

These days, only a few hundred Jewish families are estimated to live in the city of Mendoza, where the Jewish community has suffered from assimilation and flight to the capital. But Jewish activity still thrives in the synagogues and community centers, where Mendozan Jews welcome their northern brethren to a city that’s easy to enjoy.

Leafy and elegant, with expansive plazas and broad boulevards, Mendoza has a stately, 19th-century feel and a verdant look, even in winter. The Argentine fall has become the most popular season for foreign tourists, who flock to the myriad events surrounding “vendimia” (wine harvest).

Winter is ideal for skiers and those seeking a slightly more relaxed (and gently priced) environment in which to tour the wine country. The southern part of South America has reliably sunny, dry, 40-to-50-degree days — as ideal for city strolling as for hitting the slopes at the nearby Las Leñas resort.

Like everything in Argentina, Mendoza has a sprawling, larger-than-life feel: its blocks seem longer, its plazas larger, its roads wider and its mountains taller than you anticipate. Distances can feel daunting, and the famed “wine roads” — established routes through the various vineyard regions surrounding Mendoza — can require hours of driving.

Mendoza was established as a Spanish colonial city in the mid-16th century, but its spaciousness reflects an optimistic 19th-century sensibility. That’s when Argentine nationalism coincided with a devastating earthquake, and the city was rebuilt along a grid plan. Plaza Independencia is the most famous among Mendoza’s many public spaces; it connects the Avenida San Martín — Mendoza’s Fifth Avenue — with the Paseo Sarmiento, a lively pedestrian thoroughfare.

For a city, Mendoza is a notably outdoorsy place, with museums taking second place to the glorious parks, boulevards and plazas, which are filled with stylish locals all year round. The most popular weekend destination for locals is the Parque San Martin; like a Central Park but with hills and stunning mountain vistas, it’s a huge, fin-de-siècle playground that sprawls over nearly 900 acres where you can rent rowboats, ride horses or hang-glide over rose gardens.

Shoppers will be tempted by the many outdoor markets for which Mendoza is known. Leather goods are perhaps not as cheap as they once were (what is?), but you’ll still find plenty of boots and bags that are handmade locally, high-quality and distinctive.

The real rewards, though, come when you hit the road out of town to the wine country, either through a rental car (cheaper than you might expect) or via hired taxi, by the trip or the day. Tourism officials have long recommended only taxis hired through hotels, though I’ve always found street taxis friendly and honest.

Invest in a good map, and keeping in mind your wine preferences and schedule, and do your research. Some wineries are closed on Sundays and/or Mondays; others require reservations for visitors, and there’s little consistency to who charges for what. That said, it’s almost hard to go wrong with the spectacular malbecs, many of which will challenge Americans accustomed to lower-end, mass-produced Argentines on New York shelves.

For many, the ideal Mendoza getaway might be a stay at one of the new bodega guesthouses, among the hottest trends in Latin American tourism. A far cry from the old stop-and-sip operations, these new places are typified by Bodega Salentein, a 400-year-old estate. Here one can unpack in rustic-chic lodgings, dine on locally-sourced cuisine at one of the restaurants — and even view art in the country estate’s gallery.

Is it the wine or the elevation? Either way, Mendoza can go to your head.

The Bodega Salentein guesthouse is located in the heart of Mendoza’s wine country. Courtesy of Bodega Salentein

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Can you help me contact the Jewish community of Mendoza?

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