Mendoza, Argentina: this picturesque capital of Argentina wine country is a foodie oasis of grass-fed steak, empanadas, dulce de leche, and wine. So much wine. Mendoza wine tasting is a must-do activity when visiting Mendoza. Before this trip, I would have said that Jeremy and I are coffee snobs, but NOT wine snobs, despite our San Francisco roots and semi-frequent trips to various California vineyards. Now? I’m not so sure.
On our first day in Mendoza, while tasting 21 wines, paired with 9 carefully matched courses of food, and touring 4 gorgeous wineries – all part of our tour with the super highly rated Mendoza Wine Camp – we may have accidentally fallen (or drunkenly tripped) head over heels for Malbec, Bonarda, and Torrontés (3 grape varietals popular in Argentina that we’d never even HEARD of before)! I think I may have actually drank more wine in 8 hours than I’ve ever drank in my life, and I loved every minute of it.
But surprisingly, it wasn’t the copious wine or the amazing food that made this tour one-of-a-kind. It was a sort of quirky, twisted historical edge that we’ve never encountered before in a wine tour. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. Let me just say this: in order to really appreciate Mendoza wine, we embarked on a journey to understand just how far it’s come from its humble roots. And by humble, I mean really, really horrifyingly bad. Like, shockingly bad. So bad, you guys.
You know what? I can’t summarize this. Grab yourself a glass of Malbec and settle in while I explain.
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Table of Contents
Learning about the History of Wine in Mendoza
It all started at the crack of dawn, which is what I like to call 8:30am.
Still groggily waiting for our coffee to kick in, our cheerful guide Emanuel picked us up and herded onto a refreshingly cool bus (you guys, we miss air conditioning so much). To our delight, there were only 2 other couples on our tour, making for a roomy bus ride and a pleasantly small tour of only 6 people. If you’ve ever been on a miserably crowded tour, you’ll understand why we prefer smaller tours. It’s not that we don’t LIKE people… it’s just that they ruin everything. Luckily, the other 2 couples on our tour were lovely older travelers who were as up for the challenge of an 8-hour long day-drinking extravaganza as we were.
As our eyes adjusted to the light (look, I haven’t been able to wake up before 10am since we started traveling 4 months ago, #travelproblems) Emanuel gave us a quick background on the history of wine-making in Mendoza and Argentina, with an ominous, “you’ll find out why this is important later.” Ordinarily a history lesson that early in the morning would have been torture, but it was actually really interesting.
Apparently, the wine industry as we know it today is relatively young in Argentina. For centuries, Argentina was a huge producer of wine that was consumed only by Argentinians. Because it was terrible. Really, really terrible. More on that later.
But despite Argentinians with terrible taste drinking massive quantities of shitty wine (and I mean MASSIVE quantities. In the 1970s the average Argentine drank 120 bottles of wine each year. That means men, women, children, and babies each put away an entire wine bottle every few days. Impressive!) the economic and political tensions of the 1900’s took a toll on the wine industry, and many wineries closed.
Apparently, the wine industry as we know it today is relatively young in Argentina. For centuries, Argentina was a huge producer of wine that was consumed only by Argentinians. Because it was terrible. Really, really terrible.
Finally, in the 90’s, some brilliant folks thought “hey! What if we didn’t produce as much shitty wine, and instead produced some really good wine that people outside of Argentina might want to drink?” Genius! It turns out that this was a fantastic idea, and today, Argentina produces loads of high quality premium wine … which is promptly exported. (It seems that Argentinians still prefer the cheaper, less high quality wine, which is still consumed en masse in Argentina.)
The First Winery Tour: A Deep Dive into the History of Wine in Mendoza
After the brief summary of the history of wine in Argentina, we arrived at our first winery: Clos de Chocras. Tucked casually into a residential neighborhood (which, to our dismay, is actually NOT common in Argentina. But how cool would that be?? Like BRB, just popping down to the neighborhood vineyard for a bottle of cab, no big deal. #Goals) Clos de Chocras is an old family-owned winery that was re-acquired after being abandoned for like 30 years (ostensibly due to producing shitty wine in massive quantities). The younger generation of owners re-vamped the winery to make delicious, high-quality wines in smaller quantities.
But our tour was not just a cheerful sugar-coated sales pitch drenched in optimism and Malbec. It got deep. And dark. And I mean those things both literally and figuratively.
The tour at Clos de Chocras started innocently enough. Outside, we admired the Kevlar nets protecting the vineyards from the golf-ball sized hail that frequently plagues Mendoza (wtf, Argentina?) and then ooh’d and ahh’d at some shiny, complicated machinery which I won’t even attempt to explain.
And then, we began the descent into the dark history of Mendoza wine making.
It started with a warehouse filled with large cement tanks. Unlike the typical stainless steel drums or wine barrels that are usually used to ferment fresh-picked wine, the Argentina standard is a large, thick-walled cement tank, covered with smooth Epoxy, and fitted with a tiny steel door (the perfect sized steel door for a small child…. hmmmm).
It turns out the size of the doors was not a fluke. As our tour guide led us down a flight of cement stairs into a cool, dark cellar, we were greeted not with the sight of stacks of wine barrels, as we expected, but with … well, a dungeon. It looked like a dungeon. Have you ever been to Salem, Massachusetts? It looked like where they used to keep people under suspicion of performing witchcraft. I got chills walking through the dungeons of Salem, and I was feeling a prickly icy feeling on the back of my neck here, too. Why does a winery need a dungeon?
This, our tour guide explained, was not a dungeon; it was where the original cement tanks once held massive quantities of shitty wine. Ah, yes, of course. We all nodded knowledgeably; by now we were well-informed about the history of massive quantities of shitty wine in Argentina. But then we learned something that we did not see coming. At all.
Why does a winery need a dungeon? This, our tour guide explained, was not a dungeon; it was where the original cement tanks once held massive quantities of shitty wine. Ah, yes, of course. We all nodded knowledgeably; by now we were well-informed about the history of massive quantities of shitty wine in Argentina.
Back in the shitty wine heyday (roughly the 1920s), these cement tanks needed regular cleaning. This was no easy task: the gigantic tanks were outfitted only with small child-sized doors and filled with toxic gases (by-products of the wine fermentation process). The solution? Children!
Um, what? Did he just say what I think he said?
As our jaws hit the floor, the tour guide explained that children were sent through the tiny doors into the giant tanks filled with toxic gases to clean them …. with even more toxic chemicals, of course. Wasn’t this dangerous? Harmful? Hazardous?? Well, yes.
But don’t worry, there was a safety precaution: children were taught a song to sing as they cleaned. When they started slurring and singing the wrong words, they would be pulled from the tanks and switched out with some other poor
Oh, my god.
As visions of every horror movie involving a creepy singing child that I’ve ever seen swam behind my eyes, our Mendoza Wine Camp tour guide, Emanuel, interrupted the shocked silence to cheerfully let us know that his grandfather had this job as a child in Mendoza. You couldn’t stay in the tanks for more than 25 minutes at a time, he said. It was super deadly. They used to send in a bird to see if it was safe for children: if the bird died, they’d wait. Good thing we don’t do that anymore. Well, on to the next part of the tour!
As our jaws hit the floor, the tour guide explained that children were sent through the tiny doors into the giant tanks filled with toxic gases to clean them …. with even more toxic chemicals, of course.
Trying to ignore the goosebumps crawling up my arms, we all hurried away from the
child torture tanks fermentation dungeon and emerged back in the light of day. Blessed 21st century sunshine! I spent the rest of the tour trying not to imagine what a dungeon full of singing children inhaling toxic gases would have sounded like.
Even after the horrifying history lesson, I have to say that the tasting was incredible. After a quick lesson in tasting wine and creating good pairings, we were given 3 wines and 3 small plates of food to try them with. My favorite? A flaky empanada filled with beef, olive, and blue cheese paired with a rich, bold Cabernet Sauvignon. Heaven.
We made the mistake of not buying the heavenly 2014 Eredita Cabernet Sauvignon and later in the week found ourselves running all around town trying to track down a bottle (for
our future reference, you can purchase Clos de Chacras wines online in the US at The Purple Tongue).
3 glasses of wine deep – or 6, if you’re my husband, who kept emptying his glass every time it was generously refilled – we all felt a lot less icky about the whole
dead children thing. We figured maybe it was a fluke, perhaps just this one winery had a dark and tormented history.
We were wrong.
The Second Winery Tour: Making Our Own Wine Blend
The next winery, Dante Robino, was much larger than the first, but shared much of its history: closed or abandoned for a time, then re-purchased and re-opened years later without the shitty wine that had doomed it in the first place.
Our tour started us off on a high note right away, with a delicate flute of sparkling white – their specialty. Yum! As we began our tour, our guide cautioned us not to touch any bottles that we might pass by. I figured it was just a matter of hands off, you filthy tourists but no, this was a warning for our safety.
Apparently, bottles of sparkling wine are extremely prone to exploding as they ferment.
Um, what?! Our tour guide laughed as she explained that 15 out of every 1000 bottles is lost to explosion. Why, it happened just last week. Shards of glass everywhere. Anyway, onto the steel tanks …
We were only 2 hours into this tour and I had already pictured dying children and exploding glass-shrapnel doom. It was clear that this was not your typical wine tour. It was more like Willy Wonka and the Wine Factory. Look, but don’t touch- and you’ll be treated to magical and delicious wine! But around every corner lurks weird, unexpected danger …and creepy singing.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d much rather follow Willy Wonka around his crazy factory drinking wine than snooze my way through a boring cookie-cutter tour. 8 hours of drinking wine and listening to repetitive explanations about complicated machinery and irrigation techniques or whatever probably would have put me to sleep (which is why I never shell out for winery tours in Napa. Sorry, California).
Instead, I was on the edge of my seat. This was like wine tasting meets adventure sports. Extreme wine tasting. Wine tasting in a haunted house. Wine tasting while skydiving (that one I didn’t make up. Our hostel actually offers a wine-tasting-while-sky-diving tour. Mendoza, you crazy). Anyway, we were riveted.
We were only 2 hours into this tour and I had already pictured dying children and exploding glass-shrapnel doom. It was clear that this was not your typical wine tour.
Downing my 4th glass of wine (all before 10am, folks!), by the time we got to the eerie strobe-lit dungeon filled with ancient machinery reminiscent of the torture devices we’d seen in the Museum of the Spanish Inquisition in Cartagena, Colombia, I had moved beyond being creeped out and fully embraced Mendoza’s quirky past.
As we all excitedly poked and prodded at a 100+ year old wooden log studded with pointy, rusted nails (apparently used for making wine, not torture) I could tell that everyone else was having a blast, too.
The highlight at Dante Robino wasn’t the torture devices or the exploding brut, but the opportunity to make our very own wine blends.
And by “opportunity,” I mean “competition.”
And by “make,” I mean “eviscerate the other (very sweet) couples on our tour with our extreme wine blending skillz.”
Winner takes home a bottle of their very own home-made blend. It was ON.
As we all settled into our glasses of Bonarda, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon (with some torrentes to sip while we blended, obviously) the mood changed. Minutes before, we had all been giggling over the torture chamber (or ancient wine-making machinery, whatever). Now, we were mortal enemies. It got real.
If you ever want to see 4 baby boomers and 2 millennials turn on each other, all it takes is 9 glasses of wine and a little “friendly” competition.
If you ever want to see 4 baby boomers and 2 millennials turn on each other, all it takes is 9 glasses of wine and a little “friendly” competition.
I don’t want to rub it in the faces of the other (incredibly nice) couples (that’s a lie. I’m unnecessarily competitive at all times) but we DOMINATED. According to a scientific double-blind test conducted by the experts (Emanuel and our tour-guide at Dante Robino), our wine blend was the perfect combination of aroma, body, and taste.
SUCK IT, extremely friendly other members of our tour! We OWNED you.
And no, readers, I’m not giving away any blend-creating secrets. Now that we are card-carrying wine-blending experts, I’m sure our patented custom blend is worth millions. Besides, we may need a backup plan after we get sued for implying that historical Mendoza wine-makers harmed children by exposing them to toxic wine gases.
10 glasses after the start of the tour (we had to try our own blend, of course) , the notes I was carefully taking in my little notebook started getting a bit fuzzy. I have WE WON!!!!!! In huge letters, followed by tiny hearts and then a helpful list of recommendations for movies, books, and small European villages from one of the very friendly fellow tour-goers. Very informative.
The Third Winery: 6-Course Lunch and Wine Pairing
It was around this time that we all sat down to lunch at our 3rd winery, Casarena, which was perfect timing. With the competition behind us and 6 impeccably prepared courses of food (and 6 generously poured glasses of wine) in front of us, we were by now all the best of friends. We shared stories and photos over filet mignon and dulce de leche.
I’m ashamed to admit that not a single one of us was particularly thoughtful about our wine pairings at this point. We barely stopped talking to hear the explanations and tasting notes from our poor Mendoza Wine Camp tour guide Emanuel about each of the wines.
Whereas this morning we had carefully admired how perfectly the tannins in our Cabernet Sauvignon contrasted with the fatty taste of our beef empanada, now we were 16 glasses deep and stoked on everything. We all loved every glass of wine served with the amazing food.
My little notebook has this to say about our lunch: “6 wines. 6 courses. OMG.” and “SO. MUCH. WINE.” Helpful.
The Fourth Winery Tour: Drinking Wine Straight out of the Barrel
2 hours of stuffing ourselves flew by, and before we knew it we were chugging espresso and heading back into the van for our 4th and last winery tour at Bodega Benegas.
By now we were familiar with the typical Mendoza winery story: closed for decades, re-opened and highly improved, and here are some
torture devices ancient wine-making machines. Bodega Benegas adds their own interesting historical twist: hanging behind the torture devices ancient wine machines are old hand-woven ponchos dating back to the 1800’s, said to have been worn by famous Argentinian presidents and other historical figures. Mendoza wineries: part wine-making facilities, part museums. Love it.
We all happily skipped down into the dungeon – which was, for once, actually filled with barrels of wine – to sample a glass of unfinished wine straight from the barrel.
Now 17 glasses in, I was delighted to discover that the cork of a wine barrel is called a “bung,” and the opening of a wine barrel is called a “bunghole.” My tidy little notebook just has the word BUNGHOLES in all-caps and underlined. I apparently felt that this was very important.
Our very last tasting of the day was held in one of the very fermentation tanks of child-singing fame. Seeing the walls of the tank up close, it was easy to see why Argentinian wine a century ago was so shitty: the ancient cement was cracked and occasionally torn apart by earthquakes and hastily mended with tar, with no buffer between the wine and the cement/tar. How’s that for tasting notes? This wine tastes of fresh cement and tar. I’m surprised anyone was able to drink this stuff. Argentineans must have developed some kind of genetic resistance.
But it was here among the peeling walls of the ancient fermentation tank that we could all appreciate how very far the winemakers in Argentina and Mendoza have come. Our 21st and last glass of wine was an exquisite 100% Cabernet Franc from 2007.
It was amazing.
We all came this close to buying a $65 bottle… or maybe a case.
Basking in the afterglow of the Cabernet Franc, we saw the cracked old fermentation tank in a new light. Whatever the patchworked history of Mendoza wine-making may be, it has fully turned around – and it’s all the more impressive that it’s been done in such relatively little time, from such humble beginnings. If Mendoza can become a global wine powerhouse in only 30 years, imagine what we’ll be saying about it in the 2050’s. Probably something about how ridiculous and inhumane those shiny complicated machines were. The future is so judgey.
Why We Loved Mendoza Wine Camp
What I can say about Mendoza Wine Camp is this: there are Mendoza wine tours, and then there is Mendoza Wine Camp. If you want to be interested, shocked, scared, interested again, shocked a little bit more, and very, very wine-silly, this tour is a must.
We’ve done other wine tours before, and none of them were as engaging, informative, and fun. There was never a dull moment. Our guide Emanuel was an expert and entertaining guide, which made a huge difference – not to mention, he spoke flawless English. During our tour, we not only learned how to appreciate wine (we even got a little glossary book with wine vocabulary and step-by-step tasting instructions!) but we learned to appreciate the history of wine in Mendoza and Argentina. And we never felt alienated for not being knowledgeable about wine. We’ve never been so excited and interested on a wine tour in our lives.
Oh, and 21 glasses of wine and 9 plates of incredible food didn’t hurt, either.
Booking a Mendoza Wine Tasting Tour with Mendoza Wine Camp
Details: Our tour was the 1 Day Exclusive Lujàn De Cuyo Tour Wine Tour. Mendoza Wine Camp also offers tours in Maipu and Uco Valley, as well as multi-day tours and Argentinian cooking classes. You can view their tours and details here.
Cost: $175 when you book online
Or, as I like to think of it:
- $40 for 8 hours of comfortable stress-free transportation to and from your hotel and 4 wineries
- $40 for an amazing gourmet 6-course lunch (including a filet mignon steak!)
- $15 for a 3-course pairing
- $10 each for 4 winery tours
- $10 each for 4 winery tastings – or about 50 cents per glass of wine!
Have you ever tried Argentinian wine? What did you think? Leave us a comment below!
Looking for more tips for visiting Argentina? Mendoza is the only place we’ve visited (so far), but head over to Postcards from Ivi to read a fantastic local’s guide to Buenos Aires or check out Travel 2 Next’s list of five awesome things to do in Argentina. There’s also a comprehensive Buenos Aires travel guide up at Layer Culture.
Hey, did you find this post informative? Funny? Interesting, at least? We’d love it if you shared it on Pinterest!
Disclaimer: We received a discounted rate in exchange for our honest and unbiased review. All opinions are our own.
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