Wine Loving Backpackers In Mendoza

Mendoza is the premier wine region in Argentina, and indeed South America.
It is the region that put Malbec on the world wine map about 20 years ago, for which we thank them greatly.
We both love Malbec wines so we were very excited to arrive in wine country and submerge our palates in some deliciousness.

We knew we wanted to sample the wines of Mendoza, but we didn’t have the budget to fork out for the expensive tours.
We found that there were quite a few options for wine-tasting beyond the pricey Trout and Wine style tours and the ubiquitous bike tours of Maipu.
Hopefully you can benefit from our hard earned research.

Wine Making Equipment
Bodega tours in Mendoza tend to focus on the wine making process, a fresh approach for us

The Regions

There are 3 overall wine sub-regions in Mendoza, all offering something slightly different.
The city of the same name is located to the north of the wine growing areas, and is where most people base themselves.
In general the wineries provide a range of options, which may include winery tours, tastings and restaurants.
Reservations are usually required for Lujan De Cuyo and almost always Valle De Uco, while typically aren’t for Maipu.
In our experience email is not a reliable form of communication with the wineries, we only had luck with direct calling.

To get you started, here is the basic overview of the areas and what the options are for transport.
Also visit this website, which has some useful maps of the bodega locations for each region.

Maipu

The traditional backpacker territory, this is the closest sub-region to the city of Mendoza and is easily reached by the 171, 172 or 173 bus lines.
The name of the game here is accessibility and affordability.
Any backpacker or budget tour, whether via bus or bike, will almost definitely be in Maipu.

We didn’t end up making it here, but the well trodden (or is that ridden?) path is to catch the bus and stop in at Maipu Bikes or Mr Hugos.
They will set you up with a bike, a map, a list of tasting prices and some freebies to boot for a very reasonable price.
You then get to choose your poisons and ride between said bodegas in a gradually more intoxicated manner.
While you might not get to taste the best wine Mendoza has to offer, for backpackers it is a very good compromise.

Lujan de Cuyo

Lujan is split into northern and southern sections, quite different from each other.
Northern Lujan is semi-residential, however not as busy or hectic as Maipu reportedly is.
The downside to this is visiting wineries isn’t like in Italy, France or Australia, it isn’t scenic countryside.
Southern Lujan on the other hand definitely takes a further step away from the city.
The wineries become more spread out and the area starts to resemble countryside.

In the northern end there are quite similar transport choices to Maipu, with a couple of different bike hire locations near the town of Chacras. Some of the wineries are reachable by bus, but this would only be viable for a single visit, for example for a great lunch.
In addition to cycling, both sections can be visited with a private driver, car hire and designated driver or a tour.
Another transport option that is available is a tourism service called Bus Vitivinícola, subsidised by the government. Tuesday to Sunday they offer different routes that cover pre-arranged wineries, with some optionality about which ones you visit. There is more info on this below when we cover our experience in southern Lujan.

Valle de Uco (Uco Valley)

If you’re talking premium wines in Mendoza, then you’re talking Valle de Uco.
At 900-1200m above sea level this is one of the highest altitude wine regions in the world.
Almost all of the higher end wineries we saw have some sort of acreage in Valle de Uco as well, regardless of their main location.

The Valle de Uco is about 50 minutes drive from Mendoza city.
The wineries are even more spread out than Lujan and the opening hours are shorter.
The valley has 3 main districts centred around 3 towns – Tupungato, Tunuya and San Carlos.
Reservations are of course compulsory, this isn’t a knock on the front gate affair.

Options for transport include an organised tour, a private driver, Bus Vitivinícola’s Sunday route, car hire with designated driver or a transfer with bicycle hire included.
Organised tours are excellent for those short on time and high in cash, they organise everything and visit premium wineries. Prices started at $175 USD per person and went up depending on options.
A private driver is an excellent choice if there are a few people and the cost can be split accross them. The price could be brought further down by busing closer to the valley and using a local driver. We were quoted 3000 pesos (~180 AUD) for one option, and there were online offerings starting at $150 USD ($200 AUD).
This of course is only for transport, and doesn’t include tastings which varied depending on the line chosen, although the driver may be able to assist with reservations.
Self-driving is only really an option if you have someone not interested in wine, so clearly not an option for us! This also means you have to make all the reservations yourself.
The Sunday route offered by Bus Vitivinícola covers three wineries in Valle de Uco, see our experience of their southern Lujan route below for more info on how this works.
Unless you’re super keen on mixing cycling and wine, the option for transfer and cycling didn’t make much sense to us. With a couple of people the price is comparable to a private driver, so why not just enjoy the comfort.

The Experience

We had intended on visiting at least two of the sub-regions during our stay, but didn’t end up getting there.
That certainly didn’t mean we left disappointed though, with plenty of great wine and a degustation at one of the premier winery restaurants.
We spent a day riding between wineries in northern Lujan de Cuyo, and then we visited southern Lujan de Cuyo with Bus Vitivinícola as well.

Cycling Lujan de Cuyo

Arriving into Mendoza at lunchtime on Friday with a relatively small amount of research behind us, we leapt at the chance to do a bike tour of northern Lujan de Cuyo the next morning.
We didn’t realise this was an option until we arrived at our hostel, as we’d only read copious amounts about cycling Maipu, but it sounded like it would be right up our alley.

Mauricio from our hostel made us bookings with Baccus Bikes in the morning, and we caught bus 16 to Chacras which took roughly 50 minutes.
Within a couple of minutes of getting off the bus we were in the shop and comfortably waiting while another English couple ahead of us was served.
Having known we were coming the very friendly lady gave us our map, complete with recommended safe cycling routes and reservations she’d made at the wineries for us.
We had to have a bit of a chuckle to ourselves as all three wineries were ones we’d researched and were keen to visit.

Lujan De Cuyo Cycling Map
The map for our day touring Lujan De Cuyo, complete with the best cycling routes

First stop was planned to be a free tasting at Carmelo Patti, however Carmelo was mid-presentation when we arrived.
It quickly became clear we wouldn’t have enough time before our next booking so after confirming we could return after his afternoon siesta we continued on.

It was only a short cycle to Bodega Lagarde for our booked tour and tasting at 12:30.
Despite being located on a busy main road, once you’d passed the gates Lagarde felt like it was removed from its surrounding.
Polished and elegant was the best way to describe it, with the tasting area and shop adjacent to the slick looking restaurant.
The people were split into Spanish and English tour groups, our group thankfully much smaller and including only us, the English couple and one more Brazilian couple.

Tasting Room of Bodega Lagarde
The slick tasting room at Bodega Lagarde was a classy setting for a tipple of wine

What followed was quite an extensive tour, covering the viticultural basics, the winemaking process for reds and whites, barrel room visit and an introduction to sparkling wine methods.
We returned to the tasting room, where the Brazilian couple headed off to their booked lunch and the rest of us got ready for the fun part.
Lagarde offered three lines for tasting; the young/basic (250 pesos), the mid-range (330 pesos) and the premium wines (450 pesos).
The battleground for the backpacker budget verses our love of wine was set.
The outcome was entirely predictable, us forking out for one mid-range and one premium tasting.
The consolation was a 50 pesos discount on the above prices as customers of Baccus Bikes.
Each of the wines were quite good, with the highlights being the sparkling 100% Pinot Noir and their top offering at an eye watering 2000 pesos ($110 AUD / $80 USD).
Overall the visit was a very good experience, but the wines didn’t leave us wowed for value.

Bottles of Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine at Bodega Lagarde made using the Champenoise method, the same approach used for Champagne

Having taken a large chunk of time touring, tasting and tongue-wagging, we parted ways with our new English friends.
We had made the realisation it was going to take us a while to get to Nieto Senetiner, our next stop, and we hadn’t even had lunch.
They went in search for lunch at a recommended restaurant nearby, while luckily we’d packed a picnic lunch.
We got on our bikes, rode the 30 minutes and scoffed a little bit of food in the 10 minutes before our tour.

Nieto Senetiner’s tour was a lot briefer than our first experience at Lagarde, although covering the same basic process.
That all quickly became irrelevant after trying their pre-selected three wines.
One in particular was clearly our favourite wine of the trip, a delicious straight Bonarda.
When it came time to pay for the visit, our very personable guide happily told us the 150 pesos tasting fee could be put towards a wine purchase.
At 560 pesos for the Bonarda, how could we afford not to buy a bottle??
Which of course means we decided to buy two bottles, netting us another surprise discount down to 450 pesos per bottle.
We would have absolutely loved to send a bottle home, but turns out the postage is horrendous from South America to Australia.

Grounds of Nieto Senetiner
Nieto Senetiner not only makes delicious wines, it has nice grounds set back from the road

With time against us, we finished our lunch in the grounds of Nieto Senetiner and raced back to Carmelo Patti to try and beat the 5pm closing time.
With 5 minutes to spare we returned to the very nondescript location.
Carmelo is the owner and winemaker, and runs all of his tastings personally.
Despite our late arrival he happily gave us a tasting of 2 of his wines.
Our basic Spanish got a workout, but we managed to take in a fair bit of what Carmelo told us about the backstory of the wines.
He also proudly showed us his massive guestbooks filled with messages from people around the world.
He stressed there was no obligation to buy, but we took a bottle anyways as it seemed like it would be a perfect match for a nice Argentinian steak.

On the way back to Baccus we stopped at a handmade condiments store A La Antigua.
They offered free tastings of their various goods, although the liqueurs were not included and offered at a fairly steep sample price.
One delicious olive and pepper sauce and a bottle of dulce de leche liqueur later, we headed back to the bike store and returned our bikes with no problems.

We thought cycling northern Lujan de Cuyo was an excellent option to experience some premium wineries and at a much lower price.
Callum is not a strong cyclist, but found the going pretty easy as the terrain was flat and the route predominantly either cycle paths or quiet roads.
With our tastings spread over the whole day we never got too boozed to ride, and felt safe the whole time.
Minus one little hiccup as we raced into the driveway of Carmelo Patti, the day was a big success.

Baccus Bikes in Chacras
We highly recommend Baccus Bikes in Chacras, they set us up for a great day

Riding the Bus Vitivinícola

Most wineries are shut on Sundays, with the exception of Valle de Uco which seemed to be shut on Monday and/or Tuesday.
We took the Sunday off to explore Mendoza city, then spent Monday getting all our ducks in a row for a degustation lunch which was a key goal for us (and a backpacking fail).
We settled on Bus Vitivinícola as our transport option for 800 pesos each ($45 AUD / $35 USD) as our search for a reasonably priced private driver failed.
Their website was fairly hard to follow, so we ended up walking to the Cata Turismo office near the Mendoza Central Market.
There we got most of the information we craved; roughly how the system worked, where the pickup points were and confirmation of availability.
One of the wineries on the Tuesday route, Ruca Malen, was quite renowned for their degustation lunch so that was central to our choice.
The lady at Cata didn’t convince us we could just work it out the next day, so we bought a sim card and called Ruca Malen direct. We made a very vague reservation on a terrible line that we would be coming on the bus. No time specified.

Bus Vitivinicola
Bus Vitivinícola offers pre-arranged routes at much cheaper rates than traditional tours

On the morning the large coach arrived with about 20 people on board already.
It was right on time at our pickup point, one of the last in the city, meaning we didn’t have to spend over half an hour just driving through the city.
The host spoke a fair bit of English which made our lives easier, she described the details of the day.
The morning was to be a tour and tasting at Ruca Malen, followed by a choice of tour and tasting either at sparkling only Cruzat or smaller winery Melipal.
If the full day option was selected there was then the choice of either lunch at Bodega Norton or Renacer, followed by a tour and tasting at the other.
After a little bit of panic we ascertained that as we had a reservation it would probably be possible for us to do lunch at Ruca Malen.
Following our tour and tasting at Ruca Malen we confirmed our booking and sorted it out with the bus that they could drop us back off.

Wines for Tasting
Most wineries offered 3 wines per tasting that were usually pre-selected

We chose Melipal for our next visit, as although we both like sparkling, we weren’t committed to dedicating a whole tasting to it.
Cruzat were also the only ones that didn’t offer an English tour.
Most of the bus were dropped off at Cruzat, leaving only 8 of us at Melipal.
Our choice turned out to be an absolute gem.
Our guide was fantastic, and the winery tour was clearly the best of all those we completed.
The wines were also very good and excellent value across all the price points.
At the end of the tour the guide snuck in an extra tasting of their rose and a white Torrontes while we paid for our chosen bottle and the visit.

Melipal Barrel Room
The beautiful barrel and tasting rooms of Melipal, probably the favourite of those we visited

After such an excellent experience, our degustation lunch which was to be the highlight of our day seemed less important.
A gay couple from Sydney on their honeymoon joined us for lunch, as they had only booked a half day tour with Vitivinícola.
We managed to extend the reservation and all got seated together in the small dining area.

What followed was 7 courses matched with wines from Ruca Malen (including top ups on request!), all bar one guest wine.
At 1700 pesos ($100 AUD / $75 USD) per head it was very good value compared to home.
The food itself was very good, with the highlight being a delicious steak, even if slightly overcooked which we have found to be super common in Argentina.
Ruca Malen’s wines hadn’t been amazing, and we had a bit of a laugh as we realised our favourite wine of the meal was the guest wine – from Nieto Senetiner which we’d visited and loved a few days prior.

Ruca Malen Restaurant
Enjoying a 7 course meal at Ruca Malen, a very well rated winery restaurant

3 hours were allowed for lunch, but we had arrived 30 minutes late so we were still going when the bus returned to pick us up.
The bus guide had swapped out during the lunch period, and our new host was less than impressed in our alternative arrangements and tardiness.
There was a distinct lack of caring from us at that point in time (the wine might have helped), so we cheerfully boarded again.

After our long lunch we chose Renacer over the very large Bodega Norton.
The guide was clearly appreciative of the fact it was the last visit for the day.
He kept everything sharp and appropriate for the audience, with the tour covering some different points than the others.
Our palates probably weren’t up to discerning the true quality of the wines at that point, but we enjoyed them nevertheless.

Renacer Winery Grounds
The grounds of Renacer were lovely, one of the features of wineries in southern Lujan de Cuyo

Finally we boarded the bus again as one big group and headed back to town.
All in all, we found Bus Vitivinícola a very good way to get around the wineries.
It takes out all the hassles of reservations – that is unless you have a particular lunch wish!
For a solo traveller or couple it is also cheaper than the private driver option.
The main downside is you are stuck to their offered routes, and we got the feeling things could change on the day so it wouldn’t be ideal if you were super keen on a particular winery.

The Alternatives

Most of the wine produced in Argentina is for local consumption, and of the amount that gets exported only a small percentage makes it out of South America.
That means you really do have to make it to Argentina to sample the best the region has to offer, and ideally Mendoza.
While it can’t beat the experience of visiting the wineries, ultimately if you just want to taste the wine there are some good alternatives in the city.

We saw wines in the supermarkets of Argentina that were from the mid-range lines of the popular wineries, including some we had tasted from Ruca Malen, Bodega Lagarde and Nieto Senetiner.
At a very friendly price of approximately $15 AUD ( ~$11.50 USD) you could buy a bottle that was definitely well above the simply drinkable level.

There are of course also dedicated wine shops which offer higher end and more boutique wines.
We paid a visit to one wine shop in particular, Vinoteca Viognier.
The man in the shop was really helpful, and had lots of great recommendations based on our choice of variety, pricepoint and personal tastes.
We walked away with a bottle at supermarket prices from a tiny winery that turned out to be excellent.

There are no shortage of wine bars in Mendoza to sample some of the local wines.
Wines of Mendoza makes many of the online lists to visit, however they are no longer in the city centre and have relocated to Uco Valley so they are not a viable option.
Others that caught our eye were Chinitas Wine Club, Wine Time and Wine O’Clock.
After running around sorting out our Bus Vitivinícola tickets and lunch reservation at Ruca Malen, we found ourselves near Wine O’Clock so we thought we would take a look.
They had 16 wines set up for tasting or drinking by the glass, predominantly reds but also a few whites and a rose.
Fluent English, a very friendly demeanour and a highly agreeable price of 70 pesos ($4 AUD / $3 USD) for three 35 mL samples meant we each tried three different wines.
We had intended on visiting at least a couple of wine bars during our bodega-less days, however we fell in love with a Finca Ambrosía 2013 Malbec from the Valle de Uco and ended up buying a bottle and staying at Wine O’Clock.
We weren’t too upset.

Wine O'Clock WIne Tasting
Indulging in a bit of extra wine tasting at Wine O’Clock was excellent value, and a great way to sample the regions

The Verdict

We really enjoyed our wine tasting in Mendoza, we had some excellent wines and loved the visits.
The focus on the winemaking process in particular was a fresh take for us compared to home.
The subtle struggle between traditional and modern methods was evident across the range of wineries we visited.
We’re already researching how to make wine at home, so we can experience wine-making; part science and part art.

The best way to visit the wineries in Mendoza depends on the number of people, their tastes and of course the budget available.
We thought our chosen options of cycling northern Lujan de Cuyo and taking Bus Vitivinícola around southern Lujan de Cuyo were excellent ways of getting our premium wine fix without spending crazy amounts of money.
For the broke backpacker and those less picky with wine, Maipu is a very attractive option.
Lujan de Cuyo offers a step up in quality, but can still be done cheaply at the northern end by cycling even if it doesn’t have the scenery of further south.
Valle de Uco is reputed to have the best wines, and we’d love to return one day, we just couldn’t make the logistics work for a degustation lunch and a tight budget.

For lovers of wine we thought Mendoza matched up really well with all the other wine regions we’ve visited.
We’d take it any day over the commercial and highly priced Napa Valley.

Renacer Vineyard
Visiting the wineries in Mendoza was a very enjoyable experience, one not to be missed for any wine lovers

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