Mendoza’s Malbec Magic

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Mendoza lies in the heart of Argentina‘s wine country, a vast, lush land of grapevines stretching into the shadows of the majestic Andes.

> When to go:

December through March coincides with the harvest season, when the fields and the celebrations of horticultural bounty are at their most glorious.

This western Argentine city is the country’s second most visited, because of what surrounds it: the vineyards that make it one of the world’s leading wine regions. The rich purple-black grape Malbec rules, but other varieties abound. Spend your days touring wineries, tasting as many of them as possible.

Still, Mendoza at this time of year is more than just vineyards. It is an effervescent city of music-filled plazas lined with flowering trees and fine restaurants surrounded by intense natural beauty.

Coming at this time also allows you to experience wine country at its best. Harvest season “is the best time to visit because the weather is perfect: dry, hot days and cool nights,” says Argentine Sandra Borello of Borello Travel & Tours. “The grapevines are all dressed with green leaves and adorned with the colorful and tastiest grapes, all with the magnificent white-capped Andes as a backdrop.”

Reserve a few days to fully experience the region and tour wineries, from the bottle-green Maipú Valley and Luján de Cuyo, closer to the city, to the desert where vines emerge like leafy phoenixes from vast, earthy stretches.

Some of the best include the small, family-owned Mendel winery, the welcoming Familia Zuccardi, and Bodegas Salentein, with its modern art gallery inside. Most excursions take in three or four wineries in a day and break for an open-air luncheon of asado—Argentina’s famed grilled meat—amid the rows of grape-laden vines. You’ll while away a few hours in sated splendor.

Borello also takes visitors to see olive oil farms, like Pasrai, which, she says, “makes olive oil the old fashioned way,” using stones to crush the olives into paste.

And for genuine foodies, many wineries and restaurants hold cooking classes where you can truly immerse yourself in this culinary capital and the ingredients are at their peak of tasty ripeness in this season.

> What to do:

Mendoza’s Glamorous Harvest Festival 

A fun, kitschy experience in Mendoza is the Fiesta de la Vendimia, the annual harvest festival, usually held in late February or early March, that’s been a tradition for nearly eight decades.

One highlight is the Friday night parade of harvest queens, called Via Blanca, along Avenida San Martín and Avenida General Las Heras through the city’s center.

Young women, each representing a neighborhood or suburb of Mendoza, are decked out in all their finery on lighted floats as they cast bunches of grapes, melons, and even bottles of wine to the crowds lining the route.

The next day, the city abounds in open-air dance and gaucho festivals, many visited by Argentine stars and politicians.

Then, that Saturday evening, tens of thousands come to the musical spectacular in Parque San Martín. It is literally the crowning event, when one of the harvest queens is named National Vendimia Queen, representing Argentina’s argricultural bounty and heritage to the world.

Sporty Adventures Beyond Wine Culture

This season also offers adventure.

Raft on the Río Mendoza as it roars down from the Andean valleys. “Class IV rapids thrill visitors, and the river is a particularly epic ride during full-moon excursions,” says Irishman Charlie O’Malley, who runs Mendoza-based Trout and Wine tours and edits the city’s English language wine magazine, Wine Republic.

Or choose horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, or some of the world’s best fly fishing.

> Where to stay: 

The Argentine owners of the Cavas Wine Lodge, Cecilia Diaz Chuit and Martin Rigal, have developed on the of the most luxurious resort spas in the Mendoza area, set in its own vineyard offering treatments using grape- and wine-based products.

All guest rooms face west to view the sunset over the Andes, particularly clear and golden streaked as the Argentine summer ends and leads into harvest season.

The main house has landscaped gardens and a pool and is home to a lavish spa, making the retreat particularly ideal for romance-seeking honeymooners.

This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.

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