Although Mendoza is just 250km from Santiago de Chile (in contrast, it's 1,000km from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires), it's immediately very different, not least in the fact that the Spanish is more easily comprehensible. The Italian influence is apparent, in the amount of coffee drunk, the milanesa steaks and the better food, as well as the tall pergola vines grown throughout the Mendoza region. The latter is something only a wine geek would spot, but it does show how Argentina's wine culture has been heavily shaped by immigration, not only from Italy but also France and Spain.
There are some definite similarities with Chile. The export market is important, and producers are looking towards cooler regions such as Salta to the north to provide greater variety for those markets. But it's the differences which are more interesting, particularly as Argentina's culture is more wrapped up in wine (and food) than Chile's.
Mendoza is a very large region. Of Argentina's 1,400 wineries, 1,250 are in Mendoza. On a map, getting from one sub-region to another, or even one winery to another, looks like a short trip, but it's something of an ordeal travelling around (and don't rely on either google or apple maps!), as the areas are so spread out. This explains the subtle variety of climates and styles of wine which makes Mendoza such a fascinating and popular wine-producing region.
The city of Mendoza itself is vibrant, bustling with traffic till late in the evening. This is not the centre of wine production, however. Fifteen kilometres to the south is Lujan de Cuyo, which is where quality wineries begin to be based. The land rises from 750m elevation in Mendoza to 950m south of Lujan, to over 1,000m - and even as high as 2,000m - in the Uco Valley. It is at this altitude that some of the more interesting wines are being made. There's plenty of sunshine to get the grapes fully ripe, but the heat is less intense and the afternoons much cooler than the flatter vineyards to the north and east. This results in wines of a balanced restraint and a refreshing acidity.
To the east of Mendoza is Maipú, lacking the elevation of Uco and therefore producing simpler, fruitier wines from the warm climate. Mendoza is a hot region, which is why altitude is so important to lessen its impact. Tasting a wine, especially Malbec, from Maipú and one from Uco really emphasises this.
Argentinian wine is synonymous with Malbec, even though this is a relatively recent development. The grape was brought over by immigrants from Bordeaux and south-west France in the mid-nineteenth century in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic that struck Europe. Until the late 1980s, due to financial crises and dictatorships, Argentinian wine was simple and for local production - in the 1970s, Argentinians drank a remarkable 100 litres of wine a year per person.
The last 30 years have seen a transformation in the quality of Argentinian wine, and it's been led by Malbec. This grape has given the industry a unique position in the wine world, as in France it's now limited to the small, though high-quality, region of Cahors. The grape succeeds in Mendoza because it needs the warm climate in order to ripen fully, but in the mean time the cool nights slow the ripening down which retains the acidity and prevents over-ripeness.
Altos los Hormigas Valle de Uco Terroir Malbec 2015 (230 pesos in a restaurant; $15)
This was the first wine we tasted after arriving in Mendoza (at the excellent Fuente y Fonda restaurant), and we were so surprised by how restrained this Malbec was in contrast to so many fruity examples we've previously tried. This shows how the altitude of Uco Valley transforms Malbec into a very different style of wine. Wines in both Mendoza and Buenos Aires restaurants represent extremely good value. ✪✪✪✪
However, Malbec's dominance can prevent customers from seeking out other Argentinian wines. That's why producers are investing in regions to the north and south to produce cooler-climate wines. At the same time, they've also been looking towards grape varieties other than Malbec as a way of advertising Argentina's potential diversity. Chardonnay is an international variety much planted, but it's Torrontés, which like Malbec has the unique characteristic of being grown little elsewhere in the world, that producers use to distinguish Argentina from the rest of the world. It's a problematic grape, though. It's incredibly aromatic, with rich floral, pear, and grape aromas. Locally, it's called 'The Liar,' because there's a perception of sweetness on the nose despite the wine being completely dry on the palate. In this, it's like Voignier. Also similarly to Viognier, it lacks acidity, and often feels flabby and flat; alcohol too can be overly high. To compensate these difficutlies, grapes are grown at the high altitude of Salta where the cool nights can raise acidity and reduce alcohol. Despite this, alcohol can reach over 14% and I am still to encounter a wine made from Torrontés that truly convinces.
Susana Balbo White Blend 2015 (550 pesos; $36)
The exception perhaps comes in a blend: the best wine I tried featuring Torrontés was a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Torrontés blend from Susana Balbo (Argentina's first female winemaker and now a senator). Torrontés adds body and rich aromatics to the waxy herbaceousness of the other grapes, which in turn compensate Torrontés's lack of acidity. ✪✪✪✪
Another grape variety which could serve as a direct alternative to Malbec is Bonarda. Known as Douce in France, Croatina in north-west Italy, and Charbono in California, Bonarda is the second-most planted grape in Argentina. It's fun, fruity, with rich aromas of plums and chocolates. It's often used for inexpensive wine or in blends with Malbec, but the odd single-varietal wine stands out. The fruitiness of the wines, whether cheap or expensive, is very appealing; the best examples go from being jammy to having a firm tannic structure and a smoky quality.
Zuccardi Emma Bonarda 2014 (580 pesos; $38)
One of Argentina's biggest - 2m cases a year - and oldest producers, Zuccardi produce everything from entry level to incredibly expensive. This is probably the most expensive Bonarda I have tried and it was fantastic. Smoky, fruity, tannic, upfront, but very balanced. ✪✪✪✪✪