Touring the wineries of Uco Valley in Argentina
When I arrive at Casa Antucura Wine Hotel, nestled deep in the Uco Valley of Argentina's Mendoza province, the hotel manager greets me by saying, "We want this place to feel like your home."
Gazing at the marble floors, the elegant swimming pool, the lush rose garden and the stunning vistas of the Andes Mountains, I tell her it will be a stretch, seeing as my actual home is a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, but I'll try. And thanks to the guest rooms appointed with original artwork, the large library chock-full of books and ample places to read and relax, it doesn't take long before I begin to feel that I am home . . . well, at least in my fantasy home.
A 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires, Mendoza is known primarily for its wines, in particular malbecs. The purple grape varietal used in making robust reds is grown at a much higher altitude here than elsewhere in the world (about 4,000 feet above sea level), creating a distinctive flavor. Most visitors tend to stay in Mendoza city for its easy access to increasingly famous wineries and top restaurants. But I've come in search of a more remote experience: to soak in peace and quiet at Antucura -- a private home turned hotel with only eight guest rooms -- while visiting far-flung vineyards and tasting wine from new vintners.
Nearby wineries include Clos de los Siete and Gimenez Riili. Among the most impressive of those I visit is O. Fournier. Rising up from the flat plains, the circular gray building looks like a spaceship. During my tour, a guide explains that the "spaceship" was designed to operate on a gravitational system, whereby grapes are fermented at the highest point, drawn to the wine cellar one level down, then to the bottling center below.
On the ground level is O. Fournier's restaurant, Urban. With its sunlit dining room overlooking a serene reservoir, it is the ideal setting to enjoy a lunch and wine tasting. For 400 pesos (about $60), I indulge in a six-course meal, including sopressata and black olives marinated with malbec-carmelized onions, maiz de textura (akin to a hearty corn soup), a decadent beet and cauliflower risotto in a focaccia crust and a dessert of crispy phyllo dough and frozen yogurt. Courses are paired with select wines, most notably O. Fournier's top-rated Alfa Crux Blend.
Impromptu Spanish lesson
Since I know better than to navigate the roads with so much wine coursing through my system, the staff at Antucura has arranged for Alejandro, a local driver available for 600 pesos (about $95), to transport me to and from the vineyard. After my long lunch and an impromptu Spanish lesson from the chatty Alejandro, I spend an afternoon napping by the pool at Antucura. When I wake, a waiter appears to present me with the dinner selection. Three simple courses chosen by the chef and handwritten on a piece of paper are shown to guests in case any want to request substitutions.
That evening, a candlelit table is set on the veranda overlooking four enormous sculptures of women crushing grapes with their feet. Nights are cool in Mendoza, but after the heat of the afternoon, it feels good to throw on a sweater and sit down to a dinner of salmon seviche, filet mignon and flan in my new home away from home.
Down a dirt road
For those looking to be a bit closer to the action and for more of a special hotel and spa experience, there is the Cavas Wine Lodge. I've long heard about the magic of Cavas from friends who have stayed there, so on the last night of my trip, I give it a try.
Happily, the place is every bit as enchanting as I've been told. Situated in the midst of a working vineyard and accessible only by a series of dirt roads, the hotel consists of a main building surrounded by dozens of free-standing, Spanish Colonial-style casitas -- each with a private plunge pool and outdoor shower.
I arrive early enough that my casita is not ready, so the concierge arranges for Carlos, one of the hotel's drivers, to take me to the nearby vineyard of Achaval Ferrer, followed by lunch at the Ruca Melin
vineyard. My plan is for Carlos to leave me with a bike from the hotel, so I can pedal the two kilometers back through the vineyards to Cavas, but after another decadent lunch and wine tasting, the bike idea doesn't seem so appealing. Thankfully, Carlos predicts as much and is waiting outside the restaurant, ready to drive me to the hotel.
On the last afternoon, before my flight to Buenos Aires and 16 hours of flights with connections back to New York City, I spend time relaxing at Cavas' spa. I'm normally skeptical of over-the-top spa treatments, but I decide to try "Express Wine Therapy." For 760 pesos (about $110), the package lasts 90 minutes and includes a crushed malbec grape seed body scrub, a massage and -- in what seems like a fitting end to my trip -- an actual bath in red wine.
The scrub and massage are relaxing, but it's the bath (which turns out to be in a more diluted version of the wine we drink) that stands out most strikingly. On the plane home, my knuckles and fingernails are still faintly red from the experience. But that's OK, I decide, it's a reminder of a magical trip I don't want to forget.
When to travel
February-May is harvest season in Mendoza, and most vineyards hold celebrations and special activities.
American Airlines and Aerolineas fly direct from JFK to Buenos Aires starting at about $1,400 round-trip.
Aerolineas has frequent flights from Buenos Aires to Mendoza starting at about $400. You must transfer from the international airport (EZE) to the domestic one (AEP). Taxis are about $50.
Where to stay
Casa Antucura, where a master suite costs $400 a night until May; casaantucura.com/en.
Cavas Wine Lodge: Single/double luxury room: $665 a night until May; cavaswinelodge.com.
O. Fournier: ofournier.com
Achaval Ferrer: achaval-ferrer.com/eng/principal.htm
Ruca Malen: bodegarucamalen.com