Mendoza, in a word, means wine. While vineyards up and down the country, from northern Patagonia up to the Andean valleys of the northwest, yield all manner of whites, reds and sparklings, Mendoza is Argentina's undisputed wine capital – in fact, it is Latin America's wine capital. Everything about the city and its vast namesake province is geared to the wine industry, from the shops in the city's downtown to the luxury bodegas with boutique hotels attached. In the province, mostly in a strip of fertile valley stretching about 50km to the south of the provincial capital, there are a staggering 1200 plus wineries, ranging from tiny family businesses to giant concerns thriving on an injection of foreign capital and exporting worldwide. The numbers and quality (Argentina is now the world's third biggest exporter of wine to the US, for example) just keep on growing.
Argentina's fourth biggest city, with just under a million inhabitants, Mendoza is located a shade over 1000km from Buenos Aires via the major transcontinental Ruta 7 highway, much of which is autopista (motorway or freeway). Nudging up against the Andean foothills, it enjoys fabulous views of the great Andean cordillera (range) to the west, while the surrounding vineyards stretch for miles to the south. Settled in colonial times by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro del Castillo, its foundation date is March 2, 1561 – he cautiously named it after the Governor of Chile, Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, the city started out as an outpost of Spain's Chilean colony. It had previously been inhabited by native tribes belonging to the Huarpe and Puelche groups and the Incas had even made it here, but never really colonized the area.
Early settlement was sparse but thrived thanks to use of the irrigation channels built by the indigenous peoples – Mendoza is located in a virtual desert but snowmelt from the Andes provides all the water needed (years of low precipitation on the Andes can lead to drought, though). When Argentina declared independence Mendoza split away from Chile and a new state, El Cuyo, was formed, extending into what are now San Juan and San Luis provinces. The name is derived from the native word for sandy valley, which is just where Mendoza is located.
In 1861 a major earthquake struck, killing thousands and leaving the city in ruins. The positive outcome was that skilled town planners and engineers were brought in to rebuild the devastated city, building the wide avenues, low-rise houses and vast, verdant plazas that make the modern city so agreeable. Don't expect a whole lot in the way of monuments or great architecture, save for the odd church and some splendid banks. Mendoza, after all, is all about wine.
Even if you are not an oenologist or even a wine buff you are bound to spend some time drinking the velvety blends and intriguing varietals that the local wineries produce. Many of the bodegas, such as Escorihuela, date back to the 19th century and are masterpieces of architecture and artwork. Others, in nearby Maipu or farther flung down in the Valle de Uco around Tupungato, such as Salentein and Fournier, are astonishing feats of state-of-the-art design, with great vaults resembling cathedrals or the crypt of some ultra-modern temple.
Mendoza has a youthful population and a thriving university, which are reflected in the busy nightlife and jazzy bars. People like to off their wealth – and their ski-piste suntans – in trendy joints and sophisticated restaurants where you can sample divine gourmet cuisine that does justice to the region's incredibly good wines. Hotels are excellent, too, especially if you are prepared to splash out on a wine lodge or a boutique hotels nestling among the vines outside the city.
Those mountains are also a big draw – Aconcagua at just under 7000m is the highest in the world outside the Himalaya – but a whole range of Andean peaks can be climbed or just admired within a short distance from the city.