Every time I visit the vineyards of Mendoza—a two-hour flight from my home in Buenos Aires—I end up spending hours chatting with the winery owners. It's not that these guys aren't busy. Argentina is the world's fifth-largest wine producer, and exports have tripled over the last decade; 70 percent of the country's wine comes out of Mendoza. But the vintners always make time for a quick hello or—better yet—an impromptu barrel tasting. I've sipped a Malbec-Cabernet-Merlot blend with the gregarious Walter Bressia in the cluttered cellar of his eponymous winery and chatted with Jose Manuel Ortega of O. Fournier over Frisbee-size rib-eye steaks prepared by his lovely wife, Nadia. And I have to be honest: these experiences make me like their wines that much more.
I am convinced it is this personal attention—and the breathtaking views of the surrounding snowcapped Andes—that has made Mendoza the world's hottest wine destination, 2008's "Wine Region of the Year," according to Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Now Argentina's wine industry is beginning to recognize its tourism potential. Investors are shelling out millions for modern tasting rooms, bucolic boutique hotels, world-class restaurants and outdoor activities like skiing, paragliding and whitewater rafting. And the Southern hemisphere summer—from January to March—is the ideal time to visit.
Leafy Mendoza city is the best place to start. The white-pillared Park Hyatt is the first choice for classy accommodations downtown. The casino next door offers diversions, and for a nightcap, the brand-new Vines Wine Bar sells 100 top Argentine vintages by the glass or bottle. A sleek Sheraton Hotel just opened nearby, and is looking to steal some of the Hyatt's clientele with 17th-floor views of the Andes.
Outside the city of Mendoza, Cavas Wine Lodge consists of luxurious adobe cabanas nestled among the vines and towering trees. The attentive staff can arrange private tastings with a sommelier, as well as cooking classes and horseback-riding excursions. The restaurant serves local delicacies with a twist, like smoked trout with a cheese-and-blueberry mousse. Guests seeking a little romance can light a fire on the balcony outside each room, uncork a bottle of a local Viognier white and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains.
Casa Margot—named after a famous Argentine tango song—bills itself as the country's first champagne hotel. (There's little patience in Argentina for the argument that champagne can only come from France; if it's got bubbles, it's champagne.) The two exposed-brick suites have vaulted ceilings with funky artwork and modern fixtures. The cozy bistro hosts candlelit dinners with live music and lots of champagne.
No one should leave Mendoza without a tour of the Achaval Ferrer vineyard—maker of the glorious Finca Altamira and Finca Bella Vista Malbecs—led by Patricia Lambert, the most engaging wine guide I have ever met. Her passion is palpable as she walks you through the winery's production area, where workers hand-label bottles one at a time.
The 1884 Restaurant—located inside the Escorihuela Gascon winery—is overpriced and overrun with tourists, but that doesn't mean it's not fantastic. Celebrity chef Francis Mallman still shows up in his whites on occasion, flaunting his undying devotion to simple, traditional local fare, featuring generous cuts of top-rate beef, fish and poultry. Mallman's favorite dish is entrana (skirt steak) with chimichurri sauce, potatoes and salad. "It represents our tradition, culture and roots," he once told me.
Mendoza isn't the only region making great wines; vintners have been busy in the country's extreme north and south as well. From the wind-swept Patagonian province of Neuquen, Bodega NQN produces an inspired selection, including a surprisingly spry Rose.
And in the northern province of Salta—home to the highest-altitude vineyards in the world—the Donald Hess–owned Bodega Colome, founded in 1831, turns out complex wines including the award-winning Torrontes, a crisp white. The gorgeous Colome estancia has nine luxury guest rooms decorated with antique furnishings, as well as an art gallery and walking trails. And the Patios de Cafayate Hotel & Spa—operated by Starwood Hotels—is the first wine spa in Argentina, offering various treatments that use the healing characteristics of the grape. How about a Malbec body wrap? A whitewashed colonial building on the estate of the El Esteco winery, the hotel features 30 guest rooms, including three suites equipped with double Jacuzzis.
South American wine tourists have plenty to look forward to; the heart of Chile's wine country lies just across the Andes, where the cool Pacific winds help produce scores of excellent wines, most notably from the Carmenere grape. Chilean vintners are now working to create memorable wine experiences in their country, too.
Our Top Malbecs
1 . Achaval Ferrer
Finca Altamira 2005
Alfa Crux 2004
3. Bodega Salentein Primus
Malbec Argentino 2004
5. Bodega La Rural, Rutini
Malbec D.O.C. 2005
7. Familia Zuccardi, Q
9. Ricardo Santos, El
Malbec de Ricardo Santos 2006
Fond de Cave Reserva 2005