It's the very picture of sophisticated rusticity: a small table, topped with a white table cloth, set between rows of grapevines heavy with fruit. Near the table a wooden marker reads "Cabernet Sauvignon.'' Overhead a pale yellow springtime sun shines in a pure blue sky. Rising above it all are the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains, the highest among them soaring past 20,000 feet.
"Wouldn't it be great to taste wine here, right in the middle of the vineyards where the grapes were picked?'' I say to my wife, Georgina.
"You will,'' says our host, a guide at Familia Zuccardi, a leading Argentine winery. "It's your table.''
This is Mendoza, an arid province 600 miles northwest of Buenos Aires and just east of the Andes, whose snowmelt makes Argentina's wine industry possible. Malbec, a transplant from France, is the reigning grape, grown mainly in the foothills of the Andes at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. The Malbec grape is the source of robust but softly finished, inky-purple wines -- a perfect match for hearty Argentine beef.Mendoza is also the name of the province's largest city, a leafy oasis of 120,000 people that offers a prime base for exploring wineries in the surrounding countryside. Mendoza city has the biggest airport for miles around, a cluster of toothsome restaurants, attractive shops and some good places to stay. We stayed at the Park Hyatt, a bustling, modern business hotel rising behind a historic facade and located on the Plaza de la Independencia, the park in the heart of town.
From the hotel, we set off each day with Mendoza native Fernando Paz, a knowledgeable guide who drove the car and translated our English and notional Spanish. Visitors need a car to get to Mendoza's gleaming, modern wineries, some of which are an hour or two out of town. You also need to call ahead and book winery tastings and tours, as many Mendoza vintners are just getting used to hosting visitors from afar.