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Source: Financial Times
By: Andrew Jefford

In Mendoza, you'll spend as much time in the air as on the ground. Everyone reaching this oasis under the Argentine Andes finds their gaze drawn upwards, as if on fish hooks. There, in vast tracts of unconfined air, cloud battles are fought, mountains parade and retreat, and the sunlight cascades down on to vineyards planted and wineries constructed on more audacious a scale than anywhere else in the world.

This is the roof of the wine-growing world. There are vineyards in Argentina that lie 700 metres above the highest spot in the entire continent of Australia; the Mendozan average of 1,000 metres or more is loftier than almost anywhere in France. Not that you're necessarily aware of this when you're there, since the vineyards are a flat step on a vast stairway. What lies below is lost in distant haze; it's what lies above that is hypnotic.

On a clear early morning, the highest part of the Andes glimmers snowily above the plain of sediments, peak after peak, like some medieval dream of virtue. Broad Aconcagua, slope-shouldered Tupungato and the nearer, toothier Cerro del Plata are the leading players, yet there's a cast of hundreds. Clear days are plentiful - Mendoza claims to enjoy 320 days of sunshine a year - though puffy cumulus tends to crowd the peaks as the morning draws on. It was an unusually drizzly summer day, though, that gave me the view I will never forget. As I tiptoed among the desert plants photographing them draped in a puzzle of raindrops, the clouds briefly parted in the mid-heavens to reveal snow-capped peaks, crisp-focused and crazily close, appearing to float entirely free from the bonds of earth.

Late morning cumulus often ripens, on high summer days here, into thunderous cumulo-nimbus by afternoon's end. At the end of my stay, I returned to Buenos Aires on an early evening flight during which the pilot's task was to steal cautiously through a vast forest of explosive and seductively beautiful water vapour. Gigantic anvil-headed stacks beckoned us, extruding popcorn cliffs and white lava flows. Down on earth, though, Mendozans have learned to fear the clouds. Every year, their golfball-sized hail stones shred thousands of vine leaves into tissue paper. Solar panels and windscreens are smashed, and car bodywork gets pockmarked beyond insurability.

Perhaps the endless, importuning sky has something to do with it, for Mendoza has become the wine world's greatest field of dreams over the past decade. The world's rich have sought to outdo each other with breadth of vineyard plantings and wineries whose showy architecture often seems to incite Ozymandias-like hubris to overtake them. One attraction has been the freedom (rare in Europe) to plant any grape variety in any place; another has been the lure of absolute control that irrigated vines in a sunny oasis promise. But the third has been the slinky attraction of Mendoza's dark, vivacious Malbec-based wines: evidently a new world original, and perhaps the greatest variety-plus-location double act to emerge on the world stage since New Zealand brought us Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.

Tasting at wineries such as O.Fournier's spaceship, the giant estancia at Decero, Catena's Mayan pyramid or Monteviejo's sky ramp at Clos de los Siete shouldn't be missed. The best winery restaurants include O.Fournier, Ruca Malen and Andeluna. Booking first is essential, not least because the security at winery entrances is disconcertingly rigorous.

Sooner or later, of course, you'll want to go higher. Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside Asia; that, plus the fact that it is a relatively simple, non-technical scramble to the top, makes it attractive enough for thousands to try it every year (altitude sickness is the main reason for failure).

Permits to climb the peak are issued in Mendoza. Committed climbers are said to prefer Tupungato, with its greater technical challenges. All I managed to scramble up, by contrast, was a little hill called Mirador in the hot, snowless Precordillera.

I had assumed that these hills were nothing but desert scrub from below, but they turned out to be a chain of unfenced livestock farms where horses, cows and goats roamed freely, grazing on coirón grass and other desert plants. Huge hares the size of suitcases came bowling down the slopes, startled by the goats. But the farmer's main worry, my guide Markos Gattas told me, were the pumas, one of which can kill 20 horses a day while teaching their young to hunt.

The dryness of the heat made climbing relatively easy. The vegetation, which had seemed drearily dun from a distance, became silver, orange, yellow and dark green close-up, the scarcity of water giving the plants an intrinsic finesse.

Later, when the walk was over, Markos brewed us a gourd of maté tea. A colt strolled down towards us, rolled on to its back, and took a dust bath. No one spoke. The wind blew; the birds called; the sun shone. Two other colts arrived, and the first one rose and shook itself. They then gently pranced, and pawed each other's necks, and chafed each other in acts of the calmest play I have ever seen. When I think of Argentina now, it is not tango or Malbec or Maradona that first comes to mind, but that quiet moment up in the Mendoza hills when those three horses gave three humans a lesson in the lightness of being.

Andrew Jefford is the author of 'The New France: a Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine' (Mitchell Beazley)

Property in Mendoza, House & Home, p4

The best of Mendoza

Getting to Mendoza is easier via Santiago de Chile than via Buenos Aires; the distance is shorter and connecting flights are made from the same airport, whereas in Buenos Aires you have to transfer from the international airport to the domestic airport. The Park Hyatt Mendoza ( com; tel: +54 261 441 1234) is Mendoza's leading hotel (it includes a casino and some good restaurants). Interior rooms facing the courtyard are quieter than exterior rooms, which suffer from road noise. For a quiet city-centre alternative, try the El Portal Suites ( tel: +54 261 4382038). Chacras de Coria is a leafy suburb of Mendoza: two outstanding hotels there are Finca Adalgisa ( tel: +54 261 4960713) and Lares de Chacras ( tel: +54 261 4961061). If you want to stay amid the vineyards of the Uco valley, the Casa Antucura is characterful and stylish ( tel: +54 261 524 8283).

*For good winery lunches , see ("tastings and tours" page); ("contact" page), and ("tourism" page). * Winery tours , as well as hiking and adventure trails, including Aconcagua trips, can be organised by Aymará Adventures and Expeditions, see; tel: +54 261 4202064). For winery day trips from Mendoza, contact Ampora Wine Tours, ( tel: +54 261 429 2931). *For wine tours to Argentina from the UK, contact Arblaster Clarke ( tel: +44 1730 263111). Mendoza is included in their next tour to Chile, Argentina and Uruguay (February 8-22 2010).

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