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Living fine among the Argentines

The owner of an inn divides her time between D.C. and the city of Mendoza.

John Bordsen
John Bordsen is the Travel Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Ellen Hoffman divides her time between metro Washington and Mendoza, Argentina, due west of Buenos Aires and near the Chilean border. In Mendoza, Hoffman, who is in her 60s, owns an inn with her partner, Riccardo; last year she started Amazing Mendoza (www.amazingmendo za.com) to offer custom tours of wineries in the Mendoza region.

Q. What brought you to Mendoza?

We had been looking for a place outside the country; we had lived in Spain a while and both Riccardo and I speak fluent Spanish. Spain might have been our initial choice, but because of the euro, it became terribly expensive. We landed in Mendoza in 2004 as a winter escape from the northeastern United States.

It was a vacation – we didn't plan to do a real estate search – but liked the people and the atmosphere. The culture is to a large degree Mediterranean: Most people there are of Spanish or Italian heritage. We bought a house and after renovation opened it as an inn a year ago.

Q. Where in Argentina is this?

At the base of the Andes, at an elevation of a little over 2,000 feet. It's the gateway to the Andes: Three hours from Mendoza, you can be standing at the bottom of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Mendoza is two hours from Buenos Aires by plane, but we always go there via Santiago, Chile – which is just across the Andes and much closer. The 20-minute connecting flight from Santiago is right over the mountains.

Mendoza itself is small, about 130,000 people in a metro area of 1.2 million, but it has everything, including a lively cultural life. There are fairs in the parks and plazas, where you'll find everything from mimes and jugglers to free concerts. The city's Mediterranean atmosphere means there are lots of sidewalk cafes.

It's hard to believe you're in a desert region when you're in the city. Water comes entirely from snowmelt from the Andes – water for drinking, bathing, cooking, the vineyards, everything.

Q. What wines is Mendoza known for?

The most famous grape and wine is malbec. Malbec grapes were brought from southern France, where they're used primarily to blend with other grapes. Mendoza has the ideal soil and climate needed to bring Malbec to its best level.

Malbec is the one you hear the most about, but many Mendoza wines are getting rankings in the 90s from experts.

There was an economic crisis in Argentina in 2001-02; they had to default on a debt and devalue the currency. The upshot is that real estate, including vineyards, became a terrific bargain, and this brought a tremendous influx of investment in vineyards and new wineries from people in other countries. One result is that you're seeing a broader range of wines: cabernet, pinot noir and others. A grape not well-known in the U.S. that's called bonarda is getting more attention.

In white wines, there's cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The main white grape of Argentina, torrontes, is becoming known in the U.S.

Q. Is there a price break if you buy Mendoza wines in Mendoza?

It's a bargain – using U.S. dollars makes a big difference. There's a lower-end wine called El Portillo, which is pretty available in the U.S. for $10 or $11 a bottle. The cost is about half that in Mendoza now. That type of discount holds well for wines that are at other price levels.

Q. What can tourists do there?

There are 600 to 1,000 functioning wineries; maybe 30 or 40 receive visitors. They're extremely varied in architecture: You might visit a winery that's 100 years old and maybe in a stucco building that looks like a hacienda or maybe a new winery where the building looks like a spaceship.

Some that have tastings offer excellent several-course lunches – tasting lunches, usually with a different wine with each of five courses.

And the Andes are right there; many wineries have spectacular views of snowy peaks right behind the vineyards.

We take people on day excursions to the base of Aconcagua. If the season permits, we take a picnic lunch to a lake there; the waters reflect the spectacular views. Elsewhere, there are different geological formations at every turn.

Adventure travel is popular. The backpacking crowd goes into the mountains for everything from whitewater rafting to horseback trekking.

Q. Get many Americans?

An increasing number: Tourism has exploded in the last couple of years, especially given how the U.S. dollar fares in relation to the euro and Asian currencies. There's value in visiting Argentina.

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