we cycle out from the chic town of Chacras de Coria, riding through leafy suburbs into countryside where any ground that isn't a vineyard is filled with olive trees.
Ahead of us, washed out in a haze of afternoon sunlight, are the jagged metallic grey peaks of the Andes. There's a saying in Argentina: "Happy is the man with a home in Mendoza"; in this peaceful region in the foothills of the mountains, good wine seems to flow like water.
Mendoza is home to International World Malbec Day each April, celebrating the country's internationally famous wine. There are wine tours, usually with a car or minibus taxiing visitors from vineyard to vineyard, but that seemed a waste of the huge stretches of cyclable countryside, so I decide to put two of my favourite things together: cycling and drinking wine. It's as well-paired as cheese and toast.
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It takes less than an hour from Chacres in the Lujan region to reach my first stop, Vistalba vineyard and winery.
"The malbec came from France, but found its natural home here," Cecilia, Vistalba's wine expert, tells me, as we take in a view from a balcony that overlooks hectares of malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, bonarda and chardonnay. "We don't have problems here with disease and bugs, like in France. There's a lot of sun, low humidity, and very hot days with cooler nights: very good for malbec. It's perfect for high-quality grapes. The root has to struggle through the hard ground and it doesn't get lots of water. But the effort is rewarded in a small grape that's more concentrated."
Malbec's quality and international reputation has improved greatly over the past 15 years. It was previously looked down on by Argentinians. Locals will often tell you malbec actually means "bad mouth" or 'wine that tastes bad". That attitude's now changed. "Malbec is the national wine," says Cecilia, leading me into a cool, elegant tasting room. "Mendoza is an old wine region, but 10 or 15 years ago, when the brains came in here - the big winemakers, the big money, the technology, young winemakers with new ideas and techniques … that's when we started producing high- quality wines."
We sample several wines: a white torrentes from Salta in northern Argentina; a malbec and cabernet sauvignon blend; a straight malbec; and a malbec rosé. The experts here prefer more complex wines, the softer, more rounded blends, whereas I like the punchy straight malbec. "People can get hung up on taste: the 'best' wine, the 'right' wine," says Cecilia. "But it's just a matter of taste, what you like. You might like Monet, I might like Van Gogh. It's the same with wine."
The same goes for the wines at Garganteni, another vineyard on the circuitous route to town. Although Peter, the resident expert, admires the "complex, perfectly balanced" and most expensive malbec blended with merlot or cabernet sauvignon, I happily take glass after glass of the straight, simple, cheapest malbec until the ride back to town means I'm probably drunk in charge of a bike.
The next day's cycling around the grounds of Clos de los Siete in the Uco Valley isn't quite as pleasant. This cluster of very impressive vineyards, producing malbec alongside cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and more is run by French and Argentine wine experts, including Michel Rolland. But the distances between each winery are too short, making cycling very stop/start, and bumpy roads are covered with thick gravel. Far better to leave the bike behind and concentrate on the wine instead. At one of the wineries, we stop for a leisurely banquet of excellent cheeses, mushroom tartlets, fresh veg and dessert.
The boozing continues back at my hotel, Finca Adalgesia, a friendly boutique place that also makes its own good wine. I sit on the verandah in the evening, drinking a large glass of a favourite malbec as the sun sets.
Keen to get a bit more proper cycling action, I go out alone the next day, without a guide. It's a fantastic decision. The skies are a flawless blue, the sun high as I cycle past vineyards and desert scrub. I'm steered by the principle that the Andes are to the west and I'm heading south, so as long as I keep snowy mountains on my right, I should be heading in the right direction.
My route, loosely drawn out on a tourist map, crosses a couple of major highways, including the Ruta 7 that leads to Chile. With few road markings out here, I take a wrong turn and end up travelling a stretch on this busy, potentially dangerous highway. Backdrafts from juggernauts threaten to send me into ditches, but the main threat comes from overtaking cars and buses in the opposite direction who'd clearly rather I got out of their way.
I peddle the five kilometres as fast as possible, then find my turn, cycling into a long corridor walled on either side by towering silver birches. Through the trees, I see vineyards, bodegas, blue skies and the Andes. At the far end of the avenue, seven kilometres on, I find Caseta Zapata, turning off the road into a verdant oasis, sprinklers wetting lawns and rose bushes.
At the end of a long driveway that cuts through field after field of vines, there's a strange sandy pyramid-shaped building with a glass tower in the centre, the kind of structure you expect to find, semi-appropriately, at the end of a quest: a Temple of Wine. As I park the bike and approach, large black and gold doors swing open and I'm beckoned in.
Half-Welsh/half-Argentine Myfanwy introduces me to a table full of Caseta Zapeta's wines. As the spit bucket remains empty, Myfanwy tells me there's more to Mendoza than malbec. "Malbec is the icon grape but it's not the only wine. I think people will see a lot more coming out of Mendoza in future: chardonnay (no one thinks white wine from Argentina), bonarda, cabernet sauvignon … Mendoza's also becoming known for blends."
Slowed by the wine and the hot afternoon sun, I ride against the wind to Bodega Norton, another producer, where waiter and sommelier Rodrigo piles a plate with bread and cheese to accompany a selection of malbecs and cabernet sauvignons.
The route back to the hotel is simpler than the wandering trip out through the countryside - even a drunk couldn't get lost.
On my last day in the region, my liver takes a break. I meet local canoe guide Matheus and we drive out of the city to Potrerillos Reservoir, a six-kilometre long artificial stretch of water that provides Mendoza's drinking water and also, with a hydro electric dam, some of its power. It looks natural enough though, with turquoise water reflecting the sky. With a little breeze and warm sun occasionally breaking from the cloud, the conditions are pretty much perfect.
We have the lake to ourselves, without a single boat or kayak. Black ducks bob on the surface, moving on each time as we paddle near so their beating wing tips splash a line across the water.
We hear a call and locate a brown-and-white animal up on a rocky ridge, a lone guanaco (similar to the llama). "It's just part of the wildlife here," says Matheus. "This area is a desert and looks empty, but it's full of life. Pumas, guanacos, condors…."
In the afternoon, we hike up the Valle del Sol in Potrerillos. The underground water that soaks through the surface keeps the hot valley green. The sun warms the plants, the breeze carrying the fragrance of herbs, thyme and Spanish ajinjo, both good for cooking.
We find some rocks with a view to eat lunch from, bird chatter filling the big green valley. Afterwards, we hike up a steep hill to a ridge for an expansive view of the valley beyond. Several horses are grazing below. In the basin below the peaks, we see one condor, then more, counting six in total. They circle, then gradually swoop down the valley. There's a large bird-shaped shadow on the land as a condor flies across the sun. "Condors used to be very rare," says Matheus. "Now, on a day like this, with a light breeze, in a place like this, there's a good chance to see them. They're protected now, the numbers have increased over the last 20 years."
As we stand on the ridge, watching the birds, a gaucho (cowboy) rides into the valley to exchange his steed for another. We watch him chase a white horse. Every time the gaucho gets near and dismounts to make a grab, the horse bolts.
The gaucho resorts to his boleadoras, three balls on a rope, spun overhead like a lasso and thrown at the horse's legs to bring it to a stop. But even with this, the horse gives him the run around for 10 minutes, the gaucho chasing up and down, increasingly frustrated.
"Happy is the man with a home in Mendoza" goes the expression. Right now, I'm not sure it applies to this guy. But he'd be the exception.