Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to spot a row of Israeli flags lining an entire city block in the Argentine city of Mendoza. After all, Argentina has the world’s sixth largest Jewish population, even if most live in the capital Buenos Aires.
Despite the distance between them, the two countries enjoy close ties. Argentina was one of the first countries to recognise Israel in 1949, and there is an Israeli consulate in Mendoza to assist any wandering citizens.
There’s a wine connection, too. Mendoza is the capital of Argentina’s most important wine-producing area, and some of those wines are kosher, exported all over the world, including to Israel and the UK. Rothschild was one of the first French wine entrepreneurs to see the possibilities of Argentina’s soil and climate conditions and led the way in establishing vineyards here.
Travelling in this area is not a bit like pottering through the closely-packed vineyards of Burgundy or winding your way through California’s Napa Valley. Mendoza is a vast, sprawling area, and the city at its heart is a bustling metropolis, the opposite of your typical little wine country town.
However, what Mendoza does offer, as well as some of the finest wine in the New World, is a host of activities.
Futuristic hotels have sprung up with restaurants and spas or art galleries attached, and trekking, 4x4 mountain tours and horse-riding in the foothills of the Andes are on offer.
It was at Clos de los Siete, which incorporates the Flechas de los Andes winery, co-owned by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, that gauchos drew up with horses to lead a ride through vineyards with snow-capped peaks.
The ride preceded lunch overlooking the mountains — there are restaurants at both Diamandes and Monteviejo. The estates contribute grapes to a wine named for the collaboration and also make their own, though only Flechas de los Andes has entered the kosher market.
The wineries of Clos de los Siete, like their neighbour Salentein, are distinguished by startlingly futuristic architecture. But Salentein, which has its own impressive gallery of contemporary art, also fields a rustic inn more simpatico with the vineyards. Posada Salentein offers rooms and a great little restaurant serving typical Argentine cuisine, much of it cooked on a huge parrillada, or flaming grill, on the porch.
Our own base for this Valle de Uco region was Casa Antucura, an elegant boutique hotel with eight rooms leading off a galleried library, all overlooking vineyards or distant mountains.
Closer to the city of Mendoza, Entre Cielos is a stunningly modern wine-themed hotel with its own hammam and spa. It’s a good base for dinner at Familia Zuccardi, a winery with an excellent visitor offering. You can tour the winery and look at art before enjoying lunch or gourmet dinner.
Another winery in this Maipu area well set up for visitors is Trapiche, which also makes kosher wines.
Less well-known than Mendoza is the wine country north of the capital, which has an old-fashioned rural charm and a frontier feel not present in thrusting Mendoza. North of Salta — where there’s a ravishing little hotel once owned by actor Robert Duvall, the romantic House of Jasmines — is the wine-growing area of Cafayate. Here, an old wine-grower’s hacienda has been converted to a hotel. The enchanting Patios de Cafayate is all Spanish architecture, beautiful courtyards and spacious rooms graciously furnished in the vernacular.
You’ll taste good wine in this area, but Cafayate is a quiet little town, and the real star of the show is the magnificent red rock scenery between there and Salta, where some time should be allowed to explore the squares and local markets. Allow a good half-day for the road trip from Cafayate to Salta, and make a coffee stop at Posta de las Cabras, a delightful road-house with dozens of engaging goats in the grounds.
Buenos Aires, the gateway to both Mendoza and Salta, is a world-class capital which demands at least two or three days to explore. Its most unique attractions could be said to be dancing and death — the first represented by the tango and the second by the famous Recoleta Cemetery.
Although there is no shortage of flashy tango shows on offer in the San Telmo neighbourhood, where the Sunday flea market is not to be missed, it’s more fun and authentic to visit a milonga, or dance-hall frequented by locals who have grasped the complexities of this erotic dance. Milonga Canning, in the Palermo district, is a good one. The action really heats up beneath the great mirror-ball in the wee small hours.
Recoleta Cemetery has elegant mausoleums, streets of them with shop window-style displays associated with the departed, the most famous of whom is Eva Perón (Evita, wife of President Juan Domingo Perón.
Also not to be missed is the redeveloped port area, where Cabana Las Lilas is a fun place to savour good food in the company of Portenos, as the locals are known.
The Plaza de Mayo, site of the famous Casa Rosada palace from whose balcony Evita once blew kisses to her adoring public, is an easy stroll from the port. Buenos Aires has several synagogues and kosher restaurants, including the only kosher McDonalds, outside Israel.
One thing to know about the beef is that locals cook it medium to well done unless you ask them not to.
FLY: British Airways serves Buenos Aires nonstop from £890 return; indirect flights are up to £350 cheaper www.britishairways.com
STAY: Entre Cielo from £165 per night or a 4-night tour including airport transfers, full board, vineyard visits, city tour, spa treatment and mountain activities for £2900
Casa Antucara from £200 double www.casaantucara.com
House of Jasmines from £140 double