Mendoza History

July 5, 2023

Paul Kay

If you like wine and beef, you will love Mendoza. If you are planning vacations, this should be one of your destinations. Here are some interesting facts about the wine capital of Argentina. The province boasts over 1,200 wineries and is internationally recognized for its high-quality Malbec wines. The region's unique climate and soil conditions contribute to the production of exceptional wines. The city of Mendoza, the capital of the province, is renowned for its urban design. After a devastating earthquake in 1861, the city was rebuilt with wide streets and tree-lined avenues, earning it the nickname "The City of Trees." We have a detailed post about the Mendoza wine region here. Wine tours are very popular in Mendoza. We arranged ours through the concierge at our hotel – Park Hyatt, Mendoza. Let’s get into some of the history of this marvelous city.

The first inhabitants of Mendoza arrived in the region between 10 to 12 thousand years ago. They were nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers that settled in areas surrounding the rivers, lakes and lagoons. About 500 years ago the province was inhabited by three primary aboriginal groups: the Huarpes (in the North), the Puelches (in the center) and the Pehuenches (in the South).

The Huarpes occupied the region from Mendoza all the way to the Uco Valley. The Huarpes were skilled hunter-gatherers and very knowledgeable about plants and agriculture. In order to resolve the problem of inadequate water they constructed a network of irrigation channels and acequias originating at the rivers. 

Canal waterway through a city park in Mendoza Argentina

The Huarpes developed a clever and sophisticated system of irrigation channels which brought water from the Mendoza River to the arid plains. Mendoza is a city as well as a province. As a province, it is largely classified as a desert and the Huarpes decided to turn the desert into a green and fertile land. The snow-melt from Andes Mountains feeds the Mendoza River only during the spring and the summer. However, the irrigation system works longer than this period dependent on the quantity of snow melt. Madeline and I saw this irrigation system on our visit in the wide trenches along the city street, watering millions of trees.

Statue of Pachacuti in Aguas Calientes, Peru. Pachacuti was the 9th Sapa Inca of the Kingdom of Cusco

The Incas arrive in the latter half of the 15th century from Peru. The influence of the Incas was very important because their advanced technological knowledge helped the Huarpes to greatly improve the irrigation canals. This irrigation system turned out to be of vital importance upon the arrival of the Spanish. Madeline took the picture above when we visited Machu Picchu in Peru and saw the statue of Pachacuti who was a ruler of the Incan Empire.

The first Spaniards that settled in the Mendoza territory came from Chile. Their objective was to find land suitable to establish cities and to find gold and silver mines in the Andes Range. In 1551 Francisco de Villagra, who was on his way from Peru to Chile, was the first Spaniard to set foot on Mendoza soil. On his arrival to Chile, he gave an account of the lands and their inhabitants that he had encountered.

Pedro del Castillo crossed the Andes and founded the city of Mendoza on March 2, 1561. He designed the layout of the city and distributed the land that would be settled and cultivated by the colonists that accompanied him. 

The Spaniards were in search of gold and silver, but they also wanted to ensure that they had enough food to survive. They arrived with farming tools, goats and sheep and enough seeds to cultivate fruit trees (peaches, apples, figs) and grapevines.

Vineyards with the Andes in the distance Mendoza Argentina

Unbeknownst to them, they had started the vineyard industry that became the key for life in Mendoza in the future. The wine was better than gold or silver since they could trade it. The wines and liquor obtained would be exchanged in Buenos Aires, Tucuman and along the coast for products that were produced in those regions.

In 1861 Mendoza was totally destroyed by an earthquake.  The city of Mendoza was reconstructed in a new location this time in order to ensure that they were not near the epicenter. Seismic science was not invented yet, but they wanted to be cautious. The new design included wide streets and squares that would allow for rapid movement of people in case of an earthquake. 

Immigrants came to Mendoza from Italy, Spain, France and Germany primarily influenced by Mendoza’s rising notoriety in winemaking. The immigrants brought new varieties of vines and innovative techniques to cultivating the grapevines and winemaking.

When French wine grape varieties, including Malbec and Chardonnay, arrived in Mendoza in the 1860s, winemaking expanded and immigrants from Europe moved to Mendoza. When the railroad from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was completed in 1885, Mendoza's winemakers could transport their wines to Buenos Aires.

Mendoza's wine industry continued to thrive until the Great Depression when both political and economic troubles collided. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Mendoza wine industry was rediscovered globally. Wine experts came to Mendoza and helped transform the area into Argentina's flagship wine region.  Vintners grew in acreage and capacity. They modernized equipment and focused on production of quality wines.  Mendoza was back on the map as a leading wine region of Argentina. Today, they account for over 80 percent of the country's wine production.  Malbec is Mendoza’s signature grape and they ship it worldwide.

Glass of Malbec Mendoza Argentina

Mendoza has a wide variety of altitudes and soils. Malbec is the best-known red wine grape variety but you will also find Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Tempranillo, and several others.  Chardonnay is the most-planted white wine grape variety, followed by Torrontes, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

Mendoza is a great place for a wine tour vacation. Madeline and I think it rivals Napa and Sonoma in California. The wine is much more affordable in Argentina and the quality of the wine is superior. If you love wine, you’ll love a wine vacation in Mendoza.

Take a look at our other posts on the Mendoza wine regions of Uco Valley, Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo along with Mendoza hotels, attractions and restaurants.

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