- History - A history of Argentine wine and winemaking
History of Argentine Wine
You wouldnt know it from the huge volume of wine Argentina produces today, but winemaking in Argentina was very slow to take hold. The first European grapes were introduced from Chile all the way back in 1556, but winemaking plodded along over the next 250 years.
Independence from Spain in 1816 would prove to be a watershed event for Argentinas wine industry, as a wave of new immigrants from winemaking countries in Europe provided a thirsty domestic market and the expertise to kickstart low domestic production. Many of these new residents hailed from Italy and Spain, and lent their countries influence to local grape varieties.
In the 1850s Argentina imported grapes of the classic French varieties for the first time, and an academy of agriculture in Mendoza trained students in the French school of winemaking. New irrigation began to cover the naturally dry land, and viticulture expanded across the country. With so many trends in its favor, Argentina successfully exported wine around the world until the 1920s.
The global depression of the interwar years hurt exports, and the 1920s marked the beginning of years of economic and political instability. For 50 years, there was little foreign investment in wine technology and quality suffered. All this time, however, the domestic market remained strong and Argentina became known as a mass producer of mediocre wine.
Unfortunately, the situation would get worse before it got better. During the 1970s, wine consumption in Argentina began a sharp decline, and the 1980s saw severe overproduction that ran many of the lower-quality vineyards of business. While Chile reduced yields in the 1990s and improved quality, Argentina actually increased yields in spite of overproduction. Precipitation is low, but irrigation is so cheap that farmers are sorely tempted to leave the faucet running and watch yields go up. Quality, of course, is the major loser.
Only a few winemakers were determined enough to resist that temptation, but they soon gave the world a taste of Argentinas potential. As other winemakers realized how much profit and honor could be won from the international market, they became more likely to start planting in higher densities and growing for quality rather than volume. This experience is starting to pay dividends, and Argentine wine is steadily improving. The coming decade will prove crucial to the future of Argentine wine truly, this is a country to watch.
- Overview - An overview of Argentine wine.
Overview of Argentine Wine
Today Argentina is a country of possibility. Argentina is the world’s fifth-largest wine producer, after France, Italy, Spain, and the United States, but the vast majority of its grapes produce mediocre-quality bulk wine. The future of its winemaking industry lies not in exports, not in bulk, but the country currently exports only 7 percent of its product. Chile, on the other hand, exports 54 percent. Chile does have some advantages, as the influence of the Pacific Ocean means that Chile has less of a problem with hail, frost and heat waves.
But Argentinas wine is improving, and recent improvements have helped it contribute to the regions reputation for good wines at an excellent price. If the country can unite around a common variety and the pursuit of quality, then Chile could have some stiff competition sometime soon.
If you’ve ever drunk a wine a wine in Argentina, chances are it was made in Mendoza. At 58,000 square miles, Mendoza contains around 75 percent of the vines in the country. The region produces a huge number of varieities, but Malbec and Torrentés are the grapes of choice. Malbec is a red grape from Bordeaux, inky and with strong fruit flavors; Torrentés, a white grape from Spain, is crisp and light with nose a similar to a Muscat. Both have flourished in Argentina and become better known here than in their native homes. Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown, and is viewed by many as the regions strongest offering. If you’re looking for a quality Argentine wine, Mendoza is considered one of Argentina’s best regions.
Although the first vines in Argentina were planted in Salta, Mendoza represents in many ways the birthplace of Argentina’s modern wine industry. It was here that Argentina’s school of agriculture trained young winemakers in the French style in the 1850’s, it was here that many of Argentina’s huge irrigation projects began, and it was here the Argentina’s signature Malbec grape grew to fame. Throughout the 20th century, Mendoza’s quality suffered in an environment of instability, but the 1990’s have brought foreign investment that is quickly creating a reputation of great wine at an affordable price.
Located more than 600 miles west of Buenos Aries, the Mendoza region is enormous and includes a wide variety of soils and microclimates.
Mendoza is dry and desert-like, but by no means hot. Although it is warmer than most wine regions in Chile, its high elevation helps keep things cool. There isn’t enough rainfall to sustain viticulture naturally, but the vineyards are heavily irrigated with runoff from the snow-covered Andes Mountains.
Like most wine regions in Argentina, Mendoza lies to the east of the Andes Mountains, and snow-capped peaks are visible year-round. The views are absolutely stunning. Vineyards are built into the lightly sloping hills below the mountains, and altitudes range from 2000 to 3000 feet – extremely high for Europe, but fairly typical for Argentina. Mendoza is so large that it is broken into several subregions, including Luján de Cuyo, San Rafael, and Tupungato.
There is considerable variation throughout Mendoza, but the soil is generally dry and desert-like – the modern winemaking industry here owes its existence to irrigation. The high slopes of Mendoza are home to the country’s signature Torrontés, and all three varieties are grown here. Torrontés Riojano is the most common, but Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino are widespread as well. These wines are known for their light-bodied, crisp feel in the mouth, and their aromas are reminiscent of a fragrant Muscat or Gewürztraminer. Malbec is the other signature wine here, an inky red with strong fruit aromas.
Located north of San Juan and south of Salta, the Rioja takes its name from a wine region in Spain. Unlike its namesake, however, this region is very hot and dry, producing wines high in alcohol and low in acidity. Although its wines are of higher quality than those produced ins nearby San Juan, oxidation remains a major problem here. La Rioja is best known for its Malbec, but recent years have seen a flurry of new planting, mostly of white grapes.
Keep an eye on the Rio Negro region. Currently it accounts for only five percent of Argentina’s grape production, but its favorable growing conditions hint the situation won’t stay that way for long. Rio Negto is the farthest south of Argentina’s wine districts, and the extra distance from the equator makes the climate cooler here than in the rest of the country. A long growing season, abundant sunlight, cool climate, and chalky soil distinguish this region from the rest of Arentina and make it ideal for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Vineyards here are expanding, and rising foreign interest could make this region the future hub of Argentina’s fine wine production.
Salta is a region of extremes. At low elevations, its subtropical climate is far too hot for wine production. When you climb into the mountains, however, the temperature drops and cool weather becomes suitable to white wine varieties. The vineyards here are among the highest in the world – grapes around a mile high are normal, and some vineyards even approach the unheard-elevation of 10,000 feet. Torrentés is the grape of choice, as the cool mountain terroir helps capture its fruity flavors. Although Salta today accounts for only a tiny fraction of Argentina’s vines, political stability could bring an infusion of foreign investment and make this region home to some very surprising wines.
Just to the north of Mendoza, the San Juan wine region is closer to the equator and hotter than Mendoza. San Juan is Argentina’s second largest producer of grapes, but much of the crop here goes into grape extract or brandy instead of wine. The soil here is alluvial, sandy, and slightly clayish, but remains permeable enough to be well suited for viticulture. The hot, dry climate is ideal for growing high-alcohol, low-acidity grapes, and those that do make it into a wine bottle end up as dessert wines and average quality table wines. Keep an eye on the Syrah from this region – it might give you a pleasant surprise sometime soon.