- Q & A
In terms of size and production, Argentina is the most important wine-producing country in South America. Only four other countries produce more wine.
Of the 600,000 acres of vineyards, almost 50 per cent are planted with pink-skinned varieties, 30 per cent with white-skinned varieties, and just 20 per cent with red-skinned varieties. But the new wave of optimism is fast changing these proportions in favour of premium varieties and styles, particularly reds, that are now allowing Argentine wine producers to compete successfully internationally. Considerable investments in new vineyard areas and improved wine-making technology were made in the 1990s and the Argentine desire to export is now one of the most manifest in the world of wine.
Unlike North America where explorers and early settlers found Vitis labrusca growing in abundance, South America depended on the Spanish colonizers for imported European vinifera vines. The vine probably arrived in Argentina by four different routes. The first was directly from Spain in 1541 when vines are thought to have been cultivated, without great success, on the Atlantic coast around the river Plate. Another expedition from Peru in 1550 also imported vines to Argentina, while the fourth and most important vine importation came from Chile in 1556, just two years after the vine was introduced to Chile's.
Although Argentina was settled from both the east and the west, it was in the foothills of the Andes that the Jesuit missionaries found the best conditions for vine-growing. The first recorded vineyard was planted at Santiago del Estero in 1557. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561 and vineyards in the province of San Juan to the north were established on a commercial scale between 1569 and 1589.
By the skilful use of dams and irrigation channels, the early settlers were able to produce sufficient wine to meet the needs of a growing population and they also learned how to produce wine that could stand up to long wagon train journeys to the centres of population to the east.
In the 1820s, following the freeing of Argentina from Spanish colonial rule by General San Martín, there was a massive influx of European immigrants. In 1885 the railway between Buenos Aires and Mendoza was completed, lending still greater importance to the vineyards in the foothills of the Andes, and by 1900 a second wave of immigrants, many from wine-producing areas of Italy, Spain, and France, brought with them many new vine varieties and their own regional vine-growing and wine-making skills. The old colonial methods were quickly dispensed with, except the historic and essential irrigation system, and the foundations for Argentina's mammoth domestic wine industry were laid.
In the 1920s Argentina was the eighth richest nation in the world, but the subsequent economic depression led to a steep decline in foreign investments and a disastrous drop in the export price of its primary products. While the landowning classes continued to prosper, or salted away their capital overseas, there was growing unrest among the largely disenfranchised, poorly paid urban masses. When General Juan Domingo Perón came to power in 1943 he appealed directly to the workers with promises of rapid industrialization, better working conditions, and organized, state-controlled unions. For a while Argentina's fortunes revived, but in the mid 1950s Perón and his ambitious and charismatic wife Eva were deposed by the military. From then on a succession of opportunist military governments led the country into spiralling decline.
This situation led to the pressing need to earn foreign currency. The more enlightened producers decided to go upmarket and in the late 1980s, for the first time, gave serious consideration to the possibilities of exporting, helped by political and economic stability not experienced for decades. Under President Menem business confidence in Argentina's future was revitalized at home and abroad and encouraged investment in a wine industry where time had stood still. The result has been Argentina's increasing market share and stature in the wine world.
Argentina's wine regions are widely dispersed, but are almost entirely confined to the western strip of the country bordering the foothills of the Andes. The vineyard area extends from the tropic of Capricorn in the north to the 40th parallel in the south. Apart from the southern, largely fruit-growing areas of the Río Negro and Neuquén, the climate is semi-desert with annual rainfall rarely more than 250 mm/10 in. The seasons are well defined, allowing the vines to rest.
Summer temperatures vary from 10 ° C/50 ° F at night to as much as 40 ° C/104 ° F during the day. Summers are hot in the regions of San Juan (except for the Calingasta valley), La Rioja, Catamarca, and the east of Mendoza (Santa Rosa, Rivadavia, San Martín, and Lavalle). In the Calchaquies valley (Cafayate), upper Mendoza (Luján de Cuyo), Uco valley (Tupungato), and Río Negro, summers are temperate to warm, making them Regions II and III in the Winkler system of climate classification. In winter temperatures can drop below 0 ° C/32 ° F, although frost is rare, except where vines have been grown at altitude.
The air is dry and particularly unpolluted, unlike the smog that is sometimes trapped over the Chilean vineyards closest to the capital, Santiago, just a short flight away over the Andes. Vine flowering may occasionally be adversely affected by a hot, dry, hurricane-force storm called the zonda which blows down from the north west in early summer. Grapes almost invariably reach full maturity and the lack of humidity reduces the risk of fungal diseases, obviating the need for frequent and costly spraying.
What little rain there is falls mainly in the summer months, often as potentially dangerous hail. Fortunately, the heavy winter snow in the high Andes ensures plentiful supplies of water for the irrigation system on which the vines depend.
The wine producing regions of Mendoza can roughly be divided into three areas, one main cluster in the north, one nearer the Andes to the west, and one further south, towards the middle of the province.
The Zona Alta is often referred to as "Primera Zona", the First Zone. It is blessed with some of the most picturesque vineyards anywhere in the world. The snow-capped Andes and the geologically older and smaller, red coloured, Cordón de la Plata act as a spectacular backdrop. The effect is made more striking by the fact that the area devoted to viticulture is flat as a pancake, perfect cycling country. The Zona Alta gently slopes away from its highest point (3,500 feet above sea level) near the Andes to 2,100 feet at its eastern-most point. The soil is made up of the moraine and waterborne deposits eroded from the Andes. On the surface it is a very pale tan, fine sandy, almost clay-like crust with negligible organic matter. It drains well and is ideal for high quality wine. Over 300 bodegas cultivate almost 50,000 acres of vineyards in this area.
The Región del Norte and Región del Este are nearer to sea level than the Zona Alta (average 2,100 ft above sea level). Together they add up to 210,000 acres dedicated to viniculture. The Región del Norte has soils which tend to be less porous and permeable than the other regions. This type of soil favours young fruity wines, both white and red. The Región del Este has an altogether more complicated soil structure. Some areas have deep upper layers with good water retention. Others have solid rock strata near the surface and have poor water retention.
The most important wine-producing areas in and around Mendoza are:
- Maipú department:
Cruz de Piedra, Barrancas, Russell, Coquimbito, Lunlunta, and Maipú districts.
- Luján department:
Carrodilla, Chacras de Coria, Mayor Drummond, Luján, Vistalba, Las Compuertas, Pedriel, Agrelo, Ugarteche, Carrizal, Tres Esquinas, Anchoris.
Pink-skinned grapes, notably Criolla Grande and Cereza, account for about a half of all Mendoza plantings and are used for inexpensive wine and grape concentrate. Red wine grapes account for another quarter, with the Malbec predominating, but Italian varieties and Tempranillo are also important. Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up. White wine varieties such as Chardonnay are increasingly common, especially in high altitude vineyards, such as those of Tupungato in the Valle de Uco south west of the city of Mendoza, which can be as high as 1,200 m/3,960 ft and are already regarded as some of Argentina's most valuable vineyards.
This is Argentina's second biggest wine-producing region and had more than 121,000 acres of vineyards in 1996. The capital of the province, San Juan, is 90 miles north of Mendoza. The climate is much hotter than that of Mendoza, with summer temperatures of 107 ° F not uncommon and with rainfall averaging only 6 in per annum.
Historically the oldest of the wine-producing provinces, and home of the Torrontés Riojano, La Rioja had only 17,290 acres of vineyards. By world standards the area is unimportant, although aromatic white wines from the Torrontés grape can be good, and wines made from the Moscatel de Alexandria (Muscat of Alexandria) have a following in Argentina itself. The lack of water for irrigation purposes makes wine-making a marginal activity.
Inexpensive neutral styles of wine.
Ugni Blanc often serves, and Chenin Blanc, oddly called Pinot de la Loire here, is also grown successfully, albeit demonstrating the somewhat anodyne characteristics of a California rather than Loire example. It provides much of the base wine for the sparkling wine popular with Argentines.
The Pedro Giménez (not identical to Spain's Pedro Ximénez) is the most planted white grape variety, grown particularly in Mendoza and the province of San Juan, where it yields alcoholic, full-bodied wine suitable for blending. It is also used for making grape concentrate, which Argentina exports in vast quantities to Japan.
Second most planted light-skinned variety in 1990 was Moscatel de Alejandria, or Muscat of Alexandria, but perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most distinctive, white wine grape variety is the third most important, Torrontés, of which, of the three different strains, Torrontés Riojano, from La Rioja province, is by far the most common. Others are Torrontés Mendocino and Torrontés Sanjuanino. There is no evidence that Argentina's Torrontés is the same as that grown in Galicia, north west Spain, but it is the nearest thing to an indigenous white variety in Argentina and produces a light wine with a strong Muscat aroma. Use of the right strains of yeast and careful temperature control during fermentation can result in a Torrontés wine of great universal appeal.
True Sauvignon Blanc, which the more enlightened producers believe they must try to produce if they are to carve out a niche in the world market, is as yet unproven and relatively rare. Other varieties include Riesling, Sémillon, Pinot Gris, and even Viognier.
The predominant red wine grape variety in Argentina is one that has never achieved greatness in its original birthplace in the south west of France. The Malbec, often spelt Malbeck, of Bordeaux, Bourg, Blaye, and Cahors seems to have discovered its true home in upper Mendoza. There it produces a deep-coloured, robust, and fruity red wine with enough alcohol, weight, and structure to benefit from oak ageing. Cabernet Sauvignon is as popular with Argentine wine-growers as any others, but there is no doubt that the Malbec produces by far the best and most balanced red wine and, with careful nurturing and strict temperature control during fermentation, has become Argentina's vinous trademark.
Also important is the Spanish variety Tempranillo, known here as Tempranilla, often used to make light, fruity wines by carbonic maceration.
There were nearly 6,200 acres of productive Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 1990 and by 1998 Argentina was already exporting considerable quantities of fine varietal Cabernet and Cabernet/Merlot blends. Other red wine varieties apart from Merlot included Pinot Noir, which in the late 1990s had yet to find a suitable home in Argentina, and Syrah, which clearly had. There were nearly 1,730 acres of Syrah planted in 1990, and the variety is expected to be more widely planted.
In The 1990s Argentina attracted a substantial wave of foreign investors, notably Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and San Pedro from Chile, attracted by Argentina's lower land costs. Italian vermouth producers Martini&Rossi have long had Argentine investments, as have Moët Hennessy, whose wholly owned subsidiary Moët & Chandon has been the biggest producer of sparkling `Champaña' in Argentina for three decades. Other foreign investors include the Champagne houses of Mumm, Deutz, and Piper-Heidsieck.