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
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
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
- Maipú department:
Cruz de Piedra, Barrancas, Russell, Coquimbito, Lunlunta, and
- Luján department:
Carrodilla, Chacras de Coria, Mayor Drummond, Luján, Vistalba,
Las Compuertas, Pedriel, Agrelo, Ugarteche, Carrizal, Tres Esquinas,
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
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
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
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
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.