Meggan Robinson on October 2, 2015 1 Comment History, Climate, and Wine Regions When wine drinkers think of Argentina, we think Malbec from Mendoza (preferably paired with succulent Argentine beef). And while Malbec is without question the single most important and highly acclaimed grape variety in this country, and Mendoza is the undisputed capital of wine-growing regions, there’s a rich wine tradition in Argentina, one that stretches back in history, capitalizes on the area’s unique geography and climate, and encompasses a range of wine styles. Mendoza certainly deserves its reputation as the home of what is perhaps the finest Malbec produced in all the world, and the second half of this article is dedicated just to this vibrant region. But it would be a shame to let one glamorous region overshadow the varied, exciting wines produced in the rest of Argentina. So we’re going to explore the larger wine scene in Argentina by taking a look at the origins of the country’s wines, exploring what makes Argentina such a great spot for making wine, and branching out to learn about regions and grape varieties that don’t make it to the front cover of wine magazines. A Religious Experience The very first grapevines used for making wine–known as vitis vinifera–came to Argentina with the Spaniards in the 16th century. Many of the vines were planted in and around Spanish missions, to provide a source for communion wine. Precisely what grape varieties migrated with the Spaniards is hard to tell, as modern ampelography (the study of grapevines) is a relatively recent phenomenon, dependent on modern technology. What is likely, though, is one of the grapes the Spaniards carried with them was what we now call the Mission grape–after all, this is the location where most of the vines were planted. After the Mission grapes were planted, over the years, genetic crosses and hybrids were created by contact with other grape varieties. Early wine produced in Argentina was of very poor quality in comparison with the wines we drink today. It was produced in enormous quantities for communion and also for daily table wine for the huge numbers of Spanish and Italian immigrants. For hundreds of years, Criolla Grande–a descendant of the Mission grape–was the backbone of this bulk wine. In fact, even today, Criolla Grande is still fairly widely planted to make the sweetish rosé consumed in many households. Incidentally, Criolla Grande is closely related to the Chilean grape, Pais, that was widely planted on the other side of the Andes Mountains. Like much of the wine industry, domestic consumption doesn’t satisfy producers who seek critical acclaim, higher prices, and an international market. As the world of wine has grown, modest Argentinian grape growers and winemakers set their sights on a wider audience for their wines. As international varieties started to replace the bulk varieties, and as growers learned to control yields, plant the right varieties, manage water, and capitalize on their climate, the stage was set for Argentina’s entrance into the ranks of countries producing world-class wine. History and Climate In many ways, Argentina is defined by the Andes Mountains, which stretch the country’s entire length, from Jujuy in the north to Santa Cruz in the Patagonia region to the south. The Andes have a massive impact on the country’s climate, and since most of Argentina’s vineyards are located in the western part of the country, the Andes directly affect the choices of vineyard sites and grape selection. Much of the land along the western portion of Argentina is practically a desert. It’s in the immense rain shadow of the Andes–for comparison, Chile (on the western side of the mountain range) has an annual precipitation of roughly 1500mm, while the western portion of Argentina is a mere 500 mm annually. Argentina is very, very dry. The humidity varies between 40-70%, and the elevation, combined with the dry air, results in huge diurnal temperature swings–a factor that’s ideal for boosting sugar levels while retaining acidity in grapes. But grapes need water. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Argentina, they should have found a brown desert at the foot of the majestic Andes, but what they found instead was something of a green oasis near Mendoza. The native people–the Huarpes–had built irrigation channels from the Mendoza River for use in agriculture. The Spanish modified the channels, though some are still in use today. Very little rainfall combined with a good source of water for irrigation means that growers have complete control over when the vines get water and precisely how much they receive. While growers in other countries fret over rainfall during harvest, which can dilute flavors and even cause grapes to swell and split, Argentine growers almost never have to manage a rainy harvest. Western Argentina, with its grower-controlled water, arid climate (which virtually eliminates problems with rot and mildew) and big temperature swings each day, is ideal for growing spectacular wine grapes. Wine Regions and Grape Varieties Argentina is the second largest country in South America, after Brazil. In terms of square miles, it’s about the same size as the US east of the Mississippi River. Given its size and the fact that it’s the fifth largest producer of wine in the world (following France, Spain, Italy, and the US), it is short sighted to discuss Argentine wine as a single category. While Mendoza’s Malbec does comprise the bulk of the fine wine production, ignoring the rest of the country and the wide range of wines produced would be like considering wines from California as the totality of wines from the US. Let’s start in the north and work our way south through the Argentina’s principal wine provinces, taking a look at what makes each region unique and what grape varieties fare best: Salta The world’s highest vineyards are in Salta in northwest Argentina. The Colomé estate has vineyards over 10,000 feet in elevation in Cafayate, the most important wine region in the Calchaquies Valley. Salta is best known for its Torrontés, a native Argentine grape variety that’s most likely a genetic cross between Criolla Grande and Muscat of Alexandria. Torrontés is quite fruit-forward, vibrant, and has a lively, sweet-tart finish. Catamarca Less well-known than its northern neighbor, Salta, Catamarca is only slightly lower in elevation. It has plantings of Malbec, Torrontés Riojano (one of several subspecies of Torrontés), Syrah, Malbec, and Bonarda. As a side note, the tale of Bonarda from the old world to the new is fascinating and more than a little confusing. Old world Bonarda from Italy’s Piedmont region is light, fruity, and was primarily used to tone down some of the more tannic wines of the region. Piedmontese Bonarda isn’t high quality wine. What was labeled Bonarda (or even Barbera) in California and Argentina is actually a grape called Douce Noir (or sometimes Charbono, just in case things aren’t confusing enough). Douce Noir, which is new world Bonarda, is fantastic stuff, long-lived and delicious. La Rioja The home of Torrontés Riojano, La Rioja is planted mostly to white varieties, though some Malbec, Bonarda, and Syrah are sprinkled in as well. Torrontés Riojano is used both for still and sparkling wines. It took a twelve-year diplomatic and legal battle with the Spanish region of the same name before Argentine producers could label wines with this province of origin. San Juan Torrontés Sanjuanino makes an appearance here in the second largest production province in Argentina. Strong sun necessitates the parral trellis system, which uses the vines’ canopy of leaves to protect grapes from sunburn. Viognier, Malbec, and Syrah are the star wines of this region. Mendoza There are several important sub-appellations in Mendoza, including Luján de Cuyo, San Martín, San Rafael, and Valle de Uco, which includes Tupungato. Though Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and even Chardonnay can fare well in Mendoza, Malbec still rules this region. Neuquén Down south in the province of Patagonia–which, incidentally, stretches across both Argentina and Chile–is Neuquén, a region with a less arid climate. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Malbec fare well in this area, as it’s cooler than provinces to the north. Río Negro The standout for Patagonian wines, Río Negro is home to Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Semillon. The elevation is much lower in Patagonia, but its far southern location keeps temperatures low enough for more delicate varieties like Pinot Noir to thrive. The wine industry in Argentina, though producing stellar wines, is in some senses still in its infancy. While Malbec dominates the category, as growers continue to refine their plantings and selection of grape varieties, some of these lesser-known regions are starting to turn out wines that will force us to take notice. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about Malbec at all. In the second half of this article, I discuss the importance of Mendoza. Mendoza, Argentina As large and varied as the wine-producing regions are in Argentina, the truth is that more than seventy percent of the country’s vineyards are located in Mendoza, home of the first wineries in the country. In fact, Mendoza is practically synonymous with Malbec, the variety that’s come to represent Argentina’s major contribution to the international wine scene. But Malbec is French in origin, interestingly enough. It’s planted in small amounts in Bordeaux, where it contributes little other than color when it’s blended. Alternatively called Auxerrois or Côt (sometimes Côt Noir,) Malbec is also grown in Cahors, where it makes inky, robust, tannic wines. The fact of the matter is that Malbec doesn’t really shine in France. It’s susceptible to disease in the French soil and climate, and it craves more light and heat than France can provide. In Argentina, Malbec finds its home. High elevation gives the grape plenty of sunshine, and the warm summers ripen the grape to perfection not achieved anywhere else. We’ll explore the sub-regions of Mendoza and take a look at what differentiates these areas from others. Luján de Cuyo In the northern part of Mendoza, Luján de Cuyo is probably the best known of the wine-producing areas. Its vineyards are high elevation, and a number of standout wineries are located here. Its sub-regions include: Agrelo Home to Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and even some Petit Verdot. There’s even a sub-appelation within this tiny designation–Alto Agrelo, which singles out a particularly high-elevation area. Wineries to look for in Agrelo: Pulenta and Santa Maria de los Andes. Perdriel The site of some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. The area has particularly intense sunlight due to the altitude, and the soils are well-drained, which forces the vines’ roots to go deep in search of water. Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec both thrive here, and the wines are quite structured and can be long-lived. A winery of note: Finca Perdriel, more than a hundred years old, was the first farm of Bodega Norton. Las Compuertas Site of 100-year-old Malbec vineyards. Located close to the Mendoza River, this region has cooler temperatures. Wineries to look for: Terrazas de los Andes makes a wonderful single vineyard Compuertas Malbec, and Ksana produces Malbec from 100-year-old vines. Vistalba Huarpe for “view of sunrise”. Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay thrive here, and the prevalence of flood irrigation lends a distinct minerality to the region’s wines. Look for Bodega Vistalba. Ugarteche Warmer temperatures yield softer wines in this region, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay, and Semillón all thrive. Look for wines from La Posta and Doña Paula. Maipu Located just east of Luján de Cuyo, Maipu is home to some of Mendoza’s best-known wineries. Familia Zuccardi, Rutini, and Trapiche all have vineyards in Maipu (not to be confused with the Maipo region in Chile). Sub-regions include: Barrancas A warm climate yields softer wines than higher elevation areas. Lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot is grown here. Look for: Finca Flichman and Pascual Toso. Lunlunta Technically part of both Luján de Cuyo and Maipu. Most of the grapes from this region go into modest table wines, but many prominent wineries have vineyards here. Catena Zapata and Viña Antigua are among them. Coquimbito A largely rural area. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah thrive in Coquimbito. Look for wines from: Peñaflor, Mendel, and Rutini. Eastern Mendoza The area furthest from the Andes is the largest wine producing part of Mendoza, and is home primarily to bulk wine producers growing Criolla Grande, Bonarda, Moscatel Rosado, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pedro Giménez, and Torrontés. Subregions aren’t as distinct as other areas in Mendoza, but include St. Martín and Junín. Uco Valley Nestled right next to the foothills of the Andes, directly south of Luján de Cuyo is the Uco Valley. Its pedigree is unmatched, and a number of Bordeaux producers have found homes in the Uco Valley–Lurton, Rothschild, and Rolland are a few of the names you might recognize. Though only forty-five miles in length, from north to south, the region is full of high elevation vineyards turning out stellar wines. Sub-regions include: Tupungato Located at the foot of Mt. Tupungato, a volcano whose peak is 21,555 feet, one of the highest in the Andes. The high elevation keeps the climate a little cooler, while giving vines plenty of sun. Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay thrive here. Look for wines from: Luca, Trumpeter, and Masi (yes, the same Masi from Valpolicella). Tunuyán Named for the town and the river that runs through the region, Tunuyán benefits from its elevation, well-drained soils, and easy access to water for irrigation. Look for wines from Bodegas Salentein and Casa de Uco. San Carlos Less well-known than either Tupungato or Tunuyán, San Carlos is nonetheless home to some world-class wineries. Alta Vista and San Carlos Sud both have vineyards here. Southern Mendoza Lower in elevation than other areas, the sub-regions comprising the southern part of Mendoza are subject to more variable weather. Many vineyards have hail nets to protect vulnerable vines, though the climate is milder overall. Southern Mendoza is home to a number of sparkling wines. Sub-regions include: San Rafael Home to a number of old estates founded by European immigrants, San Rafael produces Tempranillo, Bonarda, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chenin Blanc. Look for Bodegas La Abeja and Bodega Valentin Bianchi. Malargüe Know as much for its tourism as for wine, Malargüe is home to world-class hiking, horseback riding, and winter sports. Las Leñas is one of the country’s preeminent skiing sites. General Alvear The lowest elevation of southern Mendoza, General Alvear produces fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Bonarda. Look for Bodega Faraón. Cuisine in Mendoza But what do Argentines eat with all these spectacular wines? Agriculture is integral to the culture, and a number of farm-to-table restaurants in the country emphasize the connection between the land and what we consume. Fresh produce, local livestock, and ethically sourced foods are commonplace. Argentina is known for several unique foods: Yerba Mate An herb that’s dried and brewed like tea, yerba mate predates European colonization of Argentina. Indigenous people shared communal drinking vessels to enjoy the caffeinated beverage. Currently, average annual consumption of yerba mate is roughly five kilograms per person. Yerba mate is earthy and herbal on its own and is often blended with other ingredients like citrus, spices, or mint for additional flavor. Asado or Parrilada It’s all about the beef! Argentine beef is known the world over as being flavorful and delicious, and the best way to enjoy it is barbecued or grilled. Argentina is so fond of barbecuing it has two words to describe it–asado and parrilada. You’ll find a variety of grilled meats, and usually a big collection of friends and family for a communal celebration. Chimichurri A mouthwatering complement to grilled beef, chimichurri is a green salsa made of parsley, garlic, olive oil, and white vinegar, sometimes flavored with citrus zest, basil, cilantro, and red pepper flakes. Empanadas Folded pastry dough makes a pocket for anything from spiced beef, chicken, goat, vegetables, cheese, and even sweet fillings as well. Empanadas can be either baked or fried. Of course, there are regional variations of many Argentine delicacies, and the very best way to get to know the country, its culture, and its people is by savoring a glass of Malbec or Torrontés over meals with locals in the big cities and small towns that make up this vibrant, cosmopolitan country.