The Wines of Argentina
Viticulture in Argentina dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century, but it’s only since the 1990s that Argentinian wine has been exported abroad. This isn’t surprising if you consider the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Argentinian wine consumption was annually 90 litres per capita! With such a strong domestic market, there wasn’t the need to export to the UK, where consumption was 3 litres per capita or the USA where it was even less. But changing political and economic factors, together with a fall in domestic consumption (it’s now about a third of what it was) has seen Argentinian winemakers improving the quality of their wine and targeting an international market with a growing thirst for good quality Argentinian wine, particularly its Malbec.
In recent years, Malbec has become almost synonymous with its adopted homeland in South America. Malbec actually originates from France where it has long been a blending grape in Bordeaux and the southwest of the country, but it is the dominant grape only in its native Cahors. French plantings of the grape had seriously declined following the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, the severe frost of 1956 and a general falling out of fashion in the twentieth century. It is Argentina which has really given a new life to this grape variety and the success of Argentinian Malbec has led to a new enthusiasm for the grape in its original homeland and elsewhere. However, Argentina is still by far the biggest producer of Malbec with plantings increasing by almost 90% in the last decade!
Argentinian vineyards lie close to the Andes in the west of the country and span over 1,500km from the northern province of Salta at a latitude of 24° down to Patagonia at 40°. A very significant factor in Argentinian viticulture is altitude. With the exception of those in Patagonia, most Argentinian vineyards lie at an altitude of 600m or more above sea level; the average elevation is 900m and some vineyards in Salta reach 3,000m, making them the highest in the world. It’s the effects of altitude that make viticulture possible in Salta, which would otherwise be too close to the equator to grow quality grapes. The elevation of Argentina’s vineyards does bring challenges for viticulture with colder temperatures, slower ripening and increased weather hazards but many of Argentina’s winemakers are keen to face and overcome these challenges in order to produce new and exciting styles of wine.
The climate of Argentinian vineyards is continental and being in the rain shadow of the Andes, rainfall is extremely low at around 150mm to 220mm per year. However, pure water from the Andes is available for irrigation. This, together with the warm dry summers, plenty of sunshine, and poor alluvial soils all means great potential for growing quality grapes. Organic viticulture is also easier in this climate as the lack of humidity means less risk of fungal diseases and reduces the need for spraying.
As mentioned previously however, the terroir does bring its challenges. Spring frosts can be a problem, as can a mountain wind known as the Zonda which is strong, hot and dry and can disrupt flowering. More hazardous than both of these however, is the threat of summer hail which has the potential to wipe out 10% of the crop in an average year. Netting is becoming more widely used to protect against this, but still the most commonly used insurance policy is to own vineyards in several different areas. This is very much the case in Mendoza, where varietal wines containing grapes from different areas of the province are common. These weather hazards still have the potential to severely affect output however, as was seen in 2016 when Argentina fell from its usual spot as the fifth biggest wine producing country in the world, down to the ninth, with a decrease of around 30% on the previous year due to adverse weather.
Mendoza is by far the biggest and most important wine producing region in Argentina, accounting for over 70% of production. Red grapes now account for over half of all plantings, with Malbec predominating and Bonarda, Argentina’s other speciality red grape, in second place. In total, 150 different grape varieties are grown in Mendoza.
San Juan is the second biggest wine producing region. It’s north of Mendoza and with lower altitudes, it’s hotter. Since the 1990s wine production here has started moving from quantity to more quality, with Bonarda and Syrah leading the way.
La Rioja is the third most important wine producing province and is also the oldest but its wines are mostly destined for the domestic market. The country’s signature white wine, Torrontés is produced here in a number of different styles.
Salta is the country’s fourth most important wine-producing province and its highest. At this altitude, vines need to protect themselves from extreme weather. The resulting low yields and thick-skinned grapes can result in wines that are concentrated, full-bodied and fragrant.
One final thing worth mentioning about Argentina is its sparkling wine. Moet et Chandon set up its first overseas venture here in Mendoza in the late 1950s, recognising the province’s optimum conditions for sparkling wine production. The arrival of Chandon Argentina started a culture of Argentinian sparkling wines made in the traditional method which have brought much acclaim.
We have a great range of Argentinian wines in the shop, so drop in for some advice and recommendations.