Argentina is one of the world’s most exciting wine-producing countries. Important both in quantity and in the quality and style of its wines, Argentina has much to tempt wine consumers of all palates and pockets. Its juicy, soft-textured, everyday-drinking wines made from European varieties such as Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are widely consumed both in Argentina and abroad.
Yet Argentina’s finest wines are modern classics, their answer to the finesse of France’s traditional fine wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, yet without (as yet!) the price tag. Such aspirational winemaking has much to do with Argentina’s rich European cultural heritage, along with its unique geography and economic background. From humble beginnings, Argentina’s wine industry now exports world-class wines to consumers all around the globe.
Argentina and its wines – history and culture
Argentina’s wine production evolved in fits and starts from the 16th century, when it was colonized by the Spanish conquistadors. In the 19th century, Spanish, Italian and French immigrants brought cuttings of high-quality grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec from France, along with their winemaking skills and vibrant wine culture. This led to dynamic growth in Argentina’s wine production, domestic consumption and exports. Economic instability in the 20th century saw Argentina’s wine industry decline, until financial reform in the 1990s stimulated huge foreign investment. This effectively rebooted Argentina’s wine industry: old wineries were modernized, new ones built and foreign winemakers flooded in, keen to capitalize on Argentina’s cheap land and labour. Their winemaking expertise and modern, global approach benefited Argentina’s winemaking and export strategies. Furthermore, respected figures in the fine wine world began to realise that in Argentina’s unique geography lay untapped potential for lucrative fine wines. The scene was set.
Argentina’s geography and wine regions
Argentinean wine and altitude go hand in hand. The Andes mountains are key to Argentina’s wine styles and quality. While Argentina is hot and semi-arid, its mountains and valley slopes offer many grape-growing oases. Snowmelt provides water, channelled by networks of rivers, dams and canals. Argentina’s high-altitude vineyards experience significant temperature swings between day and night, enhancing the finesse and complexity of its wines. These sites also enjoy intense sunlight, deemed crucial to the immense flavour concentration and fine textures of many Argentinean wines. Low rainfall and humidity also minimise disease. Combined, these factors give enormous potential for high quality wine production in Argentina.
Mendoza is Argentina’s key wine region for both quantity and quality, centred around the beautiful city of Mendoza nestled at the foot of the mighty Andes. Around 80% of Argentina’s wines, including arguably its finest wines, are produced here from international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and also Malbec. Many vineyards are planted in the Andean foothills, where diurnal temperature swings and piercing light promote quality. These exceptional winemaking conditions continue to attract prominent European wineries and winemakers to Argentina.
La Riojais a remote Argentinean region located hundreds of miles north-east of Mendoza. Its vineyards, planted in valleys between mountain ranges, are cultivated largely by smallholders belonging to local winery cooperatives like La Riojana winery in the Famatina Valley. Benefiting from some of the driest conditions in Argentina, with almost uninterrupted sunshine and intensely light-reflective soils, this high-altitude area yields fine everyday-drinking red and white wines.
Other important Argentinean wine regions include northerly Salta and Cafayate, whose vineyards at 2,000m are among the world’s highest. Here soft, juicy red wines are produced as well as distinctive, dry white Torrontés wines that work well with spicy food. A couple of hours’ drive north of Mendoza, San Juan, once known for high-volume production, is gaining a reputation for its vibrant Syrah wines.
Patagonia is Argentina’s tiny, emerging wine region. Its southerly latitude and windswept conditions yield subtle ‘cooler-climate’ styles from Bordeaux grape varieties, but it is Pinot Noir, red Burgundy’s acclaimed grape, that is producing most excitement.
Argentina’s wines – key styles and grape varieties
Argentina offers a tantalizing array of wine styles from red and white grapes, both international and indigenous.
Argentina’s Red Wines. Argentina’s juicy everyday-drinking reds are hard to beat in quality and value. Made from French varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, or from the cherryish Italian grape Bonarda, these wines are typically fruity, soft-textured and rich, yet retain lovely fresh acidities.
Argentina’s finest red wines are also made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. As in Bordeaux these are often blended, echoing its sophisticated style in flavour and structure. This means fresh, ripe blackcurrant fruit, fine silky tannins and balanced acidities, though Argentina’s warmer climate gives slightly higher alcohol levels. Wines are also often made from a single grape variety, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. The latter, far from its original home in south-west France (where it produces the legendary ‘black wines’ of Cahors), has found in Argentina its spiritual home, producing food-friendly wines with lush blueberry and plum fruit, seductive perfumes and smooth, velvety textures, such as those from Achaval-Ferrer or Bodegas Ruca Malen. Pinot Noir, of red Burgundy fame, is also on the Argentine wine map, with its promising, berry-scented wines from Argentina’s cool Patagonia.
Argentina’s White Wines. Argentina’s finest white wines are often made from Chardonnay, and, from high-altitude sites and clever winemakers, can rival France’s fine white Burgundies. Argentina’s home-grown talent shines in its indigenous grape Torrontes, producing mostly dry, light-bodied wines with honeysuckle scent and clean, citrussy flavours (though there are delicious late-harvest sweet Torrontés too). Arguably the finest examples today are found in Cafayate, however many other regions produce Torrontés for everyday drinking, along with zesty, peachy whites from international varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris – for the latter, try the refreshing high-altitude wines of Santa Florentina.
Argentina and its wines – in a nutshell
Argentina has one of the most vibrant wine cultures of any non-European country, thanks to its Spanish, Italian and French heritage. Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer.
Argentinean vineyards are planted at an average of 900m above sea-level, the highest in the world, with some at over 2,400m (half the height of Mont Blanc!)
Argentina’s ‘signature’ red grape, Malbec, first arrived in Argentina in the mid-19th century just before the phylloxera louse devastated European vineyards. Today’s Argentinean Malbecs may be considered the purest representatives of original French Malbec.
Little known fact… The intense UV light of Argentina’s high-altitude vineyards produces red grapes particularly concentrated in polyphenols, linked by the medical industry to cardiovascular health.
In the background the Andes from Mendoza