Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, with production dating back to the 16th century. Despite a near 500 year history of winemaking, the country has only gained recognition in the international market over the past twenty years - most notably for its full-bodied, fruity Malbecs. In 2010, the Argentine government declared wine the country’s national liquor.
While Malbec remains the country’s most recognized grape variety, the country also offers a mixture of reds in the way of Bonarda, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, amongst others. When it comes to whites, Argentina is renowned for its aromatic Torrontés, but has also gained recognition for its Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs.
Argentina's Climate is Perfect for Wine Growing
The country’s very first vines were planted in 1556 in the San Juan and Mendoza regions, and Catholic missionaries recognized the potential of the area to produce communion wine. The first vines planted for commercial use followed one year later in the Santiago del Estreso region, some 700km to the north. Mendoza soon became the country’s wine capital, because of its favorable conditions for growing grapes to produce wine.
The high diurnal temperature range (difference in the day's maximum and minimum temperature) produces grapes balanced in sugar, and therefore, alcohol after fermentation and acidity. Combined, these factors result in well-balanced, full-bodied, drinkable wines.
The region's low annual rainfall also sets the pace for the success of wine growing; it reduces the risk of mildew and rot. However, the fruit crops still receive a natural water source; water arrives at the vineyards from melted snow from the nearby Andes and is controlled by an ancient series of irrigation channels. But, while Mendoza’s location and proximity to the Andes make it an ideal location for growing grapes, the 600km distance from the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, initially hampered its economic growth. However, two separate events in the 19th century helped develop the country's wine industry. (Explore more in "Experiencing Mendoza with Adventure Consultants")
The Historical Events that saved Argentinian Wine
The first event to aide the country's wine industry was the phylloxera epidemic that was wreaking havoc across the European vineyards; it was known as The Great French Wine Blight. As the aphid destroyed vineyards in the 1850's, many from France and Italy decided to relocate to Argentina. With them, they brought knowledge and experience in winemaking that significantly improved the quality of the Argentinian product.
Previously, fermentation of criolla grapes took place inside vast, underground chambers. With no method of tasting or control during the process, the resulting wine was inconsistent, yet always highly alcoholic and low quality. The locals, knowing nothing else, enjoyed it and drank it diluted with soda water.
Next, came the construction of the Mendoza to Buenos Aires railway. Completed in 1885, the railway allowed much better transportation of wine to the capital. The increased rate at which wine could be transported resulted in more wine being produced. This, in turn, led to lower prices and increased consumption. By the mid 20th century, consumption in Argentina was as high as 90 liters per person, per year.
The following period between the early 1970’s and early 1990’s was a difficult one for Argentina. Inflation was at an all time high, not helped by the Military Dictatorship and Falklands War.
Due to the poor quality of the wine still being produced in the country, as little as 10% was being exported. Wineries realized that if they were to survive, they would need to improve the quality of their wine. The poor national economy meant that they could no longer rely solely on domestic consumption.
Meanwhile, canny European investors began buying up wineries that had hit hard times. A period of modernization and improvements began throughout the country. Statistics from this time reveal an increase from 197 million liters exported in 1995 to 215 million liters exported in 2005. While this isn’t a substantial increase over a 10 year period, a more accurate indication of the improvement in the quality of the wine is seen through the value of the two exports. The 1995 export was worth around $61 million, while in 2005 that figure had risen to $302 million.
It was during this 10 year period that Argentina began producing the wines that we attribute to the country today.
Argentina's Wine Industry Today
While Malbec is the most recognized and arguably best wine that the country produces, that does not in any way mean that Argentina is a one trick pony. To fully appreciate Argentine wines, we must look also at the various wine regions of the country.
Malbec was originally brought over from the southwest of France, though it has enjoyed much more success in the Argentine climate. The grape is thin-skinned and requires lots of sunlight to mature. It is sensitive to humidity and rainfall, and therefore, succeeds in Mendoza where there is little of either. The region does, however, offer the higher temperatures that produce a wine less tannic and more drinkable than the French equivalent. A classic Argentine Malbec is characterized by intense fruity flavors, sweet jam aromas and smooth, full-bodied texture.
The Bonarda grown in Argentina is different to the grape of the same name that is grown in Italy. Also known around the world as Douce Noir and Charbono, this is Argentina’s second most widely grown grape after Malbec. Like Malbec, the grape grows best in the Mendoza region though it requires a longer growing period and is one of the last to be harvested. Bonarda is not as full-bodied or as sweet as Malbec and is usually more acidic. The lighter nature of this wine means that, while it is a good companion to steak, it also fares well paired with chicken or seafood stews.
For the ultimate light, red variety, one must leave Mendoza and head south to Rio Negro, Patagonia. It is here that the country’s best Pinot Noir is produced. Like Mendoza, the region benefits from a lack of humidity, fungus and pests. The fresh climate can be tasted in the wine and the ample sunlight helps produce softer, less tannic Pinot Noirs than Old World counterparts. (Read more in "Patagonia: Argentina's Pinot Noir Paradise.")
Torrontés is the country’s best known white variety. All three variations of the grape that exist (Mendocino, Sanjuanino and Riojano) are grown exclusively in Argentina. Of these varieties, it is the Riojano that is most extensively grown. Another notable Argentinian region is Salta; its vineyards are located as high as 9,840 ft above sea level and the fruity, dry wines produced here receive international critical acclaim. The Torrontés grapes of Mendoza and San Juan are grown at lower altitudes and experiences cooler temperatures resulting in a wine more suited for earlier consumption. (Read more in "Salta Argentina: Land of the Highest Vineyards.")
After Torrontés, Chardonnay is Argentina’s second most abundant white grape variety. In response to international trends and after procedural improvements of the early 90’s, the area of the country covered by Chardonnay vines has increased fivefold. The grape succeeds best in Argentina's higher altitude vineyards, and the wine's characteristics change with each region. Chardonnays produced in the Uco Valley in Mendoza are more tropical in their aromas than those produced in the cooler climate of Rio Negro, Patagonia - though both remain complex and elegant in their tasting notes.
While Argentina’s economy fluctuates between decent and dreadful to this day, the quality of the country’s wine only continues to improve. Progress over the past 20 years has been vast. The increase in knowledge and techniques used by producers promises to see the country known for much more than Malbec over the coming years. In the meantime, it is advisable to try as much Argentinian wines as possible, before the whole world catches on and prices are driven up.