It’s a little known fact that Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer, behind countries such as Italy and France. However, whilst Italy and France are renowned for the quality of the wine they produce, many of Argentina’s wine producers still follow the route of high-yield and low-quality wines.
But some producers are working hard to change this philosophy.
The majority of Argentina’s red wine industry is concentrated around the city of Mendoza, a vibrant tree-lined city which has official recognition as one of the eight Great Wine Capitals in the world.
Like many of Chile’s wine growing regions, the vineyards here are at low latitude but they are successful because they are planted at high altitude. The average height of a vineyard in Argentina is 900m, significantly higher than the European average. Many are as high as 1,400m and some in Salta (in the north) are even at an altitude of more than 3,000m. This elevation gives low overnight temperatures which encourage the growth of flavourful, deeply coloured red wine grapes.
The weather is the most influential factor in producing the smooth red wines which Argentina is becoming known for. The intense sunlight, the dry air and the variation in daytime temperatures at altitude all contribute to the ease with which the red wine grapes reach full ripeness; some wine makers actually slow down the ripening process to try to maximise the flavour from the grapes.
Argentina’s wine industry has benefited from historic European influences which brought well known European red wine grape varieties to the country – and more recently from European investment. As a result most of the wine produced is from familiar international grape varieties although with a New World richness resulting from the extreme sunlight. The combination of familiar grapes, smooth texture and value for money has meant Argentinian wines have become increasingly popular with drinkers in recent years and that trend is likely to continue as long as the quality of the wines continues to improve.
The country’s best known and most widely planted red wine grape is Malbec. Malbec was once the dominant red wine grape in the French wine region of Bordeaux. It was introduced to Argentina in the mid 19th century, probably via Chile. Argentinian Malbec is smooth and well-rounded with black cherry characteristics and hints of spice. It is a very different beast from the wines produced from Malbec grapes in France’s Cahors AOC which are intense and spicy.
Argentina’s palette of red wine grapes is much more varied than Chile’s, thanks to the aforementioned European influence. Although Malbec is undeniably Argentina’s most popular exported red wine the second most planted red wine grape variety is Bonarda. Other important red wine grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Pinot Negro/Noir and Barbera. Although the names of the varieties might be familiar to European wine drinkers the rich and powerfully flavoured red wines produced by the grapes are often very different from their European equivalents.
Mendoza is Argentina’s primary red wine producing area, both for quality and quantity. However, as the area is so variable in terms of type of soil, altitude and types of red grape plantings it is necessary to separate the area into different regions and sub regions.
Many of Argentina’s best known and most prestigious red wine producers are based in Central Mendoza. The Lujan de Cuyo department is particularly worth noting for the quality of its Malbec wine and it is also worth looking out for Malbecs from the districts of Las Compuertas, Agrelo, Perdriel and Vistalba. The district of Maipu is producing some good Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Keep an eye out also for red wines from the Uco Valley, particularly from vineyards around Vista Flores, La Consulta, Tunuyan and San Carlos.
Salta is the northernmost of Argentina’s wine producing provinces and lays claim to the highest vineyards in the world. It is not generally renowned for the quality of its red wine but look out for red wines produced under the San Pedro de Yacohuya label from the southerly end of the province where the vineyards are at a lower altitude.
The province of San Juan is just to the north of Mendoza and is the only other Argentinian province to produce quality wine in any quantity. Syrah is the most popular red wine grape in this area but innovative producers are starting to plant vineyards at higher altitudes with some encouraging results.
The Patagonian province of Rio Negro in the south of Argentina is one of the country’s growing wine regions with large investments from European wine producers. Red wine grapes such as Malbec, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are producing wines which are bright, characterful and distinctive.
Image by Emi ♫.