Argentina is massive! Encompassing vast plains, deserts, tundra, forests, oceanic coastline and some of the most impressive mountains in the world, Her land mass of 1.7 million square miles represents 25% of the whole of South America. Widest at 880 miles across from east to west, and 2,360 miles long from the sub-tropical north to the sub-antarctic south, Argentina is big and Argentina is beautiful. The country’s primary wine growing province, Mendoza, is almost the size of England.
Argentina so special?
Our intention here is not to attempt a detailed academic study of Argentinian wine, there are plenty of good sources for that, but rather to give you our take on Argentina drawing upon our 15 years’ experience importing wine from there. Inevitably we will make some generalisations and will greatly simplify a complex and fascinating story of wine heritage and culture – otherwise you’ll be here all day!
A lot has changed since our first buying trip to Mendoza in 2008 when we began forging strong relationships with our wineries (albeit as a different company back then), many of whom we still work with today. At that time Argentina was something of a new kid on the block, and far more red wine dominated. The wines could reasonably be said to occupy a fairly typical New World stylistic glove – soft, ripe, dense, relatively high in alcohol and with the use of oak very much in evidence, often far too much so in retrospect. Today, as a true player on the world wine stage, despite still only representing a small part of the UK market at around 3%, Argentina’s wines are very much in tune with the modern palate and often lead the field with innovation. As well as retaining consistently beautiful concentration, the wines of Argentina can now be described as elegant, well balanced and finely judged, with oak in a supporting role rather than bursting a hole through the net.
Argentina’s wine history belies the phrase New World. The first vines were taken there by religious missionaries in the mid-16th Century for the purpose of making communion wine. The main variety was Listán Prieto from the Canary Islands, an ancient ancestor of California’s Mission grape, known as País in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina (see Mauricio Lorca and Vallisto). But it was in the mid-19th Century, with huge swathes of immigration from mainland Europe, that some of the grape varieties we know and love today began taking root throughout the country. After three centuries of Spanish rule, Argentina became independent in 1816, and within a few decades She became a new home for families from all over Europe, and of course many of them took vine cuttings and seeds. In our view, although Argentina is Spanish speaking, the rich culture of winemaking is essentially Italian with accents from Spain, France and elsewhere.
The modern Argentine wine industry is still very young, with exports only really starting in earnest in the 1990s following – for one time only perhaps – the lead set by its neighbours on the other side of the Andes. The timing was perfect. The wine world was opening up to ever larger sections of populations throughout the world with the UK being no exception, and the styles of wine were extremely approachable and consumer friendly. To this day, however, Argentina has never enjoyed the kind of mass market share taken up by countries like Australia and Chile. We have our theories about why that is; let’s just say it’s probably no bad thing!
The biggest change we have witnessed over the last decade has been Argentina’s apparently sudden ability to make world class white wines. This has taken wine lovers by stormy surprise and the movement continues to gather pace. It is nothing short of a white wine revolution and you will find some fabulous examples in our range.
We always say there are just a few simple things to bear in mind when thinking about Argentinian wine; simple things that help to explain the country’s diversity, uniqueness and personality…
ALTITUDE – this probably defines Argentine wine more than anything else. The vast majority of vines grown throughout the country for high quality wine production are planted somewhere between 1,000 metres and 2,500 metres above sea level. (The notable exception is Patagonia in the South, see Aniello.) This is important for many reasons but, simply put, when you grow grapes at high altitude the air is essentially dry, thus inhibiting vine pests and diseases from thriving, thus reducing the need for chemical interventions in the vineyards, thus purity of fruit. And at altitude there is an extended thermal amplitude from day to night, very cold evenings and long, warm, sunny days, thus stressing the vines leading to greater concentration. The ripening periods are also generally longer at altitude, again leading to fantastic fruit concentration and optimum phenolic ripeness when coupled with the right approach to harvest timings.
WATER – one of the country’s most precious resources and essential for growing grapes, obviously; a challenge when doing so in a desert climate with exceptionally low rainfall. Almost all of Argentina’s vines are irrigated, commonly and famously, using snowmelt water from the Andes. Even today one can see complex irrigation systems that were originally engineered by indigenous peoples many centuries ago. Rainfall is naturally very low and the main liquid threat comes in the form of violent hail storms which can destroy whole vineyards very quickly.
SUNSHINE – in our changing world where the threat of global warming is evermore in evidence, Argentina’s blissfully reliable climate and consistency from vintage to vintage is not what it once was but this is still a country that enjoys a lot of sunshine, particularly from October to March when grapes are forming and ripening. With the advance global warming, Argentina’s vineyards are more prone than before to frost damage.
SOILS – Argentina boasts better than average soil fertility for crop farming, comparable to the US corn belt. Happily, from north to south She also has an incredibly diverse patchwork of ancient, nutrient-deficient soils that make the perfect home for coaxing flavour intensity into grapes.
TECHNOLOGY – Argentina is no different from any other modern wine producer in embracing thoroughly modern technology to create an array of techniques for winemaking in all styles. The famous concrete egg is almost everywhere, a modern iteration of ancient fermentation vessels. Stainless steel remains important, but less so for small producers like ours who will use these in conjunction with traditional epoxy-lined concrete vats and other vessels.
PEOPLE – last but certainly not least, it is the people themselves whose lives and endeavours we celebrate when enjoying these wonderful wines. Many of our winemakers are from families whose heritage dates back to the original influx of immigrants from Europe, people with wine for blood. Some have joined the Argentine wine scene more recently, seeing its huge potential. Today, Argentinian winemakers are very much in demand all over the world as consultants and a tremendous cross-fertilisation of ideas and cultures has taken place over the last three decades to help equip Argentina for even greater things to come.
There are, of course, many more things to consider, things that make Argentine wine so special and unique, but it is the wines themselves that we all prefer to concentrate on. Salud!
Our wineries in
Winery and Vineyards – Mainqué, Río Negro, Patagonia
Winery and Vineyards – Tupungato & La Consulta, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Cruz de Piedra, Maipú, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza; Vineyards – Cruz de Piedra, Maipú & Gualtallary, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery and Vineyards – Tupungato, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery & Vineyards – Vistalba, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
Winery & Vineyards – Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Perdriel, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza; Vineyards – Lunlunta, Luján de Cuyo & Los Chacayes, Uco Valley, Mendoza & Lavelle, East Mendoza
Winery and Vineyards – Los Chacayes, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Perdriel, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza; Vineyards – Vista Flores, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Chacras de Coria, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza; Vineyards – Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Lunlunta, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza; Vineyards – Lunlunta, Luján de Cuyo & Los Chacayes, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Winery – Cafayate, Salta; Vineyards – Calchaquí Valley, Salta