Argentina is one of the world’s five top wine producers. For a long time though the Argentinians consumed most of their own wine. The domestic market was and is extremely thirsty. The country indeed has one of the highest per capita consumption. Amidst large volumes of everyday wines there are outstanding fine pours, some of which have not yet travelled anywhere else in the world.
The world’s southernmost vineyards? The highest altitude DOC? The lowest temperature in the vineyard? While some wine lovers love their trivial facts others will find that these say little about quality. But those simple questions do become interesting if the answer is the same for all of them: Argentina.
The fifth largest wine country is not as present in international markets as others of its size. This comes as surprising in face of a series of records and extremes. Wine-growing regions spread across a 1750 kilometres span. This corresponds to the distance between Alsace and Alentejo. Plots around the old colonial town of Salta to the north scratch the tropics. In the world’s highest altitude cultivation area, a record peak temperature of 48.9 degrees Celsius was registered in 1904. On the same year, Sarmiento, in Patagonia, set a cold record of -32.8 ° C.
While every third bottle of wine consumed in the world is an imported label, the import rate in Argentina, with its strikingly high per capita consumption of 45 litres/year, is merely 0.04 percent. Even a country like Egypt imports twenty times this amount.
If one takes a closer look, these numbers are not so hard to understand. Salta (10,000 ha), the neighbouring San Juan (50,000 ha) and La Rioja (8000 Ha) are among the larger producing regions, topped by widely distributed smaller locations.
With 150,000 hectares under vine, Mendonza stands both for quantity and for the quality of some of the best wines in Argentina. Sitting on the eastern slope of the Andes, the town is surrounded by alluvial soils of clay, limestone and sand. With mild seasons and 300 hours of sunshine per year, only draught is an issue. But growers have found solutions and adapted to water scarcity.
Malbec on the rise
Malbec covers 85% of the vineyards of Mendonza, the largest growing area. The variety is performing incredibly well: acreage has grown roughly 300 percent since 1993. An increasing number of growers are identifying and focusing on selected locations, often as a way to cope with rising temperatures. Areas further south or higher altitude plots - where intense UV radiation encourages higher antioxidants and thick berry skins, rich in age worthy tannin, flavours and colour compounds - in the Andes offer a wide range of alternatives.
An increasing number of plots are located above 1000 or even 1500 metres. In contrast with Europe, higher altitudes can be viable for viticulture. The transformation of Río Negro, a formerly neglected region in Patagonia, into one of the trendiest cultivation regions is a good example of the proven success. Argentina will undoubtedly be able to defy climate change, at least in the near future.
There are over a hundred different clones of Malbec, the best of which take up the terroir properties particularly well while still expressing the variety’s trademark tannin and acid potential. Winegrowers are increasingly abandoning the rough flooding practices and switching to precision drip irrigation and choosing to grow smaller plots, harvested at ideal ripeness (i.e. avoiding over-ripeness). Gentle extraction and fermentation with little wood makes the wines finer and more complex, while also restraining the luscious tannins.
Many winegrowers have abandoned the international style that prevailed until very recently. Lusciously concentrated pours with high alcohol, ripe fruit and intense oak influence have been replaced by the search for origin and terroir expression. Although the rich, highly extracted wines were the basis for commercial success, they were never highly regarded among critics. The new style, on the other hand, has brought Argentina great recognition and a new regard for Malbec, which vinified in the international style offered little more than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
For a long time, the names of DOC‘s (Denominación de Origen Controlada) and IG‘s (Indicaciones Geográficas) were largely based on the political names of the provinces.
Under the mantra of ‘precision viticulture’ researchers have started to map soils using two-meter deep pits to identify its structure. Several hundred of these excavations have already been made, alongside climate analysis and satellite mapping. As a result, there is an increasingly detailed knowledge of terroirs, and new subregions and qualitative classifications have been created.
Mendoza’s Uco Valley in particular is experiencing spectacular changes, namely in the sub-regions of Gualtallary and Altamira, home of impressive centennial vines. Many soils are extremely rich in limestone and the day-night temperature amplitude allow for the development of thick-skinned berries, especially at higher altitudes.
Until recently, winemakers from outside the region, most of whom did not particularly treasure or express the floral character of the chalky soils, claimed Altamira’s name for themselves. After much controversy the growing area has doubled from 1400 to 2800, but certain quality standards have still been kept.
Many subregions are currently protected under individual winegrowers’ trademark. Legal transfer and scientific research are cumbersome and expensive, and it’s therefore not surprising that large producers such as Chandon, Catena Zapata and Zuccardi are largely in control of the appellation.
The recent boom has already catalysed a 65 percent increase of vineyard area in Uco Valley. In and around Gualtallary, further sub-appellations mushroom. A modern, location-based appellation system has been favourably received in export markets.
The last two vintages yielded plenty and healthy harvests. The damp vintages that preceded 2018, on the other hand, with multiple weather hazards and low yields were not particularly favourable to winemakers. Still, the increase in quality has been steady and continuous. Even during El Niño, which caused harming temperature jumps in the summer of 2018, winemakers proved they are coping better. That said, Mendonza and San Juan are among the wine regions in the world with the highest risk of extreme weather phenomena and natural disasters.
When put in perspective, the 216,000ha of Argentina’s vineyard area planted with Malbec, might seem negligible: they represent only 21% of the total area under vine. A large part of the remaining plantings include varieties such as Cereza, Criolla Grande, Moscatel Rosado and Pedro Giménez (not related to Pedro Ximénez), generally grown as high-yielding grapes for simple, often off-dry blends of everyday-drinking wine.
As far as red varieties are concerned, Bonarda (Douce Noir), Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah follow Malbec – from a long distance – as leading names with 8.5, 7 and 6 percent of vineyard area, respectively. Only few wines produced from these varietals are still highly regarded in the international stage. The same applies to Merlot. But the potential for development is still there.
Winemakers are experimenting, particularly in Uco Valley, with single vineyard Cabernet Francs fermented in relatively neutral vessels of steel and concrete and aged in old wood. There are also some outstanding Malbec – Cabernet Franc blends.
Whites again discovered
Until the 1980’s Argentina grew more white than red varieties, but white pours would eventually fall out of favour. Slowly, they are stepping out the shadows. Sémillon and Chenin Blanc have chances of a comeback. New quality wines and vineyards are yet to fully blossom though. Chardonnay, much like the reds, likes to show its class at higher altitudes, harvested at ideal ripeness and when winemakers ease their hand and avoid over-extraction, too much oak influence or full malolactic fermentation. The small-berried clone 1A (or Mendoza clone) from UC Davis is particularly at home in the region’s vineyards.
But the first violin is of course played by the indigenous Torrontés Riojano, with its signature Muscat aroma. A natural cross of Listán Prieto (Criolla Chica) and Moscatel de Alexandria, it accounts for 25 percent of the white varieties vineyard area. Again, many winegrowers would like to reshape the “alcoholic and heavy“ perceptionn of Torrontés. More canopy cover, earlier harvest – sometimes with several passings – seem to be the right viticultural approaches to deliver an elegant wine, with floral notes and aromas of citrus and exotic fruit, and moderate alcohol levels of around 13 percent.
All these developments are quite recent, especially considering that Argentina is one of the oldest growing countries in the southern hemisphere. Alcoholic drinks were already part of Inca culture. The first vitis vinifera vines were planted by the conquistadores in Rio de la Plata in the 1540’s.
Jesuit settlings in Mendoza followed, with success, shortly after, most likely with plantings of Criolla, a pioneer variety in many south and central American countries under names such as País or Mission. But in the dry steppes not much would have come from viticulture if winemakers hadn’t been able to rely on the optimal irrigation systems developed by the Incas.
Over the centuries, vineyard area grew steadily and smaller family wineries emerged early on. Despite the significant number of large estates that still dominate the Argentinian market, the average vineyard hold covers seven hectares only, with an average vineyard age of 40 years. Over 60 percent of wineries are no larger than 5 hectares. On the other hand, in a landscape dominated by big names, Bodegas Esmeralda and Peñaflor produced 40 percent of Argentinian wine around the turn of the millennium.
The area around Mendoza is still considered the “Primera Zona” (“First zone”). Malbec was first planted in the region on the 17th April 1853, brought by the French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget from western France with the aim of founding an agricultural school. Historians trace a paradigm shift from Spanish to French viticulture back to this event. The beginning of the industrial age prioritised economic efficiency and encouraged the mimic of French wine styles. Malbec quickly became a model for success, especially as Argentina was spared from the devastation of the phylloxera epidemic. Today the “World Malbec Day’ is still celebrated on April 17th.
Railroad and immigrants
Towards the end of the 19th century, the new Mendoza-Buenos Aires rail connection and a huge domestic market of Italian and Spanish immigrants, boosted the national wine production focused on large volumes of simple wines. In the 1920’s Argentina was one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
The market collapsed, however, following 1929’s Great Depression. There would be a brief upswing under the state-run economy of Peron’s regime, but the military dictatorships and complex succession of governments would just lead the country from one economic crisis to the next.
In 1977, after 380 years of continuous expansion and growth, the vineyard area in the largest wine country outside Europe decreased for the first time. Domestic demand was simply fulfilled. A staggering 90 litres per capita were produced on the 350,000 hectares of planted vines. There were hardly any quality classifications or standards, with whooping yields between 250 and 400 hectolitres per hectare. Consumers probably began to resent this. By 2003 consumption had decreased by two thirds. Winemakers, even in prime locations, ripped out their vineyards and turned to fruit production.
In the early nineties some winemakers begun to seek better quality, often with the help of foreign consultants and investors. Many large international companies recognized Argentina’s potential early on and were the first to invest. The country established itself in the international market with a large offering at affordable prices. In 2004 the export Volume had already reached 431 million USD.
Healthy Industry – Ailing Government
While Argentinian wine industry made giant leaps, the political landscape remains catastrophic, dominated by state corruption and financial power elites. Inflation rate has been at 25% for the past five years, at is estimated to reach 55% in 2019. Of the largest loan ever granted by the International Monetary Fund (57 billion USD), nothing has reached the hands of the population. Argentina ranks last, as the country with most misery, in the index of economies with the worst prospects that Bloomberg releases for 62 states.
Inflation predates on consumer power. Fewer and fewer people can afford the beloved Asados – the lush Argentinian barbecues that are matter of national pride – while the queues outside public soup kitchens are getting longer. More than a third of the population can no longer afford basic food. Even after the change of government at the end of October, debt cuts and national bankruptcy remain central issues.
The wine industry does not gain much from exporting. Goods purchased abroad are becoming more and more expensive and producers have no choice but to add their own increasing costs to bottle prices. Domestic grape growers, on the other hand, struggle to subsist on the product of their work.
On the bright side, the wine tourism that the government has been promoting for some time is burgeoning. Argentina, the most visited country in South America, has unique natural wonders, from the Iguaçu Falls to the lunar landscapes of the Aconcagua, by way of the endless steppes of Patagonia. Cities like Salta and Mendoza are certainly worth the trip, even if Buenos Aires is still playing a league above. Many wineries are also fully prepared to receive visitors. But in addition to breath-taking views of the Andes, tourists enjoy extremely high purchasing power.
And against all odds the industry is performing extremely well. As an example, Malbec’s exports (including blends), which account for 65 percent of total wine shipped abroad, increased 455% in volume and 815% in value between 2014 and 2017. Of the 800 million USD that Argentina billed in wine exports in 2017, 500 million were Malbec labels. The national varietal has fans all around the world. Wines such as “Cot“ from Cahors, the birthplace of Malbec, suit the palate of lovers of wines of unknown origin. However, big market players have state-of-the-art facilities and capital to push investments. As such, Malbec does not have to be the only Argentinian grape variety.
Torrontés, Bonarda, Tempranillo - more of everything
Pinot Noir or Syrah, Torrontés or Bonarda, even Tempranillo or Sangiovese: all of them have great chances of a successful career in Argentina. This also applies to smaller regions such as Chubut and Pedernal Valley or Los Indios and El Cepillo near Altamira, to name but a few. With the help of agricultural universities, an increasing number of niche terroirs are being scientifically researched, geolocated and named. If you’re looking for a wine to go with that juicy steak topped with spicy Chimichurri sauce, Argentina has served you well for a long time and you will still find what you’re looking for. Some of the wineries producing these lush rustic drops have disappeared from the market though, as the lower-price segment wines easily suffer under the multiple market pressures.
"But our winemakers are breaking new ground," praises Mario Giordano, "they are redefining viticulture". This might be an expected commonplace remark from the General Director of Wines of Argentina. He is right though. Many producers have finally understood what the journey should be: wines expressive of origin and terroir, indigenous and well adapted grape varieties, higher quality standards – this is the path towards wine Olympus. If progress keeps as it has been, they might have just found their destination.