Argentine Wine In Brief:
Regions: Rio Negra, Neuguen, Salta, Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan and Mendoza
Terroir: High altitude vineyards, long sunny days, low rainfall
Grape Heroes: Malbec, Torrontes, Bonarda
Food Pairings: Steak or any rich red meat with Malbec, Thai or Indian with Torrontes, Lamb with Bonarda
Wines To Try: Bodega Chacra Barda Pinot Noir (lea & sandeman), Las Hormigas Terroir Malbec (slurp.co.uk), Lorca Fantasia Torrontes (Quaffwine.com), Via Revolucionaria Semillon Hulk (winedirect.com), Catena Zapata ‘white bones’ Chardonnay (Hedonism wines), Gougenheim Malbec (Fraziers wine merchants), Vinedos Joffre e hijas Bonarda (Selfridges).
I made my first trip to Argentina two years ago and fell in love with the country, the people and, of course, the wine. In this article I hope to give you an introduction to the wine and terroir of the region.
The first European vines were brought by the Spanish conquistadors to Argentina in the 16th century. Since then its wine industry has flourished and Argentina is now the sixth largest producer of wine in the world. But though it is an established wine producer it is still learning about its terroir and the quality of wine that can be produced from its best sites.
As a country Argentina has a few natural advantages for growing grapes; it is bordered in the north by desert, to the west by the Andes mountains and in the south and east by the ocean. This protects the country from many of the pests and diseases that plague other wine growing regions, which means that there are very little chemical treatments used in the vineyards. Most of the country’s vineyards are located at high altitude, which is important to grape development for several reasons; as you climb in altitude temperature drops, this keeps the grapes cool in a country where it is sunny for an average of 3000 hours per year - just to compare the UK has 1460 a year! The strength of the UV and concentration of light intensity also changes with altitude which aids the grapes’ development giving rich fruit flavours and round tannins.
Argentina grows most international grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. What has really driven the country’s success though, is Malbec. This grape came over from France, where it's used in the blended wines of Bordeaux and for the black, heavy wines of Cahors. In Argentina it has come into its own, producing juicy, ripe, deliciously scented red wines. Two other varieties that they are starting to get behind are Torrontes and Bonarda. Bonarda, originally from Piedmont, was brought over by Italian settlers and produces wines with lifted hedgerow fruits and soft tannins. Torrontes, the white hero of Argentina, is an aromatic varietal that is reminiscent of Viognier but with a pleasant freshness; peaches, white flowers and lychee are typical tasting notes.
There are seven main wine growing regions in the country. Mendoza is by far and away the most important producing 80% of the country’s wine. As you fly into Mendoza the first thing that strikes you are the snow capped Andes that tower over the vineyards; these mountains provide shelter and water to the vines. In Mendoza wine growers are only beginning to understand the different terroirs that make up the region and how it affects their wines, these regions vary from the flat land of Luyan de Cayo, where ripe, rich, wines are produced, to the steep very high altitude vineyards of Tupangato in the Uco valley – where the wines tend to be fresher with more red fruit characters. There are plenty of established wineries producing great wine such as Catena and Susana Balbo, but look out for the mavericks and the young guns such as Las Hormigas, the Michelini brothers and Ricatelli.
Salta in the north is becoming more important as a region. Here you are virtually in the mountains. Not only do you catch your breath due to the spectacular views but also from the high altitude of the vineyards which starts at 4,200 and go up to 9,860 ft above sea level. White varieties do well here with crisp tropical Sauvignon’s and aromatic Torrontes leading the way. The region of San Juan to the south is mostly known for plantings of the local Criolla and Cereza which are sold as cheap blush wines. Slowly there are producers starting to create more interesting wines out of varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the futures stars here will be Cara Sur.
All the way to the south you find the wild untamed lands of Patagonia. Here the skies are so blue it almost hurts and the land is flat and at a much lower altitude; Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are thriving here. Cool nights and long sunny days produce wines with lovely balance and plenty of concentration. My top producer down here has to be Bodegas Chacra; these guys are working organically and biodynamically to producing stunning, European style Pinot Noirs from old vines.
What I feel is that Argentina has understood correctly that you can get great value for money wines as well as top drawer ones that are able to deliver real quality and have potential to age. This is a country whose wines are really worth exploring and which will only get better as they learn to unlock the potential in the land.