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A guide to Argentine wine

Argentinian wine production

While there is some wine production in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and La Pampa, the majority of Argentina's wine production takes place in the far west leading up to the foothills of the Andes.

The Mendoza region is the largest producer, responsible for more than two-thirds of annual production, followed by the San Juan and La Rioja regions to the north. In the far northeastern corner of the country are the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta which includes some of the world's highest altitude vineyards. In the southern region of Patagonia, the Río Negro and Neuquén provinces have traditionally been the fruit producing centres of the country but have recently seen growth in the planting of cool climate varietals (such as Pinot noir and Chardonnay).

Argentina's wine regions

Mendoza

Mendoza is the leading producer of wine in Argentina. As of the beginning of the 21st century, the vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone was slightly less than half of the entire planted acreage in the United States and more than the acreage of New Zealand and Australia combined. The majority of the vineyards are found in the Maipú and Luján departments. In 1993, the Mendoza sub region of Luján de Cuyo was the first controlled appellation established in Mendoza. Other notable sub-regions include the Uco Valley and the Tupungato department.

Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the average vineyards in Mendoza are planted at altitudes 1,970-3,610 feet (600-1,100 meters) above sea level. The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winter dormancy.

Historically, the region has been dominated by production of wine from the high yielding, pink-skinned varieties of Cereza and Criolla Grande but in recent years Malbec has become the region's most popular planting. Cereza and Criolla Grande still account for nearly a quarter of all vineyard plantings in Mendoza but more than half of all plantings are now premium red varietals  including Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Italian varieties as well as Malbec. In the high altitude vineyards of Tupungato, located southwest of the city of Mendoza in the Uco Valley, Chardonnay is increasingly being grown. The cooler climate and lower salinity in the soils of the Maipú region has been receiving attention for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine producers in the region are working with authorities to establish a controlled appellation.

Argentina’s most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza’s high altitude wine regions of Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These Districts are located in the foothills of the Andes mountains between 2,800 and 5,000 feet elevation.

San Juan & La Rioja

After Mendoza, the San Juan region is the second largest producer of wine with over 116,000 acres. The climate of this region is considerably hotter and drier than Mendoza with rainfall averaging 6 inches (150 millimeters) a year and summer time temperatures regularly hitting 107°F (42°C). Premium wine production is centered around the Calingasta, Ullum and Zonda departments as well as the Tulum Valley. In addition to producing premium red varietals made from Syrah and Charbono (known locally as Bonarda), the San Juan region has a long history of producing sherry-style wines, brandies and vermouth. The high yielding Cereza vine is also prominent here where it is used for blending and grape concentrate as well as for raisin and table grape consumption.

The La Rioja region was one of the first areas to be planted by Spanish missionaries and has the longest continued history of wine production in Argentina. Though a relatively small region, with only 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) planted, the region is known for aromatic Moscatel de Alexandrias and Torrontés made from a local sub-variety known as Torrontés Riojano. Lack of water has curtailed vineyard expansion here.

Northwestern regions

catamarca vineyard

The vineyards of the northwestern provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta are located between the 24th parallel and 26th parallel south and include some of the highest elevated vineyards in the world with many vineyards planted more than 4,900 feet (1,500 metres) above sea level. Two vineyards planted by Bodega Colome in Salta are at elevations of 7,500 feet (2,250 metres) and 9,900 feet (3,000 metres). In contrast, most European vineyards are rarely planted above 1,600 feet (900 metres).

The soils and climate of the regions are very similar to Mendoza but the unique mesoclimate and high elevation of the vineyards typically produces grapes with higher levels of total acidity, which contribute to the wines balance and depth. Of the three regions, Catamarca is the most widely planted with more than 5,800 acres (2,300 hectares) under vine. In recent years the Salta region, and particularly its sub-region of Cafayate, have been gaining the most worldwide attention for the quality of its full bodied whites made from Torrontés Riojano as well as its fruity reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat.

Most of Cafayate region in Salta is located at 5,446 feet (1,660 metres) above sea levels in the river delta between the Rio Calchaqui and the Rio Santa Maria. The climate of the area experiences an effect which traps rain producing cloud cover in the mountains and leaves the area dry and sunny. Despite its high altitude, daytime temperatures in the summertime can reach 100°F (38°C) but at night the area experiences a wide diurnal temperature variation with night time temperatures dropping as low as 54°F (12°C). There is some threat of frost during the winter when temperatures can drop as low as 21°F (-6°C). 

Patagonia

The wine regions of Patagonia are the source of many Pinot noir grapes used for the Argentine sparkling wine industry.

The southern Patagonia region includes the fruit producing regions of Río Negro and Neuquén which have a considerably cooler climate than the major regions to the north which provides a long, drawn outgrowing season in the chalky soils of the area. In the early 20th century, Humberto Canale imported vine cuttings from Bordeaux and established the first commercial winery in the region. While currenty at 9,300 acres (3,800 hectares), the region is growing as more producers plant cool climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot noir as well as Malbec, Semillon and Torrontés Riojano. 

Argentinian Grape Varieties

Under Argentine wine laws, if a grape name appears on the wine label, at least 80% of the wine must be composed that grape variety. The backbone of the early Argentine wine industry was the high yielding, pink skin grapes Cereza, Criolla Chica and Criolla Grande which still account for nearly a third of all plantings in the country today. Very vigorous vines, these varieties are able to produce many clusters weighing as much as 9 pounds (4 kg) and tend to produce pink or deeply coloured white wines that oxidise easily and often have noticeable sweetness. These varieties are often used today for bulk jug wine sold in card board cartons or as grape concentrate.

Malbec Grape

In the late 20th century, as the Argentine wine industry shifted it focus on premium wine production capable for export, Malbec arose to greater prominence and is today the most widely planted red grape variety followed by Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo. The influence of Italian immigrants has brought a variety of Italian varietals with sizable plantings throughout Argentina-including Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Lambrusco, Nebbiolo, Raboso and Sangiovese.

While the historic birthplace of Malbec is Southwest France, where it is still widely grown in Cahors, and has some presence in Bordeaux, it is in Argentina where the grape receives most attention these days. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives; they have smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters. Malbec wine is characterized by deep color and intense fruity flavors with a velvety texture. There are over 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of Malbec.

Cabernet Sauvignon is gaining in popularity and beside being made as a varietal, it used as a blending partner with Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot noir. Syrah has been steadily increasing in planting going from 1,730 acres (700 hectares) in 1990 to more than 24,710 acres (10,000 hectares) recently, with the San Juan region earning particular recognition for the grape. Tempranillo (known locally as Tempranilla) is often made by carbonic maceration (similar to Beaujolais); though some premium, old vine examples are made in the Uco Valley. Red wine production accounts for nearly 60% of all Argentine wine. The high temperatures of most regions contribute to soft, ripe tannins and high alcohol levels.

The Pedro Giménez grape (a different but perhaps closely related relative of Spain's Pedro Ximénez) is the most widely planted white grape varietal with more than 36,300 acres (14,700 hectares) planted primarily in the Mendoza and San Juan region. The grape is known for its fully bodied wines with high alcohol levels and is also used to produce grape concentrate.

The next largest plantings are dedicated to the Torrontés Riojano variety followed by Muscat of Alexandria, Chardonnay, Torrontés Sanjuanino (the sub-variety of Torrontés that is believed to have originated in the San Juan province) and Sauvignon blanc. Other white grape varieties found in Argentina include Chenin blanc, Pinot gris, Riesling, Sauvignonasse, Semillon, Ugni blanc and Viognier.

Torrontés produces some of the most distinctive white wines in Argentina, characterised by floral Muscat-like aromas and spicy notes. The grape requires careful handling during the winemaking process with temperature control during fermentation and a sensitivity to certain strains of yeast. The grape is most widely planted in the northern provinces of La Rioja and Salta, particularly the Calchaquí Valleys, but has spread to Mendoza.

In response to international demand, plantings of Chardonnay have steadily increased. The University of California, Davis produced a special clone of the variety (known as the Mendoza clone) that, despite it propensity to develop millerandage, is still widely used in Argentina and Australia. Argentine Chardonnay has shown to thrive in high altitude plantings and is being increasing planted in the Tupungato region on vineyard sites located at altitudes around nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters).

Argentine wine vintage report

  • 2014 - Reds and whites were concentrated, fresh and elegant with frost early in the growing season.
  • 2013 - A cool spell late in the growing season extended the ripening period for reds varieties but very good
  • 2012 - Similar to 2011, but with lower yields with better fruit intensity and notable tannin requiring extended ageing.
  • 2011 - A cold, damp year. Frost and hail caused some damage though it made for particular aromatic intensity in white wines.
  • 2010 - A cool ripening season. Fruit was harvested in good health, but quality was not as good as 2009.
  • 2009 - One of the best vintages of the decade in Mendoza with a mild winter, spring was dry and summer was warm. Excellent harvesting conditions.
  • 2008 - A very cold winter, a warm spring and a wetter than average autumn. Generally underpowered as a vintage, although reds were marginally better than whites.
  • 2007 - A little too hot but good for white and tricky for reds in Mendoza.

Recommended Argentinian wines

Zuccardi, Concreto Malbec 2014, Paraje Altamira, Mendoza

Zuccardi, Concreto Malbec 2014, Paraje Altamira, Mendoza

Grown at 1100 metres, on shallow alluvial soil over conglomerate rocks and fermented and aged in unlined concrete containers. Very complex Malbec with lovely aromas.

Norton Lote A 100 Finca Agrelo Malbec 2010, Mendoza

The Lote A 100 Finca Agrelo Malbec is super concentrated with aromas and a palate of blackberries and raspberries with hints of spice and blueberry.
subtle spiced notes.

Catena White Stones Chardonnay, Gualtallary, Uco Valley

The vines producing Catena Zapata White stones' Chardonnay is planted on calcareous soils from the Adrianna vineyard 1500m above sea level in the Uco Valley. Mountain micro climate and this soil give the wine minerality and a refreshing acidity but with a full fruity body, no flabbiness here. 

Luigi Bosca Finca Los Nobles Chardonnay 2012, Las Computeras, Lujan de Cuyo

The vineyard is in one of the highest altitude areas in Lujan de Cuyo. This is a full on chardonnay particularly in warmer years like 2012. Fruit with spice will elements of cream.

Others

Achaval Ferrer, Finca Altamira, Malbec 2001, Mendoza

Alta vista, Alto, Mendoza, Malbec 80% Cabernet Sauvignon 20%

Altos Las Hormigas, Malbec Reserva Vina Hormigas 2002, Mendoza

Bodega Colome, Colome Tinto Reserva, Calchaqui valley, Malbec 80% Cab Sauvignon 20%

Bodega Noemia de Patagonia , Noemia, Patagonia, Rio Negro Valley, Malbec

Catena Alta, Malbec 2002, Mendoza

Clos de Los Siete,  Mendoza, Uco valley, Malbec 45%, Merlot 35%, others 20% ***

Terrazas Cheval Blanc , Cheval des Andes, Mendoza, Cabernet Sauvignon 60%, Malbec 40% *** £££

Yacochuya de Michel Rolland ,  Calchaqui Valley, Cafayate, Merlot 90%,Cabernet Sauvignon 10%*** £££