Geographically vast, it is no surprise that Argentina has more land dedicated to wine growing than any other country in South America. What is surprising though, is that Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine worldwide; making this relative newcomer to the industry a powerhouse superstar.
Although the length of Argentina allows for a wide disparity in regional climates, the entire country is flanked by the Andes Mountains to the west putting the overwhelming majority of the land in a rain shadow and protecting the vineyards from fierce winds, known as the Zonda, whipping in from the polar regions across the Pacific Ocean. The Andes also provide critically important elevation and the snow melting off its peaks provides necessary natural irrigation. The continental climate is also very favorable to grape growing as the winters are cold, but not harsh, and the summers are hot, but humidity is low and the nights remain cool.
The grape most widely associated with Argentina is Malbec, a French grape brought to South America in the mid-19th century. The plantings excelled in the mountainous territory as the varietal demands more direct sun which the high-altitude vineyards are well-suited to provide. While less well-known for their white wines, Argentina boasts a white grape varietal, Torrontes, that is considered indigenous to the nation. Alternatively, numerous international grape varieties thrive in Argentina and one can easily locate Cabs, Syrahs, Chards and even Chenin Blancs hailing from the country in local wine shops.
The major wine-producing areas in Argentina are designated neatly from north to south. The region closest to the equator is aptly named Northern Argentina and it is comprised of some of the highest elevations in the country including the esteemed district, Salta. Just south of that is La Rioja. Not to be confused with the Spanish region of the same namesake, it is generally referred to as La Rioja Argentina. Although it is the oldest wine-producing area in the country, it is very small and wines hailing from there are difficult to source domestically. South of that is San Juan, a hot and dry area where the climate tends to impede on the production of high quality vintages and, therefore, tends to produce more bulk wine. Just below San Juan is Mendoza, which is to Argentina what California is for us. Mendoza produces 70% of all the country’s wines and houses the infamous subregions of Maipu, Uco Valley and Tupungato. Although elevations in Mendoza are less than that of Northern Argentina, they still average between two to four thousand feet above sea level. Heading further south, the most southerly wine region in Argentina is Northern Patagonia. Naturally, this region is cooler, but it does feature a lengthy growing season and a large temperature difference between day and night (diurnal shift) which creates a favorable climate for grape growth.
The classification system for Argentinean wines is relatively young at just shy of twenty years old. Although most New World countries organize their systems mainly on geographical boundaries, Argentina has adopted a slightly European format in that they have restrictions on allowed grape varieties and additional rules regarding farming techniques. They also recently began placing aging requirements on the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva to ensure those wines are actually exhibiting superior qualities. Under this classification system, Argentina recognizes two areas that have achieved the highest designation level – Lujan de Cuyo and San Rafael, both places are located in Mendoza and are noted only for Malbec grapes grown in their territory. To America, which embraces a strictly geographic system, these legalities may seem a bit stifling. But to Old World wine aficionados they are a welcome sign that Argentina is recognizing it is a rising star in the wine world and looking to ensure consistency and quality to elevate and maintain their reputation of producing higher-end wines.
So, explore the aisles dedicated to Argentina at a local wine store, stock up on selections from this top-notch wine producer and raise a glass with the traditional Argentina toast, “Salud y amor y tiempo para disfrutarlo!” which means “Health and love and time to enjoy them!”
By: MaryJane Baker Vu