Pristine mountain water and dry, fertile soil. Decades-old vines perched thousands of feet above sea level. Techniques passed down through generations mixed with cutting-edge technology. These are the ingredients of fine wine anywhere in the world, but most notably in Argentina. If you haven’t tried Argentina’s wines, you’re missing a truly rewarding and memorable experience.
Argentina’s wines run the gamut from affordable table wines to cellar-ready blends capable of taking on the best of Bordeaux, California, and the rest of the world. They can come from any one of the twenty-three provinces in a country that stretches from mountains to deserts, from river deltas to the famed pampas. Like other New World wines, they bring European traditions together with a lively spirit of innovation. But only Argentina’s wines can offer the intensity of flavor unleashed by its unique combination of climate, terroir, and technique.
Everything that makes a vine work harder to produce fruit will intensify the fruit’s flavor. Argentina’s winemakers have hit the trifecta of intensity. Their high-altitude vineyards sit under thin air and powerful sunlight. The temperature can fluctuate by 35’F in a single day. And the soil is crumbly, even gravelly, in the dry season. No other country in the world has so many acres of vineyards with these favorable conditions. Here are some tips for sampling its wine riches:
Argentina is much more than malbec. Malbec is the best-known wine from Argentina, but it’s not the most produced grape. Local varieties Cereza and Criolla, which are mostly used for inexpensive table wines, make up more than a third of the harvest. Malbec accounted for just 11% in 2011, followed by Bonarda (9%), Pedro Ximenez (6%), Syrah (6%), Cabernet Sauvignon (5%), Torrontés (5% – the indigenous white grape), Tempranillo (3%), Chardonnay (2%), Merlot (2%), and many others (16%).
Argentina’s wine regions are very different. The province of Mendoza accounts for more than two thirds of total production in Argentina, but even there the differences in terroir can be astounding. Overall, Mendoza has a fertile climate reminiscent of the Napa Valley, Ribera del Duero, or Tuscany. It’s perfect for Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. But then go north to San Juan, and things get a little drier; Syrah and Cabernet Franc begin to thrive. Go further north still, and you get to Salta, where almost desert-like conditions benefit Torrontés and offer concentrated versions of the other grapes. Then return south to the edge of Patagonia, in Neuquen and Rio Negro, and you’ll find Merlot and Pinot Noir flourishing in the cooler, moister conditions.
Not all of Argentina’s wines are for drinking young. It’s a typical prejudice about bold, inexpensive New World wines full of rich, fruity flavor: you drink them young. Yet Argentina has a long tradition of making wines to be cellared and aged. Like the best Brunellos and Bordeaux, some of Argentina’s wines can spend years in oak and the bottle – sometimes more than ten! – before being released for sale. Though the advent of new technology and the growth of the export market have certainly increased winemakers’ interest in making wines for aging, you can still buy and drink bottles from as far back as the 1970s that were intended for the cellar.
You can get a lot for your money. New wineries are starting up every year in Argentina, often with the latest technology and winemaking techniques, but it can take time for them to break into the market. Their wines are typically priced lower than competitors of the same quality. And in general, Argentine wines – especially those not from a few well-known labels – sell at a slight discount relative to Old World and even other New World selections of similar quality. So keep an open mind; what’s in the bottle is much more important than what’s printed on the tag!
(Statistics from the National Institute of Vitiviniculture)