Moving on to Argentina now – land of Malbec, Torrontés, and a whole lot of plonk (Argentina is the 5th largest wine producer in the world!) Until recently, the locals drank their own products, at an admirable rate of 45 bottles per person per year (compared to 25 in the US!) But the tide is turning… like Chile, the country has been investing in equipment and talent, and quality is becoming more of a focus. Recent political stability has made it possible for citizens to focus on long term planning more than before. The interest in exporting their vinos is growing rapidly.
Argentina’s climate is more consistent than the variety of climatic conditions found in Chile. Generally, it’s warm and dry, with a long growing season; in the rainshadow of the Andes mountains, the average is only 250 mm of rainfall a year. Hail is a huge threat, and a whole industry has grown up around trying to fight against it (nets, cannons, and yes, even rocket launchers…) Most seasons there are between 5 and 8 hailstorms in the wine regions. But for those grapes that remain undamaged by hail, the region’s long hot days and cool nights allow them to flourish. The result is fully ripe fruit with less acidity or “green factor” than can be found in Chile. Higher sugars can also mean higher alcohol…mmmm. Irrigation is common, to counter the low levels of rainfall – in the past flood irrigation was common, using the country’s network of canals and ditches, but drip irrigation is becoming more common. Tons of sunshine + access to as much water as necessary = high yields.
Argentina boasts some of the highest altitude vineyards around: 500 to 3,000m. The Argentinians claim that the special light intensity at the higher levels produces grapes with a particular ripeness, thicker skins, and thus better developed phenolics, including the heart friendly resveratrol. More about this in my upcoming Malbec review.
Like Chile, most vines are still ungrafted, though phylloxera is beginning to spread lately. Soils range from sandy to alluvial to volcanic to gravel to clay and limestone – a real mix!
We all tend to recognize the name “Mendoza” as a prime wine region of Argentina (I always think of the arch enemy of The Simpsons’ Arnie-type hero, McBain!), and perhaps to a lesser extent, Patagonia. The others are: Catamarca/Salta, La Rioja, San Juan, and Rio Negro. Mendoza still boasts 70% of the country’s wine production, with an ancient history of viticulture since the 1500’s.
Top grapes are Chenin Blanc (mostly bulk production consumed locally), Torrentes, and Chardonnay. Reds include Malbec, local grape Bonarda, and Cab Sauvignon. Experimentation in other varietals is growing.
Finally, Argentina’s wine laws are rather less advanced than most other countries. If a grape is identified, then 80% of the juice in the bottle must be from that grape. Origin identification is getting a little more clear and is akin to the American AVA system, though nowhere near as developed. A great explanation of it can be found in Decanter on line.