Argentina is one of the most important wine-producing countries in the New World, and though the second largest country in South America, it is the largest wine producer. The high-altitude deserts of the eastern Andes have given rise to a high-quality wine industry and the terroir here is well suited to Argentina’s adopted grape variety, the ubiquitous Malbec. Originally from Bordeaux, this is now responsible for some of Argentina’s most famous wines, which are characteristically bright and intense, with floral notes and flavors of dark fruit.
Wine has been produced in Argentina since the 1500s, initially by Spanish missionaries and later Italian settlers. Argentina only began exporting wines in the 1990’s. Until then their wines were strictly domestic and based mostly on the high-yielding Criolla Grande and Cereza grape varieties. Over the past 25 years the country’s wine producers have raised quality levels and successfully consolidated an international export market. Argentina has risen to become the fifth-most-prominent wine-producing country in the world, following France, Italy, Spain and the USA.
Most viticulture in Argentina occurs in the foothills of the Andes and most famously in Mendoza, where desert landscapes and high altitudes combine to make a terroir that gives rise to aromatic, intensely flavored red wines. Vineyards in Mendoza reach as high as 5000 ft (1500m) above sea level. Here, increased levels of solar radiation and a high diurnal temperature variation make for a long, slow ripening period, leading to balanced sugars and acidity in the grapes.
Nearly three-quarters of Argentinian wine production takes place in Mendoza, and in addition to Malbec, there are significant amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Bonarda.
Further north, the regions of Salta and Catamarca are at higher elevations. There Argentina’s signature white grape, Torrontes, is grown, making an aromatic, floral white wine.
There is a wine region closer to the Atlantic coast, Rio Negro. The cooler conditions there suited to creating wines made from Pinot Noir.
Catamarca is a wine-producing region in the north-west of Argentina in the midst of the Andes mountain range. Quality and commercial focus are rapidly increasing here as they are elsewhere in Argentina. Torrontes, Syrah and Malbec vines are increasing throughout the region.
Jujuy is the northernmost viticultural area of Argentina. It is a relatively small wine region and is less commercially established than some of the other regions. Very little of Jujuy’s wine is marketed internationally. Torrontes is the most successful and best known of Jujuy’s grape varieties.
The La Rioja wine region is located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in western Argentina, north of Mendoza and San Juan. The mountainous terroir of the region is particularly suited to the white-grape variety Torrontes, which produces crisp, aromatic white wines.
La Rioja was named for the northern Spanish region of the same name by Juan Ramirez de Velasco, a Spaniard from Rioja itself. This has caused some animosity between Argentina and Spain. The matter was settled, at least in legal terms, in 2011 when the Argentinian province won a court case allowing it to continue to label its wines as ‘La Rioja Argentina’.
La Rioja is best known for its white wines but Bonarda, Syrah and Malbec can also be found growing throughout the region.
Mendoza is by far the largest wine region in Argentina, producing about 70% of the country’s annual wine production. The French grape variety Malbec has its New World home in the vineyards of Mendoza, producing red wines of great concentration and intensity.
While Malbec is undoubtedly the main varietal produced in the region, there are also extensive plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Torrontes and Sauvignon Blanc. Mendoza is also becoming a producer of sparkling wine.
Rio Negro is South America’s southernmost wine-producing region. Despite being one of the world’s least-obvious places for quality viticulture, this desert region produces elegant Pinot Noir and Malbec wines.
While Malbec is a mainstay in Rio Negro wines, Pinot Noir has become the region’s iconic grape variety. However, there are also great Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling wines produced here.
Salta, in the far north of Argentina, is home to some of the world’s most extreme vineyard sites. Many sit at both lower latitudes and higher altitudes than anywhere else in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Tannat are the most prominent red-wine varieties in Salta, while Chardonnay and Torrontes are the region’s most respected white wines.
San Juan is an important Argentinean wine-producing area, creating wines of increasing quality using traditional European grape varieties. Syrah and the ever-present Malbec are the most important of these.
Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah varietals are produced for red wines, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes and Viognier grapes are grown for white wines. Large quantity of Criolla and Cereza grapes are also produced and used to make cheaper, slightly sweet wines. The region also produces sherry-style wines and provides most of the base for Argentina’s brandy and vermouth.
Grape varietals grown in Argentina will often be warmer and spicier than their European counterparts, and very similar in flavour to the wines of neighbouring Chile. However, I have often found that the price of comparable Argentinian and Chilean wines will be slightly more favourable to Argentina.
If you have never tried Argentinian wine it is well worth the endeavour. A good assortment of reds and whites at varying price points should be readily available at your local merchant.