Argentina: Finally, a Reputation to Match its Wines

August 2014

Argentina’s international reputation for making high quality wine has been steadily rising, forged largely on the shoulders of deep, powerful reds that are reminiscent of the gaucho, and just as fond of red meat. That this reputation has only really emerged in the past decade or so is quite surprising.

In contrast to neighbouring Chile, and courtesy of an influx of Italian, Spanish and other European immigrants a century and more ago, Argentina has a long culture of domestic wine consumption. Its famous prosperity in the early 20th century, built on dominating export markets in wheat, wool and minerals meant that, at one stage, Argentina was amongst the wealthiest countries in the world. It has long been a top five wine producer by quantity and yet for much of this time its wines have remained a mystery in international markets.

Argentinian wine production is focused in the province of Mendoza, a virtual alpine desert that slopes away from the impressive Andes mountain range, draining the snow-melt that is essential for growing grapes. Much like Marlborough has become synonymous with New Zealand, Mendoza has become the byword for Argentina, and its reputation rests primarily on one grape – Malbec.

Mendoza is a very large region. It has the same vineyard acreage as all of Australia, which has inevitably led to numerous styles of wine. The flatter, hotter, lower altitude vineyards in the east are home to Bonarda and Malbec, which are made in red-fruited, early drinking styles. These sorts of wines have been consumed domestically in Argentina for decades, and have become popular for entry-level and bag-in-box wines in Europe and Scandinavia. Vineyards here are high yielding, often trellised on pergolas and irrigated by flooding from channels.

The great wines of Mendoza are coming from Lujan – more specifically the Uco Valley. These areas are higher in altitude (above 700m and as high as 1,000m), closer to the Andes and much cooler. Wines from here are deeply coloured, perfumed and more tannic – characteristics prized by international winemaking consultants like Michel Rolland and Paul Hobbs. It’s meant that Argentina has been able to punch through into the top echelons for its best wines, more successfully than a perhaps envious neighbour across the Andes.

Keen to express more than just the virtues of Mendoza Malbec, the export story has recently elaborated to include extreme high altitude wines from further north in Salta, where perfumed and slightly chewy Torrontes thrives, while progress continues with aromatic wines like Pinot Noir in the southern wilds of Patagonia.

Argentina’s biggest challenge is political, and decades of misaligned economic management have meant its abundant natural wealth has not led to long-lasting and widespread prosperity. High inflation is a feature of the Argentine economic landscape, and costs of dry goods for wineries are currently increasing faster than export prices. Argentinian wine producers are beginning to look abroad for solutions and bulk shipping and packaging in the UK is becoming a more common one. Offering substantial benefits in costs and stability for Argentine wine producers keen to progress sales in and across Europe, the popularity of this method of transportation and filling is sure only to grow.

Justin Knock, winemaking consultant at Encirc Wines

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