|First Posted: Apr 8, 2012 |
Apr 11, 2012
The Argentine wine industry is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. Argentine wine, as with some aspects of Argentine cuisine, has its roots in Spain. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, vine cuttings were brought to Santiago del Estero in 1557, and the cultivation of the grape and wine production stretched first to neighboring regions, and then to other parts of the country.
Historically, Argentine winemakers were traditionally more interested in quantity than quality with the country consuming 90% of the wine it produces (12 gallons/45 liters a year per capita according to 2006 figures). Until the early 1990s, Argentina produced more wine than any other country outside Europe, though the majority of it was considered unexportable. However, the desire to increase exports fueled significant advances in quality. Argentine wines started being exported during the 1990s, and are currently growing in popularity, making it now the largest wine exporter in South America. The devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002 further fueled the industry as production costs decreased and tourism significantly increased, giving way to a whole new concept of wine tourism in Argentina. The past years have seen the birth of numerous tourist-friendly wineries with free tours and tastings. The Mendoza Province is now one of Argentina's top tourist destinations and the one whose economy has grown the most in the past years.
The most important wine regions of the country are located in the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja. Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Aires are also wine producing regions. The Mendoza province produces more than 60% of the Argentine wine and is the source of an even higher percentage of the total exports. Due to the high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions, Argentine vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries. This allows cultivating with little or no pesticides, enabling even organic wines to be easily produced.
There are many different varieties of grapes cultivated in Argentina, reflecting her many immigrant groups. The French brought Malbec, which makes most of Argentina's best known wines. The Italians brought vines that they called Bonarda, although Argentine Bonarda appears to be the Corbeau of Savoie, also known as Charbono in California, which may be related to Dolcetto. It has nothing in common with the light fruity wines made from Bonarda Piemontese in Piedmont. Torrontés is another typically Argentine grape and is mostly found in the provinces of La Rioja, San Juan, and Salta. It is a member of the Malvasia group that makes aromatic white wines. It has recently been grown in Spain. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and other international varieties are becoming more widely planted, but some varieties are cultivated characteristically in certain areas.
In November 2010, the Argentine government declared wine as Argentina's national liquor.History
Viticulture was introduced to Argentina during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and later again by Christian missionaries. In 1556 father Juan Cedrón established the first vineyard in Argentina with cuttings from the Chilean Central Valley were brought to what is now the San Juan and Mendoza wine region which firmly established viticulture in Argentina. Ampelographers suspect that one of these cuttings brought the ancestor grape of the Chile's Pais and California's Mission grape. This grape was the forerunner of the Criolla Chica variety that would be the backbone of the Argentine wine industry for the next 300 years.
The first recorded commercial vineyard was established at Santiago del Estero in 1557 by Jesuit missionaries which was followed by expansion of vineyard plantings in Mendoza in the early 1560s and San Juan between 1569 and 1589. During this time the missionaries and settlers in the area began construction of complex irrigation channels and dams that would bring water down from the melting glaciers of the Andes to sustain vineyards and agriculture. While a provincial governor, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, instructed the French agronomist Miguel Aimé Pouget to bring grapevine cutting from France to Argentina. Of the vines that Pouget brought were the very first Malbec vines to be planted in country. As the infantile Argentine wine industry became centralized in the western part of country among the foothills of the mountains, the population centers of the country developed in the east. Transporting wine by means of a long wagon journey put a crimp in the growth of the wine industry that would not be eased till the 1885 completion of the Argentine railway that connected the city of Mendoza to Buenos Aires. Don Tiburcio Benegas, governor of the province of Mendoza and owner of El Trapiche wine estate, was instrumental in financing and pushing through the construction, convinced that in order for the Argentine wine industry to survive it needed a market. The 19th century also saw the first wave of immigrants from Europe. Many of these immigrants were escaping the scourge of the phylloxera epidemic that ravaged vineyards in their homeland and they brought with them their expertise and winemaking knowledge to their new home.
Economic Troubles and Growth of Export Industry
In the 20th century, the development and fortunes of the Argentine wine industry were deeply influenced by the economic influences of the country. In the 1920s, Argentina was the eighth richest nation in the world with the domestic market feeding a strong wine industry. The proceeding global Great Depression dramatically reduced vital export revenues and foreign investment and lead to a decline in the wine industry. There was a brief revival in the economy during the presidency of Juan Perón but the economy declined soon again under the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. During this time the wine industry was sustained by the domestic consumption of cheap vino de mesa. By the early 1970s, the average Argentinian was consuming nearly 24 gallons (90 liters or around 120 standard 750 milliliter wine bottles) of wine a year compared, a significantly higher amount than other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States which was averaging less than a gallon (3 liters) a person during the same period.
The 1980s saw a period of hyperinflation running at nearly 1000% a year. Foreign investment was mostly stagnant. Under the presidency of Carlos Menem, the country saw some economic stability. The favorable exchange rate on the Argentine peso during the convertibility period saw an influx of foreign investment. However this period also saw a dramatic drop in domestic consumption. Following the example of neighboring Chile, the Argentine wine industry started to more aggressively focus on the export market-particularly the lucrative British and American markets. The presence of Flying winemakers from France, California and Australia brought modern technical know how for viticultural and winemaking techniques such as yield control, temperature control fermentation and the use of new oak barrels. By the end of the 1990s, Argentina was exporting more 3.3 million gallons (12.5 million liters) to the United States with exports to the UK also strong. Wine experts such as Karen MacNeil noted that up to this point that the Argentine wine industry was considered a "sleep giant" that by the end of the 20th century was waking up.
Climate and Geography
The major wine regions of Argentina are located in the western part of the country among the foothills of the Andes Mountains between the Tropic of Capricorn to the north and the 40th parallel south. Most of the regions have a semi-arid desert-like climate with annual rainfall rarely exceeding more than 10 inches (250 mm) a year. In the warmest regions (such as Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan and the eastern outreaches of Mendoza), summer temperatures during the growing season can be very hot during the day with temperatures upwards of 104°F (40°C). Nighttime temperatures can drop to 50°F (10°C) creating a wide diurnal temperature variation. Some regions have more temperate climates such as the Cafayate region of Salta, Río Negro and the western reaches of Mendoza which includes the Luján de Cuyo and Tupungato departments. Wintertime temperatures can drop below 32°F (0°C) but frost is a rare occurrence for most vineyards, except those planted at extremely high altitudes with poor air circulation. Most rainfall occurs during the summer months and in late summer sometimes fall as hail (known as La Piedra), posing potential damage to the vines. These warmer regions can see an average of 320 days of sunshine a year.
The northwestern wine regions are particularly prone to the effects of the hurricane force winds known as the Zonda which blows from the Andes during the flowering period of early summer. This fierce wind of hot, dry air can disrupt the flowering process and severely reduce potential yields. Most of the growing season is dry with the lack of humidity limiting the risk and hazard from various grape diseases and fungal rot. Many vineyards operate without the need for any chemical spraying, a condition conducive to organic viticulture. The periodic occurrence of the El Niño phenomenon can have a sharp influence on climate condition during a growing season-such as the case during the 1998 vintage when prolong heavy rains brought by El Niño led to widespread rot and fungal disease.
The Andes Mountains are the dominant geographical feature of Argentine wine regions, with the snow cap mountains often serving as a back drop view in the vineyards. As winter time snow starts to melt in the spring an intricate irrigation system of dams, canals and channels brings vital water supplies down to the wine regions to sustain viticulture in the dry, arid climates. Most of the wine regions are located within the foothills of the Andes and recent trends have seen a push to plant vineyards on higher elevations closer to the mountains. The climate in some of this regions can be more continental and less prone to extremes in temperatures. Soils throughout the country are most alluvial and sandy with some areas having substrates of clay, gravel and limestone. In the cooler Patagonia region which contains the winemaking provinces of Río Negro and Neuquén, the soil is more chalky.
The growing season in Argentina usually last from budbreak in October to harvest beginning sometime in February. The Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura (INV), the main government controlling body for the wine industry, declares the beginning date for harvest in a region with the harvest season sometimes lasting till April depending on the variety and wine region. A sizable population of itinerant laborers provides an abundance of grape pickers at low cost which has slowed the conversion to mechanical harvesting. After harvest, grapes often have to travel long distances over several hours from the rural vineyards to winemaking facilities located in more urban areas. In the 1970s, yields were reported as surpassing 22 tons per acre, a sharp contrast to the average yields in premium wine regions such as Bordeaux and Napa Valley of 2 to 5 tons an acre. As the Argentine wine industry continues to grow in the 21st century, several viticultural related trends will involve improvements in irrigation, yield control, canopy management and the construction of more winemaking facilities closer to the vineyards.
Argentina, like Chile, is unique in the wine world for the absence of the phylloxera threat that has devastated vineyards across the globe. Unlike Chile, the phylloxera louse is present in Argentina but is a particular weak biotype that doesn't survive long in the soil. When it does attack vines, the damage is not significant enough to kill the vine and the roots eventually grow back. Because of this most of the vineyards in Argentina are planted on ungrafted rootstock. There are many theories about why phylloxera has not yet reach this part of the world. The centuries old tradition of flood irrigation where water is allowed to deeply saturate the soil maybe one cause as is the high proportion of sand present in the soil. The relative isolation of Argentina is also cited as a potential benefit against phylloxera with the country's wine regions being bordered by mountains, deserts and oceans that create natural barriers against the travels of the louse. Despite the minimum risk of phylloxera, some producers are turning to grafted rootstock that provide better yield control.
Various methods of vine training was introduced to Argentina by European immigrants in the 19th and 20th century. The espaldera system combined the traditional method of using three wires to train the vines low to the ground. In the 1950s a new system known as parral cuyano was introduced where vines were trained high off the ground with the clusters allowed to hang down. This style was conducive to the high yielding varieties of Criolla and Cereza that were the backbone of the bulk wine producing industry that sprang up in response to the large domestic market. In the late 20th century, as the market turned to focus more on premium wine production, more producers switched back to the traditional espaldera system and began to practice canopy management in order to control yields.
The intricate irrigation system used to bring water from melted snow caps in the Andes originated in the 16th century (with the Spanish settlers using techniques previously used by the Incas) and has been a vital component of agriculture in Argentina. Water flows down from the mountain through a series of ditches and canals where it is stored in reservoirs for use by vineyards which can apply for government regulated water licenses that provide them access to the water. Newly planted vineyards on lands that do not have existing water rights will often use alternative water sources such as digging deep boreholes between 196–650 feet (60-200 meters) below the surface to retrieve water from underground aquifer. These water wells, though costly to build, can supply a vineyard with as much as 66,000 gallons (250,000 liters) of water an hour.
Historically, flood irrigation was the most common method used with large amounts of water are allowed to run across flat vineyard lands. While this method may have been an unwittingly preventive measurement against the advance of phylloxera, it does provide much control for the vineyard manager to limit yields and increase potential quality in the wine grapes. Later a method of furrow irrigation was developed where water is funneled into furrow channels that the vines are planted in. While providing a little more control, this method was still more conducive to producing high yields. In the late 1990s, drip irrigation started to become more popular. Though expensive to install, this method provides the maximize amount of control for the vineyard manager to facilitate yield control and increase potential quality in the grape by leveraging water stress on the vine.
While there is some wine production in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and La Pampa, the vast majority of wine production takes place in the far western expanse of Argentina leading up to the foothills of the Andes. The Mendoza region is the largest region and the leading producer, responsible for more than two-thirds of the country's yearly production, followed by the San Juan and La Rioja regions to the north. In the far northeastern corner of the country are the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta which includes some of the world's highest planted vineyards. In the southern region of Patagonia, the Río Negro and Neuquén provinces have traditionally been the fruit producing centers of the country but have recently seen growth in the planting of cool climate varietals (such as Pinot noir and Chardonnay).
Despite total acreage planted declining from 629,850 acres (255,000 hectares) in 1980 to 360,972 acres (146,081 hectares) in 2003, Mendoza is still the leading producer of wine in Argentina. As of the beginning of the 21st century, the vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone was slightly less than half of the entire planted acreage in the United States and more than the acreage of New Zealand and Australia combined. The majority of the vineyards are found in the Maipú and Luján departments. In 1993, the Mendoza sub region of Luján de Cuyo was the first controlled appellation established in Mendoza. Other notable sub-regions include the Uco Valley and the Tupungato department. Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the average vineyards in Mendoza are planted at altitudes 1,970-3,610 feet (600-1,100 meters) above sea level. The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winter dormancy.
Historically, the region has been dominated by production of wine from the high yielding, pink-skinned varieties of Cereza and Criolla Grande but in recent years Malbec has become the regions most popular planting. Cereza and Criolla Grande still account for nearly a quarter of all vineyard plantings in Mendoza but more than half of all plantings are now to premium red varietals which beyond Malbec include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Italian varieties. In the high altitude vineyards of Tupungato, located southwest of the city of Mendoza in the Uco Valley, Chardonnay is increasing in popularity. The cooler climate and lower salinity in the soils of the Maipú region has been receiving attention for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine producers in the region are working with authorities to establish a controlled appellation.
Argentina's most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza's high altitude wine regions of Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These Districts are located in the foothills of the Andes mountains between 2,800 and 5,000 feet elevation. Argentine vintner Nicolas Catena Zapata has been widely credited for elevating the status of Argentine Malbec and the Mendoza region through serious experimentation into the effects of high altitude. In 1994, he was the first to plant a Malbec vineyard at almost 5,000 feet elevation in the Gualtallary sub-district of Tupungato, the Adrianna Vineyard, and to develop a clonal selection of Argentine Malbec.
High altitude Mendoza has attracted many notable foreign winemakers such as Paul Hobbs, Michel Rolland, Roberto Cipresso and Alberto Antonini.
San Juan & La Rioja
After Mendoza, the San Juan region is the second largest producer of wine with over 116,000 acres (47,000 hectares) planted as of 2003. The climate of this region is considerably hotter and drier than Mendoza with rainfall averaging 6 inches (150 millimeters) a year and summer time temperatures regularly hitting 107°F (42°C). Premium wine production is centered around the Calingasta, Ullum and Zonda departments as well as the Tulum Valley. In addition to producing premium red varietals made from Syrah and Charbono (known locally as Bonarda), the San Juan region has a long history of producing sherry-style wines, brandies and vermouth. The high yielding Cereza vine is also prominent here where it is used for blending and grape concentrate as well as for raisin and table grape consumption.
The La Rioja region was one of the first areas to be planted by Spanish missionaries and has the longest continued history of wine production in Argentina. Though a relatively small region, with only 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) planted as of 2003, the region is known for aromatic Moscatel de Alexandrias and Torrontés made from a local sub-variety known as Torrontés Riojano. Lack of water has curtailed vineyard expansion here.
The vineyards of the northwestern provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta are located between the 24th parallel and 26th parallel south and include some of the highest elevated vineyards in the world with many vineyard planted more than 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level. Two vineyards planted by Bodega Colome in Salta are at elevations of 7,500 feet (2,250 meters) and 9,900 feet (3,000 meters). In contrast, most European vineyards are rarely planted above 1,600 feet (900 meters). Wine expert Tom Stevenson notes that the habit of some Argentine producers to tout the altitude of their vineyards in advertisements and on wine labels as if they were grand cru classifications. The soils and climate of the regions are very similar to Mendoza but the unique mesoclimate and high elevation of the vineyards typically produces grapes with higher levels of total acidity which contribute to the wines balance and depth. Of the three regions, Catamarca is the most widely planted with more than 5,800 acres (2,300 hectares) under vine as of 2003. In recent years the Salta region, and particularly its sub-region of Cafayate, have been gaining the most worldwide attention the quality of its full bodied whites made from Torrontés Riojano as well as its fruity reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat.
Most of Cafayate region in Salta is located at 5,446 feet (1,660 meters) above sea levels in the river delta between the Rio Calchaqui and the Rio Santa Maria. The climate of the area experiences a foehn effect which traps rain producing cloud cover in the mountains and leaves the area dry and sunny. Despite its high altitude daytime temperatures in the summertime can reach 100°F (38°C) but at night the area experiences a wide diurnal temperature variation with night time temperatures dropping as low as 54°F (12°C). There is some threat of frost during the winter when temperatures can drop as low as 21°F (-6°C). Despite producing less than 2% of Argentina's yearly wine production, the Cafayate region is increasing gaining in prestige and appearance on wine labels, as well as foreign investment from worldwide wine producers such as enologist Michel Rolland and California wine producer Donald Hess.
The wine regions of Patagonia are the source of many Pinot noir grapes used for the Argentine sparkling wine industry. The southern Patagonia region includes the fruit producing regions of Río Negro and Neuquén which has a considerably cooler climate than the major regions to the north which provides a long, drawn outgrowing season in the chalky soils of the area. In the early 20th century, Humberto Canale imported vine cuttings from Bordeaux and established the first commercial winery in the region. While 9,300 acres (3,800 hectares) were planted as of 2003, the region is growing as more producers plant cool climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot noir as well as Malbec, Semillon and Torrontés Riojano. Many of the grapes for the Argentine sparkling wine industry are sourced from this area. Located more than 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) south of Mendoza, the vineyards of Bodega Weinert are noted as the southernmost planted vineyards in the Americas.
Grape Varieties and Wines
Under Argentine wine laws, if a grape name appears on the wine label, at least 80% of the wine must be composed that grape variety. The backbone of the early Argentine wine industry was the high yielding, pink skin grapes Cereza, Criolla Chica and Criolla Grande which still account for nearly 30% of all vines planted in Argentina today. Very vigorous vines, these varieties are able to produce many clusters weighing as much as 9 pounds (4 kg) and tend to produce pink or deeply colored white wines that oxidize easily and often have noticeable sweetness. These varieties are often used today for bulk jug wine sold in 1 liter cardboard cartons or as grape concentrate which is exported worldwide with Japan being a considerably large market. In the late 20th century, as the Argentine wine industry shifted it focus on premium wine production capable for export, Malbec arose to greater prominence and is today the most widely planted red grape variety followed by Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo. The influence of Italian immigrants has brought a variety of Italian varietals with sizable plantings throughout Argentina-including Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Lambrusco, Nebbiolo, Raboso and Sangiovese.
While the historic birthplace of Malbec is Southwest France, where it is still widely grown in Cahors, and has some presence in Bordeaux, it is in Argentina where the grape receives most of it notoriety. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives; they have smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters. Malbec wine is characterized by deep color and intense fruity flavors with a velvety texture. As of 2003 there were over 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of Malbec. The international variety of Cabernet Sauvignon is gaining in popularity and beside being made as a varietal, it used as a blending partner with Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot noir. Syrah has been steadily increasing in planting going from 1,730 acres (700 hectares) in 1990 to more than 24,710 acres (10,000 hectares) in 2003, with the San Juan region earning particular recognition for the grape. Tempranillo (known locally as Tempranilla) is often made by carbonic maceration (similar to Beaujolais); though some premium, old vine examples are made in the Uco Valley. Red wine production accounts for nearly 60% of all Argentine wine. The high temperatures of most regions contribute to soft, ripe tannins and high alcohol levels.
The Pedro Giménez grape (a different but perhaps closely related relative of Spain's Pedro Ximénez) is the most widely planted white grape varietal with more than 36,300 acres (14,700 hectares) planted primarily in the Mendoza and San Juan region. The grape is known for its fully bodied wines with high alcohol levels and is also used to produce grape concentrate. The next largest plantings are dedicated to the Torrontés Riojano variety followed by Muscat of Alexandria, Chardonnay, Torrontés Sanjuanino (the sub-variety of Torrontés that is believed to have originated in the San Juan province) and Sauvignon blanc. Other white grape varieties found in Argentina include Chenin blanc, Pinot gris, Riesling, Sauvignonasse, Semillon, Ugni blanc and Viognier.
Torrontés produces some of the most distinctive white wines in Argentina, characterized by floral Muscat-like aromas and a spicy note. The grape requires careful handling during the winemaking process with temperature control during fermentation and a sensitivity to certain strains of yeast. The grape is most widely planted in the northern provinces of La Rioja and Salta, particularly the Calchaquí Valleys, but has spread to Mendoza. In response to international demand, plantings of Chardonnay have steadily increased. The University of California, Davis produced a special clone of the variety (known as the Mendoza clone) that, despite it propensity to develop millerandage, is still widely used in Argentina and Australia. Argentine Chardonnay has shown to thrive in high altitude plantings and is being increasing planted in the Tupungato region on vineyard sites located at altitudes around nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters).
Modern Wine Industry
By the turn of the 20th to 21st century there were over 1,500 wineries in Argentina. The two largest companies are Bodegas Esmeralda (which owns the widely exported brand Alamos) and Peñaflor (which owns another widely exported brand Bodegas Trapiche). Between the two of them, these companies are responsible for nearly 40% of all the wine made in Argentina. The Argentine wine industry is fifth worldwide in production and eighth in wine consumption. The continued trend of the industry is to increase quality and control yields. To some extent the results have been a mixed bag. Between the mid 1990s and early 21st century, Argentina had ripped up nearly a third of its vineyards but reduced yearly production only by 10%. This meant there was an increase in yields from 66 hl/ha to 88 hl/ha.