Argentinian Wine | It’s More Than Just Malbec

Harry Lambourne
16th October 2023

It’s time to learn about Argentinian wine. Argentina is 5th amongst the wine producing countries in terms of volume, with Argentinians drinking an average of 48 bottles of wine per year, (MacNeil 879). This shows their appetite for good grape juice, but it’s worth noting that British people drink an average of 108 bottles per year. Wine consumption is something we are global leaders in. Regardless, we’re here to talk about Argentinian wine.

Argentinian wine has been on a near unstoppable rise for the past 20 years. Their wine was generally unknown outside its own borders until fairly recently and even then, the wines they have been making for centuries were known for being cheap and unexciting. The Argentine population was okay with it and there was no export demand so no reason to change.

Yet, in the space of a generation, the landscape of winemaking in this new world wine nation has changed drastically. The best examples are truly outstanding. Even many of the country’s reasonably priced offerings provide a rich and complex flavour profile which explains why the demand for Argentinian wine has grown so exponentially.

Over this article we will cover a few aspects of Argentinian wine. We will look into the history of this winemaking nation and the combination of natural factors which have allowed for vivacious vino to vivify the Argentine wine world. Then, we’ll also cover the primary grape varieties which now call it home and the major wine regions.

By the end of this, you’ll be equipped to take apart the Argentinian section of a wine list with ease and find the perfect wine for the setting. Let’s learn more.

Vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina | Argentinian Wine
Mendoza, Argentina

The History of Argentinian Wine

Winemaking in Argentina began back in the 16th century, when Spanish missionaries and conquistadors brought grape seeds and cuttings across from Spain. The first grape of significance was ‘Criolla Grande’. The parents of this grape remain unknown and the pink-skinned grape was, (and is), largely used to produce light and rosé wines which are often unimpressive. There is a second Criolla. ‘Crilla Chica’ also found legs in Argentina. You may also know it as ‘País’ in Chile, (MacNeil 881).

Grapes were planted across Argentina. They were found on the coast and inland, but it quickly became clear that the best place for vines to be planted was in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Long hours of sunlight and high altitude combine perfectly. These two natural factors mean that the grapes have ample sunlight to ensure they fully ripen over a long period, without becoming sunburnt or overly ripe. They retain a palpable freshness, along with a deep flavour concentration.

However, irrigation was essential to Argentinian wine. A system of dams and canals was built to ensure that melting snow from the Andes Mountains flowed down to the vineyard areas. This process is known as ‘flood irrigation’ and is still practised in some parts of Argentina.

Once colonial rule ended, winemaking grew further. Immigrants from Spain, Italy and France came to Argentina seeking greener pastures, especially after phylloxera had devastated many old world wine regions.

This is clear from the great varieties that have excelled in modern day Argentina. You have Barbera from Piedmont and Sangiovese from Tuscany. Then, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Bordeaux. Of course there is Malbec as well, which is known as Côt in South West France.

By 1900, the foundation of a massive wine industry had been laid. Today, there are over 1400 wineries in operation, (MacNeil 882). The Argentinian wine industry is booming, but what spark caused this boom?

The Rise Of Argentinian Wine

It is hard to pin down a single reason that the landscape of Argentinian wine has changed so drastically. With changes as quick and vast as this, it is rarely down to a single factor. Instead, a number of things converge at one time to create the perfect conditions for such rapid growth as the Argentinian wine world has seen.

A turning point was around 2000. By this time, winemakers pointed to the fact that Argentina had come towards the end of nearly a century’s worth of both political and economic instability, (MacNeil 879).

Military governments and dictators oversaw an economy that had inflation rising to over 1000%, (MacNeil 879). The 21st century brought about stability. Social stability, political stability and economic stability allowed for new business enterprises and winemaking is one which has proved to be crucial.

Alongside these calmer conditions, two more key factors can be seen as linked to the rise of Argentina. The first can be seen as the ‘Chile Factor’. Chile sits alongside Argentina, just a hop, skip and a jump over the Andes mountains. Their neighbour to the west had found great success in viticulture and Chilean exports had begun to boom during the 1990s.

Chilean Wine Landscape
Chilean Wine Landscape

Chilean winemakers had overseen improvements in the basic level of wines, then increased the price and exported them to the constantly thirsty people of the UK and USA. Many of the Argentinian vineyard owners thought they could do the same with Argentinian wine.

The other factor behind the success of Argentinian wine is Nicolàs Catena, (MacNeil 880). Catena came from a winemaking family in Argentina but spent time as a professor of international economics in America and during his time at the University of Berkley, made friends with Robert Mondavi. This influential winemaker from the Napa Valley region of Californian had a great impact on Nicolàs.

The style of wines and the business side of Napa were both brought back to Argentina when it came time for Nicolàs to take over the Catena winery. This led to Catena Zapata. The name was an amalgamation of his parents’ surnames. By the end of the 1990s, it was at the very forefront of the Argentinian wine world which was in part due to its huge success in exporting their wines to the American market.

It was around this time that Argentine wine began to boom across the country. Modernisation of the wineries, new french oak barrels and stainless steel temperature controlled vessels became commonplace. Then, in the vineyard, new forms of trellising were used and modern farming techniques took hold, with the goal of limiting yield and maximising quality. The industry had changed from top to bottom.

There was an area where Argentinian wine aimed to differentiate itself from Chile. This was in the fine wine market. Alongside the delightfully competitive in price offerings that had made Chile a success, Argentina was striving to create wines which rivalled the best of the best. Age worthy and complex wines that command a larger price tag.

Things quickly took off and by 2010, Argentina had outpaced Chile. Exports to the US nearly equaled 40 million gallons worth almost $230 million, (MacNeil 881).

The Terroir of Argentina

The terroir and natural factors behind the Argentinian wine world are rich and varied, with each region having its own set of unique factors. Despite this, there are factors which bind it together.

With the exception of Patagonia, the regions are dry and almost desert-like. They also possess a staggering amount of powerful sunlight. Argentina averages about 320 days of sunlight a year. The rainfall is minimal, with just 20 to 25 centimetres a year. 

While the sun is ubiquitous, the vineyards are cool. Altitude helps moderate the temperature greatly and vineyard temperatures generally don’t exceed 24 degrees, (MacNeil 885).

This combination of intense sunlight and moderate heat is a perfect combination for photosynthesis and grape ripening. They produce rich and ripe grapes with full flavours. However, they still present an acidic kick and freshness while lacking any of the overly jammy and alcoholic qualities which many new world wines can exhibit.

As it was at the inception of the Argentinian winemaking world, irrigation remains necessary. The style of flood irrigation which we mentioned previously is still practised, but many new vineyards have evolved their methods to be less wasteful and more high tech. Drip irrigation is not commonplace. This high tech method only releases smaller volumes of water when necessary.

All of the above could lead one to believe that winemaking in Argentina doesn’t come without its problems. This is not the case. Almost biblical levels of hail storm across Argentina with the potential to wipe out entire vineyards.

Hail in the Vineyards - Argentinian Wine
Hail in the Vineyards

As recently as a few decades ago, many local winemakers would employ ‘witch doctors’ to cast spells on the vineyard, (MacNeil 886). Now, they employ slightly more scientific methods. This can be either large amounts of expensive netting or simply planting vines on different sites. Hail storms are often localised, so as long as your vines aren’t all in one basket, (so to speak), you can be protected from devastation.

In terms of soil, low fertility will be desirable. Vineyards are visibly gravelly and rocky. This means that the soil drains the water well. All this helps to limit yields and increase flavour concentration.

Finally, Argentinian wine has never been a victim of phylloxera. Phylloxera exists but they don’t have the ability to thrive. Argentina, (like Chile), benefits from a low disease pressure and pests tend to struggle. This means that organic and biodynamic viticulture can be widely practised as there is less of a need for artificial chemicals and pesticides.

The Key Regions Of Argentina

Argentina is home to over half a million acres of vineyards which are spread across a number of different key wine producing regions at a great variation in altitude, with some reaching as high as 5000 metres above sea level. 

There are three areas which deserve specific attention. They are the northwest which includes the famous areas of Salta, Catamarca and La Rioja, (not to be confused with Rioja in Spain). The latter will sometimes label their exports as ‘Famantina’ to avoid confusion, but a court case in 2011 determined that they were still able to use the name ‘La Rioja’ on their labelling if they should choose to.

Salta is a province of note, though in terms of volume it doesn’t come close to the mammoth Mendoza. Incas first found the region in the fifteenth century when they moved out of Peru, (MacNeil 888). It is warm, with a moist climate and deeply cool nights thanks to altitudes that could leave you short of breath. The vineyards sit at above 5600 feet above sea level and this allows for white wine to thrive. High acid grapes such as Torrontés are able to retain their trademark acidity and freshness.

If you’re keen to try white Argentinian wine, then check out the Torrontés of Cafayate. The town which is Salta’s capital is known for these wines and uses a specific form of trellising known as the Parral system. The vines are lifted high up, which keeps the grapes cool by shading them from the sun, but it also allows wind to pass through and prevents the humidity settling on the grapes and causing them to rot.

Cafayate Vineyards - Natural Factors in the Vineyard
Cafayate Vineyards

Then, you have Cuyo Province. Within this area, which is the largest winemaking province in Argentina, you’ll find Mendoza and San Juan. Mendoza is without question the most important area in the whole of Argentinian wine. The name Mendoza actually comes from a sixteenth century Chilean governor, (as Mendoza was once a Chilean colony), (MacNeil 887).

It is nestled into the desert-like foothills of the Andes mountains, but Mendoza itself actually covers a staggering amount of space, (slightly more than New York state). Of course, this is not all vineyards. Vineyards occupy less than 5% of the total space of Mendoza, (MacNeil 887). Yet, it is the epicentre of Argentinian wine. Almost all of the most prestigious wineries are found here. 

The Mendoza region sits about 1000 miles inland, directly to the west of Buenos Aires, with vineyards often found at 4000 feet and higher above sea level. The region is dry with little rainfall, but it is famous for what the locals refer to as ‘sunlight density’. Don’t forget your shades if you’re in Mendoza. The sun is beaming and seemingly omnipresent throughout the year. This is a huge help to vintners.

Within Mendoza, there are a few key sub-regions which are definitely worth looking out for. Luján de Cayo and Uco Valley should be areas of note for any lover of Argentinian wine.

Then, we reach out further south to the area of Patagonia. This is by far the smallest and coldest region in Argentina and hasn’t made quite the same impact as the aforementioned areas, yet it is becoming more successful. The cooler temperatures have meant that it is known for wines with good acidity.

Expect lean Chablis style Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and more Torrontés and some great new world Pinot Noir. Of course, Malbec also exists here but in a far fresher and fruity style.

The Grapes Of Argentina

Argentina is Malbec country and we will certainly talk about that in great detail, but there is more to Argentinian wine than this single grape variety. We will cover a number of notable Argentine grapes and we think you’ll find that there is something for everyone.

Though of course, we will start with Malbec. The small and darkly coloured grapes originated from Cahors in southwestern France and were likely brought over with French immigrants seeking to stay clear of phylloxera. The conditions in Argentina were in many cases more favourable than France.

Malbec Grapes for Malbec Wine
Malbec Grapes

This led to fresh and complex offerings which avoided being overly tannic and intense. You’ll get a wealth of black fruit flavours, grippy tannins that aren’t too imposing, deeply concentrated flavours and a texture of pure velvet. You can also find these wines aged in oak, or stainless steel. Malbec wines are not one note, sample them from across Argentina. Look for different producers and methods of production to find the style that is right for you.

Argentina’s ‘second’ grape variety is Bonarda. A variety from the Savoie region of France which is known elsewhere as ‘Douce Noir’. It really is a delight and a great way to branch out in the world of Argentinian red.  They are bold and have the potential to age for a long period of time. You’ll note flavours of plum, cherry, fig and touches of spices like baking spice, cinnamon and cardamom.

Beyond these two, honourable mentions must go to the Bordeaux bunch of Cab Sav and Merlot. You’ll find them in Bordeaux-style blends but also as single varietal wines. They tend to be far fresher and fruitier than old world examples of these wines and can be great when drunk young.

Moving onto white Argentinian wine, Argentina’s premier white grape variety is without question Torrontés. This great is deeply aromatic and fresh. Few wines will match the floral power of a good Torrontés. White flowers, geranium and roses are all commonly associated with this grape variety. Then, you’ll get a wealth of fruit flavours. Citrus fruits are most common. Expect lemon, lime and orange. Then, some stone fruit flavours of peach and nectarine. On occasion, you may even get a touch of tropical fruit flavours such as mango, passion fruit or melon.

Next up is Chardonnay. Chardonnay crops up across the world, so it should be no surprise that it crops up in Argentinian wine. It is varied. Many seek to emulate the Californian style of Chardonnay. So, you can get a toasty and oaky quality, with some richness. However, those which are grown at altitude can be closer to the leaner and acidic wines of Chablis.

Outside of these two Argentinian wines, you can also find some really great quality Riesling across Argentina and it is becoming one of the wines to watch. Delicate, yet complex with a defined minerality and expressive palate of white flowers, green fruit and citrus.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our review of the world of Argentinian wine. We will have been able to show you that there is much more to Argentina than just Malbec, but Malbec wine is still the driving force behind the Argentinian wine industry.

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.

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