Argentina Red Wine, Malbec is for You
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Argentina Red Wine History
The Argentine red wine industry is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. Argentine red 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 Argentina red wine production stretched first to neighboring regions, and then to other parts of the country.
Historically, Argentine red wine makers were traditionally more interested in quantity than quality with the country consuming 90% of the wine it produces. Until the early 1990s, Argentina produced more red 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. Argentina red wine started being exported during the 1990s, and are currently growing in popularity, making it now the second largest wine exporter in South America behind Chile. 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 andthe one whose economy has grown the most in the past years.
The most important Argentina red wine regions are located in the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja. Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Airesare also Argentina red wine producing regions. The Mendoza province produces more than 60% of the Argentine red 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 the well known Argentina red wine. 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. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and other international varieties are becoming more widely planted, but some varieties are cultivated characteristically in certain areas.
Argentina red wine major regions 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 whichincludes 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 daysof sunshine a year.
The northwestern wine regions are particularly prone to the effects of the hurricaneforce 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 lead to wide spread rot and fungal disease.
The Andes Mountains are the dominant geographical feature of Argentine red 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 Argentina red 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.
Argentina Wine Regions
While there is some Argentina red wine production in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and La Pampa, the vast majority of Argentina red wine production takes place in the far western expanseof Argentina leading up to the foothills of the Andes. The Mendoza region is the largestregion 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 farnortheastern corner of the country are the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta whichincludes some of the world's highest planted vineyards. In the southern region ofPatagonia, the Río Negro and Neuquén provinces have traditionally been the fruit producingcenters of the country but have recently seen growth in the planting of cool climatevarietals (such as Pinot noir and Chardonnay).
Despite total acreage planted declining from 629,850 acres in 1980 to 360,972 acresin 2003, Mendoza is still the leading producer of Argentina red wine. As of the beginningof the 21st century, the vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone was slightly less than halfof the entire planted acreage in the United States and more than the acreage ofNew Zealand and Australia combined. The majority of the vineyards are found in theMaipú and Luján departments. In 1993, the Mendoza sub region of Luján de Cuyo was thefirst controlled appellation established in Mendoza. Other notable sub-regions includethe 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 above sea level.The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climateis continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winterdormancy.
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 becomethe regions most popular planting. Cereza and Criolla Grande still account for nearly aquarter of all vineyard plantings in Mendoza but more than half of all plantings are nowto premium red varietals which beyond Malbec include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranilloand 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 receivingattention for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine producers in the region areworking with authorities to establish a controlled appellation.
San Juan & La Rioja
After Mendoza, the San Juan region is the second largest producer of Argentina red wine with over116,000 acres planted as of 2003. The climate of this region is considerably hotterand drier than Mendoza with rainfall averaging 6 inches a year and summer time temperatures regularly hitting 107°F (42°C). Premium Argentina red wine production is centeredaround 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 prominenthere 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 missionariesand has the longest continued history of Argentina red wine production in Argentina. Though a relatively small region, with only 20,000 acres 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.
Torrontés grapes, pre-veraison, growing in the Cafayate region.
The vineyards of the northwestern provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta are locatedbetween the 24th parallel and 26th parallel south and include some of the highest elevatedvineyards in the world with many vineyard planted more than 4,900 feet above sea level. Two vineyards planted by Bodega Colome in Salta are at elevations of 7,500 feet and 9,900 feet. In contrast, most European vineyards are rarely planted above 1,600 feet.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 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 Sauvignonand Tannat. Most of Cafayate region in Salta is located at 5,446 feet above sea levelsin the river delta between the Rio Calchaqui and the Rio Santa Maria. The climate of thearea experiences a foehn effect which traps rain producing cloud cover in the mountainsand leaves the area dry and sunny. Despite its high altitude daytime temperatures inthe summertime can reach 100°F (38°C) but at night the area experiences a wide diurnaltemperature variation with night time temperatures dropping as low as 54°F. There is some threat of frost during the winter when temperatures can drop as low as 21°F. Despiteproducing 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 Argentina red wine regions of Patagonia are the source of many Pinot noir grapes used for theArgentine 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 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 south of Mendoza, the vineyards of Bodega Weinert are noted as the southernmost planted vineyards in the Americas.
Grape Varieties and Wines
Under Argentine red 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 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 red 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.Malbec wine
While the historic birthplace of Malbec is Southwest France where is still widely 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 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 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 in 1990 to more than 24,710 acres 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) those some premium, old vine examples are made in the Uco Valley.Argentina Red wine production accounts for nearly 60% of all Argentine wine. The high temperaturesof most regions contribute to soft, ripe tannins and high alcohol levels.
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