In the planisphere of wine, Argentina occupies a curious place: neither old nor new world, each one with its own part to play. But more importantly, it offers things that are unique, not only for its terroirs but also for its people. In this article we review seven things you need to know about Argentina, its wines and its food.
Altitude, the secret. Argentina has a handful of vineyards next to the ocean, like most growing regions of the world, but has the bulk of its vineyards between 600 and 2000 meters above sea level. This factor means that along a 1500km line of mountains several oases are developed in which the vines grow under widely varying conditions, all linked to a single factor: altitude. The altitude compensates for the latitude since, for every 150m of ascent, the average temperature drops by 1°C. So it is possible to make wines in Jujuy, on the Tropic of Capricorn, and in Capitán Sarmiento (Chubut) on the 45º parallel south latitude. And the scenery changes from rugged mountain valleys and villages of cactus in the north, to desert plains and broad valleys in the centre, finishing off in well nourished forests or on the green coastline of the ocean. Naturally, the wines also change.
The desert, a vast landscape. Beyond the altitude, the common denominator of Argentine wine is the desert. Since 99% of the vineyards are planted on irrigated oases. Three key points influence the wines:
1) controlled irrigation water, the harvests are roughly coupled in volume and quality, except those years when the uncontrollable El Niño touches down;
2) 2) the sun is a constant, producing reds with a deep red colour;
3) 3) the breadth of the temperature range between day and night becomes a natural systole and diastole, which produces reds with structure and body. Thus, the low, warm deserts, of the East of Mendoza or the central valleys of San Juan, give aromatic reds with little structure, while the high altitude terroirs, like the Uco Valley, Luján de Cuyo and the Valleys of Calchaquíes, provide fruity reds, with good structure and natural concentration.
A long history. Contrary to popular belief, Argentina is a country with a long history of wines. Its international position as a producer came about fairly recently, beginning in the 1990’s and especially in 2000. However, the wine regions of western Argentina such as Mendoza, San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca and Salta – have been in production for 300 years. This explains why there is such a vast knowledge of the terroir and its management when making wine. The best example is Torrontés: a native variety, grown since the beginning of 1700, which is now internationally recognised.
Immigration, key component Between 1860 and 1930, over five million people came to Argentina, mainly from Italy, Spain and France, but also Lebanon, Poland and Germany among many other countries. They settled mainly in the east, although many migrated west in search of new opportunities. So in the span of a lifetime, Argentina developed a palette for the wine and gastronomic flavours of the immigrants. Wine was however, the key. Today, as well as Malbec, Cabernet and Merlot, it is possible to find vineyard varieties as curious as Canari, Tocai Friulano and Touriga Nacional. Along with others, they make up a very large varietal area, a natural lung for the requests that future markets will begin to ask for.
Diversity. Precisely because of its long history, and because there are many productive oases, Argentina offers an unusual diversity of regions and wines, which the world is only now acknowledging. On the one hand, varieties and forms of cultivation; on the other, soils and climates. Thus, behind a variety like Malbec, many styles of wine are hidden if the tasting is by terroir: matte reds, spicy and powerful in Salta; violet and fruity reds in Lujan de Cuyo; deep violet reds, floral, fruity and structured in the Uco Valley; violet, slightly herbal and fruity reds in Patagonia. And all that, without going into other varieties or styles. Because Argentina offers a vast range of wines to discover.
What do Argentines drink? With a long tradition of consumption, today we drink about 19 litres per capita per year (2019). Mostly red, with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon being the most popular. In the last thirty years, however, customs have changed: we went from being a country that consumed low cost wines at all meals, to one that consumes better quality and higher priced wines, with some meals. In addition to other structural changes, this generated an exportable surplus that, from the beginning of the 1990s, internationalised the Argentine taste for wine. So, today you can find everything from everyday, light reds with accessible price ranges, to high-end reds and whites. Together on the shelf with wines from many other countries.
It’s not all asado. (bbq) What catches the attention of foreigners the most with regards to Argentine culinary customs is meat and asado. And it’s true: there is a cult of asado, a ritual meeting with family and friends, a discussion of cooking techniques and the expertise of the parrillero (the person making the asado) in order to achieve the very best. However, the asado is at most a weekly gathering. Meanwhile, dry and especially fresh pastas, pizzas with mozzarella, empanadas of all kinds and milanesas, coupled with excellent quality vegetables and dairy products, make the local diet more complex. A diet which is accompanied by wines, from light rosé wines to deep reds, to aromatic and well rounded whites.
With this background, the next time a bottle from Argentina is uncorked, whether it be Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon or Torrontés, besides the usual descriptors in the glass, there will also be a more distant and full horizon from a country that has so much to give and discover, locked in their bottles.