Despite a somewhat erratic history, there’s a smile on the face of the Argentinian wine industry these days. JOHN DOWNES MW reports

What’s the connection between a stroll through the streets of Buenos Aires and the wines of Argentina? Amazingly, it’s the architecture. This bustling city is full of the boulevards and châteaux of France, ornate Italian churches and spacious Spanish courtyards, a reflection of the European influences that have made Argentina’s wine what it is today. With this complex Latin/European mix of South America and Europe reflected in every glass, the wines of Argentina are set to become as famous as the tango.As Argentinian wines are the ‘new kids on the global block’, introducing Argentina is no easy task, but first impressions are a good place to start. It’s big; very big. Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world and Mendoza, the largest winemaking province, is the size of Spain.

The country is also unique. You’ve heard the story about changing water into wine? In Argentina the party trick is changing arid semi-desert into lusciously green vineyards, courtesy of the Andes, whose winter snow provides water which is transported through a criss-cross of irrigation channels. ‘Without the hand of man, not a single tree or vine could exist here,’ says Frederico Ballester, export manager of the FeCoVitA cooperative.So, if Argentina is so big, beautiful and unique, why are its wines only now appearing on our shelves? That question is answered by the country’s history, a rollercoaster ride that’s left this sleeping giant in the vinous backwater. Constantly being fed sleeping pills by successive governments hasn’t helped, but the giant is at last awakening.

In 1556 a priest, Juan Cedron, was sent over the Andes from Santiago in Chile with a bible and an armful of vines. Although the resulting ferment was mainly for church use, he became Argentina’s first winemaker. Then at the close of the 18th century, Portuguese prisoners, some of whom were viticulturists and winemakers, were sent to Argentina, so expertise entered the equation for the first time. The good times were about to dawn.

As the 19th century ended, immigration was growing. The Italian, French, German, British and Spanish immigrants all became major influences in the wine trade. The French and Italians brought style, the Germans accuracy, the British the work ethic, and the Spanish? ‘They were the raw material,’ says Frederico Boxaco of Bodegas Graffigna.By the end of the 19th century, the British had built the railway from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. Cattle and grain may have been the boom industries but suddenly the wine trade had a direct sales outlet to the fast-growing and prosperous capital. Buenos Aires breathed style and elegance and Champagne became the drink of high society. Veuve Clicquot sales between 1905 and 1920 topped 120,000 bottles a year. ‘Today’s total Champagne sales are not much more,’ says Boxaco, putting things in perspective.France was in vogue and as the thirst for French wines grew, so more French grapes were planted. Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay joined the Spanish and Italian varieties imported by the earlier immigrants. But in 1929, when Wall Street became the world’s most feared address, the music stopped and the boom became bust.The mid-1940s saw General Perón take power. It was the period of ‘self production’, and importing became difficult; the start of economic restrictions that continued into modern times. ‘Don’t forget that we were a closed economy between 1980 and 1990 with no exports or imports. Accordingly, we could only sell wine to the domestic market,’ explains Diego Correas of Bodegas Correas. Unsurprisingly, with the domestic market hoovering up an amazing 96 litres per person in 1976, the producers were not too bothered about exporting.This situation was to prove almost fatal in the 1990s, when competition arrived in the form of beer and ‘designer’ drinks. Home consumption of wine dipped to less than 40 litres per person per year and it was time for the struggling winemakers to rethink. A new slogan hit the streets: ‘export or die’.

As the Argentinians peeped through the global keyhole, a serious problem reared its head. Taste. The quality of the product for the domestic market was, to say the least, not high. Argentina’s wine industry needed to change and change it has. A quiet revolution is taking place. ‘In the last 10 years we’ve moved through 180˚ and we’re still moving, not so slowly and very surely,’ notes Bodegas Fantella’s Miguel Sanz.There is now a desire for an international viewpoint. ‘What do people outside South America think of Argentina?’ is a common question as you travel the vineyards. The Argentinians are out to please. In truth, if you discount Maradona and the tango, Argentina doesn’t have much of an international profile. Happily, though, for the country’s ‘yet to be discovered’ wines, this lack of image may be just what the doctor ordered – a white canvas on which to paint.

So there we have it, a vast country that has been handcuffed for decades and lulled into a false sense of security by its home sales; a market that shrank so drastically that exports became a necessity. Historical baggage has kept Argentina off the global wine scene, but now it is more than making up for lost time. Argentina is at a crossroads but the right decisions will ensure that its wines will stand with the world’s best.

John Downes MW is a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Written by JOHN DOWNES MW