Argentina’s vineyards have undergone a more radical transformation in the past two decades than in any other period in the country’s almost 500-year viticultural history. Returning to my homeland after 20 years in the UK, I have discovered that Argentina’s long-heralded potential is finally becoming an exciting reality. A country known for its easy-going Malbec has been transformed by a colourful spectrum of quality, diversity and nuance.
At the heart of this transformation lies the ultimate quest: to express a sense of place. This is being achieved through sophisticated modern viticulture, all the while preserving Argentina’s heritage of grape diversity. The transformation has been driven by a group of focused, passionate, thoughtful and creative producers who are, quite literally, breaking new ground.
Key to understanding the evolution of wine-growing in Argentina is the relationship between the vineyards and the mountains. The main producing region, Mendoza, is a desert. From the earliest times, wine production has been dependent on flood irrigation from Andean snowmelt. The long and intricate network of irrigation channels was originally devised by the Huarpes, the pre-Colombian civilisation that predated the Spanish arrival in the region in 1551. For hundreds of years these fixed channels limited the scope of vine plantings. However, the development of drip irrigation in the late 1980s opened up possibility of planting vines in places not previously viable for viticulture.
In search of grapes of ‘grand cru’ quality, Nicolás Catena ventured up into the mountains. ‘It was clear to me that if we wanted to produce high-quality wines, we needed to plant in cooler areas of Mendoza,’ he says. In 1993 he planted the Adrianna Vineyard in the Uco Valley’s Gualtallary region, at 1,500m above sea level. Nobody had ever tried to ripen red grapes at such chilly heights. But ripen they did, and high-altitude Malbec was born. Fast-forward to today and Gualtallary is considered one of Argentina’s top-quality sites, with 2,200ha of vineyards planted.
Since then, Argentina’s vineyard map has stretched out in every direction, into increasingly challenging terroirs, cooler areas and ever-higher altitudes. In the west, mountain vineyards are defying supposed viticultural limits. The Precordillera vineyards, for example, climb up to the Calingasta and Pedernal valleys in San Juan, rising up to more than 2,000m above sea level in Uspallata and La Carrera in Mendoza, and reaching their highest altitude (3,329m) in Uquía, Jujuy, Argentina’s northernmost viticultural region.
In search of cooler conditions, some producers are growing grapes near the coast, and, in Patagonia in the south, near riverbanks. The success of ocean-influenced vineyards in Chapadmalal (Buenos Aires) and San Javier (Río Negro) even led to the planting of a vineyard right on the beach in Bahía Bustamante (Chubut). Patagonia’s vineyards now extend as far south as Capitán Sarmiento, in Chubut, at a similar latitude to New Zealand’s southernmost vineyard region, Central Otago. Single projects have sprung up in non-viticultural areas all over the country; there are now vineyards in 18 of Argentina’s 23 provinces.
As well as planting new vineyards, wine-growers are increasingly analysing the ground beneath their vines. ‘For many years we talked about climate and altitude,’ explains Sebastián Zuccardi, one of Argentina’s most influential winemakers. The realisation that they were working with such varied alluvial soils created the need for a precise understanding of place, and how this translates into each wine. ‘What we had previously considered as a single vineyard may today be sub-divided into 35 parcels,’ adds Zuccardi.
It is hard to find a vineyard these days that doesn’t have at least one calicata. These soil pits provide a window into what lies beneath the surface and are an indispensable tool for terroir-focused wine-growers (while the specific effects of soil on wine are unproven, they are suggested by observation and experience).
Guillermo Corona is a geophysicist working in Mendoza. In 2015 he began studying the Uco Valley soils as a hobby. To date he has identified 40 sub-regions by their geomorphology. ‘My intention was simply to provide a framework for growers to understand the variations of where their vines are planted,’ explains Corona. Understanding and quantifying these diverse alluvial soils is proving to be key to accurately managing vineyards.
Of particular interest to producers of quality grapes are Argentina’s recently discovered calcareous soils – regarded by many as the holy grail of wine-growing. ‘The vast majority of Argentina’s calcareous soils have been formed in situ by the interaction of native plants and the calcium in soils,’ explains Marcelo Belmonte, viticulture director of the Peñaflor Group. The alkalinity of these soils limits the vine’s ability to absorb nutrients. This stress, in turn, promotes the production of the components crucial for making high-quality wines: tannin and flavour compounds. Also, in cool climates, the calcium in these soils yields grape juice with good natural acidity, which affects the way we perceive the texture of tannins. Belmonte calls the tannins ‘grippy’, Zuccardi ‘like liquid chalk’.
In 2013, Paraje Altamira became the first geographical indication (GI) to be classified based on soil, climatic conditions and history, rather than political boundaries. The GI was created following a six-year campaign from a group of local producers who wanted to validate the area’s reputation as one of the top sites of the valley. This marked a new chapter for Argentina’s viticulture: the arrival of the terroir-driven classification. Other Uco Valley districts Los Chacayes, Pampa El Cepillo and San Pablo are part of this new generation of GIs.
‘Nowadays, the focus of viticulture here is optimising existing terroirs and exploring new ones,’ says renowned American winemaker Paul Hobbs of Viña Cobos. Growers use leading technology to monitor key factors affecting the vines, including high-resolution drone photography, real-time satellite data to control vine vigour and water stress, and 3D soil structure profiling.
I recently visited Gabriel Dvoskin’s 2ha organic vineyard in Pampa El Cepillo, known locally as ‘the fridge’ for its cold temperatures. At one corner of the vineyard there was a giant black curtain. After studying the local geography, Dvoskin identified that cold air causing frost damage in the vineyard was coming from this particular corner. So he installed a 6m-high, 50m-long curtain to prevent this air from getting to the vines. This is a typical example of the technology, creativity and attention to detail that is having a profound impact on producers’ understanding of their vineyards and on the resulting quality of their wines.
Such attention to detail extends to farming methods. Unthinkable in the 1990s, more than 6,000ha of vineyards in Argentina are now farmed organically, and 300ha biodynamically. Sustainable farming has joined the agenda and many producers strive to make it the norm. In 2013, Bodegas de Argentina (BAAC), an association of 250 wineries, released its Wine & Viticulture Sustainability Protocol, which is tailor-made for Argentina’s local conditions. More than a dozen producers have been certified so far.
In the past decade our understanding of Malbec has changed at high speed. Continuous research is being done into the variety’s genetic diversity and complexity. New vineyard areas have been developed, old vineyards have been brought back to life and winemakers have taken a step back to allow for better site expression. For Alejandro Vigil, Catena Zapata’s winemaking director and co-owner of Bodega Aleanna, the first step was to stop making Malbecs like Cabernets. ‘We started harvesting Malbec earlier, shortening maceration times and lowering fermentation temperatures,’ he explains. ‘Now, it’s all about finding the grape’s identity and expressing it, linking it to a place: Malbec of Agrelo [in the Luján de Cuyo sub-region], Malbec of La Consulta [Uco Valley], and even down to a specific parcel of a vineyard.’
But Malbec isn’t everything. In their search for authenticity, winemakers are going back to the past. ‘We have gone out looking for old vineyards with varieties planted by Italian and Spanish immigrants more than 100 years ago,’ says Matías Michelini, founder of the Passionate Wine project in Tupungato in the Uco Valley. Grape varieties such as Criolla Chica, Moscatel, Semillon and Bonarda, to name but a few, are enjoying a revival throughout the country.
These join a new wave of Mediterranean varieties including Garnacha, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Mencía, Nebbiolo and Petit Verdot – adding further diversity to the already established Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Argentina’s winemakers are taking great strides in discovering and understanding their land. Today, the focus of quality-minded producers is on site expression rather than the sometimes overworked wines of yesteryear. The result? A new generation of fresh, vibrant and diverse wines showing a sense of place and real excitement. Argentinians have learned that less is more, and to trust the treasure beneath their feet.