Funny story time: During my tutoring session, my teacher told an amusing anecdote about a WSET Level 3 test she proctored. One woman in the back of the room became visibly upset: huffing and puffing and stirring in her seat. Finally, she grabs her paper, walks up to the head of the classroom and bursts out, “Torrontés? Torrontés??? Are you, serious? Torrontés isn’t important!” To which my teacher replied, “Well, it is in Argentina…”
Amusing, yes. But it also proves a point—all wine regions are important to understand and appreciate. And, on a personal note, I find that while I’m studying these wines different countries—many of which I’ve yet to visit—I’m also gaining an understanding and appreciation for the history, culture, and people, even if just on a surface-level.
So with that amusing and that personal anecdote, I am jumping the equator and traveling to Argentina.
To set the scene Argentina’s wine regions lie along the other side of the Andes as Chile. The regions are spread out over more than 1,500 kilometers from north to south, with most lying at extremely high altitudes—600 meters or more.
FUN GRAPE GROWING FACT: Because of the heat (Argentina has a hot, dry, Mediterranean climate), most vineyards (historically) were always planted on pergola systems, or parral. The orientation lifts grapes away from the warmth of the ground as well as provides shade from the leaf canopy. Apparently, this system is still utilized for the country’s most widely planted white grape, Torrontés, but many of the black grape varieties now incorporate a VSP trellis system that still made use of leaf canopy for shade.
So, let’s get into a little Q&A…
1) What are some of the largest grape growing challenges in Argentina?
Again, the country’s grape growing regions are overall warm/hot and dry. Especially in the shadow of the Andes, much of the vineyards on the foothills are sheltered from any passing rains. That being said, water can be drawn from the rivers that flow down from the mountain or from subterranean aquifers. For this reason, either flood or drip irrigation is commonly used to supply water.
It’s noted that spring frosts can be an “occasional problem,” but more often it’s the summer hail that’s a real danger, especially in Mendoza. Solutions? Many grape growers utilize netting to protect their grapes. But the “traditional” method of damage control: owning several vineyards in several different areas to ensure you have adequate grape supply (this also helps when it comes to the blending process as well.)
I’m also going to add a note about Patagonia. The region experiences extremely strong desert winds that flow through the area, which can cause a challenge to the grape growers. And while no specific protection is mentioned in this particular section of the book, we do know that a few typical protection methods include planting wind barriers and low-trained (bush-trained when possible) canopy management. Anyone want to add onto that point?
2) What are the main grape growing regions in Argentina?
- Salta Province: Salta is the most northerly grape growing region and FUN FACT: home to some of the highest vineyard plantings in the WORLD—with some vineyards planted at over 3,000 meters, or nearly 10,000 feet, in altitude. Torrontés is the name of the Salta game (especially in the Cafayate region), producing an aromatic white wine.
- La Rioja Province: The main vineyard area here is called Famatina Valley, and WINE BUYING FACT: most wines from La Rioja Province will be labelled as Famatina, so folks won’t get it confuzzled with the popular Spanish wine region. The area consists of a large, well-irrigated, fertile valley floor that can produce large volumes of grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Bonarda.
- San Juan: San Juan enjoys similar altitudes as its neighbor to the south, Mendoza—which is probably why it’s considered the country’s “second most important grape growing region,” though San Juan is considerably cooler than Mendoza. The San Juan grape to know: Syrah.
- Mendoza: This is a biggy and the following question will force me to dive a bit deeper into the region. But for a general perspective, Mendoza accounts for the vast majority of Argentinian grape growing and wine production. The vineyards are planted in desert conditions, protected from rain (and any oceanic influence) by the Andes Mountains to the west as well as any eastern cooling influence from the Argentine Pampas (so, it’s completely squished between two mountain ranges, basically).
- Patagonia: Interestingly, the cooling influence for Patagonia isn’t altitude (vines are planted between 200 to 250 meters high, which seems like nothing after our visit to Salta). No, the cooling influence here comes from latitude. As I mentioned before, the challenge for grape growers here are strong desert winds. However, the region experiences low annual rainfall and a wide diurnal range—that along with the long daylight hours followed by cool nights means wines can be concentrated but fresh, maintaining an overall medium-to-high level of acidity. Grapes to know: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Merlot.
3) Name the 3 most important grape growing areas in Mendoza.
Um, no. Sorry, there are five different regions, so I’m going to talk about all five. You’ll be able to tell which are “the most important.” Trust me.
- Northern and Eastern Mendoza: These two areas make up spot number one and two. They’re lumped together because they are the two areas that are focused on high volume, inexpensive wines, as the Mendoza river that flows right through both the Northern and Eastern Mendoza provides good irrigation, keeping soils fertile, and making high-yield grape growing attainable.
- Central Mendoza: This, apparently, has the longest lived reputation for producing high-quality wines and being the home of some of the country’s most famous producers. Lujan de Cuyo department within Central Mendoza is noted for its Malbec, FUN FACT: old vine Malbec. The Maipu department within Central Mendoza is known for its Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and while it’s noted that much of the lower part of Maipu provides high-volume, inexpensive wines, it is also the source of old vine Bonarda and Tempranillo.
- Uco Valley: With vineyards planted between 900 and 1,500 meters, this is the highest planted region in Mendoza. The region is home to many varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Torrontés, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and even Pinot Noir (in the coolest areas, most notably Tupungato).
- Southern Mendoza: Home to the San Rafael department. Because of its southern location, Southern Mendoza is the coolest grape growing region in Mendoza despite it’s low (comparatively) altitude vineyard plantings. Grape to know: Chenin Blanc.
4) What is the second most planted grape in Argentina?
That, to me, is a very silly and specific question. But if that’s the kind of information worth knowing, then so be it. But why not talk about a few others as well…
- Taking the top grape spot in Argentina is Malbec. FUN FACT: Not only is this grape variety considered the country’s “flagship grape,” Argentina is home to the most plantings of Malbec anywhere in the WORLD. And while you may think of your typical Argentinian Malbec as deep, full bodied, tannic, it’s noted that many winemakers are using gentler extraction methods in the winery to provide smoother, lighter, more “elegant” expressions of the black grape.
- Second place goes to Bonarda. For those of you unfamiliar with the grape (I know I certainly am), this is a late-ripening variety that produces deeply colored grapes with high acidity and tannin levels. When grown for high-yield production, the resulting wines are medium wines, “easy” to drink, with bush-berry notes. When yields are restricted, the resulting wines are more concentrated and provide more structure. The region to know is Mendoza, although they also mention San Juan as a key producer of the grape.
- Torrantés is considered Argentina’s “signature white grape.” It’s an aromatic white grape variety best fermented in inert vessels and released within vintage for immediate consumption. Regions to know: Salta, La Rioja, San Juan and Mendoza.
Other grapes grown: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot for the reds; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, and Pedro Gimenez for the whites.
5) What is Argentina’s most southerly wine region?
Ah, have you figured this one out? It’s not really a trick question if you’re paying attention, but they were a bit sneaky with this in the text as well. It’s Patagonia. The key to figuring that one out is that the “cooling influences come from latitude,” meaning it’s further away from the equator, thus colder…thus most southerly.
6) Which province in Argentina boasts some of the highest altitudes in the world?
Scroll back up. Did you find it? Salta!
Alright, how’d I do? Did I cover most of the key Argentinian wine points? Anything you want to add or correct?
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