As with most of Argentina’s history, the story of its wine industry is a fascinating one, and a history that is so new, it’s almost as if we are still watching the dust settle on this storm which brought us the South American wine industry as we know it.
Several decades ago, Argentinians were drinking an average of 22 gallons of wine per person each year. At the same time, Americans were drinking an average of 1-2 gallons per person per year. Imports to the US? Almost nonexistent.
How things have changed. Argentinians now consume 10 gallons of wine per year (a significant decrease from the 22 gallons per person per year just a few decades ago!) while American consumption has risen to roughly 2.5 liters per person per year.
What sparked this change and brought Argentine wines to the tables of Americans? Several fascinating cultural, historical and economic factors (which any winemaker from a bodega in Mendoza will enjoy sharing with you, if you just ask).
The beginnings of Argentina’s wine industry
Vines made their way to Argentina via four different routes, but the most commonly-told story is that Argentine wine-making began in the later half of the 16th century when Spanish missionaries and conquistadors brought vines with them from Spain. Some of these vines ended up in Peru, Chile, and the United States. Thankfully for wine lovers, some also ended up in Argentina. Although wine production with these vines was high, the wines were far from spectacular; the most popular varietal, Criolla, produced a very crude wine, yet this grape served as the foundation for the South American wine industry for over 300 years.
Major changes to Argentina’s wine industry
The wines of today’s Argentina are a far cry from the crude wines of the past. What happened? And why the sudden change? Surprisingly, we have Argentina’s neighbor, Chile, to thank for this explosion in the production of quality Argentine wines.
Before Argentina experienced a rapid change in their quality of tines, Chile had given their wine industry an overhaul. Using wine-making and grape-growing technology from the United States (sometimes working with U.S. winemakers on this endeavor), Chilean winemakers re-crafted their wines to meet the palates of the American and English markets and began exporting them, with incredible success. Recognizing their own country’s potential for producing great wines, Argentine bodegas (wineries) decided to do the same. As with everything in life, timing is key: this decision by Argentine winemakers to craft wines for export happened at a time when Argentina–plagued with political unrest, military dictatorship, and a desperate need for foreign currency–desired to grow its exports. Producing higher quality wines was a key step in this process.
From there, the industry snowballed. European and American companies began investing, resulting in better wine-making and grape-growing technology, consultants to aid in wine production, and eventually, higher quality wines. Argentine wines began winning the accolades they deserved, and people began recognizing Argentine wines as quality productions. Consumption increased, sales soared, and we all drank happily ever after.
Favorable (unfavorable) conditions: the key to great Argentine wine
Any good winemaker will tell you that good wine comes from good grapes, and good grapes come from the right vineyard. In the case of Argentina, “right” means far from what you would expect the suitable conditions for grape growing to be. The best grapes actually come from vines which are “stressed”, or grown in unsuitable conditions. The dry climate of the Andes and the rocky soil are perfect for stressing grapes, making them focus all of their energy on producing fewer grape clusters. In return, these grapes are packed with flavors that are concentrated and not watery. Genius!
Because over-watering can produce weak wines, wineries often worry about the amount of rainfall their vineyards will receive each year. A year of too much rain can lead to a very weak vintage. Argentine winemakers are lucky enough to avoid this problem: the Andes mountains which border its major wine regions catch all of the rainfall as clouds make their way across the continent, so vineyards have very little rainfall each year. Irrigation is controlled using centuries-old irrigation systems, and because it is highly controlled, grape flavors are more concentrated. Argentine winemakers have another advantage over most: the climate in Mendoza is so dry that humidity-loving pests and rot are not vineyard problems.
It is important to note that although irrigation, pests, and rot are not typical problems in Argentine wineries, winemakers still face issues brought on by Mother Nature. Of particular nuisance is hail, which is prominent in Mendoza. Large hailstorms (called La Piedra) damage grapes and can destroy entire vintages. To avoid this, many wineries install nets to catch falling hail and protect the grapes. Although rainfall is generally low, an occasional heavy storm can bring about too much rainfall and rot, as winemakers discovered in 1998 with the vintage-destroying El Nino.
Argentine wine suggestions
New to Argentine wines? Lucky you: you are about to sample some delicious wines at bargain prices! To understand Argentine wines, one must try a Malbec from Mendoza and a Torrontes from Salta: these are the two main grapes of Argentina and thrive there better than they do in any other part of the world. Pair your Malbec with grilled meats and your Torrontes with a salad or anything slightly citrus-y or acidic: the slight sweetness of the Torrontes cuts the acidity of vinaigrette and is a perfect complement to salads and spicy dishes.
Learn more about Argentina with our post on its major wine-making regions.