Friday, December 31, 2010

Argentine wine - a world of discovery

It is probably fair to say that when thinking of wine from South America, Chile is the first country which comes to mind. Along with South Africa, Australia and California, it has been a prominent figure on the new world shelves of supermarkets back in Europe for many years; while wine coming from neighbouring Argentina has not really featured. 

Actually Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer and with over 1,500 vineyards, is a wine guzzling country of epic proportions.

Wine production here started when the Spanish colonizers brought vines with them from Spain during the sixteenth century. Early experiments planting in Atlantic coastal regions near Buenos Aires were not successful, but in the dry, desert like Andean areas of the country, the grapes fared superbly.

The first commercial vineyard is recorded in Santiago del Estero in 1557. But it wasn’t until the completion of the Argentine rail network in 1885, when transportation to Buenos Aires became easier, that the wine industry truly started to grow; helped along throughout the nineteenth century by Italian, French and Spanish winemakers who fleeing the phylloxera epidemic that was wreaking havoc in the vineyards of their home countries, brought expertise to Argentine wine production.

It has to be said though, that despite all the European knowledge and the excellent climatic conditions, historically winemakers in Argentina were far more focused on quantity as opposed to quality.

Local taste buds were for a long time well accustomed to watery tabletop crap that was necked back merely as a means to wash down the kilos of beef that each Argentine devoured. That meant that 90% of Argentine wine was considered too poor to export, was more often than not mixed with soda water and drunk here; and hence did not gain international fame.

That is most definitely no longer the case and Argentine wine is now widely regarded as well, rather bloody tasty.

Nothing but Argentine wine here
During the 1990s as local demand for low quality wines declined, winemakers sought to improve their product, and to export. They made the most of the 1:1 peso-dollar exchange rate to purchase top quality equipment from abroad and set about sowing new plants and altering their production processes to end up with quality products.

With the 2001 economic crisis and the devaluation of the peso, new and improved Argentine wine exploded onto the international market (especially in the US and Canada, Argentina’s two main export markets) and figures have been rising steadily ever since.

In 2007, 27% of wine production here was destined for export, reaching a total of $US482.3 million. While during the first nine months of 2010 exports increased by 17.4% compared with the same period in 2009, according to data from Caucasia Wine Thinking.

The wine producing region in Argentina spreads down the side of the Andes from some of the world’s highest vineyards in the northern province of Salta, through San Juan, La Rioja, the renowned Mendoza, and all the way to Patagonia.

The country produces a variety of wines but is definitely most famous for its Malbec.

Hailing from Bordeaux, France, this grape was brought to Argentina in the 1800s on the instruction of then provincial governor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Here the Malbec grapes tend to grow in small tight clusters considered great for wine, and unlike in France, are irrigated with pure mountain water (well away from the sea), flourishing in ideal conditions in regions which enjoy over 300 days of sunshine per year. Often spending time in quality French or American oak, Malbec is well-known for its intensely deep colour, excellent nose, and unique and fruity taste. It is without doubt the wine of choice in Argentina.

Visiting and experiencing wine here for the first time can be a daunting experience. You will be confronted with wine lists sporting Malbecs, Merlots, Cabs, Bonardas, Syrahs, Tempranillos (and that’s just the reds) from bodegas (vineyards) you have probably never heard of. Making informed decisions can be difficult. Of course a wine tour in Mendoza is a typical tourist excursion where you will visit vineyards and soak up the whole process, but if you’ve just touched down in Buenos Aires and could use a little instruction before you hit the restaurants, then a great option is to do a wine tasting in the city.

Excellent presentation at Anuva Wines
Anuva Wines runs tastings out of the charming and stylish Rendez-Vous Hotel in the trendy Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. In small groups of two to eight people, their intimate, professional and very appetizing tasting is a super introduction to the glories of Argentine wine.

You will sit at a modishly decorated table while their host talks you through the five wines you will taste. A couple of whites to start and then three magnificent reds. All matched with perfectly chosen snacks to help bring out the intense flavours. Maybe a Torrontés with some peach sorbet, a Bonarda with salami and cheese, a Syrah with a meaty Argentine empanada and of course a marvellous Malbec, which always goes magnificently with some dark chocalate. With wine flowing freely, you will not only waddle out with a smile on your face, but after the great conversation and superb instruction, you'll have an improved knowledge about Argentine wine and culture. 

But for those of you who won't be visiting here anytime soon, don't fret. With exports to North America already doing well, and exports to Europe on the rise, there should be plenty of opportunity to sample some of the magnificent wine that is being produced here. 

Next time you're after a tipple for an evening in, ignore Chile and ask your local store about a bottle of Argentine Malbec, surely you won't be disappointed.


  1. In all honesty, I have tended to favour Chilean wine over Argentinian, but let us say the time has come to chance that.

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