Mendoza is Argentina’s premier wine growing region. It is a high elevation plateau that has 350,000 acres planted to grape vines at the base of the Andes Mountains. The vineyards are planted at elevations of 2,600 to 5,000 feet, making them some of the highest vineyards on the planet. While many varieties (both red and white) are planted in Mendoza, Malbec is the star and the wine that has built this region’s reputation.
According to historians, it is believed that Catholic priests were the first to plant vineyards in the region in the late 16th Century. But the catalyst for serious wine production was the construction of a direct railway line between the capital Buenos Aires and Mendoza in the early 1900s.
There are three sub-regions within the larger Mendoza region: Luján de Cuyo, Maipú, and the Uco Valley. The extreme altitude the vineyards are planted at helps contribute to the region’s unique terroir. At 2,600 to 5,000 feet in elevation, sunshine is the norm with over 250 sunny days per year. Within these sub-regions there are many distinct micro-climates and altitudes which result in a wide range of wines produced.
There is also a huge swing in diurnal temperatures: hot days and cold nights. Those hot days allow for the grapes to fully ripen in almost all vintages. Those cold nights allow the vines to recuperate from the stress-inducing heat of the day and to preserve some of the natural acidity that the heat wants to dissipate away. Not easy to farm in these conditions, but the resulting wines we tasted on a trip in 2019, show the effort is well worth it.
This is desert country where cacti and needled brushes want to grow on the sandy soils that are inter-laced with limestone. The region gets less than 8 inches of rainfall per year and the air is very dry. These are inhospitable lands, not good for any sort of crops unless you can irrigate. The soils provide lots of drainage and the very low levels of rainfall mean that the vines must struggle to rise up from the ground and the roots must dig deep to find water.
As a result, the vines produce small berries of greater concentration and deep colour.
The limestone soil is thought to contribute minerality to the wines from the region. Though many scientists would dispute this as the cause, there is no doubt that limestone-based, calcareous soils are found in numerous top wine regions (notably Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux, among others). The climate is such that in most vintages the grapes will fully ripen and fully ripe wines of modest alcohol, fresh acidity and deep concentration, characterize the region.
Water is a challenge throughout Mendoza. It is regulated by a central board who releases water to the vineyards, not when they need it, but when the regulatory board has it. A number of wineries have had to create their own water reservoirs so they can apply water to the vineyards as needed. Water is applied via flood irrigation as opposed to the more common drip irrigation. Flooding the vineyard serves two purposes: first it has the effect of drowning any potential phylloxera louses before they can develop to the point of attacking the vines and second, it causes the water to penetrate deeper into the limestone soil drawing the roots downward to a greater depth.
In Mendoza, pests and other vineyard disease is not often a problem. It hasn’t seen the devastation caused by the phylloxera louse that so many other wine regions around the world have experienced, most notably Bordeaux in the 1800s. As a result, several wineries are still working with their original rootstock.
The biggest risk vineyards in Mendoza face is hail. The hail there can come down with such force that it will smash the berries and the leaves and almost destroy the vineyard. Losing half of the crop or more is a real probability. To reduce this risk, many vineyards cover their vines with nets that stop the hail from hitting the vines. There are two problems with this system: the first is that it is very expensive to acquire, assemble and take down these nets. The second is that the netting filters the sunlight, and some think this action can somewhat inhibit the photosynthesis required to ripen the grapes.
One of the things that was particularly notable throughout our first trip to Argentina’s Mendoza wine region was the influence of the French.
Whether directly through ownership, partnership, or through reputational excellence that wineries in Argentina wanted to emulate, wine producers from Bordeaux have recently invested heavily in the region with some terrific results such as Cheval des Andes.
Charles Gotchac, a recent French transplant from Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion now working at the Mendoza project, explained to us the significance of Malbec, “Before phylloxera struck Bordeaux in the 1860s, Malbec was the most planted grape in the region. When the 1855 Classification ranked the vineyards First Growth, Second Growth and so on, they were ranking them largely on what the vineyards were doing with Malbec. After phylloxera, the Malbec was ripped out and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. But the classifications never changed.”
Our first trip to Mendoza was impressive both in terms of the quality of the wines and the beauty of the region itself. Though we barely scratched the surface of exploration visiting 5 wineries over two and a half days, all of them were excellent and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend their wines and/or an in-person visit: Cheval des Andes, Andeluna, Achaval Ferrer, Catena Zapata, and Zuccardi. Based on our experience, we’ll definitely be drinking a lot more Argentinian wine in future and we certainly hope to return again soon.