Old malbec vineyards
Argentina's great strength is the quantity of old vineyards it has compared to Chile and Uruguay, and particularly of malbec. These old vineyards were also well planted to a relatively high density of 5,500 vines per hectare (ha), many interplanted with olive trees.
There are plenty of vineyards planted from the 1920s onwards, and more were planted in the 1960s. Some were uprooted in the 1990s. Argentina still has about 20,000 ha of malbec, whereas only 6,000 ha remain in Cahors, France.
Interesting malbec plant material
In the same way that Chile has a large gene pool of carmenère, a variety of which little remains in its native France, Argentina has a large population of malbec. Under Pedro Marchevsky, Catena did a massive massal selection of malbec plants, selecting high-quality, small-sized berries with resistance to disease, and whittled them down to a handful of selections. The best Argentine malbec is, as Robert Mondavi once described it, 'as soft as a baby's bottom.' These silky tannins are quite different from the firmer, drier style of wine found in Cahors. The difference is perhaps due to both plant material and climate.
Narrow range of climates
Compared to neighbouring Chile, Argentina has a relatively narrow range of climates. Despite spanning 18 degrees of latitude, from 40 degrees south to 22 degrees south, this range in latitude is often compensated by altitude, so the climates where the grapes are grown are quite similar. Temperature decreases by 0.6°C for every increase in altitude of 100m.
I was very surprised when I first visited the Rio Negro region in Patagonia. I was expecting mountains, trees, snow and rivers but was confronted by a flat, dusty plateau, scrubby vegetation, and quite a continental climate.
If one takes a malbec grown in southerly Rio Negro at an altitude of, say, 250m, many reach 14.5%, and in terms of ripeness it is not very different from a malbec grown in Mendoza, in the centre of the country, at 950m, or one from Salta in the north at 1600m. Even Colomé's vineyards at 2,300-3,000m near Salta produce quite ripe malbec at a similar level of alcohol, and sometimes higher levels up to 16%.
The most southerly vineyard at present is Weinert's experimental bodega and vineyard at El Hoyo, south of El Bolsón, 1,200 km south of Mendoza. This is just over the state line, into Chubut province and close to the Andes. Here, at about 400m are around 20ha of vineyards. The wines are still at an experimental stage. This is a distinctly cooler climate, cool but dry, in the rain shadow of the Andes. There are lovely mountains replete with condors. There is snow, and lakes, rivers, wonderful trees and much green vegetation, even in winter. This area is very promising but the problem is that few people want to work in such a remote place.
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This guide concentrates on Mendoza, where 146,000 ha (over 70%) of the country's 205,000 ha are planted and which has a wide range of climates and soils. We buy most of our wines from here. There are two main centres of wine production, one in and around the city of Mendoza itself and the other in the Valle de Uco, 70km south-west of Mendoza.
The City of Mendoza
The city of Mendoza, population 115,000, also gives its name to the Province of Mendoza, which has a population of just over a million. It's a vibrant city situated at 746m, rebuilt after a severe earthquake in 1861, and now full of wide, tree-lined streets and green parks watered by irrigation channels, acequias, devised by the native Huarpe tribes. Today, as in the rest of Argentina, the population is a 50/50 split of Spanish and Italian descent. Spanish is the spoken language but quite a lot of Mendocino slang is Italian and there are many pizza and pasta restaurants, as well as the wonderful asadors where one eats grilled meats, black pudding and delicious meaty sausages.
The city is surrounded by the high peaks of the Andes. Visible to the south is El Plata 6,050m and the extinct volcano Tupungato 6,570m. On the road to Chile at the border lies the highest mountain on the American continent Aconcagua, at 6,960m.
Mendoza's climate is classed as semi desert with about 232mm of rainfall a year, over 300 sunny days and only 46 days with rain. Although the rainfall total is small the distribution is slightly unfortunate, as much of it falls in the three months between January and March, with the harvest taking place towards the middle or end of March, so it is sometimes problematic. Many vineyards are planted on light, free-draining soils to mitigate this rainfall. The hail risk is very high, 30% of vineyards are damaged each year and most producers protect their best vineyards with hail nets. Much of the vineyard area is trained to the pergola system, which has a roof of leaves to protect from the sun, and the grapes hang down beneath this protective layer in dappled shade to avoid sunburn.
Irrigation is necessary for the vine to survive. It needs about 700mm of rain a year. Well managed flood irrigation can be better for quality than drip irrigation, but flood irrigation is only possible on flat land. One or two big flood irrigations a year allows water to permeate a large volume of the soil encouraging the roots to explore this large area and so avoid the problems of superficial rooting which can absorb too much rainfall near harvest time and split the berries. Drip irrigation is now being used like flood irrigation where soils have a suitable water holding capacity, ie infrequent irrigations with a large volume of water as opposed to little and often. The climate is also excellent for olive-oil production and there are many olive trees. The old vineyards have olive trees interplanted among the vines every 100m or so.
Altitude is key to the climate and the quality. Curiously, most of the land rises very gradually so the change in altitude is rarely perceptible.
The grapes needing the most sunshine to ripen, like charbono (better known here as bonarda, though not apparently related to the Piedmont variety of the same name), do well in the lower, hotter areas. Early-ripening chardonnay does best in the cooler areas where it is more appley and fresh tasting. In warmer climates it is more melony, and when grown in hot climates its produces more tropical aromas of mangoes and guavas, with a softer, oilier texture. Large crops will only ripen in the warmest areas so much bulk wine is produced in the east. The finest wines are produced in the cooler areas which preserve more aromas and the aromas are of a fresher, finer character.
Vineyards around the city of Mendoza
800m and below
To the north of Mendoza and east of Maipú (in locations such as Lavalle, San Martíin, Junín, Rivadavia) at elevations below 800m the temperature is high and good for late-ripening varieties like charbono/bonarda, or for producing large yields of good average quality.
In the Maipú region just to the east of Mendoza city, in areas such as Lunlunta the altitude is around 900-930m and suitable for making a rich style of malbec. Lunlunta begins on the northern bank of the River Mendoza and has some excellent alluvial soils of light gravel, sand and clay.
The Luján de Cuyo region is situated on higher ground to the west of Maipú ranging from about 950 to 1050m and comprises Vistalba and Compuertas north of the river and Perdriel, Agrelo and Ugarteche south of it. Agrelo has considerable amounts of clay in the soil and can produce powerful, long-lasting wines. Fine styles of malbec and ripe cabernet can be made in Luján de Cuyo.
We buy from Caro, situated in Mendoza, Fabre et Montmayou at Vistalba, from Mendel at Lunlunta, Weinert in Carrodilla and from Catena and Susana Balbo, aka Dominio del Plata, both in Agrelo. Other well-known bodegas are Cobos at Agrelo, Alta Vista at Chacras de Coria and Norton at Perdriel.
Valle de Uco 950-1,700m
Tupungato is situated at the northern end of the Valle de Uco (Uco Valley), 70km south west of Mendoza. Here the vineyards are closer to the mountains, further south and at mostly higher altitudes of around 950-1700m. Even at the same altitude, the vineyards in the Valle de Uco are cooler here than those immediately around Mendoza. Some of the finest and most aromatic wines of the whole province are being produced here. Malbecs are at their most floral and often violet-scented best here, while cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc are fine boned and cedary. Chardonnays are fresh and appley, and have high natural acid, often undergoing malolactic fermentation, which is more usually blocked in Argentina to preserve acidity. Some of the best torrontés are being produced here too, better than many of those from Salta.
I'll discuss the vineyards from north to south:
Gualtallary, near Tupungato 1,400-1,500m
Near Tupungato, Pedro Marchevsky of Catena planted a pioneering vineyard in 1992, now called Adrianna, which spans 1400-1500m. There can be snow here in spring and autumn. It is planted on a slope to minimize frost risk. Soils are alluvial and gravelly with some limestone. Along with their vineyards in La Consulta and Eugenio Bustos it is one of Catena's coolest vineyards. Many of Catena's best wines come from this vineyard, including their chardonnays which are fine flavoured and elegant and usually require partial or full malolactic fermentation as the natural acidity in the grapes is refreshingly high. Few thought malbec or cabernet sauvignon would ripen here but they do and go into the top wines produced by Catena. Other wine companies have followed and planted here, although not all the land has water.
Bodegas Salentein have remarkable vineyards here, between 1,050-1,700m, an impressive winery and a beautiful posada at about 1,600m, surrounded by walnut trees and a lovely place to stay. Their winery is built on a massive scale with deep cellars built around a huge central atrium that looks like a Bond villain's rocket launch silo! Above 1400m you can grow cool climate pinot and chardonnay here, and high class cabernet and malbec can be produced at 1,300-1,400m.
Vista Flores 1,000-1,200m
A most amazing project is Clos de los Siete masterminded by Bordeaux consultant oenologist Michel Rolland who bought, in 1998 and planted in 1999, at 5500 vines/ha, one single site that was bigger than the whole Pomerol appellation - in total, 850ha of vineyards, at 1,000-1,200m. He convinced six other French proprietors to join him as investors, making up the seven (siete) of the name. They include:
- Bodega Diamandes, belonging to the Bonnie family, owners of Château Malartic-Lagravière and Pessac-Léognan's Château Gazin Rocquencourt
- Cuvelier Los Andes, the project of Jean Guy and Bertrand Cuvelier of Château Léoville-Poyferré in Saint-Julien and Château Le Crock in Saint-Estèphe
- Monteviejo owned by Catherine Père-Vergé, proprietor of Château Montviel, Château Le Gay, Château La Gravière, and Château La Violette - all in Pomerol
- Flecha de los Andes, jointly owned by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild and Laurent Dassault of Listrac's Château Clarke and Château Dassault in Saint-Emilion
- Mariflor, owned by Rolland himself
Rolland also owns a 50-year-old malbec vineyard nearby called Val de Flores. Another Bordelais, François Lurton has a bodega here called Piedra Negra. He bought 200ha in 1996 at 1,100m and makes wines from a number of locations, including a very good, inexpensive pinot gris as well as a range of malbecs and cabernets. Bodega Las Hormigas have vineyards here too.
La Consulta and Eugenio Bustos 950-1,100m
These districts, including Altamira which is a sub district of La Consulta, at the southern end of the valley are, at the same given altitude, cooler than the others as they are further south and closer to the mountains. Altitudes are around 950-1,100m. Average maximum temperatures in the hottest month are around 28°C. This relatively cool temperature gives lovely floral aromas in malbec wines which you do not find in the hotter vineyards like Lunlunta, near Mendoza. Cabernets are cedary, not jammy. Soils are free-draining mixtures of sand, silt and gravel with some limestone of alluvial origin giving the wines quite a fine and silky texture. Catena, Mendel and 55Malbec all have vineyards here, and we buy some of their wines.
55Malbec produces its Teho blend from a vineyard planted in 1955, which inspired the name of the company. There is 4ha of malbec planted to a density of 5,555 vines/ha, at an altitude of 1,050m. It is flood irrigated. Soils are light, silty and with low vigour. Yields are about 42hl/ha.
Rio Negro, 750km south of Mendoza
Rio Negro makes much of the fact it is in Patagonia, but this part is a desert far away from the both the greenery of the mountains to the west, 300km, and the cooling sea to the east, 500km. Formed by the confluence of the Limay and Neuquén Rivers at Neuquén, the Rio Negro (meaning black river) runs eastwards along a glacial bed about 15km wide, sunk beneath an arid plateau. Noticing the large amount of water in the river, British engineers began in 1828 to dig a series of canals to irrigate the land.
Rio Negro has been best known for producing about 70% of the country's apples and pears. Lying beneath the plateau cold air drains into it and there is a considerable frost risk. Oil burners are lit, as in Chablis, to prevent frost damage to the orchards. The altitude is about 250m and the rainfall is similar to that of Mendoza, at about 200mm a year. The soil varies. In parts there are considerable alluvial pebbles and limestone soils. The average maximum temperature in the month before harvest is approximately 28ºC, and the average minima 9ºC. There are about 3,800ha of vineyards.
One of the oldest established producers is Humberto Canale, situated at Gral Roca near J.J.Goméz. Humberto Canale himself was a pioneering engineer who played a significant role in developing agriculture in Patagonia; he founded and built the winery in 1909 in the heart of Rio Negro province. Four generations later, Guillermo Barzi Canale has succesfully steered the Humberto Canale winery through its 100th vintage.
Near General Roca is Fabre et Montmayou's property which has 50ha of vines of malbec, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and semillon.
Some fame and glamour has been brought to the area by Hans Vinding-Diers who, with his wife, Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, founded Bodega Noemía producing their first wine in 2001 from tiny plots of very old malbec.
Hans Vinding-Diers also makes the wine at Bodega Chacra, owned by Piero Incisa, grandson of Mario Incisa Della Rochetta, the creator and proprietor of Sassicaia. He bought his first vineyard here in 2004. This property makes tiny quantities of principally pinot noir again from tiny plots of very old vines. Both the wines of Noemía and Chacra can be excellent, although very expensive.
I have visited both Canale and Fabre et Montmayou, and have, in the past, bought some wines from the latter under the Infinitus label. However, although it is claimed that this is a cool area - and I think February is cooler here than in Mendoza - many of the malbecs reach 14-14.5% alcohol by volume, so in effect, this is really no cooler than parts of Mendoza province at 1,100-1,500m. For me, Rio Negro usually promises more than it delivers, although, as the wines of Noemía and Chacra show, there is great potential.
Valles Calchaquíes, Salta, Tucumán, Catamarca
Cafayate in Salta province, some 1,050km north of Mendoza, situated at 1,683m, is the historic centre of wine production based on torrontés with considerable plantings of malbec too. Other areas of Salta with vineyards are San Carlos, Molinos, Payogasta and Cachi. Wine production has now spread into neighbouring valleys and provinces including Santa María in Catamarca and Amaichá del Valle in Tucumán. About 4,500ha of vines are planted here.
This is a very warm and dry area with over 300 days of sunlight. The heat is moderated by the altitude, as the vineyards range from about 1,600-3,111m, some of the highest in the world. Many vineyards are pergola trained, the bunches hanging down in the dappled shade formed by the canopy of leaves above. Torrontés is very sensitive to sunburn, which produces a bitter flavour in the wine, and so is usually trained in this way. Red grapes react to the huge amount of ultraviolet light at these altitudes by producing a lot of protective anthocyanins (colour) that result in very deep-coloured skins. This colour then combines with the tannins during fermentation to give a velvety, voluptuous texture. Such conditions produce ripe wines with malbecs reaching 14-16%.
One of the oldest properties in the region is Bodega Colomé which can trace its history back to 1831. Family owned for 170 years in total, it was briefly sold in 1969 but bought back in 1982 by Raúl Dávalos, direct descendant of the original owner, Nicolás Severo de Isasmendi y Echalar, who was also Governor of Salta. It was Nicolás' daughter Ascensión who, in 1854, first brought pre-phylloxera malbec and cabernet sauvignon vines from France to Colomé and grapes from three vineyards (with an area of 4ha each) planted in that year are still used in the production of their wines. Raúl's winemaking established a fine reputation for the property, which, since 2001 has been under the ownership of the Hess Group.
Today there are 140ha split over four sites planted at some of the highest altitudes in the world; La Brava (1,750 m) in Cafayate, Colomé (2,300m), where the vineyards surround the winery, and around Payogasta El Arenal (2,700m) and Altura Máxima (3,111m). The Reserva Malbec is made from 150-year-old pergola vines planted at 2,300m. It reaches 16%.
Having sold Colomé to Hess, Raúl Dávalos set up Bodega Tacuil near Molinos at 2,597m, and now has 10 ha.
Bodegas Etchart founded in 1850 are another long established company based at Cafayate, who were bought by Pernod-Ricard in 1996. Arnaldo Etchart left in 1996 and, with Michel Rolland, formed San Pedro de Yacochuya, where there are 16ha of malbec, cabernet, tannat and torrontés planted at 2,100m. Some of the malbec is 60 years old. The first vintage was produced in 1999.
New projects are currently being developed in Salta by a couple of Mendoza producers, Alta Vista and Manos Negras.
Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon blends
Malbec and cabernet sauvignon have proved to be very complementary. Malbec once widely planted in Bordeaux but has been declining in France because of its sensitivity to coulure, frost, downy mildew and rot. But it thrives in Argentina's climate and generally produces soft voluptuous wines, usually grown on silty soils, with floral scents from the cooler areas of Mendoza like Altamira and Gualtallary, and prunier aromas in hotter areas like Lunlunta. Like most wines it gains more tannic structure when grown on clay soils like Agrelo's.
Old-vine malbec is especially fine. Malbec produces a lot of colour and not so much tannin. Cabernet has high colour and tannin. Co-fermenting the two can be interesting as any spare colour from the malbec combines with any spare tannin from the cabernet forming a long chain of polymerised anthocyanin-tannin complex, which is soft and smooth to the taste. Unbound tannins are harder and more aggressive. Even if not co-fermented, they will bind together when blended.
A lot of the best Argentine wines are blends of these two varieties:
Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blends
Fabre et Montmayou Grand Vin
Cheval de los Andes
Nicolás Catena Zapata
Dominio del Plata Brioso