Thursday, February 12, 2009

Argentina - Background, Introduction

In anticipation of a new job, I hosted a huge tasting of Argentine wines recently.

How huge was it?

It was so huge it took me nearly an hour and a half to open all the bottles...let that sink in a minute. Nearly an hour and a half opening wines. No fancy foil cutting; tear it off and insert corkscrew. A quick wag of the finger to Argentine producers - more screwcaps! That would have sped things up considerably. On the plus side, only one wine was corked.

Because of the size of the tasting, there will be multiple entries here to cover all the wines and it seems appropriate to set the scene. Despite the relatively recent explosion of Malbec awareness, and the resulting impression that Argentina just started making wine, grapes have been planted since the mid-1500's. However, early viticulture focused mostly on Criolla (kree-oya) which is known as Pais (pie-ece) in Chile and the Mission grape in California, where it was planted mostly to make sacramental wine.

After Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1816 many Italians and Germans arrived and brought new cultivars. Miguel Pouget began a School of Agriculture in Mendoza in 1853 and brought French varieties to Argentina, including, one would assume, Malbec; the grape enjoyed perhaps its height of popularity in France around that time.

So why are we only hearing about Argentina in recent years? Political uncertainty and economic turmoil prevented sufficient focus on producing quality wines. As recently as the 1950's the government offered tax incentives to replace older vineyards with new, high yielding plantings.

During the 1980's outrageous inflation caused Argentina to place price controls on wine which actually provided a disincentive to focus on quality. This unfortunate episode in Argentina's vinous history resulted in the uprooting of approximately 250,000 acres of vines.

The political shift to democracy in the 1990's and an economy based on the free market, brought global investment which subsequently attracted attention, focus and upgrades in winery technology resulting in far superior wines across the board. Suddenly, a large array of solid wines at value prices became available.

Continuing economic troubles help maintain a favorable (for the U.S.) dollar to peso ratio and help to fuel the current frenzy over Argentine wines.

Mendoza remains the best known appellation and the assumed point of origin for nearly all Argentine wine. It lies east of Santiago, Chile with the mighty Andes Mountains between them. Buenos Aires sits nearly on the eastern border of Argentina while Mendoza nestles on the west in the foothills of the Andes. A note here about foothills. Springing to my mind are gently sloping hills, easily hiked and offering an improved, but not awe-inspiring view. The Mendoza 'foothill' plantings average about 3,000 feet above sea level, and climb to well over 4,000. Everything is relative, those qualify as foothills when their mountain range boasts a peak reaching nearly 23,000 feet.

(Photo from WinesofArgentina.com)

The altitude creates a large diurnal effect (change in temperature through the day), maintaining acidity and creating long growing seasons, which bring depth and complexity to the wines. Little rain falls and irrigation is essential. Snow from the Andes provides much of the water needed.

Differences in terroir influenced by altitude will eventually create more appellations to further clarify the style of wine produced. Considering the size of Mendoza, this emerging edification is imperative. Over 350,000 acres of vines are planted in Mendoza (winesofargentina.com). That number exceeds total plantings in Bordeaux by almost 50,000 (newbordeaux.com) and is more than eight times the land devoted to grape vines in Napa Valley (wikipedia.com).

Stay tuned for notes from the tasting. I promise to make note of smaller regions as those wines are discussed to help fine tune knowledge about Argentina.

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