There are probably very few seasoned oenophiles who haven’t at least tried a glass of Argentine Malbec, an intensely aromatic, deeply colored red grape variety with a signature scent of dark fruit and raspberry. Indeed, this wonderful variety, and its massive worldwide fame, is largely responsible for putting Argentina’s now thriving wine industry on the international map. Yet we tend to forget that Argentina had little or no export aspirations before the mid-1990s, no sense of belonging to a global viticultural map, contenting itself with producing vast quantities of mediocre wine, often oxidized and aged for years in vast old vats.

1990's Renaissance

However, the 1990s saw new cellars, international investment and a renewed emphasis on growing Malbec in superior terroirs, all of which led to a meteoric rise in wine quality. Today, Argentina offers a promising blend of extreme landscapes, home-grown and international talent, and a uniquely wide range of cultural influences. Next to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, one could legitimately argue that Argentine Malbec is the most widely recognized wine style in the world.

But while much success and international attention is (understandably) focused on growing Malbec to velvety perfection, we should remember that Argentina is blessed with an enviable diversity of grape varieties thanks to mid-19th-century immigration from Spain and Italy. The palette of wine styles is very varied and colorful, including racy, textured Sangiovese and Barbera, a fact that is not widely known. Nevertheless, it is the deep-colored Bonarda, probably identical to Charbono, that is Argentina’s second most planted red wine grape, and arguably the country’s most underrated asset. Other significant red grapes are mostly international in nature – excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir/Negro, all of them producing rich, savory wines with powerful flavors – albeit, few unbalanced, ‘top heavy’ alcoholic wines are made today. Pinot Noir is perhaps the most difficult variety to grow in the intense heat of Argentina in summer – the best examples are so far limited to Patagonia or Mendoza’s higher altitudes but some promising, terroir-driven wines are beginning to emerge.

Torrontes Grape

Argentina’s most distinctive white grape is Torrontes. Piercingly aromatic and floral in nature, the name Torrontes is applied to three distinct varieties. Torrontes Riojana, named after Spain’s most famous wine region, is the finest, although as you’d expect is it increasingly being challenged by international varieties such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and a smattering of Viognier – commercially successful wine styles that wineries need to export to stay afloat. There are other local curiosities, such as Criolla Grande, Cereza, Criolla Chica and Pedro Gimenez, but these are usually grown strictly for local consumption.

Mendoza and beyond

The heart of Argentina’s wine industry is, and has always been, Mendoza, situated near the Chilean border, west of Buenos Aires. It takes a stony heart not to be captivated by your first sight of the vineyards flanking the snow-capped Andes – serrated blades of rock and ice that separate Mendoza from its Chilean neighbor. It’s a complex and varied viticultural landscape, typically oases of green set in a semi-arid desert. Today there are approximately 230,000 hectares under vine, with over 1200 estates producing wine. Mendoza, centered on the vibrant city of the same name, will probably always be the dominant force in Argentine exports, but regions such as La Rioja, Salta and Patagonia are increasingly making a name for themselves in global markets.

Of course, there are great differences in terroir across this diverse and wondrous landscape, but what unifies Argentina’s premium winemakers is a focus on high-altitude viticulture. Indeed, the altitudes at which Argentine vineyards flourish would be unthinkably high in Europe. The average elevation of Argentine vineyards is over 900 meters above sea level. At this height, overnight temperatures are regularly low enough to give an attractive combination of potent flavors, good freshness, and acidity. Most new plantings are on rootstocks, for the disease phylloxera is not absent from Argentine vineyards, however, as a result of the hot, dry climate, vineyard diseases are very uncommon. Soils tend to be young and alluvial with quite a high proportion of sand in many areas. The climate is arguably far more important than the soil – the intense sunlight means that full ripeness is easy to achieve in most areas, although winemakers must be vigilant to avoid unwieldy alcohol levels and jammy flavors.

That being said, the fearsome hot, dry wind from the northeast called La Zonda, is a real liability, particularly during flowering. Conditions in Argentine vineyards are far from perfect and the weather is far from predictable. At these high altitudes, winters are cold but spring frosts can present a real danger during bud burst. Moreover, summers in the lower-altitude parts of San Juan and the south of Mendoza can be just too hot for fine wine production. Yet even in this seemingly arid landscape, it has a nasty tendency to hail, which can devastate an entire year’s crop. As a result, some growers have invested special hail nets which can also usefully reduce the risk of sunburn in Argentina’s powerful and abundant sunlight.

But perhaps the most important recent development in Argentine viticulture has been the growing tendency to match grape varieties to local conditions. In the past, there was little discipline or interest in this vital aspect of winemaking, however, producers such as Catena and Susanna Balbo have made this their top priority. Catena’s single vineyard Malbecs, grown in a variety of different terroirs, offer ample evidence of the incredible potential for Argentina to lead the way in fine wine production. There is no doubt in our minds, that Argentina will continue to challenge Chile for pole position as South America’s premier wine producer.

  • Mendoza

    Mendoza, centered on a very attractive, tree-lined city, has always been the country's most important 'vineyard,' with many very different regions and terroirs within it.

  • Salta

    There is nowhere else in Argentina, or indeed South America, like the province of Salta. It is the smallest and northernmost of Argentina's wine-growing regions, producing just over 1% of the country's total output.

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Cellar Tours

Cellar Tours is a Luxury Travel Specialist, operating since 2003 and offering exclusive Mercedes chauffeured Gourmet Vacations in Chile, France, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa, and Spain. We specialize in luxurious custom designed vacations, events and incentives related to food and wine. We are proud members of Slow Food, UNAV (Travel Agency Association in Spain), and the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals).

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