Argentina is a land of many riches, but silver is not one of them — something that the early Spanish explorers did not know when they named the country (argentum is Latin for silver). Though the precious metal was discovered in other South American countries it was never found in Argentina, but the name stuck.
The second largest country (in size and population) in South America, after Brazil, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world. Made up of 23 provinces, one of which includes part of the island of Tierra del Fuego, it is bound on the northeast by Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay, on the south and east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Andes. Argentina also lays claim to a 49 degree wedge of Antarctica which ends at the South Pole (which overlaps with claims by both Chile and Britain), as well as a few South Atlantic islands which are currently under British control.
While most of Argentina lies in the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere, climates do range from tropical in the north to sub-Antarctic in the south. In general, the climate of the country is moderated by the proximity of the oceans on either side and, obviously, this influence is heightened the further south one goes in this cone-shaped country. The towering barrier of the Andes also plays an important role.
The country can be roughly divided into six geographical zones: the marshy Mesopotamia in the northeast, the forested Chaco region of the central north, the high plateau of the northwest, the mountainous desert of the west, the windy plateaus of Patagonia and the fertile central pampas. Within these areas, one can find everything from steamy subtropical jungles to the lofty continental ice cap and just about any kind of environmental feature in between.
The isolated northeast reach of Argentina is referred to as Mesopotamia, as most of it lies between the Parana’ and Uruguay Rivers (just as the original Mesopotamia was found between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). The whole area is crosscut by rivers and streams and a great deal of the land here is marshy and low. Along the northern border with Brazil sits the magnificent Iguazu Falls which has more than 275 separate cascades dropping over 200 feet through the lush subtropical forest.
The north central area of the country is known as the Chaco (dialect name for hunting ground) for the many forms of wildlife that are found in this largely undeveloped region. The area is covered by flat jungle plains and the drier chaquena savanna. The Chaco lies within the Rio de la Plata river basin where forests contain high quality hard woods and lumbering has become a major industry. One of the most important economic activities is the harvesting of the Quebracho tree. This tree produces a resin used in the tanning of leather and fine leathers are a major product of the cattle industry in Argentina.
Going west from the Chaco, one reaches the plateau region of the northwest where the bordering Andes create an arid or semi-arid environment over much of the terrain. Here the elevation rises steadily until it reaches the high plateau on Argentina’s northern border with Bolivia and a dry, cold desert, which covers part of Chile, can be found as well. Further to the east, the climate is mountain tropical with mild winters. Along with cattle ranching, there are vineyards, olive and citrus groves, as well as tobacco and sugar cane plantations. Vegetable farms lie in the valleys and at the foot of the mountains.
South of the Rio Colorado, covering more than a quarter of Argentina, is Patagonia where a series of dry plateaus drop from the Andes toward the rugged cliffs of the Atlantic coast. The Patagonian Andes are lower than those to the north and are dotted with lakes, meadows and glaciers.
The central steppes are battered by sharp winds and, to the south, these winds become nearly constant. In the low, wide river valleys of northern Patagonia, fruit and vegetable farming is made possible with irrigation. To the south, between the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, lies Tierra del Fuego. The climate here is sub-arctic despite its name, though the nearness of the Atlantic and Pacific waters helps to moderate the temperatures somewhat and some parts of the island are quite green.
Argentina’s grassy heartland or pampas are, perhaps, the terrain that Argentina is most noted for. These fertile plains were the home of the legendary gaucho and today are the base for a large percentage of the nation’s economic wealth. These grasslands cover much of the central region of Argentina stretching south, west and north in a radius of 600 miles from the city of Buenos Aires. Argentines boast of the richness of the pampean earth, some swearing the topsoil reaches a depth of six feet while others insist it reaches sixteen feet.
The pampas has two subdivisions: the humid pampa in the eastern portion of the country, mostly in the province of Buenos Aires, and the dry pampa which lies further to the west where the Andes help bring about a less humid environment.
The humid pampas support much of the nation’s agriculture, grains (primarily wheat), and is the heart of the nation’s cattle industry. It is the grass-feeding of the cattle which gives Argentine beef its celebrated flavor.
However, it is the central western section of Argentina, comprising the provinces of San Juan, Mendoza and San Luis, known as the Cuyo that is most important for the production of wine. The Andes here become a single towering range with many peaks over 21,000 feet. West of the city of Mendoza lies Aconcagua, at 23,034 feet, the highest peak in the world outside Asia.
Here in the Cuyo, fingers of desert extend eastward from the glacial mountains down into the plains. Much of the land here is dry, wind-eroded and dotted with scrub vegetation. Rivers nourished by the melting snows of the Andes cut through the desert. It is these rivers which, with the help of extensive irrigation, allow for large scale agriculture (including the production of wine) in the region. Citrus fruits are also found here and the Cuyo is blessed with mineral wealth in the form of copper, lead, uranium and oil.
The cities of the area are some of Argentina’s oldest and, today, Mendoza is the largest city in the Cuyo with a population of 600,000. Mendoza’s mountains and rushing white water rivers have also made it an adventure center. However, as old as the town is, little remains of its original colonial architecture. The whole region is periodically racked by earthquakes, some of them quite severe. One such quake in 1861 killed 10,000 and leveled the town of Mendoza. Rebuilding was done with an eye to averting further disaster. Another quake, in January 1985 left 40,000 homeless but caused few fatalities.
In spite of Mendoza’s relatively modern appearance, it has a long history of which its residents are quite proud. It was from here in 1817 that General San Martin launched his march with 40,000 men across the Andes to liberate Chile and Peru.
The main attractions of the farming and mining province of San Luis are the San Jeronimo hot springs and the Inti Huasi grottos, an 8,000 year-old archaeological site with cave paintings and petroglyphs.
San Juan’s excellent wines vie with those of its neighbor Mendoza. Other points of interest are the Pismanta hot springs and the San Guillermo wildlife reserve, full of guanacos, ostriches, condors and vicunas.
In a country full of surprises and little publicized delights, this west-central region holds more than its share. Cuyo is now the center of the country’s enormous wine industry and a whole array of fruits and vegetables are grown for eastern markets. The area has also proved to be rich in mineral wealth if not the gold that the early explorers had hoped to find, including vital petroleum.
Buenos Aires located in the east to the south of Uruguay, has alternately been described as the Paris of South America or a “most civilized anthill” (Paul Theroux). It is exuberant, stylish and full of great pretense and hot gossip…but it is more. It is a city that began as a center for contraband and has continued its subterraneous life.
The portenos (people of the port) might complain bitterly about the city, look to Paris for trends in style and admire the European way of life, yet few would choose to live outside Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires was the last major city in Latin America to be founded yet, today, is one of the largest. The city’s landscape is varied. There are wide boulevards and narrow cobble stone streets. Downtown boasts charming boutiques, outdoor cafes, simple but elegant restaurants and grand cinemas and theatres. In residential areas, ornamental old apartment buildings with French-doors open onto plant-filled balconies and stand side-by-side with modern buildings 12 stories high. There are innumerable parks and plazas.
The history of Argentina has been written in blood. There have been periodic outbursts of democratic rule in the past, but the tradition of representative government does not run deep in the people of this remote South American nation.
Paradoxically, Argentina has assisted in the liberation of minds and souls throughout the countries of Latin America, exerting intellectual power and military force on behalf of other Latin peoples during the course of its history.
Heroic actions such as San Martin’s crossing the Andes, the liberation of workers from a status similar to serfdom have, unfortunately, been overshadowed by an ultra-nationalistic conceit that has proven time and again to be self-defeating.
The conflict between Buenos Aires and the interior, a problem that persists to this day, has also been a major obstacle in the development of the nation.
From a European perspective, the first half of the 16th century was a period of intense exploration on behalf of the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns. Not quite 10 years after Columbus’ first voyage to the new world, Amerigo Vespucci was probing the eastern shores of South America. Today, many credit him with the discovery of the Rio de la Plata, although standard Argentine accounts cite Juan de Solis as the first European to sail these waters.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, on his voyage to the Pacific, was the next explorer to reach what is now Argentina. Then came Sebastian Cabot. Sailing under the Spanish flag and drawn by rumors of a mountain of silver, he was the next to venture into the Rio del la Plata region in 1526.
The Spanish nobleman Pedro de Mendoza led a very large expedition to the area and on February 3, 1536, he founded Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires. The natives were at first helpful but then turned furiously against the Spaniards. Mendoza never did locate the great mineral wealth he was seeking.
In the mid-16th century, the Spanish colonies along the western coast of South America sought to expand their territories beyond the Andes to the east in what is today Argentina. They, too, were driven by reports that these lands held a vast wealth of gold, similar to what had been found further to the north. Several of the early Chilean efforts of settlement were wiped out by repeated Indian attacks. Conquistadors from Peru had better luck staking their claims to the north.
In 1553, Francisco de Aguirre founded Santiago del Estero for the Spanish vice-royalty of Peru. It is the oldest surviving settlement in all of Argentina. The explorers from Peru went on to found the towns of Tucuman, Salta and Xiu Xiu (Jujuy). The Chileans were eventually successful in establishing their domain further to the south in the Cuyo, parallel to Chile’s Central Valley. Although this side of the range was barren and very arid (Cuyo means desert land in the dialect of the local Indians), it was cut through by rivers flowing down from the melting Andean snows.
The first permanent settlement in the Cuyo was made at Mendoza, a site chosen for its location across from Santiago at the eastern end of the Uspallata Pass, the major access through the Andes in the region. Pedro de Castillo founded the town in 1561 and named it for Hurtado de Mendoza, the governor of Chile. Not long after, the town was relocated several miles to the north.
In 1562 Juan Jufre founded San Juan, to the north of Mendoza, a third Chilean town was started to the west in 1568.
For all of the following century and most of the 18th, the northwest was the center of most activity in Argentina. This was mostly due to protectionism on the part of the king of Spain, who prohibited traffic on the Rio de la Plata. Manufactured goods from Spain and enslaved Africans were shipped in a South American triangular trade via Panama and then Peru. The king’s ruling was of great benefit to Lima and Mexico City but kept the Rio de la Plata estuary isolated and commercially backward.
The Spanish Crown finally established the eastern viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata in 1776 to accommodate the growing importance of the port of Buenos Aires. At this time, the Cuyo and the Peruvian holdings to the north passed to the jurisdiction of the new territory. However, the Cuyo remained isolated from the east for many years and its strongest economic and cultural ties were with central Chile.
Another important appearance around this time was the rise of the gaucho which came with the large ranches established in the late 18th century. The gaucho (Argentine cowboy) represented a lifestyle quite different from that of the perfumed and well-groomed inhabitants of Buenos Aires.
The growing importance of the viceroyalty did not go unnoticed in Europe and in 1806 the British invaded Buenos Aires and captured Montevideo. After being repelled, not by the Spanish army but by the local inhabitants, creation of rudimentary provisional government helped foster an independent minded local elite.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in 1808 provided the final push for a rupture in relations between the Crown and the locals. However, a lack of unity in the colonial society made the realization of an independent nation much more of a tortured process.
The task of ridding the continent of Spanish armies fell to Jose de San Martin who, in 1817, crossed the icy Andes at Mendoza and defeated the Spanish army at Chacabuco in Chile. His next move was to convoy his army to Lima. The Spanish evacuated without fighting. It was at this time that San Martin met Simon Bolivar. The upshot of this meeting was that San Martin retired from battle leaving the remaining honors to be poured on Bolivar. San Martin was posthumously elevated to sainthood by the Argentines and, today, every town in Argentina has a street named after him and every school a photo of the general crossing the Andes on a gallant white horse.
One of Latin America’s most intriguing, if blood thirsty-figures, must be Manuel de Rosas who ruled much of Argentina as his personal domain for over 20 years (until 1852). His despotic rule kept the country from attracting much needed immigrants and foreign capital and did nothing to help the growth of the nation.
In 1880 Argentina entered its golden age which lasted until the outbreak of World War I. An enormous number of European immigrants arrived, while exports to Europe soared. It was during this time in 1884 that the isolation of the Cuyo was broken with the completion of the transcontinental railway and today, the region is well integrated into the Argentine economy.
But politics remained closed to most Argentines. The Radical Civic Union governed from 1916 until 1930 and then staged a comeback in 1937 with the fraudulent election of Roberto Ortiz. Ironically, Ortiz then set about restoring voter confidence by trying to cleanse the political system of corruption. When he died in office, his successor, Ramon Castillo, immediately reversed his predecessor’s campaign. It was during this regime that Juan Peron, who only served as President for 11 years (from 1946 – 1955), emerged.
Along with his consort Eva Duarte, who he later married, Peron was the leader during the golden age when the country possessed a healthy surplus, workers salaries increased greatly and industrialization proceeded. Peron’s greatest achievement was to harness the energy of the Argentine laborer.
Severe droughts and a decrease in the international prices of grain led to a 50 percent increase in Argentina’s trade deficit during Peron’s presidency. Eva Peron’s death shortly after her husband’s second inauguration left him without one of his most successful organizers and contributed to the malaise the nation was experiencing.
In 1955, Peron was overthrown and fled to Paraguay. During the next 18 years Argentina would suffer nine leaders, none of whom succeeded in taming the economic demons that tormented the country’s health. By 1973 Peron was back as president with his new wife Isabel as vice-president. The sudden death of Peron in 1974 brought Isabel to power, though she was no Evita and had little to offer Argentina. Finally, in 1976 she was removed from office.
The military ruled from 1977 – 1983 in what has become known as the Proceso or process. It was during this time that anyone suspected of anti-government activity, and this was loosely interpreted by the military, could be made to disappear. It is quite ironic that the military was forced from power trying to fight a conventional war. In April of 1982, they invaded the Malvinas or Falkland islands, hoping the British government would not fight but just relinquish her claims to the islands. This was a major miscalculation. Argentina lost and the military was deposed.
Finally, democracy returned with the inauguration of Raul Alfonsin in 1983.
When in Buenos Aires, you might wish to dine as the Argentines, to eat what they normally eat. This comes down to beef: grilled, broiled, fried or boiled. Beef is easy to find here. Almost every block has at least one restaurant and the betting is ten to one that it will contain a parrilla (grill). Off the parrilla one can opt for a rib steak, a rump steak, a strip rib or a number of other variations. There will also be a complete and extensive variety of sausages and offal (entrails), some of which are rarely if ever seen on a respectable US or European menu.
Some of the terms you might encounter include: bife, a steak, but it can come in many shapes. The most common are the bife de costilla and the bife de chorizo, the former is a T-bone and the other has nothing to do with the spicy local sausage, but rather is a large thick steak cut from the underside of the rib roast.
Asado is a general term meaning roast, but it is most frequently used in the sense of an outdoor barbecue. Tira de Asado is a thin strip of rib roast if prepared on the grill, but it is much thicker, with more bone, when done on the asador (vertical spit.)
Chorizo is a spicy sausage, salchicha is a long, thin, slightly less spicy sausage and morcilla is a blood sausage. A parrillada mixta is a mixed grill which, in addition to most or all of the above, will probably contain rinones (kidneys), mollejas (sweetbread), chinchulin (the lower intestine, truly delicious when well crisped), ubre (udder) and higado (liver). Chicken is frequently included as well. A parrillada mixta will usually serve two Argentines or four to five innocent tourists.
Apart from beef, in many of the better parrillas (steakhouses) one can usually find chicken, lamb and kid on the menu. French fries and salads are the standard side dishes. Beef with the local red wine is a hard combination to beat.
Desserts are not an Argentine strong point in spite of a national sweet tooth. Dulce de leche is a milk jam, overpoweringly sweet. It can come alone or be served with a flan (baked custard). Queso y membrillo (or Batata) is a combination of cheese with quince preserve or sweet potato preserve and can be very good indeed.
Fruit salad and canned peaches are two other fixtures on most menus. Just one last mention, empanadas or turnovers, very much like Cornish pastries, can be fried or baked and come with a variety of fillings, mostly beef-based. Empanadas should not be missed.
THE WINE INDUSTRY
The wine industry began in earnest in the mid-19th century with the arrival of many Italian and French immigrants. Although this remains a substantial part of the economy, it was the development of the petroleum industry in the 1950s that brought real prosperity to the Mendoza area (known as the Cuyo, an Indian word for this arid zone), the center of wine growing activity.
While Mendoza is nowhere near the metropolis that Buenos Aires is, it has its own charm and a wealth of cultural activity. Transplanted residents from the capital boast a happy conversion to the Mendocinos’ more relaxed pace.
Argentina is the most important wine producing country in South America. In fact, it is the fifth (some say fourth) largest producer of wine in the world with an average of 21 million hectoliters per year. However, until 1970 Argentina consumed every drop of wine it produced. Cuyo is the heart of Argentina’s wine country; the arid climate, sandy soil and year-round sunshine makes this ideal for viticulture. Vines are nurtured by the melting snows of the Andes and the mountains themselves, add colorful drama to every scene.
Almost 90 percent of Argentina’s wine is produced in the Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan, with Rio Negro, Salta and La Rioja producing the rest. Fine wines represent between 6 and 8 percent of production, with jug wines, regional wine and a few special wines (sherries, ports, vermouths) making up the balance.
South America depended upon the Spanish and the import of vinifera vines from Europe for their wine industry, unlike North America whose early settlers found Vitis Labrusca growing.
It is thought that the first vines arrived in Argentina in 1541 directly from Spain, while a few years later expeditions from Peru brought the seeds of dried grapes. Finally, from Chile’s Central Valley in 1556, the most important import of vines came.
Although settlements were founded in both the east and the west, it was in the foothills of the Andes that the Jesuit missionaries found the best conditions for vine-growing. The first recorded vineyard was planted in Santiago del Estero in 1557. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561 and vineyards in the province of San Juan, to the north, were planted on a commercial scale between 1569 and 1589.
Use of dams and irrigation channels allowed the early settlers to produce sufficient quantities of wine for the growing population. In the 1820s, following the liberation of Argentina, there was an influx of European immigrants. By 1885, a railway linking Mendoza and Buenos Aires gave even greater importance to the foothills of the Andes. The early 1900s brought another wave of settlers, many from Italy, Spain and France, who brought with them many new varieties, skills and techniques for producing better wines and the foundations of Argentina’s huge wine industry were laid.
Although per capita consumption has declined notably in recent years, it is still high, at approximately 61 liters per year. Wine has been made in Argentina since the time of the conquest but it has only been in the last 90 years that winemaking has become an important and organized activity; there are not more than four or five wineries with more than a century of uninterrupted production and only one with more than 140 years of continuous production (Gonzalez Videla, founded in 1840).
Some 2,000 wineries now exist. Faced with a dramatic drop in home consumption, the more enlightened producers decided to go upscale in the late 1980s.
Argentina follows the 85% (formerly 80%) rule. That is, if one grape variety is used on the label, the wine must contain at least 85% of the designated grape. If more than one varietal appears, the predominant grape must be listed first with others in descending order.
In March 2011, the Argentinean National Institute of Viticulture defined the wine terms “Reserve” (Reserva) and “Great Reserva” (Gran Reserva). The new definitions will provide clarity to consumers and facilitate trade. The resolution will take effect with the release of the 2011 vintage. According to the resolution, Argentine wines may incorporate the terms Reserve or Great Reserve on their labels if they meet the following requirements:
• Minimum period of aging: 12 months minimum period of aging for red wines and 6 for white and rosé (pink) wines.
• Minimum aging period: 24 months for red wines and 12 for white and rosé (pink) wines.
• All components of wines made up of various years of production must comply with the minimum aging time.
Argentina’s wine regions are widely dispersed, though they are almost entirely confined to the foothills of the Andes. The climate here is mainly semi-desert, yet vineyards of the Andes are blessed with a prolonged and relatively trouble-free ripening season and an abundance of water from the melting snows. This results in spectacular vegetal growth. However, skillful vineyard practices are vital for the drive in quality. It is a measure of changing attitudes that during the 1970s, Argentina regularly produced well over 20 million hl (528 million gallons of wines), but in the early 1990s production had stabilized at around 15 million hl. This was largely brought about by a reduction of a third during the 1980s in the total area planted with vines, especially red wine grape varieties.
Temperatures range from 50F at night to 104F during the day. Summers are hot in the regions of San Juan (except the Calingasta Valley), La Rioja, Catamarca and east of Mendoza (Santa Rosa, Rivadavia, San Martin and Lavalle). In the Calchaquies Valley (Cafayate), upper Mendoza (Lujan de Cuyo), Uco Valley (Tupungato) and Rio Negro, summers are temperate to warm, making them Regions II and III in the Winkler system. In winter, temps can drop below 32F.
The little rain that occurs, falls mainly in the summer, but the plentiful snows of the Andes ensure a great supply of water for irrigation.
The air is dry here and typically unpolluted, unlike the smog that is sometimes trapped over Chilean vineyards closest to the capital, Santiago. Vine flowering is occasionally adversely affected by a hot, dry hurricane-force storm called the zonda which blows from the northwest in early summer. A lack of humidity reduces the risk of fungus, which just about eliminates the need for frequent spraying.
Almost all of the vines in Argentina are ungrafted, planted on their own roots, as Phylloxera has made only limited inroads in Argentina (likely due to a relatively high proportion of sand in the soils). Average vine life has been approximately 50 years. Landscape here is quite unique, with the well-irrigated vineyard areas resembling oasis amidst scorched earth
Typically three methods of irrigation are used. Flood irrigation, the most common, where massive amounts of water cascade into flat vineyards; furrow irrigation, whereby the water is channeled alongside the vines; and drip irrigation, a relatively new and expensive technique for Argentina.
Soil does vary but a loose, grayish, sandy texture predominates with substrata of gravel, limestone and clay.
The Instituto Nacional de Vitiviniculture (INV), the government’s controlling body, and the National Institute of Agriculture Technology (INTA) were originally guided by Davis in California in selecting the proper clones for the various areas but today, many vineyard owners have looked to other parts of the world, in particular Australia, for advice on plantings.
Although early immigrants brought the espaldera system of vine training (low training of the vines along three wires), need for greater volume led many to the parral cuyano system (vines rise to about 6ft off the ground and are planted at low densities of between 650 – 800 vines per acre). The parral system afforded high yield, ease in picking, control of weeds and protection from frost. However, as in Chile, the classic method is once again coming into favor to facilitate canopy management and drip irrigation.
Budding to ripening usually occurs over a period of five months. The INV declares the date that harvest may begin (usually in mid-February) and it normally continues, depending upon area and variety, until April. Some growers have begun picking their whites early to insure a higher acidity, others have begun using mobile crushing machines in the vineyards for white grapes to reduce the risk of oxidation. As many of the new, larger vineyards are several hours’ drive from the wineries, some have begun using mechanical harvesting at night.
Despite the historic association of alcohol, red wines with good red Argentine beef, there was a noticeable swing to white wine drinking as the emerging middle class began to develop a life-style and taste of their own.
The most planted varieties in Argentina still seem to be the prolific, pink-skinned Criolla (Grande and Chica) and Cereza, the workhorse varieties brought by the original settlers. The common white table wine made from these grapes is cheap but has become unfashionable. According to Jancis Robinson’s “The Oxford Companion to Wine”, in 1990 approximately 50 percent of vineyards were planted with pink-skinned grapes, 30 percent with white skinned and only 20 percent with red. This has changed and by the mid-1990s, there was new emphasis on finding premium varietals and styles that would allow Argentinian wine producers to compete successfully internationally.
Today, Argentina possesses many vineyards based almost entirely on European grape varieties. Such noble names as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin, Riesling and Pinot Noir figure predominantly. However, due to sloppy or ignorant registration in the early years of the industry and poor ampelographic control in later times, much confusion still exists as to exactly what grapes are harvested.
An organized and scientific examination of many of the better vineyards has shown that many varieties regarded as one thing are actually another. Such is the case with the Argentine.
Pinot Blanc, which ampelographers have now determined to be Chenin. Much Rhine Riesling is actually Italian Riesling. While this has not affected the quality or the character of the wines, it does lead to some confusion when local wines are compared with those of other countries.
The swing toward white wine consumption in the late 1980s generated a need for relatively inexpensive, neutral tasting whites. Ugni Blanc (Italy’s Trebbiano) and Chenin Blanc (often referred to as Pinot de la Loire) are grown successfully. The Chenin provides the base wine for much of Argentina’s popular sparkling wine of different qualities, some of which are surprisingly good, particularly those made by the Moet & Chandon and Piper Heidsieck firms.
Pedro Gimenez (not identical to Spain’s Pedro Ximenez) is the most planted white, particularly in Mendoza and San Juan where it yields alcoholic full-bodied wine suitable for blending. It is also used in the grape concentrate that Argentina exports to Japan.
The second most planted light-skinned grape is Torrontes, of which there are three different sub-varieties, Torrontes Riojano from the La Rioja province and the most common, the Torrontes Mendocino and Torrontes Sanjuanino. Moscatel de Alejandra (Muscat of Alexandria), a most distinctive white, is the third most important.
There is no evidence that Argentina’s Torrontes is the same as that grown in Galicia in northwest Spain, but seems to be the nearest thing to an indigenous Argentine white variety though probably originally of Spanish origin.
Torrontes wines are overpoweringly aromatic – much more so than a Gewurztraminer – with a rich, gold color, a sturdy body and a first impression of slight sweetness which later proved false. It is probably the fruitiest wine the Argentines produce. Originally, Torrontes was found only in the northern province of Salta, but can now be found in Mendoza where it is often used for blending.
Another deeply colored white to be found is the Moscatel Rosada made from pink-skinned grapes. It is often very sweet and sold at the bottom end of the market, either in bulk or in bottle.
While the climate does not particularly lend itself to Riesling, some producers are making fuller, richer tasting wines in the style of Australia. Still others aspire to produce a fine Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay, however, is the grape that everyone seems to want to produce. Argentina does have its own Chardonnay clone developed at Davis (the so-called Mendoza clone) and this grape has proved to be most adaptable. Gewurztraminer and Semillon can also be found here.
In the opinion of visiting foreign experts and local connoisseurs, the reds of Argentina are superior to the whites (with an exception or two). The most popular and expensive reds are those made entirely or overwhelmingly from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, but recently the extraordinary qualities of the Malbec have been discovered.
The Malbec (often spelled Malbeck) is considered only second rank in its native Bordeaux, but it has developed exceptional characteristics in Mendoza. Such internationally famous experts as Hugh Johnson of Britain and Terry Robards of the United States have pronounced it the premier Argentine red grape. Its wine can be considered unique to Argentina as no other country in the world has managed to obtain the quality which it offers here.
Another red, is Bonarda, whose exact identity is still the subject of debate (many believe it is the Charbono of California while others insist it is the Croatina of Italy – which the Italians also call Bonarda in Lombardy and Emilia). This variety, along with many others, including Sangiovese, Barbera, Freisa, Nebbiolo, Raboso (Veneto), Dolcetto and Lambrusco, was likely brought to the country by many Italian immigrants. Also important is the Spanish Tempranillo, known in Argentina as Tempranilla and often used to make light fruity wines using carbonic maceration.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are becoming more popular and some producers are beginning to blend the two, Bordeaux style. Some viticulturists believe that Syrah or Shiraz has great potential here.
Rose wines, on the other hand, are barely drunk, although some interest has been caused by the introduction of a couple of “blush” wines based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Brandy and fortified wines, such as sherry and port, are seldom seen on Argentine tables.
By and large, Argentines drink wine with their meals, but the fastest growing section of the wine industry is the sparkling wine sector. This is due to the ever increasing fashion of drinking sparkling wine as an aperitif. Far behind, as a second choice, white wine is also drunk before a
meal; it is rare indeed to see red wine drunk as an aperitif, although the practice of continuing to drink wine after a meal is fairly common.