I’ve been an admirer of Poor Robert’s Almanac for a while so I was incredibly honoured when Robert himself asked me to write about Argentina’s most famous wine region, Mendoza, and the fabulous wines it produces. I currently work in wine in Argentina and write (mostly) about Argentine wine on my blog, the Wine Culturist, so feel free to hit me with any tricky wine questions you have!
Snuggled up against the Andes mountain range which marks the border with Chile, the province of Mendoza is known as the “Land of Good Sun” for its 330 annual blue sky days. This is the powerhouse heartland of Argentine wine production which churns out some 70% of the country’s wine. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years you’re no doubt familiar with the region’s hearty Malbec which pairs beautifully with Argentina’s equally famous exquisite steaks.
What you may not know, though, is that the area devoted Malbec plantings is only 32% of Argentina’s total red wine acreage. Growing alongside their domineering sibling are Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah which bring refreshing diversity to Mendoza’s vinous offerings. Recent years have also seen a proliferation of Malbec styles. Winemakers are deviating from the stereotypical weighty and powered-up Mendoza Malbec to produce lighter, more elegant styles and high-potential blends.
Malbec originally hails from Cahors in France where it produces wines of a rather more inky, tannic nature, but it was only fairly recently that winemakers picked up on the wide range of possibilities offered by Mendoza’s unique terroir. European vines were introduced to the region by priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors who founded the city of Mendoza in 1561, but the industry really took off with the nineteenth century arrival of immigrants from Italy, France and Spain who turned their hand to making wine.
It was a Frenchman, Aimé Pouget, who brought Malbec and other French grape varieties to the area to see which would suit local conditions. For many years the industry was dominated by mass-produced table wines, but the work of individuals like Raúl de la Mota at Bodegas Weinert and Nicolás Catena at Bodega Catena Zapata during the twentieth century prepared the way for Mendoza’s Malbec to burst onto the world stage.
So what makes Mendoza so special? For starters, this is a desert. The great Andes Mountains shield the region from the humid influence of the Pacific Ocean. In a typical year the winegrowing areas receive just 200mm of rain. Everything green around here, from vineyards to public parks, has been brought to life by sheer hard work. Building on practices first used by indigenous peoples, a huge network of irrigation channels brings Andean meltwater directly to grape and fruit growers as well as into the city of Mendoza itself. So think about that, next time you tuck into a juicy Argentine Malbec – it’s only thanks to that Andean snow in the glass that wine can be made here at all.
As well as the hot, dry conditions, the influence of altitude is also at play here. The highest vineyards are to be found in the prestigious Uco Valley where they can reach up to nearly 1700m. This gives a diurnal temperature range (the difference between maximum daytime and minimum night time temperatures) of up to 20 degrees Celsius, higher levels of UV radiation, and more intensity of sunlight. Soils here tend to be alluvial or “pavimiento del desierto” (desert pavement) which consists of rocks and sand. These factors combine to produce excellent wines which boast decent acidity, wonderfully rich fruity and spicy aromas, and soft, rounded tannins. Little wonder, then, that the Uco Valley is home to many of the country’s top producers including Achaval Ferrer, Andeluna, Salentein and Catena, while the famous winemaking consultants Paul Hobbs, Alberto Antonini and Michel Rolland all buy grapes from here or have investments in the area.
Feeling thirsty yet? Let’s finish up with a few bottles which for me really encapsulate the sheer diversity and deliciousness of the Mendoza wine scene.
Emma Zuccardi Bonarda 2014
Bonarda is Argentina’s big hidden secret. It’s the country’s second most produced black grape variety. It used to be widely used for bulk wines, but it’s currently gaining a great reputation as a single varietal. This Uco Valley Bonarda by big name wine producer Familia Zuccardi is a great example of the variety; luscious dark fruit and savoury and smoky notes topped off with fresh acidity and pleasant tannins.
Sur de los Andes 2012 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon
Proof that Mendoza can also do great Cab, this is an impressive full-bodied wine with enticing jammy plum, chocolate and dried fruit flavours.
Rutini Trumpeter Chardonnay 2015
Moving on to a more wallet-friendly wine, this Chardonnay from the mighty Rutini makes for really easy drinking. There’s some vanilla and toast from the oak, but the palate is dominated by tropical fruit like sweet melon and banana.
Bodega La Azul Reserva 2014
Bodega La Azul is a tiny winery in the Uco Valley which only produces around 10,000 bottles of this wine, so attention to detail and quality are very high. It’s also a gorgeous winery to visit if you ever find yourself in Mendoza! This is a gorgeous blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with intense cherry and red berries followed by a touch of black pepper, vanilla and chocolate.
Felino Malbec Viña Cobos 2014
My last selection had to be a Malbec, but narrowing it down to just one bottle was a pretty stressful choice. There are hundreds of fantastic examples out there, from lighter, elegant styles to the classic bold, fruit-forward nectar that put Mendoza on the world wine map. This Malbec won out because it offers great value and also happens to be made by the great American winemaker, Paul Hobbs, alongside his talented Argentine partners Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud at Viña Cobos. Black plum and dark berries dominate the nose with subtle notes of vanilla, graphite and rosemary. Tannins are soft and meltingly smooth and the finish is impressively long. Pair this with a nice steak and you’ll be besotted.
What’s your favourite Malbec? Let us know in the comments!