Being a happy expat means focusing on the good things that your new home has to offer. For Argentina there’s a pretty well-defined and obvious list of ‘good things,’ and the price (cheap) and quality (excellent) of the wine gives it a prime position on that list.
First some fast facts. You probably already had some idea that Argentina was a big wine producer, but did you know that it’s the fifth-largest wine producer in the world? Or that it has lower average per-liter production costs than any other major wine producing country? Or that it’s one of only two countries (the other is Chile) that are currently exporting more and more wine to the United States with each passing year? Argentina is hot right now, and so is its wine, and thus there’s never been a better time to learn all about it.
Somewhat unusually for a wine-producing country, Argentina is very strongly associated with a couple of grapes that aren’t grown much (Malbec) or at all (Torrontés) in other countries. However, more mainstream varieties (like Cabernet Sauvignon) are quickly gaining ground.
1. Malbec (red). The quintessential grape of Argentina, Malbec was brought to Argentina by the French. It’s still grown in France, along with the United States and some other regions, but nowhere else in the world is it as closely associated with the country it’s grown in. Argentine Malbecs are intense and full-bodied, are characterized by cherry and blueberry flavors, and have a soft texture. Unsurprisingly, Malbec pairs extremely well with red meat – greatly simplifying your decision about what to order in Argentine restaurants.
2. Torrontés (white). If Malbec is the king of wine in Argentina then Torrontés is the queen. Like Malbec it’s strongly associated with Argentina; in fact, Argentina is the only country currently producing it. Dry, aromatic, fruity and floral, like Sauvignon Blanc Torrontés has the body to be enjoyed on its own…so don’t feel like you have to be eating before you have an excuse to crack open a bottle!
3. Cabernet sauvignon (red). Still lags behind Malbec, but ‘cab sav’ is coming up fast in Argentina, with more and more vines being planted each year. It is, of course, a superstar in the wine world, and unlike Malbec and Torrontés it’s grown in just about every wine-producing country in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon is a big, bold and assertive wine with significant tannin levels.
Some areas of Argentina are blessed with combinations of geography and climate that form near-perfect wine-making conditions. Here they are.
1. Mendoza. The largest and most important wine-producing area, Mendoza’s wineries are responsible for a massive 80% of Argentina’s total wine production. The secret to its success lies in its arid and sunny climate, and in the fact that because of its altitude, nights are cold. The almost total absence of rain is particularly ideal for growing Malbec grapes, which are highly susceptible to rot and mildew. In the absence of rain, readily available melt-water from the Andes is used to irrigate the vines. There are four distinct areas of wine production in Mendoza: Eastern Mendoza; Lujan du Cuyo; the Uco Valley, and Maipu.
2. San Juan. The number-two wine region. San Juan province is even hotter and drier than Mendoza. It’s perfect for growing the syrah grapes that are the star of the area. Bonarda grapes also feature, along with grapes for sherries, brandies and vermouth. San Juan province shares a border with Mendoza province.
3. The north-west. This area encompasses three neighboring provinces: Jujuy; Catamarca, and Salta. All three are at high altitude, and in fact some of the highest vineyards in the world are located here. The climate of these provinces is similar to that in Mendoza, but the higher altitude leads to more acidity in the wines. The best torrontés in Argentinac comes from the province of Salta.
Must-see Mendoza wineries
Because Mendoza is the biggest and best wine region, the wineries that you’re likely to have the chance to visit are probably going to be there. So without further ado, here are three that you shouldn’t miss.
1. Ruca Malén. Features a five-course gourmet lunch (burp!) paired with the full line of wines produced by the vineyard. The view from the dining room is excellent and the wine-making facilities are modern and impressive.
2. O. Fournier. A ridiculously pretty vineyard with a great view of the Andes located about an hour out of the town of Mendoza. It has an unmistakable main building that looks like a flying saucer, great staff and great food to go along with its spectacular wines. The best of the bunch are the tempranillo blends.
3. Carmelo Patti. One of the best wineries in Mendoza to get the smaller-scale, more traditional experience. The eponymous Señor Patti leads the tours himself – a nice touch – and you get to taste wine from the barrel. The Cabernets are very good. As for visiting many of the smaller wineries in Argentina, the tour is in Spanish.
A footnote: if you really want to make the most of your Mendoza visit, it’s well worth hiring a private guide for the day to take you around. Not all of the wineries have learnt how to properly market themselves to tourists yet, so trying to do it on your own can be a hit and miss experience.
Good places in Buenos Aires to taste wine
If you want to spend some of your time in Argentina tasting wine, your path is clear: get thee to Mendoza! However, if you can’t make a trip right now don’t fret, because there are some excellent places to sample local wines right here in the city. Here are three of the best.
1. Winery. A chain offering tastings at three of their vinotecas. For around AR$100 you can taste five wines (four red, one white) with tapas. This deal doesn’t include a commentary on the wines, which is fine if you and your friends are already wine buffs or would simply rather be left to chat amongst yourselves.
2. Club 647. A good option for tasting wines excellently paired with food. They have a user-friendly wine list divided into categories such as ‘fruity with medium suppleness’ and ‘fresh, young and light bodied’ instead of the normal regional/varietal groupings. You’ll pay around AR$100-150 for a tailored flight of 4-5 wines.
3. Terroir. The upscale option for serious wine tasting in Buenos Aires, Terroir may be the best wine store in town. It’s not cheap, and it is just a little pretentious, but this Palermo vinoteca offers a vast and unmatched cellar of high-end wines. It’s located in a nice three-story townhouse. Tastings start at AR$250 per person.
Hopefully you’ve now got some idea of how and where to start your journey of Argentine wine discovery. A final word about buying a bottle from your local chino: there are good wines at any price point, but it’s the $AR20-30 range where they start to get really good, and the AR$35+ level where they get outstanding. They’re never going to be as cheap if/when you go home, so why not take advantage while you’re here? Your taste buds will thank you.
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