There was once a time when across Europe and the USA, the only South American wine you’d find in restaurants and supermarkets would have been produced in Chile. Nowadays, however, Argentina is proving to be more than a match for its smaller neighbor – in production amounts, in price and in quality. In fact, as of 2013, Argentina is the fifth-largest wine-producing country in the world.
As you browse the supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, you’ll notice that Argentine wines have an excellent price-to-quality ratio: You can pick up a decent bottle from the supermarket for the bargain price of AR$30 to AR$40. If you move on to the AR$50 to AR$70 price range, you’ll be sampling something that verges on the outstanding. It’s rare that you’d need to spend AR$100-plus on a good bottle, but if you feel like splurging then you’ll reap the rewards. But why and how is this possible, and when did it all start? Like local cuisine, wine in Argentina has close ties with the Spanish colonial years. During the mid-1500s, grapevines were brought to and planted in Santiago del Estero, a province in the north-central region of Argentina. The culture of winemaking soon spread to neighboring provinces, most notably those set on the western edge of the country, and in the valley of the Andes Mountains. A combination of geography (high altitude) and climate (low humidity) has created near-perfect winemaking conditions. The nation’s vineyards seldom suffer from the grape diseases that affect other major winemaking countries, allowing for mass cultivation and production.
Argentine wine is almost always associated with the Malbec grape. It’s the flagship and quintessential grape of the nation, the one used to produce the red wines that have put Argentina on the world’s wine map. Brought to Argentina by the French, the Malbec produces a full-bodied wine characterized by cherry and blueberry flavors. It’s a superb accompaniment to that other great facet of Argentine food and drink, the steak. The other grape that is strongly associated with Argentina is Torrontés. This is the nation’s emblematic white-wine variety, characterized by fresh, aromatic and floral flavors and a slightly acidic and smooth texture. While Malbec is the most well-known, Torrontés is unique in that it’s currently grown only on Argentine soil.
Just as there’s much more to this country than Buenos Aires, there’s much more to its wine culture than Malbec and Torrontés. There’s an overriding emphasis on red wines, and Bonarda is the second-most-grown red grape. For many years, this grape was solely used to produce cheap table wine, but today it’s witnessing a renaissance. The grape produces wines with notes of dark-red fruit (strawberries and cherries) and smoky features. A grape grown here – and all over the world – is Cabernet Sauvignon, which produces bold and assertive red wines. This varietal grows well from Patagonia all the way up to Salta. Other red-grape varieties to look out for include Syrah, Merlot, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Tannat, which is the flagship wine of Uruguay. Of these, Merlot is frequently blended with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot grapes yield softer and fresher characteristics, similar to Bordeaux wines.
Because the hot, dry climate of Argentina’s traditional wine-producing regions is more favorable to growing red grapes, more than 50 percent of the country’s vineyards are dedicated to these varietals. The rest are split between white and rosé grapes, including Chardonnay, Chenin, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Viognier. As winemakers move farther south, however, a boom in the production of white wines is becoming more likely.
Wine Regions & Wineries
Argentina’s main wine regions sit in the foothills of the Andes. The most important of them all is Mendoza, a province that is responsible for around 80 percent of the country’s wine production. It’s the go-to place for wine tourism, and the arid, sunny and almost rain-free climate makes it the ideal place for growing Malbec grapes. Within the province are four distinct regions: Eastern Mendoza, Luján de Cuyo, Uco Valley and Maipú. In March, the provincial capital, Mendoza, hosts Argentina’s biggest wine festival, Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia. Unsurprisingly, there are abundant wineries to choose from in this province, such as Bodega Dolium (Luján de Cuyo), Luigi Bosca (Luyán de Cuyo), Finca Flichman (Maipú) and Bodega Navarro Correas (Mendoza). All offer tours of picturesque vineyards in addition to tastings of varying descriptions. An alternative way to visit the wineries is with Bikes and Wines in Maipú, which arranges tours to boutique, family and mass-market bodegas.
Second to Mendoza in terms of production is San Juan, a province situated immediately north of Mendoza. The climate in this region is markedly hotter than in Mendoza, making it ideal for growing Bonarda and Syrah grapes in addition to those used for the production of brandy, sherry and vermouth. Wine production in San Juan is concentrated in the departments of Calingasta, Ullum, Zonda and Tulum Valley. Bodegas to check out include Bodegas La Guarda (San Juan) and Viñas de Segisa (La Rinconada). North of San Juan is the province of La Rioja, a region known for growing Torrontés and Muscat of Alexandria, a white grape used to make sweet Muscat wines. Although La Rioja is one of Argentina’s oldest wine-producing regions, its severe lack of water has hampered development of the industry. If you’re in the area, stop by Bodegas La Riojana (Chilecito).
In Northwest Argentina, the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta have earned recent fame in international winemaking. The wineries here are some of the highest in the world – many planted at 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level or higher – and are famous for producing intense white wines and heavily fruited Tannats and Cabernet Sauvignons. Perhaps the best place to visit is the scenic town of Cafayate, 117 miles (189 kilometers) south of Salta city. Here you’ll find Argentina’s best Torrontés and a plethora of closely grouped bodegas, including Bodega El Esteco, Bodegas Etchart and Vasija Secreta.
If you like to explore up-and-coming areas of wine tourism, make your way to the south of Argentina and the Patagonia regions of Río Negro and Neuquén. The cooler climate makes for good conditions in growing grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sémillon and Torrontés. The region is also perfect for growing grapes used in the production of sparkling wine, and a number of bodegas here offer tours and tastings. Bodega Humberto Canale (General Roca, Río Negro), Bodega Agrestis (General Roca, Río Negro) and Bodega Familia Schroeder (San Patricio del Chañar, Neuquén) are but a few examples.
Great Wine Bars in Buenos Aires
True to its drinking and nightlife culture, Palermo is home to a number of wine bars. In Palermo Soho, two blocks from Plaza Serrano, is Pain et Vin (Gorriti 5132, Palermo Soho). The project of an Argentine sommelier and her Israeli-chef husband, it’s a relaxed and welcoming place that eludes any wine snobbery. A sign saying “There’s Always Time for a Glass of Wine” greets you as you enter, followed by a large shelf of handpicked wines. Accompanying the wines is a commendable selection of home-baked breads and delicious cheeses, making it the perfect stop for a pre-dinner drink and snack. The menu is short, consisting of a handful of sandwiches, salads and desserts, and the wines are available to take away. Keep an eye on Pain et Vin’s Facebook page for wine tasting events.
In one of the quieter spots of Palermo Hollywood is Bar du Marché (bardumarchepalermo.com, Nicaragua 5946, Palermo Hollywood). This is as Parisian as you’ll find in Buenos Aires and, with more than 50 wines to choose from, you’ll be coming back time and again. The wines are available by the glass and by the bottle. Moreover, the bar specializes in both local and New World wines, some from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Bar du Marché also has a closed-door Japanese restaurant on the upper floor, just in case you’re craving a five-course sushi dinner. A new arrival on the scene is Trova: Bar de Vinos (facebook.com/TrovaBar, Honduras 5903, Palermo Hollywood), offering more than 25 local wines by the glass plus a great selection of charcuterie, cheese and tapas. Tastings take place on Tuesday and Thursday, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., while the first Wednesday of the month is Ladies Night. The bar opened at the end of May 2014, so it’s still building its reputation and clientele.
Away from Palermo, Villa Crespo is home to one of the city’s best wine bars, La Cava de Jufré (lacavajufre.com.ar, Jufré 201, Villa Crespo). Once the Café de los Músicos, La Cava de Jufré now strives to offer a place to enjoy great wine accompanied by regularly scheduled art expositions and live music. It’s a welcoming spot, complete with large windows, a sit-down bar, exposed-brick walls and outdoor seating. Ask to visit the cellar, which is stocked with hundreds of bottles of wine. Closer to Buenos Aires’ city center, in Monserrat, is the superb Aldo’s Vinoteca & Restorán (facebook.com/AldosVinoteca, Moreno 364, Monserrat). Wine is king here, with almost 600 labels. In every direction, there are bottles of wine gracing the shelves. If you try one you like, you can buy a bottle or a case to take home. In addition to a daily happy hour (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.), Aldo’s has plenty of events and specials throughout the week. These include a five-course, five-wine tasting menu on Thursday, and a Saturday brunch. In the basement, there’s an intimate jazz bar, BeBop Club, which showcases the best in local jazz and blues.
Great Wine Tastings in Buenos Aires
In a city with innumerable vinotecas (wine shops), it’s a wonder so few of them offer single tastings or events. One that does fit the bill, however, is Lo de Joaquín Alberdi (lodejoaquinalberdi.com, Jorge Luis Borges 1772, Palermo Soho), situated in the heart of Palermo Soho. Every Thursday and Friday there’s a wine-tasting evening, and each event is sponsored by a different winery. Check before booking to find out if the event will be in English, Spanish or both. During the rest of the week, feel free to drop by the shop to check out the themed rooms, which range from Trapiche and Chandon to lesser-known brands.
Another great way to sample Argentine wines is with Anuva Wines (anuvawines.com, Palermo Soho). It’s designed specifically for non-Spanish-speaking tourists and takes place in a loft in Palermo Soho, the location of which is only disclosed after you’ve made a reservation. A tasting at Anuva includes generous samples of five exclusive local wines (that aren’t available in the U.S.A.) accompanied by five Argentine tapas plates. Tastings take place from Monday to Thursday (3 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and on Friday and Saturday (2 p.m. and 5 p.m.). The current price (July 2014) is US$52 per person. If you wish to buy a particular wine in bulk, Anuva can help you ship it back to the U.K. or U.S.