Argentina is home to nearly 500,000 cultivated vineyard acres. Unique conditions, hallmarked by the Andes mountain range and its latitudinal extension, make it possible for Argentina to cultivate a range of grapes (20+ varieties planted in significant quantities) to produce distinctive wines in many styles.
As the fifth largest wine producer in the world, its main producing region is the province of Mendoza, home to 75 percent of the country’s total vineyards and the largest number of wineries. In fact, Mendoza is the fastest growing wine producing region in the world. But, all fans of Argentine wine should know that Mendoza is not the end all be all.
In recent years, wine producers have pushed the wine frontier to the west, into the heights, and to the south and east, looking for the cooler temperatures of the southern latitudes or the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the country’s finest wines can come from these other denominated regions, which offer distinct terroir-specific complexity and flavour. Notable areas include Salta and Patagonia – situated in the northwest pocket of the country and along the Atlantic coast respectively.
For the purpose of this guide – including the wines, listed below to lend perspective – we’re exploring more of Mendoza’s sub-regions and these other notable areas, mentioned above, that lend to Argentina’s diverse portfolio:
The North: Salta
Home to some of Argentina’s highest altitude vineyards, Salta’s climate is arid and dry, with high average temperatures, a wide daily thermal amplitude and intense solar radiation enhanced by the altitude, and long summers. The soils are generally sandy-loam or sandy with a high proportion of fine sand that favours drainage.
The Calchaquí Valleys in Salta are a system of mountain valleys formed five million years ago that stretch 270km within the region.
The wines of Salta show remarkable influence of terroir, strongly marked by altitude, and great varietal character. Torrontés is the emblem par excellence of the region, with its characteristic perfume of malvasia, although malbec is the most cultivated variety with a large increase in surface area over the last 20 years.
Cuyo (Mendoza): The Primera Zona and Valle de Uco
Mendoza is the country’s most important wine province and one of the main producing centres in the world. The highest peaks of the Andes are found in Mendoza and act as a barrier to the humid winds of the Pacific. This along with its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean generates ideal conditions for vine cultivation.
The altitude, continental climate, heterogeneity of soils and the snowmelt are key factors for the production of excellent wines, which add to a significant winemaking tradition. Mendoza is divided into five large sub-regions: Valle de Uco, Primera Zona (Luján de Cuyo and Maipú), the Northern oasis, the East and the South. Valle de Uco (or, the Uco Valley) is nestled beside the cordillera of the Andes in the higher altitude, cooler, southern area of Mendoza and characterized by the crossing of Las Tunas and Tunuyán rivers.
The soil diversity and range in altitudes (and thus, temperature conditions) from 900 to 2,200 metres above sea level in Valle de Uco is unparalleled. The industry’s development and investment in research has led to identification of micro-regions with different terroirs, reflecting the diverse character of Argentine viticulture. It is specifically in malbec where this quality is best appreciated.
Patagonia and Atlantic Region
This region comprises the provinces of Río Negro, Neuquén and La Pampa. It is considered one of the most favourable places in the country for making wine and where top Argentine wineries have developed luxury projects. Patagonia is marked by large desolate expanses in the south, flanked by low, wooded mountains, a circuit of lakes in the west, and the Atlantic coast to the East. The cultivated area represents about two percent of the total planted in Argentina.
The great thermal amplitude, derived from the combination of latitude and low altitude and the abundant hours of sun, are added to scarce rainfall and the strong winds that exert their influence on the crops, contributing to the health of the grapes.
The climatic conditions favour greater colour concentration in the red varieties and development of thicker skins. Varieties which excel in the cold of the area reach their maximum expression here. The merlot, for instance, stands out for wines with a mild, balanced flavour with aromatic intensity. Pinot noir is used for most of the sparkling wines and achieves outstanding elegance in Patagonia.
As a complement to the Buyer’s Guide we produced in 2020 that strictly featured wines from Mendoza, the below wines are representative of the regions discussed and are available as the most recent promoted offerings in Ontario, courtesy of Wines of Argentina:
ALTOSUR 2019 Sauvignon Blanc
Yes, Argentina can produce stellar sauvignon blanc. From vineyards situated 1,219 masl that contain alluvial, loose, permeable soils, this is 100 percent sauvignon blanc from the Uco Valley, within the Mendoza region. Fermented in stainless steel with selected yeasts, this presents notes of fresh grass, with citric and mineral notes that lend personality and character. The palate is fresh tasting, with mineral flavours that feel clean on the aftertaste. Excellent value. ($16.95)
Kaiken Ultra 2019 Chardonnay
This golden yellow chardonnay from Kaiken’s Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo properties is rich and complex courtesy of the diverse soils from which it comes from. Sixty-five percent of the wine was fermented in concrete, with the other 35 percent in new oak. Then 12 months barrel aging and three months in bottle before release. The nose is full of pineapple and banana and the palate is fresh and vibrant with a textured mouthfeel. Acids are balanced and refreshing. ($19.95)
Catena 2019 ‘Appellation Tupungato’ Chardonnay
This 100 percent chardonnay comes from soils of alluvial origin, gravel and limestone, and sandy loam situated 1,450 masl. The wine spent nine months on the lees in 100 percent French oak. It’s fragrant and fresh, with an assortment of stone fruits and minerality. There’s toasted notes that weave their way into the mix and a nutty finish. ($19.95)
Catena 2019 ‘White Clay’
This is a white wine blend, consisting of 60 percent sémillon and 40 percent chenin blanc, spending six months on the lees and no oak treatment. Family vintners for over 100 years, the Catenas are recognized for their pioneering role in high-altitude viticulture in Argentina. The Luján de Cuyo Appellation is known for its clay-rich soils and cool nights. This is a wine that’s deeply aromatic with expressive citrus and peach, and a rich and mineral finish. A traditional white wine that’s been made this way for a century. ($19.95)
Anko 2019 Torrontés
Anko means “high water” in the native Indian language of Salta, located in the northwest corner of Argentina. In this rugged, mountainous desert, an “Anko”, or high altitude oasis, was treasured as a precious sanctuary, protection from the harsh elements of nature. As a lone vineyard appellation high on the eastern slopes of the valley, Estancia Los Cardones is definitely a vineyard oasis in the inhospitable high altitude desert of Salta. This is 100 percent torrontés from pergola vines. The sandy soil profile lends a distinct salty minerality with equally distinct jasmine floral aromas and a citrus fruit profile. Natural acidity lends a bright, clean finish. Unoaked. ($16.95)
Salentein 2020 Reserve Rosé
This is such a classy, not to mention tasty, rosé that’s made from 100 percent syrah planted at 1,050 masl. It spent six months aging on lees and used no oak, which is why this has such a fresh taste. It’s bone dry (residual sugar is just 2g/L) and it’s packed with flavours of strawberry and wild berry fruit. The finish is savoury and fresh, with an herbal aftertaste. Very tidy acidity. Excellent price. Argentina is known to produce excellent rosés and this is one of the best that I’ve tasted all year. ($17.95)
Alpataco 2019 Pinot Noir
From Patagonia, within the Atlantic region, this is a light bodied pinot with a bright, flashy colour. There’s red fruit aromas (raspberry, strawberry) and a mineral presence. The palate isn’t complex but rather fruit forward and juicy, largely influenced from its stainless steel fermentation. A good, simpler wine to serve slightly chilled in warmer weather. ($14.95)
Zuccardi Q 2019 Malbec
A regional wine of selected malbec grapes from the Uco Valley, harvested separately from vines situated at 1,000 and 1,100 masl. Fermented in concrete with native yeasts and then further aged in concrete and 500L untoasted French oak. Richly aromatic and fresh on the palate with bursts of plum, blueberry, cherry and spice – all balanced with a cooling acidity and a lengthy, consistent finish. Generally this is viewed as a staple buy when it comes to Argentine malbec. ($19.95)
Luigi Bosca 2018 D.O.C. Malbec
From a 70-year-old vineyard in Vistalba (960 masl), this malbec is one of the first Argentine wines with a Designation of Origin. A deep and bright red violet colour entices, with balanced aromas and red fruit, sweet spice notes. It’s refreshing and voluptuous in the mouth, clean and expressive, with fine and gentle tannins. The finish is deep and smoky. A wonderful expression of its terroir with excellent aging potential, worthy of its price point. ($29.95)
Trapiche 2017 Terroir Series ‘Finca Coletto’ Malbec
From alluvial, sandy soils on a layer of rock 1,127 masl, this is a formidable malbec. Fermented in concrete using wild yeasts, 75 percent was aged in in 300L new French oak barrels and 25 percent in 6,000L oak foudre for 18 months. Then 12 months in bottle. What we get is a wine that’s richly aromatic, with notes of blackberries and blueberries. On the palate it starts off as fresh and round, offering sweet, firm tannins that contribute juiciness, amplitude and elegance. Cellar-worthy for years to come. ($44.95)
Gauchezco 2018 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, with half of it aged in used French and American oak barrels for 10 months. It can come across as an instense wine if pouring straight from bottle. In other words, best to decant in order to coax those aromas of green pepper, black cherry and vanilla. A suitable wine for most grilled meats and roasts. ($16.95)
Kaiken 2018 ‘Terroir Series’ Malbec
This is actually 80 percent malbec, with 15 percent bonarda and five percent petit verdot added. Malolactic fermentation occurred naturally in concrete before spending 12 months in new and used French oak. The variety of vessels used for this wine opened a gateway for it to fully express itself, with captivating spice and floral notes and aromas of blueberry and blackberry. The palate is structured and complex, with a fruity freshness and smoothened tannins. ($18.95)
Kaiken Ultra 2018 Malbec
A commercially styled interpretation that sources its fruit from three separate vineyards located in Valle de Uco sub-regions: Los Chacayes (Tunuyán), Paraje Altamira (San Carlos) and Gualtallary (Tupungato) all between 1,250 and 1,600 metres above sea level. I’m generally left feeling that I want more from this wine – especially for the price, a dollar more than the Kaiken ‘Terroir Series’. You’ll get the blueberry notes that are typical of the varietal, along with some mild spice and a hint of cedar. A straightforward expression, for better or worse. ($19.95)
Alamos Seleccion Malbec 2018, Uco Valley
Alamos grapes are grown at the foothills of the Andes Mountains at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet, where intense sunlight, cool evening temperatures and mineral-rich irrigation from mountain snowmelt translate to rich wines with intense flavour characteristics. Its dark berry, jammy fruit flavour is what lends to its rich and soft mouthfeel. ($16.95)
DV Catena 2018 Tinto Historico
An assemblage of malbec (75%), bonarda (19%) and petit verdot from four historic estate vineyards. It spent 12 to 14 months in new and used oak barrels which does help impart some structure. The nose is a bit shy, but does reveal itself with time in the glass – mostly spiced plum and some cedar brush. Its red berry fruit flavours with a touch of earth and minerality don’t really excite me, but I’m not disappointed in this wine. I just wanted a bit more considering its overall blend makeup. ($19.95)
Matias Riccitelli 2019 Tinto de la Casa
A malbec that is equal parts from Las Compuertas and Gualtallary, providing a contrast in soils (loam clay and calcareous respectively) that influence the wine’s character and profile. Grapes from both of these areas are co-fermented in small French oak barrels, half at whole cluster. Considering its price point relative to many others that are about $10 less, the expectation was high… and was not met. I found this to be somewhat straightforward and rather light in body when tasting side-by-side with some others. ($29.95)
Felino 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a project founded by celebrated California winemaker and proprietor Paul Hobbs. It hails from a semi-desert climate between 700 and 1,200 masl. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in American oak (10 percent new) for eight months. The nose is quite aromatic, with wafts of forest fruits and spice. The mouthfeel is round and concentrated, supported by firm tannins that indicate maturity and balance. A nicely made cabernet spearheaded by a man who knows what nicely made cabernet should taste like. ($19.95)
El Esteco 2019 ‘Old Vines 1946’ Malbec
From 70+ year-old pergola-trained vines, this 100 percent malbec was brought up in concrete eggs and used native yeasts for fermentation. It was bottled unfiltered and aged up to eight months. The nose is fruity and fresh. The flavours are intense and focused, with tannic grip and balanced acidity. It’s either one for the cellar, to be aged for next five plus years, or designed to be decanted at least 45 mins to one hour before serving. ($26.95)
El Enemigo 2017 Syrah Viognier
With just eight percent viognier, there’s probably no real need to identify it on the label, as the variety is merely added to provide some lift and structure. The wine comes across a bit lopsided and clumsy right now, with some sharp edges and a slightly bitter finish. Surprising, considering the nose is quite generous and attention-grabbing. Perhaps this just needs more time. ($24.95)
Piattelli 2019 Reserve Malbec
At $16.95, this malbec stood out from a crowd of others that ranged from being $3 to $13 more in price! Purple in colour with aromatic notes of ripe plum and violets, the nose only gets better with time in the glass. The mouthfeel is structured and soft, full-bodied and chewy with loads of drying fruit and hints of spice. I really enjoyed this wine and its food-friendly nature. ($16.95)
Durigutti 2018 ‘Proyecto Las Compuertas Cinco Suelos’ Malbec
From a label perspective this wine looks to be serious. It doesn’t disappoint. From select parcels picked from 100+ year-old vines that rest on a variety of soil types (deep clay, limestone, stony, sandy and river stone), this is a very attractive and complex wine with bold red and black fruit flavours and ripe plum. It’s fresh and juicy with structured acidity that will allow it to age well throughout the decade if you choose. ($29.95)
-All wine samples were provided by Wines of Argentina for the purpose of this report.