The names of the most famous wine regions are so recognizable that even novice wine drinkers will perk up at the mere mention of them by a sommelier at a restaurant or wine shop. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Piemonte, Tuscany, Napa, and the list goes on. For lesser known winemaking countries such as Argentina, however, the wine regions outside Mendoza, or even in Mendoza itself, can be a bit confusing.
Let's take a closer look at the main wine regions throughout Argentina from the north of the country to the south. In a later blog, we’ll focus on the sub-regions throughout the province of Mendoza, but for now we’ll focus on the provinces where wine is made, what grapes they grow, and what to expect when you buy a wine from these areas. We’ll throw in a few recommendations as well.
Mendoza: This is the wine region that everyone reading this blog would most likely know. Situated in the western part of Argentina, bordered by the Andes Mountains and Chile to the west, San Juan to the North, San Luis to the east, and La Pampa, Neuquén, and Rio Negro to the South/South East, Mendoza is one of Argentina’s greatest tourist destinations. In addition to the wine industry, Mendoza has other agriculture, including olive oil, garlic, apples, pears, walnuts, and more.
The wine from Mendoza can vary. As stated above, we’ll cover the sub-regions within Mendoza next week, but today we’ll just concentrate on an overview of the province. Undoubtedly, Malbec is the grape most grown in Mendoza, and across all the appellations in the province. Mendoza is the world capital for Malbec, where the grape thrived in the arid, disease- free desert of Mendoza, while it was ravaged by phylloxera epidemic in France (as outline in our previous blog).
Today, Mendoza is also famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir, but in recent years more Tempranillo, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Tannat have been planted in abundance. Even more obscure grapes from Europe such as Nero D’Avola, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Grenache are seen. In fact, the final three grapes are often combined to create what is known as a GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre).
The grape we will highlight today however, is Bonarda, unrelated to the Italian grape with the same name. In their stellar book, The World Atlas of Wine British wine experts Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson call Bonarda Argentina’s “most underdeveloped wine resource,” and we can see why. It is difficult to find Bonarda, deep purple with a similar look to a Malbec, in the US, but things are changing.
Bonarda will be fruitier and more acidic than most red wines found in Argentina. I first fell in love with this wine on a trip to Argentina in 2018, having only tasted it in passing previously. Upon my return to Baltimore, I spotted Bonarda on the wine list of a restaurant in Canton, a neighborhood of Baltimore City, and got a bottle to split with two friends, two rather inexperienced wine drinkers. Both loved the wine and the way it complimented our red meat, seafood, and Venezuelan arepas.
Our first recommendation today will be a Bonarda, as, even though it is not a grape grown by Vectors South yet, it is a great representation of Argentine wine by the fact that it is not grown elsewhere. Our Bonarda choice this time is another wine from El Enemigo. I have raved about El Enemigo’s high altitude Chardonnay in the past on this blog, and on this occasion I have returned to Alejandro Vigil and Adrianna Catena because of how delicious the wine is and the fact that it is readily available in the US. For those of our many readers in the Baltimore area, this wine can be found at Bin 604, while it can also be ordered online from a variety of vendors. The best thing about Bonarda is that it can be paired with red grilled meats as well as richer fish such as salmon or other seafood such as crab cakes. For those that like acidity in their red wine, Bonarda is also a perfect sipping wine before or after dinner.
The second wine from Mendoza we’ll encourage our readers to try is a GSM blend described above from our good friend Michael Evans at Uco’s Playground. GSM is a relatively new blend to Argentina and Uco’s Playground is one of the vineyards producing the best right now. I was lucky enough to first have this wine while enjoying a steak at Francis Mallmann’s Siete Fuegos restaurant in the Uco Valley in Mendoza when Michael himself came over to offer us a bottle. The wine is very complex due to the differing characteristics of the three grapes that comprise the blend. The wine is sold currently on vinoshipper.com, the same place where Vectors South will soon be available.
While Mendoza is undoubtedly the mecca of Argentine wine, Salta is not a far second. If you see Argentine wine in a wine shop or grocery store that is not from Mendoza in the US, odds are it is from Salta, and particularly from the Calchaquí Valley and its largest city of Cafayate. Many seasoned travelers may know Salta for its hiking and horseback ridging trails, its famous salt flats, and the world-famous Train to the Clouds. Recently, however, wine-based tourism has taken off, with the many other attractions becoming supplementary to vineyard tours and wine- paired dining.
Mendoza is clearly most famous for its red wines, although it makes some high quality whites as well, and Salta is the opposite. White wines are king in this northern province, not far from Bolivia and Chile, but there are some great reds being made here as well. One of my personal favorites at the moment is a Malbec from Matervini and star winemaker Santiago Achaval called Alteza, an elegant wine that shows the terroir of Cafayete.
As good as Alteza and other Malbecs from Salta are, for most new wine drinkers, the one wine we would tell you to go for is the white wine Torrontés. This grape is virtually unknown in this US, save the most informed wine drinkers and sommeliers. While there are Torrontés grapes grown in other regions of Argentina, including La Rioja, where it originated, they thrive nowhere like in Salta, near Cafayate, where vines are planted as high as 10,000 ft above sea level. Wines made from the Torrontés grape tend to be sweeter, though still considered a dry wine. These wines won’t be as acidic as, say, a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Perhaps the best comparison for Torrontés is a dry reisling from Austria or Alsace in France. These wines pair very well with spicier foods and are an ideal sipping wine as well.
For our recommendation, we are going to go with the perfect entry level Torrontés from the Calchaquí Valley, this is the Bodega Colome Estate Torrontés. This wine should be readily available at most wine stores in the States, and if not, there is always the option to order via internet. Another good choice is Crios from Susana Balbo, though this wine is a combination of grapes from Salta and Mendoza. Whichever Torrontés you try, see if you can pick up the white peach and apricot notes on the palate. Many times, it is very difficult to describe just what your palate tastes and refer it to a food, but in the case of Torrontés, these flavors are unmistakable.
Everyone knows Patagonia the clothing brand and most of us know the brand gets its name from the vast region that spans from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the southern parts of Argentina and Chile, where many dinosaur skeletons have been discovered. The clothing brand Patagonia actually takes its logo from Mt. Fitzroy, which sits near the village of El Chaltén in Argentina. The mountain itself lies on the border between Argentina and Chile, which has been disputed many time throughout the years.
Known for glaciers and mountains, most of you are probably wondering how Patagonia can be at all hospitable for grape vines. I asked myself the same question when in 2011 I was dining with my grandfather at El Gaucho in Buenos Aires, near the corner of Florida and Lavalle streets downtown, and saw a bottle on the table from Patagonia, called Bodega del Fin del Mundo, literally meaning winery from the end of the world. In her brilliant book for anyone interested in Argentine wine, Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, Laura Catena (scion of the famous Catena family) retells the story of how the owner of the vineyard, Julio Viola, told a French winemaker about his new project in Patagonia, to which the French woman replied “But that’s at the end of the world!” and thus the vineyard had its name.
The vineyards in Patagonia don’t reach quite as far south as Mt. Fitzroy, but across the provinces of Neuquén and Rio Negro, whose capital is Bariloche, the famous Swiss city in Argentina, and where presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama, have all stayed at the world famous Llao Llao lakeside resort.
The Malbec from these provinces tend to be dryer than those in Mendoza, as the temperature during the day is not as hot as it is to the north. There are some very interesting projects being done in Patagonia, particularly The Noemi Winery, which is owned by the Italian Countess of Cinzano, and run by Dutch winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers, giving yet another European twist to South American wine.
Our recommendation can be nothing other than Bodega del Fin del Mundo. These wines are available in the US, I’ve seen them at the Wine Source in Hampden for our Baltimore readers, but more often than not you’ll need to try on line. When you sip one of these wines, be it a Malbec or a red blend, try and transport yourself to the beautiful lake regions of Rio Negro and Neuquén where the wine is made.
This wine region could probably be called the stepchild if you want to consider Mendoza the favorite son who is the star athlete with straight As. Most of the wine made in San Juan is table wine, and it is very hard to find outside of Argentina. Even in Argentina, it won’t be served at the better restaurants, yet a vast amount of wine is made here, a quarter of all Argentine wine in fact. Moscatel de Alejandría is the main varietal grown, known in English as Muscat, the most prominent table wine in the world. Stay tuned though, as, in recent years, there has been a push to grow vines at higher altitudes to escape the punishing heat from San Juan. The provinces of Catamarca and La Rioja, where Torrontés from Salta originated, are a similar story: They produce mainly table wine, but the process of producing higher quality wine is underway.
These days there are even vineyard projects popping up in the province of Buenos Aires as many entrepreneurs have caught wine fever. Like La Rioja, these projects are still a long way off from producing top quality wine. For now though, enjoy and experiment with wine from different parts of Argentina and see how winemakers in different regions deal with the climate and soil and interpret the winemaking process differently.