In our last blog, we discussed the bigger wine regions of Argentina, and we promised a closer look at the sub regions within Mendoza, Argentina’s biggest and most important wine- making region. This is also where many customers might get confused when purchasing wine. There are many sub-regions in Mendoza, and soon these appellations with be official with the wine authorities in Argentina, but for now we will concentrate on the three biggest and most famous wine-growing areas of Mendoza: Luján de Cuyo, Maipú, and the Uco Valley. Whenever you see one of these three appellations on a wine label, they are just specifying what part of Mendoza the wine is from, as each area offers its own unique tastes and features.
Over time, we will be able to delve deeper in the appellations that are sprouting up within the big three sub-regions of the province of Mendoza. In order to avoid confusion, it’s worth noting for our readers who haven’t studied much Argentine geography that Mendoza is the name of the province and the capital city has the same name.
Luján de Cuyo:
Just about 30 minutes from Mendoza City by car, Luján de Cuyo is still the most famous wine-producing area in Mendoza, and so of course it is known for wine tourism, too. Here you will find many of the wines you see most often in grocery stores and wine shops in the US, most notably, the world famous Bodega Catena Zapata winery.
We have spoken a bit about the Catena family in past blogs. If you don’t wish to flip back and review, just remember that they are the royal family of Argentine wine, led today by Nicolás Catena and his daughter Laura. Nicolás is described by renowned wine critic and writer Robert M. Parker, Jr. as “one of South America’s greatest visionaries,” and the winery is the only South American one listed in his famous book The World’s Great Wine Estates: A Modern Perspective.
Touchingly, many of the vineyards the family owns are named for other family members, such as, Angélica, Adrianna, Nicasia, and Virginia. Thanks in part to the Catena family, Luján de Cuyo was officially named an appellation in 1993, the first sub region in Mendoza to receive such an honor. Within Luján de Cuyo there are various other sub regions such as Agrelo, Perdriel, and Vistalba, each with their own slightly different characteristics. Today, there is a movement to establish more precise appellations, known as GIs (Geographical Indications), which help with the rise in single-vineyards wine being produced in Argentina. (Single-Vineyard meaning all the grapes used to make the wine are from one vineyard, or one plot of land, while otherwise the grapes are harvested across a few different vineyards.)
The vineyards in the region average over 3,300 feet in altitude, but the constant sunlight makes growing grapes not only possible, but fruitful. Hot days and cool nights provide the perfect combination for viticulture.
Whether you are going to visit Catena Zapata or another winery when you visit this fantastic region, remember that Luján de Cuyo is what made Malbec world famous. Try as many Malbecs as you can from here, compare them to each other, then see how they measure up to Malbecs from other regions within Mendoza. (If you’re really curious, then try to compare between the Malbec from Argentina and those from France, normally from Cahors.) Matervini, owned by Santiago Achaval, previously of Achaval Ferrer, is the ideal place to try a number of Malbec wines from grapes planted in vineyards all across Argentina.
Our recommendation here is the 2016 Nicolás Catena Zapata. Although not a single- vineyard wine, a good portion of the grapes do come from La Pirámide Vineyard in Luján de Cuyo. Pirámide means Pyramid, called thus as the winery itself is shaped like one. This is the place you would be visiting if you book a tour of Catena Zapata’s facilities on a trip to Mendoza. This wine is also special because it is a red blend, 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Malbec, and 8% Cabernet Franc. We have not recommended a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine on our blog before due to its overwhelming popularity in the US and the familiarity most wine drinkers have with it but thought this was the perfect time to do so because it was Nicolás Catena Zapata who put Argentine Cab-Sauv on the map.
This region is the closest to the capital and most friendly for tourists as the wineries are very close together. In the past we have raved about El Enemigo and their fantastic lunch experience. Without boring readers with another description of their upscale restaurant and welcoming staff, we will just say that no trip to Mendoza can be complete without a stop here. Many of the wines produced by El Enemigo here don’t actually use grapes grown nearby, but rather from the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo.
Maipú is also the home of Catena Zapata’s Angélica Vineyard, named after Nicolas’s mother. Many other top winemakers such as Familia Zuccardi, Trapiche, Achaval Ferrer, and Luigi Bosca have vineyards in this region, often ranked lower in the quality scale to Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. That does not mean some great wines aren’t going to be produced here, but they are most likely going to be a bit more affordable (though in general Argentine wines are of course more affordable than those from France.) Zuccardi, for example, has Santa Julia, their entry level label, grown and produced in Maipú, which falls in the Mendoza River Basin. The vines here are planted at a lower altitude, so the characteristics will be more generic rather than complex.
Many tourists may have taken a bike tour around Mendoza for wine tastings and been in Maipú without realizing it. We don’t want to downplay Maipú, any time in Mendoza is wonderful and worth visiting, and the wine, even if it doesn’t carry a hefty price tag, is always good.
Luigi Bosca Syrah. Rather than recommending another Malbec, we thought we’d show some of the variety of wines being planted in Maipú. Syrah, known as Shiraz in Australia, is best known from the Rhone Region in France. While Syrah in Argentina will undoubtedly take on different characteristics from its brothers in France, it will give some peppery notes on the tongue which will be familiar to those who love wines from the Northern Rhone.
The Uco Valley, where Vectors South Vineyard is located, is the newest booming wine region in Argentina and is located to the south of Mendoza City. It will take about an hour and a half from downtown to get there. The Valley itself is, in our opinion, by far the best place to grow grapes in Argentina (and the world!). The vines grow at a higher altitude here, between 3,000 and 3,500 ft, meaning you will get cooler temperatures at night, but still have those hot Mendoza days with the sun beating on the grapes.
The close proximity to the Andes Mountains can bring inclement weather, but it also means propinquity to the water supply that comes down from the cordillera and supplies the entire province. While irrigation is not allowed in France, in Mendoza it is essential. The first canals in Mendoza to take advantage of melting ice coming down from the mountains were built by the indigenous people, the Huarpe Indians. Throughout the province of Mendoza, you can see these little irrigation canals running through cities and towns.
Within the Uco Valley, the most prominent sub-regions are Tunuyán, Tupungato, and San Carlos. Tupungato is the home of Catena Zapata’s famous Adrianna Vineyard. Throughout the Uco Valley the soil is sandier, rockier, and is considered “low-fertility soil.” In her great book Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, Laura Catena describes that in low-fertility soil “the vines have to suffer a little, the plants have low vigor, and the grape clusters are small, exactly where we want them.” Catena and other wine makers in the region will tell you that the variety of soil even within a single plot on a vineyard is what makes wines from the Uco Valley truly remarkable and special to this beautiful high altitude desert a stone’s throw from the Andes Mountains.
As stated above, across Mendoza there is a movement to establish appellations or micro-regions known as Geographical Indications, and the Uco Valley has been no exception. With so much varying soil, even within one plot of land, these new appellations will only add to the specificity and options for wine buyers. Some of the most prominent GIs at the moment are Paraje Altamira, Los Chacayes, El Cepillo, and Gualtallary, amongst others, though they have not all been approved by the wine authorities, but the process has been started. Gualtallary is the appellation famous for the 2013 Cabernet Franc from Gran Enemigo that received a 100-point rating from Robert Parker. The wines from this micro-region often have juicier tannins. Vectors South falls within Los Chacayes, which has not been approved yet, but local wine makers and owners are pushing for this to happen in the near future.
Recommendation: Our recommendation for today is The Angel Oak wine of SignoSeis Vineyards, whose owners are based in Charleston, South Carolina. If you’ve spent some time in the Charleston area and eaten at places such as Husk, McCrady’s Tavern, or Belmond Charleston Place, odds are you’ve seen The Angle Oak on the wine list. Try their limited edition 27-month French barrel-aged Malbec from 2015. It’s a winner.