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Argentina - the benefits of altitude


Famous the world over for its high-altitude vineyards, Argentina plans to double its on-trade presence in the next few years. So how do these great heights influence the wines? Joe Fattorini joins the mile-high club to find out more

The two winemakers across the table are in floods of tears. Argentines are passionate people, but even that doesn’t fully explain why Bodegas Norton’s burly winemaker Jorge Riccitelli and his assistant María Jimena López are sobbing by the end of the tasting. Frankly my British reserve is finding it all a little, well… continental, but it is just evidence of a passionate desire to make wines that will satisfy us in the UK.

Grapes Zapata Grapes_Zapata__opt.jpg All the way along the 1,000km of vineyards that nestle on the Argentine side of the Andes there are winemakers intent on grilling visitors on how they could tweak their winemaking, packaging and marketing to find success in the UK. But for us to really get to grips with this country there are three important points to consider: mountains, Malbec and meat. Lots of meat.

This country’s wines are defined by the remarkable geography of the place, the challenge of dealing with its signature grape variety, and its singularly meaty cuisine, which undoubtedly influences the style of its wines.

A simple calculation defines all Argentina’s wine regions. This is explained by Carlos Arizú of Cabernet de los Andes, which produces wine in Argentina’s smallest and most unlikely region, the Catamarca desert. ‘Remember, if you travel 300km north you increase the temperature by 1°C. Climb 200m higher and you lower the temperature by 1°C,’ he says.


I’ve just arrived on a ten-hour bus trip north from Mendoza – by far the best way of getting around a country in which the airlines have been struggling to keep up with a burst of economic growth since the crisis of 2001.

Mendoza is metaphorically and physically the heart of Argentina’s wine industry, roughly level with Santiago in Chile and surrounded by vineyards where temperatures are moderated by an average altitude of 900m.

But Arizú’s vineyards are more than 300km further north and would be far too hot for successful grape growing were they not at an altitude of 1,500m. This gives them a similar climate to vineyards further south, but with the addition of a searing midday sun that keeps all but the foolhardy indoors, and plunging night-time temperatures – all of which produces grapes with thick skins packed with flavour.


Argentina’s wine regions begin in the far south in northern Patagonia. At 260m high and roughly on a level with Melbourne, Río Negro is the original Patagonian viticultural region, while Neuquén is the Argentina’s latest grape growing area. Vineyards are cooled by Antarctic air and blasted by such severe winds that they must be protected by rows of poplar trees. So it’s no surprise that Patagonia’s inky wines have fresh acidity and bright fruit.

To get to grips with this country there are three important points to consider: mountains, Malbec and meat

Keeping the towering Andes to your left and the vast flat pampa to your right as you travel north, you come to the well-regarded region of San Rafael, which climbs from 500m to 800m above sea level. Even further on is Mendoza City, 750km north of Patagonia and 900m high – the sort of height at which European ski resorts begin.

Height defines Mendoza’s various vineyard areas. The most famous names are clustered in the sub-regions of south and central Mendoza, which are a kilometre up. Look for sub-regions such as Luján de Cuyo, Perdriel and Agrelo for the most celebrated violet and pencil lead-tinged Malbecs.

If you travel 300km north you increase the temperature by 1°C. Climb 200m higher and you lower it by 1ºC’ Carlos Arizú, Cabernet de los Andes

The Uco Valley is the most talked about region at the moment, with land prices and gossip that suggest people think it isHarvest time at Trapic Argentina Harvest_time_at_Trapic_opt.jpg the most likely contender to become Argentina’s ‘Napa Valley’. In ‘Uco’s Valley’ (unusually, named after an ancient Native American chief – there is no River Uco) vineyards climb to more than a mile high, roughly in line with somewhere such as Zermatt in Switzerland, and produce complex reds and fresh whites.

Then to the east and north of Mendoza the vineyards are lower, and best suited to quantity production, although with occasional flashes of brilliance such as Familia Zuccardi in east Mendoza.

Continue northwards and you travel through regions such as San Juan and La Rioja (both making great value red and whites), the tiny, quirky desert vineyards of Catamarca, then Salta and the town of Cafayate – 1,000km north of our starting point in Patagonia.

On a level with Botswana, and cities such as Brisbane and Pretoria, Cafayate’s vineyards climb to a dizzying 3,020m (give or take a metre or so) and are the world’s highest, producing fruit for Bodega Colomé. This is an early ripening region, making some of Argentina’s most fragrant whites and distinctively aromatic reds.

But producers worry that all this varied geography is lost on most ordinary consumers. So in Cafayate they are toying with the idea of calling their produce ‘wine from the mile-high club’. But what they really want is for people to understand the varied geography and the influence it has on different grape varieties.


And it’s not just all about Malbec, either. It may be Argentina’s signature red variety but Argentines worry that all the interest in the one grape will mask the country’s viticultural diversity – including its signature white variety, Torrontés.

There’s a battle for the soul of Torrontés in Argentina. Winemakers are keen to make an expressive, aromatic, floral style of wine. But they complain that the marketing men want to flatten its character, reduce its individuality and chase the Pinot Grigio market. Here’s hoping the winemakers win.

The warm region of San Juan is ‘Argentina’s Australia’ says Daniel Pi of Bodegas Trapiche as we taste Shiraz together. The high temperatures in Argentina’s second hottest region allow the variety to ripen fully. But like most regions there’s also plenty of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and a smattering of white varieties planted. There are vineyards across the country with rows of Chardonnay, and cooler regions often have Sauvignon Blanc vines, which when done well can compete internationally.

And these wines are not just for drinking immediately. Tasting Nicholas Catena’s Chardonnay from the 1980s, it’s clear that many of the best wines have legs.

But what will be the next big thing? The country’s extensive acreage of Bonarda could be a future success story, making juicy, everyday reds, sparkling red barbecue wines and even dry rosé. But for the moment, the best reds are made from Malbec or Malbec blends, while the best whites are from Torrontés or Chardonnay.

Many of Argentina’s reds are rich, densely flavoured and masculine. Hardly surprising coming from a country whose population eats such a huge amount of beef – along with a vigorous consumption of lamb, pork, sausages, and (as was proudly offered in one remote restaurant) ‘a sort of baby llama … it’s endangered’.


Wines of Argentina UK recognised this with their ‘Malbec – Made for Meat’ competition (see page 43) – a challenge to find the best match for the variety of meaty heats across the country. Even so, winemakers in Argentina are clear about the need to make wines that go with the more, er…, varied diet common in the UK and other markets.

Yet it remains true than many of Argentina’s best red wines are particularly good matches for steaks, roasts, stews and grills. This food-friendliness perhaps explains why Argentina currently has a slightly bigger share in the UK’s on-trade than in the off-trade.

When Wines of Argentina established their UK office in London last year, director James Forbes declared that he wanted to double the market share, and events like the first Argentina Wine Awards and Made for Meat certainly suggest that the quality is there to achieve it. But Argentina still has its battles to fight.

While hosting Argentine tastings earlier this year in the US, it was clear that Americans have a far more elevated perception of Argentina than we do in the UK. Icon wines such as Caro from a joint venture between Catena and Domaines Barons de Rothschild were bought up with gusto. So it’s perhaps no accident that many of the country’s top wines show the ripeness, soft tannins and extract that appeal to US consumers and critics. Just good commercial sense when US consumers happily pay high prices while in the UK we are still learning about the country.

However, many in Argentina still have high hopes for success in the UK. Not least because they recognise that consumer perceptions of Argentina are helped by elements of common history and a plethora of well-known associations in the public mind.

‘Ask the average person in the UK to name five things about Argentina and they will say Maradona, polo, gauchos, rugby, tango… and the Malvinas I suppose… But you know what I mean. There are a lot of things they can tell you,’ says Pancho Lavaqué in Cafayate, echoing the thoughts of producers up and down the country. ‘But ask them to name five things about Chile? I don’t know.’


1. Torrontes from Cafayate

At its best, Torrontés blends sweet florality with a Gewürz-like spice and refreshing fruit. The mile-high vineyards of Cafayate undoubtedly make the best.

2. Tempranillo

From producers such as Zuccardi or O Fournier, Tempranillo has shown it can work brilliantly both in blends and as a stand-alone grape.

3. Red blends

Sometimes because they think it helps the Malbec, sometimes just because it feels right, many of the country’s finest reds are innovative blends.

4. Bonarda

When someone produces a good Bonarda rosé it will be stunning, but for now try this in lush, rounded, juicy and great-value reds.

5. Syrah

Especially from San Juan – ‘Argentina’s Australia’ – where daytime heat and bright sunshine brings out that spicy muscle.

Beep beep! A 30-second tour of Argentina…

bird illustration 3108257_illustration_opt.jpg SALTA/CAFAYATE

Home to Argentina’s best Torrontés, stunning, aromatic Malbec and the world’s highest vineyards. Expect great things as it finds confidence.


The heart of the wine industry, and home to Argentina’s most famous winemaking names. Inky, violet-scented Malbec is its world-class signature.


The new star, with foreign investors in a land-grab for what many believe will be a production and tourism rival to regions like Napa Valley.


A big region, sometimes over-shadowed by the better-known Mendoza to the north. Good Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon and Chardonnay.


Familia Zuccardi shows what can be achieved here. But unfortunately there are few others live up to their example.


True desert viticulture producing reliable, value-driven wines; home to Argentina’s Fairtrade wines.


True desert viticulture producing reliable, value-driven wines; home to Argentina’s Fairtrade wines.


Cool, wild-frontier winemaking in the far south producing sought-after, densely-coloured reds and fresh whites.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - November/December 2007

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