Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A brief introduction to Mendoza.

Some geographic and climatic info about Argentina and its wine regions: locations, rainfall, climate (left to right)

Mendoza is a name often seen on the labels of bottles of Argentine Malbec readily available in the US in wine shops, wine bars, and restaurants alike. However I feel to understand this region one must travel there, either literally or through the eyes of someone else. There are intricacies of terroir and producers that are tied to the history of the region, its interesting mix of desert and rivers, and its equally interesting factor of foreign influence that can enlighten one on this new-world region's old-world twist.

Criolla, or Tinta Amarela, grapes

Argentina’s wine industry dates back to Spanish colonization. Cuttings were introduced to Santiago del Estero in 1557 and grown near Buenos Aires. These cuttings failed in the climate, stalling progress until grapes brought from Peru were successfully grown near modern-day Salta in 1542. In 1546 vines were introduced from Chile to Mendoza and San Juan. These were most likely the ancestor of the Criolla grape, which gave rise to Argentine Torrontes (a cross between Criolla and Muscat of Alexandria).

the Argentine railway at its peak

The first vineyard dates to the 1550s, and vineyards in Mendoza were planted shortly thereafter. The first Malbec grapes were brought to the Mendoza area by Miguel Pouget (a French agronomist). As the wine industry developed in the West, an increasing pressure by producers including Tiburcio Benegas, owner of El Trapiche estate, led to the development of the now abandoned Argentine railway (another story in itself… the railway at its peak extended 47,000 miles, but when privatization occurred the railway fell into disrepair).

Consulting winemakers: France's Michel Rolland (left) and California's Paul Hobbs (right)
The phylloxera plague drove many European winemakers to Argentina in the 1800’s. Quantity was the focus rather than quality and the main grape varietals were Cereza and Criolla Grande. This changed in the late 1900s when foreign investment drove producers to switch to fine wine production for the export market. Consulting winemakers from France, California, Australia, and Italy brought new methods and equipment. Now Mendoza and Salta export a large quantity of fine wine to the US, Europe, and Australia, and the wine industry is strengthening rapidly.

The city of Mendoza was established in 1561. Prior to this, the area was occupied by a number of tribes; the Huarpes are credited for the irrigation system that is still present today: fairly deep ditches that run the length of all the city streets, allowing runoff from the Andes to flow in and irrigate the many trees that line the roads. Without these established irrigation channels the immigrants arriving to the Mendoza in the 1500s would have been greeted with a barren desert instead of a flourishing agricultural area. An interesting side note: some of the trees that parade down the streets in Mendoza are platanos, or plane trees, also known as the “trees of Hippocrates” after the legendary tree under which Hippocrates is said to have taught his students the art of medicine; the tree is native to the island of Kos but has been transplanted to nearly every suitable area of the world. 

The Mendoza wine region has a semi-arid desert climate with dry, sandy soils on top of clay intermingled with patches of alluvial deposits due to the rivers snaking through. Very little rainfall characterizes the winegrowing areas. Huge temperature differentials between day and night are common, with daytime highs of 105 degrees Fahrenheit contrasting nighttime temperatures of 50 Fahrenheit. Rivers flowing from the heights of the Andes water five natural oases that allow agricultural development here. The northern oasis is fueled by the Mendoza river and lies underneath part of Maipú and Las Heras. The eastern oasis waters Junin, Rivadavia, San Martín, La Paz, and Santa Rosa, mainly table grape production areas. The Mendoza River itself flows through Maipú and Lújan de Cuyo, arguably the first wine-production regions of Mendoza. Uco Valley encompasses Tupungato, Tunuyán, and San Carlos. And the southernmost oasis covers San Rafael and General Alvear.
hail in Mendoza, courtesy of http://www.stormtrack.org/

Two major climatic issues arise in Mendoza and are inextricably linked: hail and the Zonda. The Zonda is a cool foehn wind that blows over the Andes from Chile, heating and picking up dust as it races down the Argentine side. By the time it reaches the valleys of Mendoza, windspeeds can exceed 40 km/hour. Hail trails a particularly harsh Zonda, sometimes as large as baseballs (hence the rugged netting covering most vines in the afflicted areas). The winds can damage young vines, and the hail can wreak absolute havoc on entire vineyards as, for example, in the 2010 vintage when 50% of the vines were killed. But beside these two pestilent problems few other issues loom in the Mendoza region for vines. Though phylloxera does exist here in the soil it doesn’t create a problem for the vineyards: in this climate the phylloxera louse is incapable of achieving its flying phase, keeping phylloxera attacks limited to one vine at a time. Some producers choose to plant on rootstock while others feel confident enough to use own-rooted vines.
Malbec, from Cahors (left) and Mandoza (right)

The characteristically “Argentine” varietal that most often comes to mind is Malbec. Introduced initially from Cahors, Malbec was once the dominant varietal in Bordeaux. However the grape is very disease-prone, and after a severe frost in 1956 that wiped out most of Bordeaux’s Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in its stead. Phylloxera dealt another rough blow to the vine: planted on American rootstock, the French Malbec would become overly vigorous reducing the concentration of the grapes. Pouget brought Malbec to Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century; these vines have tighter clusters of smaller berries than Malbec in Cahors, suggesting it was perhaps a unique clone now extinct in France. Another common Argentine varietal to find is Bonarda. Bonarda is sometimes said to be an Italian varietal, but ampelography has determined that much of the Bonarda found in Argentina is actually a grape from the south of France called Counoise.

Over the next month I will visit a few representative wineries throughout the main regions of Mendoza in an attempt to clarify some ambiguities of these wines. Hopefully an introduction to producers, their philosophies and backgrounds, and their styles will shed more light on what unites and distinguishes wines of Mendoza.

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