The Trip to Mendoza, the Wine Capital
Buenos Aires sits on the bank of a large river system that drains the Western Andes and the North Eastern Brazilian high plains. These rivers have created a fertile flat land that covers a huge area. The drive west from the capital to Mendoza the Argentinean wine town is an endless spectacle of corn fields, Soya bean crops, cows and horses.
The distance from Buenos Aires to Mendoza is 1080 kilometres. To give you an idea of how flat it is, the first road cutting indicating a slight elevation occurred at the 319 kilometre mark, and this was only 0.5 metres high. It was flat for another 400 kilometres. It’s fertile and productive all the way.
The Andean mountain range that runs the length of South America and extends into the Western side of Argentine has been produced by the floor of the Pacific Ocean sliding under the South American continental crust. Travelling west the first sign of this enormous collision are the ripples of a small range that rises out of the plains at San Luis, 800 kilometres from Buenos Aires.
San Luis is a story for another day but if you have ever wondered where the World Bank did its money in propping up Argentine a good place to start would be San Luis. Imagine the water front of Sydney without the water or the people but with the property development and you will get the picture.
At this stage we have 280 kilometres to go to reach Mendoza. The wet winds from the Atlantic that kept the fields green are long gone and now the country resembles outback Australian with tough, hardened prickly plants and flocks of ragged sheep. With 140 kilometres to go the first vines and orchards appear and the height is about 560 metres A.M.S.L. They are irrigated by underground water. This water has flowed off the Andes and soaked into the desert sands and is tapped from boreholes. The agricultural scene reminded us of the Australian Riverland although our irrigation comes from water diverted from the Eastern Highlands or pumped from the Murray River. The Argentinean vineyards and orchards are also at a much higher altitude.
The Vineyards of Mendoza
It’s a steady climb up the outwash fans that have spread out from the eroding Andes. Vines and orchards line the road the whole distance. At 755 metres you enter the wine town of Mendoza. Mendoza lies in the giant shadow of the Andes in a setting of great scenic beauty. The rainfall is low though water is plentiful from the numerous rivers that flow off the Andes.
When the Andean ice caps melted some 10,000 years ago the flood would have so great that no river could have held the volume of water. The whole Eastern Plains would have been awash. As an example, they say that the Mississippi River, enormous though it is today would have had 20 times the current water flow to cart away the melt from the Canadian ice sheet.
Mendoza and the vineyards up to 70 kilometres south produce 80% of Argentinean wine. Founded in 1561 Mendoza is an elevated oasis. At Mendoza they divert the river flow to vineyards and numerous other crops and fruit trees using flood irrigation. This was common practise in Australia up to ten years ago but with our scarce water resources the Riverland vineyards have moved to drip irrigation and improvements such as deficit irrigation. These measures have had a profound influence on wine quality. Advances that Argentine is a long way from implementing.
What Does Terroir Mean in Argentine
Often mentioned on GLUG is the French term 'terroir'. It means the influence the site has on the wine flavour. The area most often referred to when discussing this term is Burgundy where flavours change quite a lot over small distances. It is considered important in other French vineyard areas and particularly favourable sites are often bottled separately with reference to the vineyard name. Other European vineyard areas, notably those in Germany, also show particular vineyard settings and the special flavours of these wines are said to be the result of the terroir.
The idea seems to make sense as we know that certain sites make better wines because of the location. Reasons can be that they receive just the right amount of sunlight, or the average temperature is perfect, or just the right amount of water is available to the vine or any combination of the dozens of ways that the vine and its fruit ripening are affected. Even so while most areas show variability they only make fair average quality so the term as used in Europe is generally reserved for those small places that make exceptional wine.
Many recent articles mention the terroir within Argentine. Certainly in a country of its size there will be particular, favourable sites. There is though none of the fine tuning that has enabled special sites to be identified as in Europe. In general it seems the use of the term refers to unique features that apply to all of the vineyard areas that run along the Eastern edge of the Andes. Perhaps we can call this big picture terroir rather than the small picture terroir of Europe.
Consider the extensive vineyards of Mendoza. There is no reason at all that vineyards should be concentrated here and not further north or south. The original outlet for agriculture was not east but over the mountain gap to Chile. The location of the overpass lies behind Mendoza. The great bulk of wines are made from grapes off flat lying vineyards. And the soils are very fertile being the product of glaciation which grinds rock to a flour like texture. Mendoza is like an elevated version of our wine region, Griffith. The potential viticultural land stretches hundreds of kilometres North and South. Provided there is enough water, you could grow the world’s entire wine supply right here.
The Special Landscape of Argentine Vineyard Sites
From the flat plains, North and South of Mendoza, the land may rise quickly into steep hills and mountains or there can be a much wider strip before the hills become to steep for viticulture. It is on these gentler slopes that new vineyards are being planted in the search for wine quality. About 70 kilometres South of Mendoza and West of the town of Tunuyan is the Salentein Winery which is one such venture. This winery at 1300 meters is one of several which argue that they have planted the correct variety at the right elevation to fully express that varieties potential in the context of the terroir. Thus they may source from vineyards that vary in elevation from 800 metres to 1400 metres. My own view is that it is not that simple and much more work will be required to prove which variety belongs at which elevation.
Vineyards go north from Mendoza hundreds of kilometres and in fact go into Bolivia. The northern most is near Talca, which is 1300 kilometres North of Mendoza. There the vines vary in altitude from 1700 metres to 2400 metres. Travelling north the climate is hotter and to compensate the vineyards are at higher elevations. I tried some outstanding malbecs from Talca.
Going south the furthest I found a vineyard was Patagonian Wines, near El Bolson which is 1360 kilometres south of Mendoza. This vineyard is real pioneer stuff. It’s sited on a terminal moraine, a geological formation left by a retreating glacier, in a good sunny spot. Even in December the surrounding mountains were snow capped. Raspberries were growing well which is a good sign for pinot noir. The latitude is 42 degrees and I am uncertain of the altitude but guess it to be about 1200 metres.
The point to emphasise is that while vineyards are clustered around irrigation centres they extend over a North-South distance of at least 2660 kilometres, hugging the Andean Mountain chain. This of course covers a large range of climates from cold to hot and humid although the Northern vineyards tend to be higher to offset the heat. The references to altitude are to illustrate the unique feature of the vineyards which is their extreme height. To refer back to the terroir idea one of the controlling influences on the taste of Argentinean wine will be the elevation of the vineyards. Recall that in Australia most of our vineyards are lower than 350 metres. Our highest is near Orange and is at 800 metres.
Elevation produces rapid cooling in the evening which has a large impact on the final wine flavour and numerous other subtle differences in growing conditions which will also affect the final wine flavour. As an example the hot ripening conditions of the Clare Valley hardly seem ideal for riesling, which is seen in the Northern Hemisphere as a cool climate variety, and it is believed that the rapid cooling off in the evening is responsible for the delicate flavours. The Clare is from 350 to 400 metres above sea level. High altitude red wine colours are deep and very bright although the body weight of the wines does not seem as dense as wines from lower altitudes.
The famous variety of Argentine is malbec which seems to have found its ideal home or perhaps terroir at these high altitudes. It is hard to explain why a variety considered ordinary elsewhere in the world of wine turns out full flavoured quite delicious wines in this country. It probably should be re-evaluated in other countries. The unique white variety is torrontes which shows a florid, intense, heavy and flamboyant palate that was not very appealing. It is part of the muscat family of grapes.
There are some interesting and appealing wines being made in Argentine and a rapidly developing food and wine scene which is promoting the best wines. Still it is early days and it is hard to decide whether the wine areas are high altitude irrigated flatlands which will make fair average quality or whether some of them can make outstanding wines. It is perplexing that with the search for better quality, vineyards have been planted up the hilly slopes west of the flatland vineyards and normally within sight of them. The usual way to produce wines of outstanding quality is to find unique sites which are small and are often associated with unique micro-climates. Australian examples are Coonawarra with its low altitude, red soils and cool maritime climate or the Clare Valley with its elevated vineyards, exposure to the winds and climate moving inland from the Gulf’s and narrow elongated valleys.
Of the many wines tried quality was variable with most wines being in the pleasant range. Can Argentine make truly outstanding wines? Some investors are convinced it can and if this happens it will revolve around high altitude wine making and what are believed to be special sites. Also when you ponder the size of the country and the regularity of the landscape, Andean mountains giving way to flat watered desert plains, it makes the French concept of terroir a lot harder to pin down. A lot of the vineyard areas are flat broad acre farming and display a monotony that makes it difficult to see how the sense of place and the impact this has on flavour makes much sense although I do not doubt that in the big picture these vineyards do have a special terroir.