Username:    Password:
Thanks for stopping by...
International Letters
Wine Notes from a Trip to Argentine
Tuesday, 26th October, 2004  - David Farmer

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.

The Story of Canberra Viticulture and Wine

Tuesday, 21st June, 2016

The Federation debate continued the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with the location of the new capital being of great importance. After reviewing many sites the Australia Capital Territory was selected in 1908 at a mid way point between the two cities and declared on 1st January, 1911. Canberra was named as the location in 1913 and Canberra Day is remembered on the 12th March. more...

The Landscape and Vineyards of the Murray Basin

Wednesday, 29th July, 2015

Few wine commentators wish to understand the significance of the Murray Basin taking the view that the basin is no more than a maker of industrial wines. The average wine buyer cannot afford the wines they like to write about and to make price sensitive wines you need regions like the Murray Basin. After all over 60% of the country's wine comes from the Murray Basin while supplying the 30% packaged as casks. more...

The Landscape and Vineyards of the Murray Basin - Appendix 1

Wednesday, 29th July, 2015

To appreciate the wine story of the Murray Basin it helps to understand how the basin formed, or its geological evolution. Please note this long section has no bearing on wine flavours. Also it is a simplification and re-arrangement of the published information. Three issues are of special interest in considering how the Murray Basin evolved; more...

Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

Sunday, 12th January, 2014

The following six articles are based on a talk I gave to the Field Geologists Club of South Australia, on May 2nd 2013.

I took the opportunity to talk to this group to consolidate my thoughts which are captured in the general term 'terroir' which have been maturing since the late 1990s, a time when I wanted to understand the science behind the role of nature, as distinct from wine-making, in the flavours of wine. more...

Terroir Goes Higher and Higher

Friday, 19th October, 2012

Steadily the vine spreads into new regions across the globe and who knows what taste pleasures await us in the years ahead. The vast sweep of country from Turkey to China looks very inviting. more...

The Vines of the NSW South Coast

Wednesday, 28th March, 2012

The birthplace of Australian wines was naturally the Sydney basin. Urban pressure has swamped the vineyards of Sydney though a few lonely outposts survive, such as Camden Estate Wines at Camden where the first plantings date to 1820. Thus it was to be further north in the Hunter Valley that the early vineyards were to survive. more...

Remarks on the Geology and Wines of McLaren Vale

Monday, 6th February, 2012

In August, 2010, a geological map of the McLaren Vale wine region was published. This is the final version of a preliminary map from 2000. I love maps and to me both are works of art though the full blown 2010 version is a thing of beauty. This map shows in great detail the many geological formations from very young to old which underlie this famous vineyard region. more...

The Landscape and Terroir of Eden Valley

Thursday, 29th September, 2011

Quick Facts
The Eden Valley GI region adjoins the Barossa Valley to the east and is of a similar size.
This region is a hilly upland plateau divided in two by the valley of the North Para River which flows north.
This upland region is about 200 metres higher than the Barossa Valley and vineyards are planted at heights of 400 to 550 metres. more...

Altitude, Argentina and the Riverland

Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Should you be interested in creating a wine empire, The Daily Mail, 17th July, 2011, reports that the Estancia Punta del Agua; a one million acre estate, in San Juan province in western Argentine, is for sale. The estate lies about 150 kilometres NNE, of San Juan which has a wine history back to 1569. more...

A Comment on the Red Soils of Heathcote

Sunday, 1st May, 2011

When commenting about wine regions it's not a simple task to write about the geology and the origin of landscapes and soils. Consider this example of the confusion that one region has managed.

Heathcote, the Victorian region noted for fine shiraz makes great use of the districts red soils in selling and marketing. Some say the best vineyards are located on the red soils, and it's suggested, they produce the best wines. Here are nine recent comments. more...

The Excitement of Te Muna Road

Thursday, 7th April, 2011

Looking back over the last 40 years it is amazing the number of new wine regions that have developed across Australia and New Zealand. From farming land to vineyards and still pioneers are finding small sub-regions that are worth a shot. more...

The Soils of the Barossa Valley

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2010

For a dozen or so years now I have spent many happy days digging holes, chipping rocks, and studying the landscapes of a large number of Australian and New Zealand vineyard regions. The object is to try and understand what role things like soils, rocks, and the shape of the landscape, play in the role of creating wine flavours. This is an area French winemakers are very keen on and goes under the general topic of 'terroir'. more...

How Does Soil and Rocks Influence the Taste of Wine?

Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

My studies have lead me to the conclusion that the chemistry of the soils and rocks in which the vine grows add little if anything to the taste of wine. Wine does not show a taste that can be related back to primary or secondary minerals in the soils and weathered rocks. The soils and rocks do though have an important bearing on how necessary nutrients are taken up by the vines and most specifically how the vine gains access to water. This does affect the taste in a major way. more...

Discussions about Soil, Rocks and Wine with Max Marriott

Monday, 27th July, 2009

I have written a lot about the topic of 'terroir' and was recently asked by Max Marriot, landscape photographer and specialist writer, to offer some thoughts about geology, wine and the like. This was to help with an article he was commissioned to do for the New Zealand Grape Grower. more...

In the Footsteps of Colonel Light

Wednesday, 10th June, 2009

I have spent many a happy day wandering the hills and vales pondering how the Barossa landscape formed. An area of great interest is Rocky Gully that runs down from the eastern edge of the Eden Valley into the Barossa Valley. This gully makes no sense to me as it seems to be much bigger than the tiny stream that drains it could possibly have created. more...

An Expression of Unusual New Zealand Terroir

Wednesday, 1st April, 2009

The Chaytor family were early Marlborough settlers (1830-40?) and had grazing properties that spanned country from north of Blenheim at Spring Creek through to Picton. One of these properties, possibly 'Marshlands', near Spring Creek, is now part of the extensive vineyard, Shepherds Ridge, of 73 hectares. Alas I do not have firsthand experience of the Shepherds Ridge vineyard. Wine reviews have been very favourable with many wines scoring 90 plus. more...

On One Hand Terroir Gets Bigger - On the Other it's Taken Away

Saturday, 6th September, 2008

The concept of 'terroir' or a sense of place that it is said may be reflected in the taste of a wine is now embedded in the psyche of French wine makers and many disciples world-wide. It was not always so as there is little mention of this concept until the 1970's though it can be argued that it encapsulates the idea of single vineyards as represented for example by the 1855 Bordeaux left bank grading. more...

Specific Site or Blending?

Sunday, 22nd June, 2008

If you believe what wine writers everywhere are telling us you would come to the conclusion that the very best wines are always site specific. By this they mean you must be able to see the vineyard which produced the grapes and coupled with this they may discuss how the wine expresses the terroir of the site. more...

Buying Wines That Have a Sense of Place

Friday, 11th April, 2008

Currently a number of wine writers are emphasising that wines with a sense of place taste better, or those that express terroir have the true taste of wine. Indeed I gather they are saying that they can detect a wine with a sense of place from drinking it. more...

An Update on the Unfathomable Idea - Terroir

Wednesday, 3rd October, 2007

The idea that the site, the location and aspect, of the vineyard and its exposure to the elements of climate will affect the taste of the grapes and hence the wine seems so obvious as to be hardly worth debating. Any owner of a vineyard whether it is flat as a tack in the Australian Riverland or clinging to a slope in a cool climate region will tell you that part of the vineyard always produces superior fruit to the rest. The famous region of Burgundy has known for five hundred years that parts of its golden slope produce better wines than the rest. more...

Geology Cannot be Found In Wine

Thursday, 18th September, 2006

An aspect of marketing is to tell the story about the product and to enhance the story it can be a good idea to weave in a myth, a mystery or some 'undefined' extra element. The idea is to create for the consumer an emotional bond with the product that goes beyond the mere utility of the product. more...

Terroir - Can It Possible Shine Through the Background Noise

Tuesday, 4th July, 2006

It seems to make sense that the taste of a wine reflects where it is grown. After all Barossa wines do have different aromas and flavours to Tasmanian wines. The French use the term 'terroir' to describe the differences that refect the sense of place where the grapes are grown. more...

Wine Quality: Does Terroir Matter?

Friday, 14th October, 2005

Olivier Gergaud from the University of Reims and Victor Ginsburgh (pictured) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles deserved better than the couple of smart headlines they attracted when they presented a paper at the UK Royal Economic Society annual conference in Nottingham in March this year. The Sunday Observer declared "French bitter over wine study" and Decanter magazine on its website summarised that "Terroir plays no role". But apart from a reference or two on wine web sites that was the extent of the references that I found on Google for the paper Natural endowments, production technologies and the quality of wines in Bordeaux. Does terroir matter? Yet the Gergaud and Ginsburgh paper is one of the more significant contributions yet made to the debate about the comparative impact of terroir and wine making skills on the wine we drink. A look at the Observer's and Decanter's coverage of the story perhaps provides a clue to the overall paucity of the coverage. more...

Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines

Friday, 14th October, 2005

Any vineyard owner will tell you that certain areas of their vineyard make better tasting grapes than other areas. Why some areas of vineyards and vineyard districts deliver better grapes and hence better wine is the subject of terroir studies. The Europeans and particularly the French are very interested in this topic. They extend the meaning of the word which we can roughly say is the flavour effects that come from the vineyard location to include cultural ideas which unite man with the soil. more...

©2017 Glug  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |   RSS Feed
Liquor Licensing Act 1997: It is an offence to sell or supply liquor to a person under the age of 18 years, or to obtain liquor on behalf of a person under the age of 18 years.
All transactions in $AUD. This web site is operated by Glug Management Company Pty Ltd ABN: 64 116 647 780 Licence No: 51401128