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Argentina Wine Primer

During the past two decades Argentina has transformed into an international wine powerhouse, becoming the fifth leading wine producer in the world. While most of Argentina's wine production is centered in Mendoza, a 12-hour car ride west of Buenos Aires in the Andes foothills, the coastal capital has its own wine attractions: boutique wine shops and wine bars, called vinotecas.

You may notice that wine shops and bars feature domestic wines almost exclusively. Why? Imported wine is often prohibitively expensive for Argentine consumers due to exchange rates. Fortunately for wine-loving travelers to the country, this means that excellent Argentine wines are available at bargain prices. It also means that you'll want to know something about the country's wines to help you make informed buying decisions.

A Little History

In the mid-19th century hundreds of thousands of Europeans immigrated to Argentina, bringing with them wine-grape vines, which they planted on the eastern flanks of the Andes Mountains, in the region of Mendoza. Consumption of Mendoza's wine remained local for years, as the area was geographically isolated from big cities until late in the century. By the late 19th century a railroad connected Mendoza to Buenos Aires, and Mendoza's wine was traded throughout the country.

For the next 100 years vintners produced simple wines in accordance to local tastes and budgets. Finally, in the 1990s, the newly open economy sparked fresh interest in South American wines. Since then, big investments from France, Spain, Italy, the United States, and elsewhere has significantly improved growing and production practices, resulting in top-quality wines. Now there are more than 1,500 wineries in Argentina, and the country's wines are widely exported.

Growing Conditions

Argentina's wine band extends along the western border of the country, comprising 10 regions, from Salta in the north to the Rio Negro in Patagonia, at the country's southern end. The vineyards are clustered in irrigated plots in areas that would otherwise be desert. Most vines are planted at high elevations, between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above sea level. The climate here can be temperamental, so producers must be ever-prepared for downpours, hailstorms, and scorching, dehydrating winds.

The most significant wine regions are Mendoza and San Juan, located in the middle of the country, which together account for about 90% of the country's wine production. Mendoza and San Juan are dry, temperate regions, with fewer than eight inches of rain per year, and temperatures that range from around 33°F in the winter to 94°F in the summer.

Wines to Try

Dozens of imported grape varieties—from popular Chardonnay to obscure Bonarda—are planted in Argentina. A large percentage of vineyard area is still planted with domestic grapes varieties like Criolla and Cereza, which yield basic table wines and grape juice. But international varieties are quickly replacing these historic grapes. Some of the most important types include the following:

Malbec: Just one sip of Argentina's most widely known wine evokes gauchos and tangos. Malbec is still a minor blending variety in France's Bordeaux wines, but the grape has become Argentina's signature varietal, and some say it finds its best expression here. Malbecs are deep-colored, full-bodied wines, concentrated with plum and raspberry flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Argentine Cabernets are full-bodied, with high acid and tannin, typically expressing bold black cherry and herbal notes. They're perfect with grilled steaks.

Red Blends: The red blends here may be mixtures of classic Bordeaux varietals—mainly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec—but they express the fruit-forward results typical of New World wines. Other red blends include nontraditional pairings like Italy's Sangiovese with Syrah.

Chardonnay: This international varietal can vary widely in its expression depending upon where it is grown. Some Argentina bottlings express citrus and honey flavors, while other are packed with tropical fruit. Most Chardonnays are oaked, so expect toasty, buttery notes as well.

Torrontés: Argentina's favorite white wine—considered an indigenous grape—has prominent aromatics of flowers and herbs in a full-bodied, dry wine. Often tangy and lively, Torrontés is an excellent aperitif wine.

Wine Tasting Primer

Ordering and tasting wine—whether at a vinoteca, winery, or restaurant—is easy once you master a few simple steps.

Look: Hold your glass by the stem, raise it to the light, and take a close look at the wine in the glass. Note the wine's hue, color depth, and clarity. For white wine, is it greenish, yellow, or gold? For red wine, is it purplish, ruby, or garnet? For depth, is the wine's color pale, medium or deep? Is the liquid clear or cloudy? (This is easiest to do if you can move the glass in front of a white background).

Sniff: Swirl the wine gently in the glass to intensify the scents, then sniff over the rim of the glass. What do you smell? Try to identify aromas like fruits (citrus, green fruit, black fruits), flowers (blossoms, honey), spices (sweet, pungent, herbal), vegetables (fresh or cooked), minerals (earth or wet stones), dairy (butter, cream), oak (toast, vanilla) or animal (leathery) notes. Are there any unpleasant notes, like mildew or wet dog that might indicate that the wine is "off?

Sip: Take a first sip and swish the wine around your mouth for a few seconds to "prime" your palate, then swallow or spit it into a discard bucket. Then take another sip and begin to evaluate the wine. In the mouth, you experience sweetness on the tip of the tongue, acidity on the sides of the tongue, and tannins (an astringent, mouth-drying sensation) on the gums. Is the sipping experience pleasant, or is one of the wine's elements out of balance? Also consider the body—does the wine feel light in the mouth, or is there a sensation of richness? Are the flavors you taste consistent with the aromas you smelled? If you like the wine, try to pinpoint what you like about it, and vice versa if you don't like it. Most of all, take time to savor the wine as you're sipping it—the tasting experience may seem a little scientific, but the end goal is your enjoyment.

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