Mendoza, the epicentre of the Argentinean wine industry, lies just a hundred miles or so east of Santiago, the capital city of Chile. However, the journey between the two is as much vertical as horizontal, separated as they are by the highest peak of the Andes, mount Aconcagua at over 23,000 feet. As with Chile, the Andes is the backbone that supports the Argentinean wine industry.
Surprisingly, Argentina is one of the world's top five largest wine producing nations. Perhaps because of their Hispanic history and tradition, Argentineans have also been very significant consumers of wine. But young Argentineans are turning away from wine in their droves towards Coca-Cola, designer beer or other more fashionable drinks. Annual consumption has dropped from a peak of around 90 litres per capita, to half that level. This is in common with much of Europe where similar problems beset the wine industry, but the fact that almost all of Argentina's production was for the local market has had a devastating effect. At the same time, Argentina has been taking its first tentative steps from periods of military rule and economic uncertainty.
In the rain shadow of the Andes, Argentina is for the most part an arid landscape, but like Chile it benefits from a supply of irrigating water off the mountains. Unlike Chile however, the generally warmer inland region can support vine growing down the length of the country. In the north, the vineyards lie at the same latitude as Morocco; in the south, vineyards share latitude with New Zealand. One of the keys to growing quality wine grapes here is altitude, with vineyards planted at between 2,000 and 3,000 feet to exploit cooler temperatures.
Again like their neighbours there have been massive plantings here of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon amongst others. However Argentina also has a tradition of Spanish and Italian varieties like Tempranillo, Bonarda and Barbera that can make wonderfully juicy berry and cherry-fruited reds.
Torrontés is a white wine grape that makes terrifically fragrant, perfumed yet rich and fruity wines with crisp acidity and plenty of body.
The great red wine grape, with the structure to reach even higher peaks of quality, is the Malbec. Malbec is a grape with many synonyms, possibly best known as Auxerrois when making Cahors in the south of France. But Argentinian Malbecs are perhaps the best in the world, with powerful, smooth deeply-fruited inky black wines full of spice and character.
Argentina's relatively isolated position has been opened up in the past few years and there has been substantial investment aimed at improving quality. Perhaps with a covetous eye on the rewards being reaped by their neighbours across the mountains, Argentina has even welcomed investment and advice from outside the country. The combination of powerful forces - harsh economic reality and burgeoning ambition - has led to a whole new quality in Argentinean wine, which can be traced back quite precisely to the excellent 1996 vintage. Since then, Argentina has barely looked back.
This is Argentina's powerhouse and centre of quality accounting for over 80% of total production (or to put it another way, over half of the entire wine production of South America). Producers like Luigi Bosca, Etchart, Finca Flichman, Bodegas Lurton, Norton, Catena and Weinert make fine Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay with increasingly impressive Syrahs and Malbecs. Many have been subject to foreign investment from top European houses. Some superb Malbecs are being made in the sub-region of Lujan de Cuyo, from producers like Fabre Montmayou. Tupungato is a new quality sub-region, largely developed by the giant Penaflor winery (for their premium Trapiche label).
Sitting in the very far north of the country, Salta is a region of generally high quality with fine Cabernet Sauvignons and, especially Torrontes in the Cafayate sub-region. Etchart has a winery here, but other notable producers are Finca Colomé and Michel Torino.
These regions lie at the southern end of wine production, in the fringes of Patagonia. Both are regions to watch closely, the latitude of the south allows cool-climate varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to shine as well as Malbec, but high quality sparkling wines, often made in association with Champagne houses, show promise.
These long-standing regions were known for producing plenty of wine, and are the second largest producer in the country after Mendoza, but as yet mostly of mediocre quality from uninspiring grapes, and for purely local consumption. But as is the case throughout Argentina, quality is improving and some excellent quality wines now emerge from the La Riojana cooperative amongst others.
Sub Regions of San Juan
Pedernal: Pedernal is located in the south of the San Juan region, and is only 60 miles (100km) north of Mendoza city. The average altitude of vineyards in this area are 3300 ft (1000m) which helps moderate the temperature, with the greater intensity of sunlight at this height helping to ensure healthy grape development. Pedernal is Spanish for flint-stone, which gives a hint to the soils found in this area. The main grapes grown in Pedernal are Chardonnay, Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tulum Valley: Many things have come together to make wine growing possible in this area. Tulum Valley is situated at a latitude of 31 degrees south, which would normally make it to hot for grape growing. But the fact that the vineyards here are at an average height of 2200ft (650m) above sea level helps to moderate the temperatures. The area is also very dry, but an abundant supply of water from the San Juan river makes irrigation possible. This areas main grapes are Torrontes and Chardonnay for white wines, and Syrah for the production of red varietal wine.
Zonda Valley: This sub region is located in the west of the San Juan wine region. This area is located at an elevation of around 3000ft (950m) above sea level and has a long growing season with hot days and cool nights. A constant dry wind known as the Zonda flows down from the nearby Andes mountains, keeping the area warm and dry, and the grapes free from disease. This dry wind can also bring destruction, sometimes getting upward of 25mph, which can cause substantial damage to crops. The main grapes grown here are Syrah and Malbec.
Grapes grown it the San Juan region include Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah for red wines, and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Torrontes and Viognier for the production of white wines. It also produces a large quantity of Criolla and Cereza grapes, which are generally used to make cheaper, slightly sweet wines. This region also produces sherry-style wines and provides most of the base for Argentina's brandy and vermouth.