Buenos Aires may the political capital of Argentina but when it comes to wine, the most important region is Mendoza. Located at the foot of the Andes and a 10 hour car ride from Buenos Aires, this high desert town of 1.6 million inhabitants is the 4th largest city in Argentina and is known as the epicenter of all things wine. Approximately 70% of all the wine produced in Argentina comes from this one area and most of the major producers are located here as well. Indeed there is something in the water that makes this area so great for grape growing but it turns out that very special water is hard to come by. Mendoza is in essence a desert which makes it one of the most perfect places in the world to grow grapes - especially Malbec. Yes, a desert! The combination of desert climate, high altitude and low rainfall combines to form a perfect storm for grape growing.
Mendoza's proximity to the Andean mountain range makes it a high altitude desert oasis. Grapes are grown at a high elevation - 2500-5000 feet above sea level with intense sunlight and little to no rainfall (less than 8 inches per year). The sunlight is much stronger at higher altitudes since the atmosphere is thinner. Grapes grown at higher altitudes will develop thicker skins in order to protect the seeds. Just think about how strong the sun light is when you go skiing at a high elevation - your skin will burn in order to protect your organs. Thicker skins result in wines with deeper color (polyphenols & anthocyanins) and structure.This is one of the reasons why red wines from Argentina are very purple and opaque in color. Believe me, I was working the SPF while I was out visiting the vineyards. By the end of the day we were all beet red - now I know what Malbec feels like. Higher alitude also leads to huge temperature shifts from day to night which results in longer hang time, increasing the color and flavor and forming a better balance of structural components. If you go to Las Vegas you will notice it is dramatically cooler at nighttime than during the day. This is typical of desert climate. Grapes will ripen during the day but at night cool off which in turn extends how long it takes for the grapes to reach full ripeness. This shift in temperature is why Argentine reds are so balanced when it comes to alcohol and acidity even though the grapes are cultivated in such intense sunlight. So - if this is the desert, where does the water come from? The only way farmers can get anything to grow in the very poor soils is with irrigated water that flows down from the mountain tops. The lack of water and careful control of irrigation stresses the vines which reduces yields and concentrates the flavor. With water, anything is possible. There are channels and aqua ducts dug throughout the area - you have to be really careful to not to fall into one. Calculating how much water a vine needs is a precise science - too little and the vine dies and too much results in bloated grapes and diluted wines. It is nearly impossible to replicate these growing conditions anywhere else in the world. Mendoza is truly a very special place that makes extraordinary wines.
Edgardo del Popolo from Dona Paula Winery giving us a lesson on the unique terroir of Mendoza. Notice the brambly brush in the foreground and lush vineyards towards the back.
Pedro Machevsky, the Godfather of viticulture in Argentina, offering his thoughts as well. Pedro is married to Susana Balbo, the President of the Wines of Argentina Association.