The vines of Argentina
The vines of Argentina
The Mendoza province of Argentina—set against the panoramic backdrop of the Andes and occupying a total area of around 57,000 square miles in the country’s far west—is best known as Argentina’s charming and illustrious wine country. In fact, Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world.
By Sonia Havele | The Chronicle
The viticulture here is astoundingly ubiquitous—radiating far beyond the bottle. From the geography of the region, to wine’s imperative role as a celebrated local and international commodity, to the deeply ingrained tradition of wine-making itself, viticulture appears to be embedded in nearly every aspect of Mendozan life.
Dry plains to the east and the Andes Cordillera to the west frame the picturesque landscape. Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas, lies just 70 miles northwest of the provincial capital, Mendoza City. Mendozan vineyards, which span hundreds of thousands of acres, are among the highest-altitude vineyards in the world—most are planted somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 feetabove sea level. The region’s arid but moderate climate, a result of little rainfall and mountains that occlude Pacific Ocean moisture, is ideal for grape cultivation. As a result, Mendoza has come to be known for its durable grapes with thick skins—qualities which lend to the rich color and robust flavor of the Malbec, Argentina’s most famed red wine and Mendoza’s most planted grape. As of 2003, there were more than 50,000 acres of Malbec alone.
As any Mendozan enologist will tell you, these near-perfect conditions for wine production, particularly with respect to the Malbec, lead to a final product that is of high quality and in high demand. Popularly produced wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Chardonnay, which are both distributed domestically and exported to countries all over the world. According to a Norton winery tour guide, a bottle of their Reserva Malbec, which costs around 20 pesos in Argentina, goes for nearly 80 real in neighboring Brazil. That is nearly seven times the local price!
Just as Argentine wine exports have increased over the past two decades—in part due to a transformation and upgrade in the wine production process—so have other forms of international interest: tourism and investment. Mendozan wine, known also for its value, has become popular among European and American travelers seeking cheaper alternatives in light of new economic challenges. For Americans, Mendoza has become a marketable travel destination, as the dollar still goes far. Many bodegas, or wineries, like Bodega Familia Zuccardi also offer room and board to international students looking to travel and learn about wine in exchange for working a few days a week in the winery.
Likewise, during the financial crisis of the early 2000s, investors and wine lovers from across the world began traveling to Mendoza, hoping to cheaply invest in the region’s hundreds of vineyards and wineries. Today, interest in Argentina’s more value-friendly wines continues to soar—vineyard prices in Mendoza have risen 13 percent since 2010, with Napa Valley and Bordeaux’s prices dropping by 25 and 14 percent respectively.
But, as I stated earlier, wine functions as more than just a commodity. The deeply preserved tradition of harvesting appears to adhere to an honored and meticulous process despite new technologies and improvements to certain phases of production. Although the winery interiors are characterized by giant rows of shiny steel tanks, the sun-kissed vineyards appear unchanged by modernization. Vines are grown to a minimum height, so that harvesters can cut bunches more easily without touching, and therefore contaminating, the grapes. Because the climate is so dry, there is also no need for pesticides, leaving the grapes virtually chemical-free when they enter the winery. Hundreds of locals participate in the harvesting process between the months of February and April just for Bodega Familia Zuccardi. With more than 900 separately-owned bodegas in the Mendoza region, the number of individuals working the harvest is surely in the thousands, adding a deeply social element to the wine culture of Argentina.
The social and cultural importance of wine can be observed through more than just the harvest. It can be found in the way the geographical conditions necessary for its production have unified the province through viticulture’s development into a thriving local and international enterprise. It is also mirrored by the fact that the children of Mendoza begin learning the ropes of the trade at age five or six. Some vineyards, like those of Bodega Norton, have distinctive plots with edible grapes, designed especially for school field trips. Viticulture is an inevitably organic component of Mendozan life. For locals, all things related to wine are becoming second nature. And for wine aficionados, Mendoza offers far more than sumptuous tastings and attractive scenery. Like the wine it produces, Mendoza is a region rich with flavor—a complex blend of history and culture waiting to be sampled.
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