Terroir, a concept developed and distilled by the French over many centuries, also plays a key role in defining Argentina’s unique and high-quality wines. The very idea that you can capture a unique sense of place inside a bottle of wine is both mind-boggling and mystical. But that, in essence, is what terroir is all about.
What exactly is terroir and is it unique to wine?
While there’s no singular definition for the word terroir, the broad understanding is that it’s the interaction between climate, soil, terrain, plant variety and human intervention that gives a grown product its unique sense of place. It’s the keystone of the French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system that has been replicated all over the world.
As terroir doesn’t just relate to grape vines, it’s a term commonly associated with coffee, olive oil, chocolate and even hops too. In fact, there’s a pretty extensive list of foods and beverages where terroir is referenced. Including artisan cheeses, as the flavours are influenced by the environment in which the dairy herds are grazed.
The factors that make Argentina’s terroir so special
Argentina is nearly four times bigger than its closest neighbour Chile in terms of geographical area. As it lies on the eastern side of the Andes mountains, it’s much hotter and drier than Chile. In order to successfully grow vines, Argentineans have had to rely on two things; irrigation and altitude.
With so much of Argentina’s low-lying land too arid to support viticulture, one of the few ways to mitigate these conditions is to gain altitude. The foothills of the Andes offer the perfect solution. In fact Argentina boasts some of the highest planted vineyards in the world, especially up in the far north region of Salta where you can find vineyards over 3,000 metres above sea level.
One of the key benefits of high-altitude viticulture is the wide variation between daytime and night-time temperatures. This helps the wines to retain a decent level of freshness as the natural acids in the grapes develop optimally.
By the nature of the geology of the mountains, there’s a variety of soils throughout the vineyard areas including limestone, sand and alluvial gravels. These all play a part in adding the characteristic mineral definition that you find in most of Argentina’s quality wines.
There’s nowhere near enough rainfall in much of Argentina’s desert-like climate to sustain the vines naturally so the enterprising producers tap into the almost limitless supply of snowmelt that comes off the Andes, using it to drip-irrigate their vineyards.
The Uco Valley – home to many of Argentina’s best wines
The beating heart of Argentina’s wine production is Mendoza, responsible for about 70% of the country’s total output. Coincidentally it sits directly adjacent to Chile’s main volume production zone on the other side of the Andes. Most of Mendoza’s vineyards lie between 450 – 1100 metres a.s.l (above sea level) with the higher quality zones like the Uco Valley being at the upper end and even higher.
One of the largest and most decorated producers associated with the Uco Valley is Doña Paula estate. Of their four main vineyard areas, two lie within the Uco covering a total of 188 hectares.
Their ‘Paula’ Sauvignon Blanc comes from the Finca Los Cerezos vineyard that sits around 1000 metres a.s.l. The soil is mostly sandy here lying over alluvial stones and gravel which helps accentuate the wine’s prickly acidity. The wine’s flavours are intense yet lively and all bound together nicely by that juicy acidity. Sauvignon may not usually be associated with Argentina, but this example makes a great apéritif and demonstrates just how talented the winemaking team at Doña Paula are.
Doña Paula’s Estate Malbec is one of the best value for money wines in their entire range. It comes majoritively from their Alluvia vineyards in Gualtallary at 1350 metres a.s.l with around 10% coming from El Cepillo in San Carlos at 1150 metres a.s.l. The soils here are poorer and rockier with high contents of calcium carbonate at both sites. The first thing that hits you is the seductive fragrance of dark berry fruits, violets and subtle spices associated with careful oak ageing. You can’t fail to love this wine, especially when accompanied by a simple-cooked steak with herb butter, chips and roasted sweet peppers and vine tomatoes.
If you thought that the Uco Valley is simply about great Malbec, you’d only be partly right. Other late-ripening red grape varieties thrive here too, none more so than Cabernet Sauvignon. The berries gain physiological ripeness consistently and are rich in antioxidants, leading to increased colour intensity and more complex aromas and flavours.
Right in the heart of the Tupungato district of the Uco Valley you’ll find the environmentally-conscious producer, Andeluna. Their 1300 Cabernet Sauvignon indicates the height of the vineyards and is designed to showcase the purity of their Cabernet’s fruit without overly masking it with new oak. In fact the contact with oak, at 3 months, is only brief and adds a lovely savoury white pepper and clove note to the rich blackcurrant fruits while the tannins are gentle and well rounded.
Here you have three outstanding examples of how altitude, unique soils and a favourable climate, along with expert handling, have helped elevate Argentina to the world’s fifth largest wine producing country with continuing demand coming from both the domestic and export markets. Feel free to explore our full range.