Argentina: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I’m here in Mendoza looking for clues to the future of Argentinean wine and it is pretty interesting work.  To Malbec … and Beyond!

Many of the wines we are tasting here are distinctive and delicious. The industry’s future is bright if certain economic problems can be overcome (stay tuned more about these  challenges in upcoming posts).

The Real Argentinean Wine Miracle

As I have talked to winemakers and industry experts it has slowly dawned on me what a miracle these fine wines are. Not a miracle of nature — Mendoza has long been known to possess superior terroir — but a bigger social and economic miracle. The fundamental idea of Argentinean wine has been transformed in just a few years.

The excellent wines we take for granted today did not exist in a serious way just twenty or twenty-five years ago. The standard of wine was hopeless low and the industry’s health was no better.

Why were the wines so bad? Well, Argentina has been a boom and bust economy for many decades and quality wine is a long term business. It is difficult to keep a focus on quality when both consumers and producers are riding an economic roller-coaster. This is one reason family-owned wineries are important here as in other parts of the wine world. Families can often think in terms of generations while financial investors focus on quarterly reports.

Industrial organization also leaned away from quality for many years. Growers would sell grapes to producers (who sought low prices) who would make bulk wine and ship it by rail to Buenos Aires, where negociants bottled it under their own labels and sold it to bargain-hunting consumers. This is not a supply chain that favors quality over cost.

Bad Incentives Make Bad Wine

A stubborn grower, and there were a few, who insisted on producing high quality grapes got the same payment per ton as his high-yield low-quality neighbor. No quality premium existed because all the grapes went into the same pink bulk wine.

Even the grape varieties reflected this sad story. Malbec is on everyone’s short list of hot selling wines today. But back in 1968 Malbec made up less than 20% of Argentinean production.

Nearly half (43%) of the wine grapes grown were pink-skinned heavy-yielding Criolla  (Mission grapes), which were made into the cheap oxidative wines stored in large wood casks. Not much varietal flavor made it through the aging process, or indeed survived fermentation in the absence of temperature control.

The wines that resulted, given the prevailing cellar practices, had almost nothing in common with the wines of today except alcoholic content. Since Argentina’s present as found here in Mendoza is so delicious, I set out to find examples of the past so that I could better gauge the degree of the transformation.

I didn’t find what I was looking for at the nice shop on the main square in Mendoza (or earlier in Buenos Aires, either). So I went looking at the Central Market in the heart of town, where wine tourists seldom go but typical families shop for fish, meat and vegetables. There I found the dinosaurs — styles of Argentinean wine still made for consumers with a taste for the past.

What I Found at the Market

I suspect that the bottles at the top of the page are Criolla blends and the closest thing to the old wines. They sure looked like they were very oxidized, with brownish sherry like color. Market price = 9.80 pesos, or just under $2.50 per bottle. They were displayed on the top shelf of the wine wall, up close to the florescent lights. Perfect storage conditions!

You can buy wines like this and other inexpensive products in big refillable jugs, too, at an even lower unit price. I saw these jugs back in Buenos Aires, too, and I am sure that they are ubiquitous outside the tourist zone.

The last photo shows cheap wines I found at a tourist shop a few blocks down from the central market. The sign offered six bottles for 42.90 pesos (less than $11).

The Taste of  History

So what does history taste like? Well, history is pretty bland if you go by the glass of vino tinto I was given, poured from the big jug, while waiting for my take-away empanada order.

But I hope you will understand that I did not actually taste these wines. I wimped out. My time in Mendoza is too short to drink bad wine with so much great wine available. But even if I had bought them all and pulled the corks, I would not have experienced the true taste of Argentinean wine past.

During our visit to Catena Zapata winemaker Pablo Sanchez advised me that even the most basic wines today (which make up the majority of sales in the domestic market) are far superior to the old pink wines. Better practices in the vineyard and the cellar today have raised the standards here just as they have for basic wine in the United States and almost everyplace else.

The bad old days of Argentinean wine are [thankfully] lost to history. The wine has changed but, more important, the idea of wine is transformed. The future? Well, that’s another story! Stay tuned.

4 responses

  1. Hi:

    I loved your article in the Wine Economist about Argentinean wines, and how they’ve moved on. Would love to chat to you more about follow up, etc. I think the likes of Santiago Achaval has watched the slow progression and as Wine Spectator’s Master of Malbec, he’s a good source of info. Let me know if I can help with your next story. — Very Best, Natasha.

  2. Our company delivers winery control and automation technology. After 5 hard years we now have 4 Mendoza wineries on board. I experience both excitement and frustration in attempting to help the Argentina industry. The exponential popularity in Malbec is resulting in significant ongoing production facility expansion. This is however being carried out with a continued reliance on manual tank control or ill thought out local solutions. Consistancy must be the buzzword for export focused wineries as well as some thought to sustainability. Every Chilean and Argentina winery I have visited could easily have power usage cut by 20-40%.

  3. 21 years ago my partner and i began planting “better grapes” exactly as you said it happened, it happened.
    Bodega Los Toneles is now one of the largest wine producers and exporters of better wines for both domestic and export purposes.
    I actually documented part of our story during Vendimia…

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