This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Alamos Wine. At Alamos Wine, we craft flavorful, approachable, and authentically Argentine wines. Our flagship wine, the rich Argentinian Malbec, thrives in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, where our unique growing conditions give our Malbec incredibly concentrated notes of plum and blackberry. Here, in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, all our grapes reap the benefit of incredibly clean air, intense sunlight, frosty cold nights and mineral-rich Andes snowmelt to provide water for the vine. Indulge in the adventurous spirit of Argentina: Alamos wines.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers explores the arid, windy highlands of Argentina — home of some of the highest-quality Malbec in the world. The climate of Argentina, specifically that of the Uco Valley, is ideal for maintaining vine growth. The Uco Valley is known for producing wines that have a distinctly structured profile and markedly juicy taste.
The history of how Argentina became a wine-producing superpower is rooted not only in Spanish colonial expansion, but also the passion and perseverance of the South Americans who were indigenous to these regions. Tune in as Beavers narrates how Argentinian wine came to be — a story just as labyrinthine as the vines in Cuyo and Mendoza.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Keith: My name is Keith Beavers and is “Positions” the new “Thank You, Next?” I mean, close, right?
What’s going on, wine lovers, welcome to Episode 5 of Season 2 of VinePair’s “Wine 101 Podcast.” My name is Keith Beavers – I’m the tasting director of VinePair, and… hey.
I know we’ve talked about Malbec, and we dipped our toe in Argentina, but now we’re going to dive into the high desert of Argentina and understand what is this place that we love so much. Well, we love the wine. What do we know about the place?
OK, so we understand Malbec, right? We know how it got to Argentina. We need to talk about Argentina itself. There’s some fascinating stuff that you need to know to understand what happened to get to the point of us falling in love with Malbec.
OK, I don’t understand economics very well, but in the end of the ‘90s and into the 2000s, like 2000, 2001, Argentina went into recession. For some reason, the Argentine peso is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and it devalues the Argentine peso. This is bad for the Argentineans because they were exporting some other products, but they weren’t really exporting wine. But because of that price being so low and attractive to American importers, the Argentine people decided to start exporting their Malbec into the United States. Before that, the majority of the products that we got into the United States from Argentina were cattle products and fruit products. The Argentine people weren’t about exporting wine. Their entire history of wine in that country is domestic, more so than a lot of other countries, especially in the New World and the Old World.
In 1960, there was a study done showing that the average annual wine consumption per head per capita in Argentina was 23 gallons a year. At that same time, in the U.K., it was six. So as we in America started falling in love with Malbec, the Argentinians were like, “Hey, welcome to us. Welcome to what we’ve been doing.” It’s wild because Argentina is considered a New World wine region; it’s not European, and it doesn’t have very strict winemaking rules. But the origin and the history of wine in Argentina begins in the 16th century with Spanish explorers, then conquerors, then colonists. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Argentina evolved into one of the largest domestic wine industries in the world. So by the time we fell in love with Malbec, there was so much going on.
The 16th century was very active for exploring. There were a lot of explorers leaving Spain and Portugal and coming to look for other places to live. They ended up in Central and South America — specifically in what is now Mexico City, in what is now in Mexico, and what is now Lima in Peru. These colonies from Spain were getting supplies from Spain all the time, but as they started to acclimate and take over this land, they started planting their own vines because it was getting harder and harder to get good wine from Spain to this area. It would usually go bad by the time it got there. So they started planting their own vines, and a lot of those vines were concentrated in Mexico City, and in Peru. A lot of this is being done by the Jesuit monks.
Here we are with monks again. Of course, it was the monks that maintained and cultivated and found the best places to grow vines. So from Mexico City to Peru, there was a bunch of wine being made. There’s a bunch of land being conquered. Now, we have what the Royal Crown is calling “New Spain.” The wine activity was intense. Peruvian wine was a big deal — the Jesuits were doing it, secular people were doing it. Wine was happening in Peru.
Of course, all this activity has humans moving even further south — they move south from Peru into Chile and into Argentina, and they bring with them vines and monks. These Jesuit monks are pretty intense. They’re all over what is now Argentina’s land. They’re trying to convert the native people to their religion. They’re setting up missionaries. In 1557, the first recorded vineyard was planted in a town called Santiago del Estero. It’s the first city founded by the Spanish settlers in this territory. To this day, they actually call that city Madre de Ciudades, which means “the Mother of All Cities.” In 1561, the city of Mendoza was founded just at the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Very quickly, north of Mendoza, in a place called San Juan, vines begin to be planted. This moment right here is really where people started realizing the potential of this wine-growing region.
So by the end of the 16th century, “New Spain,” or South and Central South America, have a good thing going for them. There’s wine being made in Peru. There’s wine being made in Mexico City. Now, there’s wine being made in this new place called Mendoza. It’s a self-contained domestic wine industry. It was going very well — it was going so well, they weren’t ordering wine from Spain anymore. So over in Spain, the wine merchants are like, “Wait a second, what’s going on? Our orders are drying up.” So they approached King Philippe II and they were like, “Hey, can you do something about this? Because we’re not making any money off this New Spain.” King’s like, “OK.” And in 1595, he actually sends out an edict banning all wine production in New Spain: You can’t grow vines and you can’t make wine unless it’s for the Catholic Church. Nice loophole. But — and this is so great — New Spain ignored it. They were like, “What are you going to do? This is too big over here. You can’t mess with this.” They continued to just make wine.
In Argentina, wine becomes the main economic activity of this new country. A middle class starts to develop to the west of Mendoza in a place called Cuyo. A lot of wealthy families go to this area, which is the foothills of the Andes. They start planting vines there. The vines start being planted all around the surrounding areas of Mendoza, basically creating some of the wine regions we still know today in Argentina, like San Juan, and Salta. This is all before Malbec even enters the chat. The main variety of grape they were working with was a Spanish grape called Listán Prieto. And then at some point that grape moves into the Canary Islands, which is another hub for the explorers, and that grape becomes called Palomino. Then at some point, they get to the New World, into Mexico City, and the grape becomes known as the Mission grape. Then they move down into Peru, into Chile, and the grape is called Pais. By the time the grape gets into Argentina, it’s called Criolla Chica. I know — it’s confusing. It’s a lot of names. It’s one grape, a red grape. A white grape they were playing around with was called Moscatel de Alejandría, which creates these very sweet, aromatic wines. And at some point, Criolla Chica and Moscatel de Alejandría cross-pollinate and a new variety pops up. It’s crazy. It’s like an Argentine variety. They ended up calling it Torrontés, and it actually thrives in Salta, which we’ll get into. By the end of the 19th century, there were more vineyards. There were export routes going to different parts of South America. They started using irrigation channels that the native people had built to capture the snowmelt from the Andes to use as a water source.
To this day, they do the same thing. Winemakers start using oak barrels. The secular part of wine production becomes more popular. At some point, the Jesuit monks are kicked out of South America, and the Royal Crown of Spain starts distributing all the missionaries and the winemaking facilities to the bourgeoisie and other clergy members. Mendoza was thriving. Cuyo was thriving. I think there were 8,000 people living in Cuyo. San Juan was thriving. At the end of the 18th century, Argentina had done so much with wine. Unfortunately, in the beginning of the 19th century, a civil war broke out. Because of the civil war, wine trade throughout South America dried up. This is what really began the focus on domestic consumption in Argentina. During the civil war, a lot of Argentinean people went over to the Andes and found refuge in Chile.
And if you remember, in the Malbec episode, there was one guy who did this. His name was Domingo Santiago Sarmiento. If that name sounds familiar, we talked about him in the Malbec episode in the last season — he meets up with Michel Pouget and another guy named Claudio Gay. He convinces them to come back over the Andes to start and bring vines with them to help develop the wine industry in Argentina. This is after the civil war is over and it’s safe to come back to Argentina. An agricultural school is set up, vines are planted, and this ushers in a new era of Argentine wine, the one that we’re pretty familiar with. This is where Malbec just takes over everything. This is the spiritual home of Malbec. It’s just so crazy how these wine regions were already established. But when they planted Malbec into these regions that are already established, like, oh, my gosh, Malbec takes to the soil here like you wouldn’t believe — and not just in one place. Mendoza is big and there are warm, low-lying areas. There are foothills and high-elevation areas. But Malbec took to all of it and gave Argentina different styles of Malbec, depending on where it’s grown.
And the generations of families that make these wines. These are people that came from France, Italy, Spain, and when the railway was built, they made their way into Mendoza, and they started planting roots there. That’s why some of the wineries that you hear about in Mendoza have non-Spanish names, because all that European wine skill and influence has been in Argentina for a very long time. Because Argentina went through some tough times, quantity became more important than quality at some point, but that was just a very brief moment in time.
So let’s talk about what you’re going to see on the American market from Argentina, pretty much in the form of Malbec. This is how diverse Argentina is, and the majority of the wine growing area is in the west part of the country, against the Andes Mountains, because that’s where some of the best wine-growing soils are, very poor soils. The thing about Argentina is it’s a high desert. The elevations of some of these vineyards can get up to 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s very high up there, and it’s very cool. There are a lot of very poor soils throughout this wine growing region, whether it’s Mendoza, or Salta, or San Juan. You get little rainfall in this area. Some places get more than others — I think it’s an average of 12 inches per year. All this, with summers that can reach up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Mendoza is by far the largest wine producing region in Argentina, and the most important. This area is responsible for 70 percent of all the wine output of Argentina.
The way Mendoza works out is there’s not really a controlled appellation system. There is, but it’s very loose — it’s actually in development now. But generally speaking, Mendoza is divided into departments which are then subdivided into districts, and then within those districts, you have actual single vineyards. There are names for each of these. It’s not official yet, but they’re working on it, and it’s coming because there is so much terroir to talk about in Mendoza alone. To the east and north of Mendoza are about six departments: Lavalle, Las Heras, Santa Rosa, La Paz, San Martín, Rivadavia. These departments are furthest away from the Andes. It’s a more low-lying area. Tons of sun, of course (this place gets tons of sun no matter what) and more fertile soil. In this area you do get Malbec, but primarily you really see Tempranillo and Bonarda, and they make these really great everyday red wines. They’re awesome. There’s more focused wine being made in this area. But this is a really good source for good, everyday Argentine red wine. South and west of Mendoza are two departments, Maipú, and then closer to the Andes, Luján de Cuyo. Together this is considered the prima zona — the first area. It’s one of the oldest wine districts in Mendoza. This is where all those wealthy people back in the day were building houses and wineries over towards the Andes, in Cuyo.
Maipú and Luján de Cuyo both have about seven districts within their departments, and this is the place that really helped define Malbec from Mendoza. Luján de Cuyo is at a higher elevation and makes more refined, structured wines whereas Maipú is a little bit lower area, and a little more fertile, making big, round, juicy Malbecs. Those are the two Malbecs we know. We know the juicy stuff, and we know the structured stuff. That’s where it all began.
But an hour and a half south of Mendoza, there is a valley called Uco Valley. This place is very special, not only in Argentina, but in wine in general. You have the department of Tupungato with four districts within that, and then you have single vineyards within that. You have the department of Tunuyán with its four districts and single vineyards within that. And you have San Carlos with its four districts and single vineyards within that.
This place is a focused study in how vines, soil, and climate interact with each other. The varying soils of this area are pretty overwhelming. The fact that we have three departments, four districts each, with single vineyards within them shows that there is such a varying soil composition, that they all need to be defined. As rocks, and glaciers, and rivers are formed in mountains, it displaces a lot of soil. These are called alluvial fans, and towards the bottom in the foothills of mountain ranges, in certain areas of the world, there are a significant amount of alluvial fans, meaning all different kinds of soils end up on top of each other — it’s chaotic. It’s almost like Burgundy, but a little bit different because it’s a mountain range and not a massif.
You could sit down with a Malbec from each of these areas, and you would know the distinct differences between them. Malbec has a lot to offer. It has a lot of beautiful dark fruit. Sometimes herby notes, sometimes a little bit of pepper, but nice, big structure to it, good tannins. There is a separation of character that Malbec wants to show us, and Uco Valley does that.
The people that are making wine there are so into the soil, it’s ridiculous. They dig holes, they study, they plant. It’s a very sustainable area as well. A lot of the winemakers there are doing sustainable winemaking. It’s a beautiful place. These wines, I have to say, they’re not inexpensive. This, I believe, is Argentina’s Napa Valley. There are more affordable wines being made there, but Uco Valley is about structure and focus. These Malbec are amazing. You can find Malbecs from Uco Valley that are upwards of 70, 80, 90 dollars a bottle because there’s such a small production, because they want you to, they want you to to feel the terroir. They have their departments, and their districts, and their single vineyards are what they call paraje. That’s their name for single vineyards, and this is the word that they’re hoping to be part of the new controlled system that they’re trying to create. So it would be: department, district, paraje (or single vineyard.) This is where it’s all really happening. It’s very exciting.
You’re going to see wines from all over Mendoza on the American market. It’s not just Malbec — there’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, there’s Merlot, there’s Syrah, there’s Chardonnay, there’s Sauvignon Blanc. They’re doing all kinds of stuff in Mendoza, but Malbec just kind of reigns supreme because of its ability to express itself in different ways throughout the region.
North of Mendoza, all the way towards the southern border of Peru in northern Argentina is a valley called the Calchaquí Valley. This valley is big, and it spreads over a few provinces. The most important of those provinces, just because we see it mostly on the American market, is a place called Salta. This department makes Malbec, they also grow Cabernet, Syrah, Bonarda, even a grape called Tannat, which is actually doing really well in Uruguay. But it’s the extremely aromatic, dry, sometimes fizzy white wine made from the Torrontés variety that shines in this area. You’ll remember Torrentés is the variety that was discovered in Argentina that had been a cross between Criolla Chica and Moscatel de Alejandría. Well, this region is well over 5,000 feet above sea level. There’s actually a vineyard 10,000 feet above sea level in this area. It gets 300 days of sun. It is extremely windy, which is perfect for a white wine grape that produces a lot of sugar. It is very aromatic. If it was grown in any other place (and sometimes it is) it could be a little bit cloying and intense and a little bit syrupy. But in Salta, Torrontés is amazing. It’s fizzy, it’s bright, it’s vibrant, it’s dry. There are these smacks of sweet that hit your palate. But they’re not cloyingly sweet. They’re just kind of aromatic sweet. They’re beautiful wines, and you’ll find them on the American market.
There are other wine departments in Argentina, but these are the ones we’re going to see on the American market. This is just the beginning. Argentina is in the midst of a big development. It’s going to be very exciting. But if you get a chance, try to find some of those higher and focused Malbecs, or even Cab Francs or even Cabernet Sauvignons, whether they’re from the Uco Valley or from Luján de Cuyo, give them a chance. Spend a little money on a Malbec. Let it show you what kind of structure and beauty it can have, and then get one for like $9 and have yourself a burger night, you know what I mean?
So, as usual, there’s more about Argentina I want to tell you, but I don’t want to waste all your time. We have more to talk about, so go out there. Enjoy Malbec from Argentina, knowing a little bit about how it all happened.
@VinePairKeith is my insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from, it really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shoutout to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shoutout to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Alamos Wine. At Alamos Wine, we craft flavorful, approachable, and authentically Argentine wines. Our flagship wine, the rich Argentinian Malbec, thrives in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, where our unique growing conditions give our Malbec incredibly concentrated notes of plum and blackberry. Here in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, all our grapes reap the benefit of incredibly clean air, intense sunlight, frosty cold nights, and mineral-rich Andes snowmelt to provide water for the vines. Indulge in the adventurous spirit of Argentina: Alamos wines.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.