Ask any wine lover about wines from Argentina, and you'll probably get one of two answers – malbec or Mendoza. Just as wines made from the malbec grape are associated with Argentina, the country that made them great, Mendoza's influence on Argentina's wine industry is so strong that many people focus exclusively on this region.
Spanish colonists brought grapevines to Argentina over 450 years ago. By the late 16th century, Argentina's wine industry was firmly established. When French wine grape varieties, including malbec and chardonnay, arrived in Mendoza in the 1860s, winemaking expanded accordingly. Waves of immigration from Europe brought new residents to Argentina, many of whom brought with them a love of wine and experience in winemaking. When the railroad from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was built in 1885, Mendoza's winemakers were able to ramp up production and ship their wines to Argentina's capital city.
Mendoza's wine industry continued to thrive until the Great Depression and the political and economic troubles that followed it. Only in the 1970s did Mendoza's wine industry start to expand once again, mainly producing table wines for consumption within Argentina. Malbec lost popularity during this period, and nearly all the malbec vines in Argentina were pulled.
Everything changed in the 1980s when oenologists began to visit Argentina. California oenologist Paul Hobbs worked with Mendoza wine pioneer Nicolás Catena. Other wine consultants also came to Mendoza and helped to transform the area into Argentina's flagship wine region. Winemakers modernized their equipment and focused on production of quality wines. Foreign wine companies began to invest in Mendoza vineyards, and exports soared.
Today Mendoza is the leading wine region in Argentina, accounting for about 80 percent of the country's wine production. While Mendoza's signature malbec wines take pride of place, many other wine grape varieties thrive here, and innovative winemakers are taking advantage of the region's unique combination of climate, altitude and terroirs. The results include some of the world's best-value quality wines.
Geography, Soils and Climate
Mendoza lies in western Argentina on a plateau in the shadow of the Andes Mountains. The Andes protect the area from coastal influences. The area is well-irrigated, since several rivers flow through Mendoza and carry snowmelt from the Andes to the vineyards. Rainfall averages about eight inches per year. During dry years, irrigation is sometimes necessary. Mendoza's soils tend to be sandy alluvium, sometimes with a layer of clay beneath the sand.
Mendoza's climate is continental, and the region has distinct seasons. Winters are cool, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Summers are hot, and sunburn of the grapes can be a problem. Frosts are rare but can occur, particularly in the springtime. Hail can be a real problem for Mendoza growers; many growers protect their grapes with special hail nets. Dry winds, called zondas, can also damage the grapes. While phylloxera does exist in Mendoza, the pest does not cause lasting damage to root stock.
The Mendoza wine region is divided into separate regions, each with several departments. The five sub-regions are Eastern, Northern, Central, Southern and the Uco Valley, according to Wines of Argentina. The best-known departments (often, confusingly, also called sub-regions) in Mendoza are Maipú and Luján de Cuyo.
By far the most important aspect of Mendoza's geography is the altitude of its vineyards. The vineyards are planted at altitudes ranging from about 1,600 feet to a dizzying 5,600 feet above sea level, according to The World Atlas of Wine. This allows winemakers to plant at exactly the right altitude for each grape variety to ripen perfectly.
Mendoza Wine Grape Varieties
In Mendoza, with so many altitudes and corresponding microclimates available, you will find many types of wine grapes. While malbec is the best-known red wine grape variety in Mendoza, you will also find cabernet sauvignon, bonarda, sangiovese, syrah, merlot, tempranillo, and several others. Chardonnay is the most-planted white wine grape variety, followed by torrontés, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and viognier.
Visiting Mendoza Wineries
Tourism is Mendoza's top industry, and wine tourism here, although still relatively new, is well-developed. Wine lovers descend on the Mendoza for the annual Vendimia Festival in March, which features pageants, music, beauty contests and more.
Some wineries offer free wine tastings, while others charge a nominal fee. At many wineries you need to reserve your tasting or tour in advance, so it is best to plan your route in advance. Among the many wineries open to visitors are:
Achaval-Ferrer, which was named to Wine & Spirits magazine's 2009 Winery of the Year list, offers wine tastings on weekdays and Saturdays. Tastings are $10 per person and reservations are essential.
Dominio del Plata, owned and operated by Pedro Marchevsky and Susana Balbo, offers tours and tastings on weekdays, by appointment only, for $10 per person.
Bodega Catena Zapata, owned by the pioneering Catena family, offers tours by reservation only. The winery's owner, Nicolás Catena, was named Man of the Year 2009 by Decanter magazine. Nicolás' daughter, Laura, who oversees research and development for the winery and runs her own winery as well, has written a book about the wines of Argentina. Vino Argentino will be published in fall 2010.
Bodega Norton offers tours, tastings, lunches with oenologist Jorge Riccitelli, cooking classes and even a photo safari. You can also have lunch at La Vid, the winery's on-site restaurant.
Mendoza's future looks bright indeed. The spectacular success of the malbec grape has helped Mendoza find its special place in the world of wine. Malbec wines from Argentina, and from Mendoza in particular, are known for their high quality and reasonable prices. The U.S. appetite for wines from Mendoza continues to grow.
Mendoza wine producers are working with Wines of Argentina to promote their brands around the world. Argentina's winemakers are aiming for a large share of the international wine market. Bringing more in-depth knowledge about Argentina's top-quality wines to consumers is a challenge, to be sure, particularly where those consumers know very little about South America at all. Still, for a country that took less than 20 years to establish a significant presence on the world wine stage, promoting the brands of Argentina and Mendoza should be a simple task.
Mendoza's one-of-a-kind microclimates truly set this wine region apart. Growers and producers in Mendoza have an opportunity to create truly special wines and to share them with the world.
 Hugh Johson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, (New York, NY: Octopus Books, 2008), p. 332.