Argentine wines are without doubt popular at the moment. Malbec has put Argentina on the wine map and the popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing. But who was drinking Argentine wines 10 years ago? Or 20 years ago? The Argentines of course!
But it is fair to say the wines we see today, spoken in the same breath as Bordeaux and the Napa Valley – haven’t been around that long.
Believe it or not, the wine industry in Argentina has been going for quite a while, over 400 years in fact.
So let’s go and take a stroll through Argentina’s past, present and future…
The Spanish Arrive
It was the Spanish Conquistadores who introduced grapes to Argentina. However they were not drinking Rioja Reservas or anything particularly fine for that matter. The grape they brought with them was Criolla…. Not heard of it? Well better for you. Even better if you have never tasted it! It is a thin skinned grape, offers little colour to a wine, has high acidity and alcohol, Sounds dreamy? In these days, most of the vineyards were planted next to small chapels and churches, to make communion wine, so perhaps taste was only an after thought.
Some Decent Grapes Arrive..
After 300 years of communion wine, finally some nice grapes turned up in the Argentina. As the waves of immigrants hit Argentina’s shores in the 1800s they brought with them cuttings of grape vines. Sounds a strange thing to pack on a transatlantic voyage? A little.. But many of the people that came for a better life were peasants, farm hands & grape growers, they would rely on these small cutting to replant there vine yards thousands of miles from home.
Now things start to get interesting..
The immigration was great for Argentina, it was a young nation with increasing power and influence, but it was lacking manpower. When the immigrants arrived they were welcomed with open arms. They were helped to find jobs, a hotel at the port was built which could house 4000 guests, called the ‘Hotel de Inmigrantes’. Many Italian, Spanish and French immigrants that had experience in agriculture and particularly viticulture were offered employment in Mendoza and San Juan.
The years leading up to WW1 were the greatest years in Argentine history. The country was one of the 10 richest in the world – ranked above Germany, Italy and Spain! This was also a great time for the wine industry – they were purchasing the best barrels from France, Mendoza was teeming with young men who were born and raised in the vineyards or Europe.
In these days everyone drank wine, it was a staple on the lunch and dinner table just like salt and pepper.
Wine came in Dama-Juanas (demi-johns) in those days – 5 litre bottles with generic labels like – Vino-Tinto (Red Wine) or Borgoña (Burgundy) or whites called ‘Chablis’ and Sparkling called ‘Champagne’. Restaurants would serve these wines from Penguinos – Penguin shaped jugs, available in half litre or 1 litre sizes. These were days when the consumption of wine was high, but consumer knowledge was low. Simple wines, mostly drank with with soda water. Even today walking past any traditional restaurant or bar in Buenos aires you can see little soda siphons on each of the tables.
A penguin searching for Malbec
1990s and today
So between the early 1900s up to the late 1980s not a lot changed in the Argentine wine scene, the focus was still on bulk, many of the traditional wineries were still using the 3000, 5000 and even 10,000 litre barrels they bought almost 100 years ago in the golden age. Dictatorships and regular economic crashes prevented the country from importing exporting and generally staying up to date with the world.
Then in the mid-90s change came to the industry – People were drinking less and less wine, instead choosing beer, Coca-cola, Fernet. Exporting the wine was not an option because no one would buy it. Wineries started to have some more money due to the peso
Having equal value to the dollar. They bought new tanks from Europe, small barrels of 225 Litres instead of the old 10,000 ones.
The modern 225L barrel
Winemakers from the USA, France, Italy, NewZealand were all attracted to the wine revolution and came to work in Argentina. These were know as Flying Winemakers. Boutique wineries started to pop up, focusing on quality and not quantity. little by little the world was taking notice.
Today the Argentines are still big wine consumers, but today they have a wonderful choice. From huge commercial wineries, boutique wines, Garage wines, you name it! Malbec has brought Argentina to the attention of the wine world, but I think in the next 5-10 year we will hear people talking about Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot just a few of the grapes that excelled in this lovely country.