Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Something to Wine About

Vineyard in the Mendoza region. Photo by Mitsuhirato.
When people ask me what I liked most about living in Mendoza, Argentina, the words that tumble from my mouth are “wine, mountains, and food”. Of course, my second sentence contains “hot men” but that’s a whole other story.

My first introduction to red wine came in the form of a spritzer in a restaurant in Mendoza. The Argentines are quite fond of adding soda water and ice to red wine in the summer, and as a non-red wine drinker, this combo led to my appreciation of a fine red. No doubt the wine connoisseurs reading this will have fallen off their chairs by now, but I promise you I eventually dropped the soda water and now drink the pure stuff. 

For me to have survived in social circles in Mendoza, one of Argentina’s main wine-producing regions, I had to learn to drink red—and appreciate it. As part of my training, I had to put in many hours at the vineyards, sitting with friends, drinking vino and staring at the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. Oh, the things I’ve done to integrate within a culture.

Jesuit missionaries in Latin America officially planted the first vineyard in Latin America in 1557. The missionaries built irrigation dams and canals so they could capture water from the melting glaciers. The combination of fresh mountain water and arid climate proved a perfect combination and the crops flourished. French cuttings were imported and, as a result, the wine from Chile and Argentina still contain French ancestry. 

The Jesuits' original plan of producing wine for their Catholic masses changed as the population in Latin America expanded. The churches lost their monopoly on vineyard ownership, and the public had access to grape growing and put their own slant on wine production. Latin America exported wine to Spain, where it became so popular it threatened to crush the Spanish wine industry. The Spanish government ruled a lot of Latin America, so it ordered the vineyards there to be uprooted. For the handful of people who refused to bow down to the Spanish, they had to pay hefty taxes for the privilege. Luckily, they did so because those are the crops that escaped destruction and expanded once the Spanish lost their stronghold.

A lot of fuss is made about Chile and Argentina competing against each other in everything from football to wine. I can’t see the point, especially since their wines are quite different. In Chile, most vineyards are set in fertile valleys, and rely on the moist air from the Pacific Ocean to grow their crops. Varieties produced in Chile are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Carmenére, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.

The arid, sunny climate of the Argentine Andes is better suited to producing red wine. Some of Argentina’s most important red varieties are Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Tempranillo. But the wine isn’t limited to just red. Torrontes has gained popularity as a high-quality Argentine white. 

Vineyard, Mendoza region. Photo by Fainmans.
I’m not a wine expert by any means, but I can surely appreciate a good glass of vino when it comes along. I grew up in a country with a reputation for producing fine wine, so there’s no surprise I ended up living in a few countries where the grapes are not just for eating. What did surprise me when I first arrived in South America is that wine production isn’t limited to just Chile and Argentina. I’ve had some amazing wine from Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Brazil. And I certainly couldn’t write this post with authority if I hadn’t sampled some of the wines from those countries.

As with any burgeoning industry, things change. It’s hard to keep up with new labels and varieties being produced, so the only way to keep on top of it, as far as I’m concerned, is to drag myself back to South America and conduct my own wine-tour.

How about you? Have you sampled any South American wine, and if so, what did you think?


  1. Ooooo, my favorite topic! Oh yes, love all the wine regions - even went to a winery in Las Vegas, of all places, where they make wine from California grapes. But, yes, I love Malbec that this region of Argentina seems to be producing - yummy reds - my favorite!

  2. Mmm, me too. Argentine Tempranillos and Malbecs are my current faves. But you lost me with the spritzer...

  3. Somehow my wine preferences always stayed on the European continent - French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and even Hungarian. I never really knew which South American wines to try, and those that I did try weren't dry enough. Never heard of Tempranillo - how dry is it?

  4. Kathy, I ADORE Malbec. It is by far my most favourite wine. Oh, a Pinot Noir is a VERY close second.

  5. Supriya, so sorry about the spritzer. Maybe I shouldn't admit every now and again on a hot summer's day I resort back to my old ways.

  6. Lina, I haven't drunk a lot of Temprillo, so Supriya might be the best to describe it but in my non-wine-expert words, I would say it's has hints of plums, cherries and raspberries. I didn't think it dry, but others might disagree.

  7. I love Argentinian wine, especially Malbec. But now I'll have to try some Chilean varieties. I like to be fair. :)

    Alli, if these photos are typical of Mendoza, how coould you ever leave such a beautiful place?

  8. Admittedly, I know nothing about South American wine. Not a thing. But reading this puts me in the mood to grab a few bottles and my closest friends and tour South American wine!

  9. Heidi, Chile has some awesome wines and yes, you must be fair to both countries. And don't get me started about leaving Mendoza. I miss it everyday.

    Rebecca, I'm happy to have inspired you to crack open some South American wine with friends. You'll have a great time, I'm sure!