Argentina goes global: from the country that made Malbec truly famous
As the world does become ‘smaller’ one wonders what history precedes the Argentinian wines I recently tasted at ProWein. I was quite impressed by the two wines Tim Atkin had chosen to represent the new quality based style of Argentinian wines. But let’s start at the beginning.
The story of Argentinian wine
The story of the Argentinian wine industry greatly parallels the narrative of the history of wine in South America. Wines were first introduced to what is now Mexico and Chile by the Spanish conquistadors after Columbus first voyage to the continent in 1492. Wine spread across South America from these original planting regions under the wings of Spanish priests who brought along vines (like the ones of the pink grape variety Criolla Chica) to produce sacramental wine. Historians assume that in the 16th century vines first arrived in Argentina, which must have been around the time Spanish conquistador Pedro del Castillo established Mendoza (roughly translated as ‘cold mountain’ in ancient Spanish) in 1561. For a little over 200 years Mendoza belonged to the General Captaincy of Chile, as part of the Spanish Empire.
Mendoza, the ideal region for wine-production
The province of Mendoza with its continental climate and extensive plains at the eastern foothills of the Andes mountains (that provided the melting water to irrigate) seemed to be the ideal region for wine-production. Although Mendoza is basically a high-altitude desert area, receiving fewer than 10-days of rain throughout the year, the early Spanish settlers used the old pre-Hispanic irrigation system to grow their vineyards, probably planted with ancestors of grape varieties like Criolla, Cereza and Muscat d’Alexandria.
Until the 1800’s production of wine was slow and the wine generally of low quality. In the 19th century immigrants from Italy, Spain and France settled in the area. The construction of the Argentine Great Western Railway and Trans-Andes Railway, two British-owned railway companies, in the later part of the 1800s opened up the Mendoza area. During the 1880s the government established tax-exempt programs to promote the cultivation of vineyards, olive plants and fruit trees. Wine became more widely available, but the quality didn’t improve much. Most wines were made to satisfy local consumer, who wanted something to accompany the meaty food.
Helped by the boom in wine prices caused by the great Phylloxera epidemic in Europe and the introduction of French varieties (Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and what became Argentina’s the signature grape Malbec), Italian varieties (Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, ,Bonarda) and Spanish varieties (Tempranillo, Pedro Jiménez) the production of wine increased. In these early stages of the wine industry consumption however remained largely domestic. Argentina exported only 1% of its wine production.
The period at the start of the 20th century and the 1980s saw an overall increase in economic growth and income in Argentina that initiated the rise of wine consumption per head and the switch from red to white wines, though good wine was still hardly the norm. The culmination of this rapid rise in wine consumption was a recorded historical maximum per capita of 90 litres in 1970. Compared to the 112 litres per capita French wine consumption in 1969, this was an impressive number. Not surprisingly, in the 1960s 90% of all wine produced was delivered in bulk for the ulterior bottling by 839 bottling facilities, 70% of which did not have any connection with wineries. While the low producing Malbec was pulled out (the amount of Malbec plantings tumbled by 70%-80%) the switch to high volume, low quality white grape varieties like the Criolla, Cereza and Pedro Jiménez in the 1970s and 1980s lead to an overplanting and oversupply with disastrous consequences.
In 1982 the bankruptcy of the two financial holdings (Banco Los Andes and Greco Hnos) whipped out part of the wineries, grape growers and suppliers. For many this signified the point of no return for the Argentinian wine industry. Halfway the 1980s the Argentinean wine industry began to crawl out of this crisis, but at two different speeds. On one side there were the bigger (corporate) wine companies with a recognized image and the economic resources to finance future investments and on the other side the small wineries, with no specific brand image, no access to (new) technologies or knowledge and a lack of resources.
The small and smaller wineries began to suffer the consequences of a reduced demand in domestic market. This concerned the corporate wineries as well, but they also had the extra brunt of the highly competitive international market. Prolonged political turmoil, as well as macroeconomic instability wasn’t helping too. It was not easy to sell Argentinian wines internationally; its image was one of low quality wines or mass produced cheap plonk.
Terroir, authenticity and Malbec
Also the Argentinian government took notice of the decrease in domestic consumption, oversupply on the production side and difficulty to access export markets. In 1984 it introduced a new law to provide some control over quality of the wine and its origin and prevent fraud. Since that law passed 100% of wine is bottled in the production area. Argentina started to understand that producing basic plonk wines would not take them further; to achieve potential market growth Argentinian wines had to raise the quality of their wines and since almost all premium wines follow the rules of appellation control or geographical indication something needed to be done there too. The focus changed to authenticity, the return of the jewel in the crown Malbec, soil type, and terroir driven wines.
Plan Estratégico Vitivinícola
Moving away from the quantitative model to the quality model created some new challenges. To tackle these challenges Argentina’s strategic Plan for the Wine Industry 2020 (Plan Estratégico Vitivinícola PEVI) defines several key objectives in its goal to reach a widespread differentiation in the wine industry supported by sustainable practices and geographical indications.
The first strategic objective is the positioning of fine Argentinian wine in the Northern countries. The defined markets are: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and selected Asian countries. Depending on the maturity level of wine consumption in each country and also on the position of Argentina as supplier, each country will be served, both in terms of volume supplied and in terms of awareness, differently.
The second objective is to develop the Latin American market and to strengthen the domestic one by promoting overall wine consumption and generating a positive association between wine and consumers, this also includes activities aimed at developing the Argentinian wine tourism sector.
The third objective is to support the development of small producers and integrate them in the wine business as well as to increase the small grape producers’ profitability and sustainability through financial services for the acquisition of machineries, tools, provisions and other professional services. There are projects for improving the vine conduction system and the elaboration of quality standards for wine grape growing and the design of a system for an ecological de-sulphitation of must, besides plans for concentrated grape juice, table grapes and raisins.
The new era of Argentinian wine
To enter the new era the Argentinian wine industry needs to continuously innovate and incorporate improvements in viticulture in a in a sustainable way to make consistent, quality wines for different price levels. The influx of foreign capital and (consulting) winemakers, the available human and technological resources and political support expressed in (new) policies of the national and provincial governments has already begun to reshape the Argentinian wine industry. In addition the development of fine wine or premium ranges with a geographical indication assurance (that could command higher prices and appreciation), using the grape that made Argentinian wines unique -the Malbec,-is a step in the right direction as well. It’s now up to the Argentineans to show the world that its wines not only represent a strong domestic economic force, but also a force to be reckoned with on the international wine stage.