After a great vacation in Chile with Dan’s family, we boarded a plane for Mendoza, Argentina: the burgeoning wine capital of South America.
Argentina earned its independence from Spain on July 9, 1816 (9 years before Bolivia, though each nation began fighting for independence around 1809). In territory, Argentina is approximately 30% the size of the USA. The east boasts the Atlantic coastline and fertile farmlands (the best grass-fed cattle); Patagonia to the south is home to wild game and stunning scenery; along the northern border of Peru, some of the few remaining native Indians reside; and Mendoza rounds out the western border with desert-like climate and arid land: the perfect recipe for growing fine wines.
Between 1856 and 1932, a wave of European migration crashed onto the shores of the “New World,” with the vast majority of immigrants landing in the USA, fewer to South America, and fewer still to Canada. By 1914, 50% of the population of Buenos Aires was foreign-born. Italians, frequently of an agricultural background, often struggled in North America, arriving decades after other western European immigrants. However, in Argentina, this was not the case; here, Italians could proudly express their backgrounds, culture, and agricultural knowledge. Today, 60% of Argentines identify themselves as Italian descent. In Mendoza, the fusion of these two cultures is readily seen: through pastas, cured meats, specialty olive oils, a love of wine, vibrant hospitality, and a dreamy outlook on life. That’s why it is often said, “Argentines have their feet planted in the Old World but their heads in the clouds; they’re always dreaming up new things.”
Mendoza, “la tierra del sol y vino” (land of sun and wine), is located on the westernmost border of Argentina. From Santiago, Mendoza can be reached by a 30-minute flight or a 6-hour bus ride through the Andes mountains, which create a natural boundary between the neighboring countries.
“If ever there were a heaven for winemaking, Mendoza is it, with an enviable terroir (as the French call the environmental attributes of a place) of low-fertility soils, cool mountain nights, sunny days, and low-humidity. In Mendoza, the nearby Andes Mountains function as a shelter from the Pacific rains and generate a microclimate of cool nights and the intense sunlight that comes with extreme high altitude – Mendoza is the only important wine region in the world with vineyards above three thousand feet in elevation. The well-drained alluvial soils – filled with rocks, pebbles, sand, lime, and clay – were formed millions of years ago by rivers and glaciers. Planting in these soils, which are less fertile than most, leads to naturally low yeilds of ripe and concentrated grapes – the secret to intense and age-worthy wines.” – Laura Catena
Yet, even with this heavenly terroir, wine production in Mendoza would not be possible if it were not for the ever crafty Incas. The Incan empire, with its capital in Cuzco, Peru, is thought to have reached what is now Mendoza in the later 15th century. As elsewhere, the Incans trained the locals (Huarpe Indians, in this case) to develop an irrigation system. This system manipulates the fresh, mountain water flowing from the year-long snowcapped Andean mountains to the west, thereby providing the province of Mendoza (the city and the surrounding wine regions) with water rations in this desert. Remnants of these canals still line the streets of downtown Mendoza.
Likewise, the Spanish priests are to be thanked for the initiation of wine production in Argentina. During the Spanish colonial times, Catholic priests arrived to convert the local Indians and planted grapes in order to make sacramental wine. Of course, now much more than just sacramental wine is being produced.
Unlike other “New World” wine regions, Argentina both produces and consumes a great percentage of the world’s wine. Still, much of the high-quality wine is exported. Argetina currently exports about 35% to the United States alone. Some wineries, such as Achaval Ferrer, export 85% of their wine, mostly to the U.S. (lucky for us!).
Needless to say, we arrived ready to respect Mendoza’s decorated history, Incan-irrigated wineries, the Spanish Catholic priests of old, and the strong Italian heritage by gulping down as much fermented grape juice as our livers can handle! Our base, a cute apartment complex that we found on VRBO, called Modigliani Art Suites, is located in the heart of downtown Mendoza. The architecture and design fuse a warehouse-like exterior with a modern, simplistic interior. The staff are exceptionally nice and helpful (Caro asked for and received a hair dryer and hair straightener, and found a woman to wash our stinky clothes!).
For further reading, we suggest Vino Argentino by Laura Catena of Catena Zapata.