A Revolution of Place:
Argentina Classifies Its Terroirs
BY JOAQUÍN HIDALGO | SEPTEMBER 05, 2019
Until quite recently, one
might have been forgiven for describing Argentina’s wine industry as a vast
enterprise that made little distinction between different styles and terroirs. That is no longer the case.
When you get down to
it, the issue is one of scale. The terms “Argentina” and “Mendoza” are the
equivalent of the United States and California or Italy and Tuscany:
geographical locations that don’t tell you much about the wine you’re drinking.
One must examine the regions (i.e., provinces or states) more closely to get a
more detailed picture of the wines being produced there. It is here, at this
focused level, that diversity begins to blossom.
It’s a simple story. As
Nicolás Catena, one of the leading winemakers in this corner of the world, is
fond of saying: “When you mix the grapes, the quality levels out. When you
split the land into parcels, you might discover a better wine or you might not,
but you have to look for it.” A similar spirit is driving the Geographical
Indication (GI) revolution taking place in Argentina – one in which the details
count for more than the generalities.
Today, the great
majority of producers striving to make quality wines in Argentina are engaged
in a process of classifying, differentiating and parceling their regions,
vineyards and wines. This means, of course, that their labels are also growing
more complex. Whereas 15 years ago, the province of Mendoza (the equivalent of
a U.S. state) or Luján de Cuyo (the equivalent of a county) might have been
mentioned on the label, today the references are to far smaller areas such as
Los Chacayes, Paraje Altamira or San Pablo.
Paraje Altamira vineyard looking south with white rounded stones
The Case of the Paraje
The first major step in
this great and very recent geographic upheaval took place in 2012. At the time,
a group of producers made up of Familia Zuccardi, Bodega Catena Zapata and
Bodega Chandon decided to redraw the boundaries of a section of the Uco Valley
– about 80 miles to the south of the capital of Mendoza – that is famous for
the quality of its grapes and wines. This closely defined area was known as
Altamira but was not registered as an official appellation for wines.
“Altamira was a place,”
said Sebastián Zuccardi, director of enology at the winery that bears his name.
“It didn’t have defined political borders and it wasn’t a department or a
district.” The challenge was how to draw the boundaries so as to establish it
as a GI.” A consensus was reached to employ the tools that are commonly used in
viticulture—i.e., examining soil and distinctive terroir. Until then Argentine regions had been determined according
to political criteria – provinces, departments or districts - and the
Copernican twist involved in the demarcation of Paraje Altamira was to use
technical expertise to draw up the boundaries of the future GI.
So the Soil Department
at the Faculty of Agriculture of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo was
commissioned to undertake a study that, a year later, was able to demarcate a favored
portion of land determined by its dominant soil types, topographic features and
altitude. Under the surface of the vineyards lay the alluvial cone of the
Tunuyán River and the concept for Paraje Altamira would be that it follows the
contours of that cone: the soils in the area vary but they present a consistent
pattern of stone and gravel with different concentrations of calcium carbonate.
For the first time in Argentina, a GI had been established according to
technical criteria. Once the paperwork had been filed and legal objections
overcome (requiring a second study by the National Institute of Agricultural
Technology), the new appellation was announced in 2017. It is likely to be the
first of many.
Paraje Altamira (in yellow) in the context of the Tunuyán alluvial fan (in orange) at the foot of the Andes Mountains
vs. Viticultural Indicators
establishment of Paraje Altamira (9,300 hectares of total surface with only 4,000
hectares of land deemed suitable for cultivation and just 2,750 hectares of
planted vineyards), the Uco Valley became a hotbed of viticultural research.
And there was plenty to investigate.
The valley occupies a
large stretch of Andean foothills where drip irrigation (as opposed to the flood
irrigation more commonly used in flatter vineyards) has proved to be a key
factor in the development of vine plantings in virgin soil from 1990 onward.
The Uco Valley now boasts 28,000 planted hectares of grape vines, of which 96% have
either been newly planted or repurposed in the last 15 years. But the valley’s
topography is extremely varied. It features sites as high as 6,300 feet which
are cold and relatively steep, like some crus in Burgundy, but also lower-altitude
plains that during the warmest years can be as hot as St. Helena in Napa
The task in
establishing new GIs is thus where to draw the line. Marcelo Belmonte, the
Vineyard Director at the Peñaflor Group, believes that “the challenge of zoning
is to determine boundaries, which are always debatable and to some degree
arbitrary. The soils in the foothills are alluvial and vary widely over short
distances depending on their ability to retain water, and this presents a
In order to draw a
boundary around a given territory, one must agree on the criteria to be
employed. Where previously political boundaries were followed, now the criteria
are geological, morphological, climatic and soil-based, as established by
impartial bodies such as universities or other institutions. And so, although
the Argentine wine industry is now fully committed to focusing on the details,
the process of delimiting and naming smaller parcels is only just beginning.
Vineyard sites in South Mendoza, flanked by the Andes to the West and the desert plain to the East
Three appellations have
been established in the Uco Valley since 2013 and technical criteria were used
to establish the boundaries for all of these. Several more are still in the
research stage. In addition to Paraje Altamira, the Uco Valley now
boasts San Pablo (approved in 2019, with 475 planted hectares) and Los
Chacayes (2018; 1,000 hectares), both in the Department of Tunuyán in the
center of the valley. They are also located on alluvial cones with a minimum
altitude of 3,600 feet and a maximum of 5,400 and 4,900 feet, respectively, in
very cool areas. While Los Chacayes was named for a political district, San
Pablo was created from scratch, based solely on the composition of its soil.
There are several additional
GIs currently seeking approval that contain a number of fascinating vineyards
and are already producing highly distinctive wines. The most notable are Los
Indios and El Cepillo, which border Paraje Altamira in the far south
of the Uco Valley, and Gualtallary, further to the north in the Uco
Valley. The latter is quite the conundrum: it features vineyards up to an
altitude of 5,200 feet, spanning three zones on the Winkler Scale (1a to III), and
at least five different soil types. It thus presents a rather thorny problem in
itself without even taking into account the fact that, legally speaking,
Gualtallary is a registered trademark owned by a single producer.
Alejandro Vigil, head
enologist at Bodega Catena Zapata, who has worked extensively with wines in
Gualtallary, says that “zoning is an evolutionary process in Argentine
viticulture. We know that the wines are different and now we’re trying to find
out why, and define the boundaries that explain them best.” It’s a slow process
but Vigil believes that it will
eventually pay dividends.
Left: Alluvial soil and a very short profile of Uco Valley, Tupungato; Right: Gualtallary Soil with Malbec roots
While right now the Uco
Valley has made the most progress in terms of delineating GIs, producers in
other parts of the country have not been idle. In San Juan, the Pedernal Valley
is also well on its way to becoming a GI. With 800 hectares planted at altitude
in the middle of the desert – between 4,200 and 4,900 feet above sea level – on
the mountain range that borders the eastern side of the valley, it boasts the
only calcium composite of rocky origins (i.e., it’s essentially a mountain of
calcium, as opposed to the calcium carbonate originally deposited by rivers in
parts of the Uco Valley).
Vineyard owners in Calchaquí
Valley 700 miles to the north of Mendoza, almost on the Tropic of Capricorn,
have also taken a shine to the idea of segmentation. This is especially true of
the gullies farthest north and west where vineyards can be found at up to 9,800
feet above sea level and the powerful solar energy combined with extreme
thermal amplitude make for very distinctive conditions. Segmentation there
doesn’t look as though it will be too difficult: the valleys are separated by
tall mountains with small rivers that limit wine production. Parajes (a local term originally used to
describe remote villages or settlements) such as Luracatao and Pucará are the
ones being talked about today, along with other larger, politically demarcated
areas such as Molinos and Cachi.
Cabernet Sauvignon ends its ripening time in late April this year; San Pablo, Uco Valley
Neither is Patagonia
immune to the allure of increasing parcellization. In fact, the technical
criteria in that area are breaking new ground. Around the 39th parallel, almost
700 miles south of Mendoza, the windy steppes are bordered by the barda, ancient cliff faces that provide
boundaries for the plateaus below them. Today, producers are climbing those
faces in search of new conditions in San Patricio del Chañar, Neuquén. They are
discovering that the soil of the barda
consists of parallel strata, meaning that a vine might be sinking its roots
into clay or calcareous soils depending on its exact location. A study is
currently underway by the Universidad del Comahue that may well result in the
first Patagonian Geographical Indication being determined by the
characteristics of its soil.
But right now this is
just speculation. What is clear is that producers in Argentina are going
through their terroirs with a fine-tooth
comb, hoping to discover outstanding sites that are capable of world-class wines.
The wines that are made in these favored areas in the years to come, once this
new wave of segmentation has been consolidated, should enhance the prestige of
the entire wine industry of Argentina.
You Might Also Enjoy
Once-Marginal Terroirs Take Argentina’s Wines to New Heights, Stephen Tanzer, September 2019
Argentina’s Wines Enter the World Stage, Stephen Tanzer, July 2018
Argentina New Releases: Cool Times in the Desert, Stephen Tanzer, July 2017
Vertical Tasting of the Nicolás Catena Zapata 1997-2012, Stephen Tanzer, October 2016
Argentina: The Cool Years, Stephen Tanzer, March 2016