The evolution of Mendoza Malbec

The Argentine wine industry is going through a good phase. Thanks to the country's most famous grape variety Malbec. Daniel Lopez Roca reports how the variety has evolved.

The Salentein Los Jabalies Vineyard at 1,400 m in IG San Pablo.
The Salentein Los Jabalies Vineyard at 1,400 m in IG San Pablo.

In Argentina, the forced quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic led to the cessation of most economic activities. Causing an unprecedented interruption in the economy. Despite this complex situation, the Argentine wine industry is experiencing success. Exports are growing and consumption in the domestic market has improved. Malbec is leading the export, the French variety has acclimated perfectly to the Argentine wine regions.

Malbec is Argentina’s most widely planted variety. 44,388 hectares were planted by the end of 2019. This is equivalent to 21 percent of the national vineyard plantings. Malbec has been in Argentina since the middle part of the 19th century and has traditionally made Argentina’s most well known red wines. It should also be noted that Argentina’s Malbec plantings have grown 56 percent in the decade between 2010 and 2019 with 5 percent growth being from 2018 to 2019.

Today there are more than 134 million liters of Malbec sold in the international market annually. Malbec has become a brand with which consumers recognize reliable wines at a good price. With a new generations of producers, it is improving even more. Malbec today presents a range of unique wines, in lighter, more complex and high-quality styles. “Without a doubt, Malbec is one of the varieties that best expresses the Argentine terroir. Particularly our Malbec shows that both its vegetative cycle and its maturity curve are adjusted to our climate and to mountain viticulture. In this mesoclimate, Malbec found its place." says Marcelo Belmonte, Viticulture Manager of Grupo Peñaflor.

Style changes

The style of Argentine wines has been changing, in a natural and evolutionary process through which the traditional wine-growing areas of the old world have already passed. Until the end of the eighties, simple wines of low alcohol content and color were produced and consumed. A major crisis in consumption caused the depletion of the mass production model for low-quality wines. The Argentine wine industry then underwent a significant change in production from quantity to quality.

This change occurred during the implementation of economic policies that allowed investment in the country. Thus, the industry focused on the production of higher quality wines with the desire to export and compete in the international market. Along with foreign investment, new technologies and winemaking knowledge came to Mendoza and spread throughout the region. In this second moment, Argentine wines were influenced by French winemakers who found in the foothills of the Andes Mountains a climate that allowed the grapes to fully ripen. Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker at Zuccardi in Valle de Uco, comments that “In the 90's, the high concentration, the indiscriminate use of oak and a high degree of alcohol provided muscle wines. This not only happened in Argentina but was part of a global movement. I think we are now searching for our wine identity."

This search leads producers to find new and different places to expressed this in their wines. Argentine winemakers offer to the consumer a journey through new and interesting flavors that reflect these new vineyards located in unusual places. This phenomenon has caused a true terroir revolution.

Scientific research on terroir

Terroir is a new and exciting concept in Argentina. What has been fundamental in the European wine regions, finally made its footing in Argentina. As Argentine winemakers seek to communicate their regions and diversity of their wines, they began to focus on expressing the landscape in their wines and communicating it on the labels.

In the article “Terroir and vintage discrimination of Malbec wines based on phenolic composition across multiple sites in Mendoza, Argentina”, published by the Argentine Catena Institute of Wine in the journal Scientific Reports in February, the researchers state that “For the first time, this study shows that the terroir effect can be chemically described from vintage to vintage in larger regions as well as in smaller parcels”. They compared four different levels of terroir – three large regions, six departments, 12 geographical indications, and 23 individual parcelas (smaller than one hectare) – over three different vintages (2016, 2017 and 2018). The researchers found that according to their analysis there is an interconnection between wine and terroir.

Up the mountains

To achieve these unique expressions of Malbec, producers turn to colder climates regions. This in Mendoza implies climbing the mountains. A line has been established that defines the above and below 1000 m, above which the climate is colder. This height corresponds to Luján de Cuyo district, 50 km away from Mendoza city.

Luján de Cuyo is known as “the land of Malbec” but the Uco Valley is presented as an excellent place for its cultivation. On the subject, the graduate in Geophysics, Guillermo Corona, a Mendoza soil specialist, said “We have Malbec everywhere. Today, producers are looking for different places than those that dominate the market, they are climbing to impossible heights. Some of the wines produced there are already on sale and others will be known this year or next”. On his Instagram profile Geografía del vino (@geografiadelvino), Guillermo Corona reveals the secrets of the land.

Mendoza has 85 percent of the area planted with Malbec in the country, the great changes are concentrated in the high-altitude vineyards in the Uco Valley in the West of Mendoza. The Uco Valley has more than 28,244 hectares planted from 980 m to 1,700 m. New geographical indications have emerged in areas where vines had never been cultivated.

Although Luján de Cuyo and Uco Valley are large-scale GIs (or Indicaciones Geográficas, IG), today the areas tend to be narrowed down to focus on certain places:

La Carrera: it is the first valley North of the Uco Valley, in the department of Tupungato, it is 40 km long and at an altitude of 2,300 m. It is located at the theoretical limit of where vines in these latitudes can be planted. There are no wines from this place on the market yet but it promises great wines.

Gualtallary: it is located in the West of the province in Tupungato. It has stony soils with good drainage. It ranges from 1080 m to 1600 m with a length of 30 kilometers. Vineyards are concentrated at 1,300 m. "The differential of the Gualtallary wines is their freshness, and this is due to the acidity that the climate allows us to preserve also ensured by the calcium carbonate soils'', as Alejandro Vigil, chief winemaker of Catena Zapata winery, says. He cultivated the first vines there at 1,450 m in 1994. It is also the place chosen by Bemberg Estate to produce its Finca El Tomillo wines. 

Paraje Altamira: located at 1,100 m, in San Carlos – within the district of La Consulta – it is over the alluvial cone of the Tunuyan river. The GI was approved in 2016, after several tries, it marked the kickoff for all the GI movement. For IG Paraje Altamira it was possible to delimit an area following concepts of soil and climate.

Pampa El Cepillo: South of Altamira, within the same alluvial cone. It occupies a territory whose highest elevation is 1,000 m. With a Northwest-Southeast slope and Southeast exposure, it is a fairly cold region of San Carlos, Uco Valley, where the lowest minimum temperatures in the region are recorded. It has approximately twenty producers looking for a more floral and fresh profile of Malbec.

Los Indios: west of El Cepillo. This terroir is characterized by sandy soils, with layers of carbonates and rocks, and cool climate. The soil in these vineyards is one of the poorest in terms of nutrients, the organic matter is almost zero, and it has great drainage. An example is Malbec Doña Paula Los Indios Parcel.

San Pablo: The late Myndert Pon, visionary pioneer of the Uco Valley, bought in 1996 La Pampa (800 ha) and San Pablo (400 ha) estates, planting the first Malbec vineyard at 1,300 m. In 1998 he began the construction of Salentein winery. In September 2019 it became a IG. It has a total area of 4,300 hectares and its altitude ranges from 1,175 to 1,700 m, with a total of 535 hectares planted.

Los Chacayes: it was for years considered part of Vista Flores, with an area of 102,500 hectares at the foot of the Cordillera. This GI was approved in November 2018, it has 1,600 hectares of vineyards between 1,000 and 1,350 m high. One of the wineries that initially used the appellation was Francoise Lurton's Piedra Negra. Other outstanding wineries in the area are Giménez Riili, Super Uco, Alpasión, Finca Blousson, Corazón del Sol, Casa de Uco and Enzo Bianchi.

Estancia Uspallata: In this mountain area at 2,000 m, the soils and climates are completeley different from those of Valle de Uco. This area has frost and winds are and rainy conditions. Here, Alejandro Sejanovich is producing a very particular Malbec.

The search for new sites

Identifying micro terroirs is a task that is also taking place in all provinces. In the Quebrada de Humahuaca, in Jujuy, Northern Argentina at 2,700 m, Alejandro Nieva and Alejandro Sejanovich are making Malbec in Huichaira and near the Tropic of Capricorn, in Huacalera, Fernando Maurette and Raúl María planted the vineyard for their Tukma wines at 2,670 m. In Salta, oenologist Agustín Lanús is also looking for extreme sites to make his wines. Angastaco at 2,400 mand Molinos at 2,700 m are some of the places where his grapes come from. In Catamarca, Chañar Punco is the place where the new El Esteco Malbecs are grown and in San Juan the vines for Pyros Limestone Malbec are planted in the Pedernal Valley.

In years to come, Malbec from Argentina will be anything but boring.

Daniel Lopez Roca

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