Given its big, bouncy personality, Malbec naturally throws a party for itself every year – and why shouldn’t it? Every 17th of April we celebrate Argentina’s most popular adopted grape with Malbec World Day. But what if you’re pregnant, or under doctor’s orders to give booze the red light? Here are some alternative ways to celebrate Malbec without the alcohol.
Just as this spring’s torrential downpours descended upon Buenos Aires, I decided to escape the quilombo and head for higher ground to Mendoza and San Juan, two dry, sunny provinces hugging the Andes in the west of Argentina.
From the beaches of the Atlantic coast to the dizzyingly high Andean altiplano, by way of regions as diverse as the Pampas and Patagonia, Argentina folds in an incredible variety of landscapes along its 2,295 mile length. Think of the difference in habitats that are home, variously, to condors, cattle or penguins, and this gives a vivid idea of how the mix of terrain, climate and altitude changes as you travel about the eighth largest country in the world.
Taking root in Argentina around 500 years ago, olive trees are a natural companion for vines, enjoying the same poor terroir and hot climes as grapes. But despite the late start, local extra virgin oils (known here as virgen extra – a bottle that says any different is not what it appears to be) that come from Mendoza and San Juan are beginning to have an impact on the world stage as they pick up awards and recognition for their varietals and blends.
As Argentina is a country made up of immigrants for the most part, it makes perfect sense that its grapes (excluding Torrontés) are also documented aliens. Take our dearly beloved Malbec. We all know it originates from Cahors in south-west France, don’t we? That’s right, the Old World has had its hand in defining Argentina’s viniculture, thanks to big hitters Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and of course Malbec – from Salta in the north to Patagonia in the south…
Vendimia or “grape harvest” holds huge importance in all 18 corners of the province, bringing together mendocinos from Malargüe in the south to Rivadavia in the east and Luján de Cuyo in the west. Named one of the top 10 harvest celebrations in the world by National Geographic, the main aim is to give thanks to the patron saint of grape harvests, the Virgen de la Carrodilla.
Few people beyond South American shores realise that Argentina is the fifth biggest wine producer in the world, making myriad varieties from vineyards that stretch from lofty Salta in the North West to the windswept river valleys of Patagonia in the south. From aromatic, spicy Torrontés to supple Pinot Noirs, by way of Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernets Franc and Sauvingon, plus up-and-coming grapes such as Bonarda and Tempranillo, Argentina’s rich heritage of vines delivers a surprising wealth of styles.
In Mendoza, the grape harvest can start any time from the end of January and continue until mid-May, depending upon the varietal and wine a bodega intends to make. Many wineries used to be located in the city of Mendoza, but over the years they have dispersed in a bid to find new terroir, a move that has seen many wind their way south. I’ve travelled to the province three times since February and have compiled this collage of 2013’s harvest across some of the different vineyard areas of Mendoza.
Visitors to Mendoza — city and province — tend to have their eye on one pressing matter, and one pressing matter only: fermented grape juice. The reputation of Argentina’s greatest wine-producing province precedes it, however: it’s not just Malbec and its sibling varietals that are hogging the spotlight. A host of restaurants in Mendoza are making waves with their gastronomical and enological offerings, from steak flame-grilled seven ways to closed-door establishments and Asian fusion cuisine…
The term “New World” is a pretty intriguing concept when it comes to Argentine winemaking given that its history stretches back some four and a half centuries. As with much of the Americas, it’s a story that involves Spanish conquistadors, Catholic missionaries, European migrants and, more latterly, the coming of the railway. To put this into perspective, the English Tudor monarch King Henry VIII had only just died when the first vitis vinifera cuttings (the wine grape vine) were planted in what was to become Argentine soil.