A Revolution of Place: Argentina Classifies Its Terroirs


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 Altamira GI

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

Political Boundaries vs. Viticultural Indicators

Following the 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 Valley.

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 problem.”

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

Beyond Mendoza

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.

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