January 1, 2002
A quote from the 1983 edition of “Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine” reads, “There can be little doubt that a politically stable Argentina will one day re-establish itself as one of the world’s most important sources of wine.” In 2002, little has changed. Once the most prosperous of South American nations, Argentina has had four straight years of escalating recession. It has recently defaulted on a staggering debt of $141 billion. This nation of 36 million people has experienced looting, riots, and runs on the banks (which are unable to liquidate the deposits of their customers). There have been five new presidents of Argentina in the past several weeks, and recently the national currency, the peso, has been devalued by 30 percent. These are volatile, treacherous times for this nation and, as the unrest affects all manner of commerce, so the wine industry must also scramble to keep its products afloat and not halt the continuous improvement and desirability of its wine selections.
In comparison, the stability of neighboring Chile has allowed a smooth, purring mechanism to promote its wines and reach new customers. The ability to be aggressive in marketing has been a great strength to Chilean exports.
In an across-the-board comparison of the wines from these two giants, I invariable come down on the side of Argentina. The texture, purity of fruit, and the overall distinctive terroir character is much more pleasurable to my palate. Certainly wines from Erazuriz, Almaviva, and Lapostolle, as well as the bargain Veramonte wines, are gems of Chilean provenance, but many of their exports are thin, insipid, and “so what” in nature. Argentina’s quality over the entire range is seldom disappointing.
Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. The land is graced with a warm, dry climate. Irrigation is used frequently. Ninety percent of the wines are grown in the province of Mendoza, which is located in the Midwestern part of the country. Some cooler, more hilly, and mountainous areas are being explored and planted to try and achieve more intensity in their product. In the meantime, Argentina makes excellent cabernet and chardonnay, but it’s the indigenous and long-planted unusual grapes that make some of the most exciting wines. Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda are among the lesser known but exciting wine grapes in the hands and the soil of Argentina.
Argentina has had major investors giving millions of dollars to improve and replant its vineyards. Among these entrepreneurs are Allied Domecq, Seagram, Moet et Chandon, Pernod, and the Lurton family of Bordeaux. Whether further investment will continue is highly dependent on how Argentina copes with its terrible financial and political problems. If she can ever be calm, solvent, and organized, I predict the money will pour in. The sky’s limit hasn’t come close to being reached in this perfect land for the grape.