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Is Mendoza, Argentina the next Napa Valley?

In the last two decades the stars have collided to take Mendoza’s wines – and its tourism offering – to the next level. We’ll drink to that!

The Spanish first brought vineyard cuttings and winemaking expertise to Mendoza (read this blog for some background info) in the 1560s and – relying on the irrigation channels developed by the Incas before them – set about guaranteeing a local supply of the good stuff. By 1830, the region had only 2,500 acres but waves of European immigration in the 19th century introduced dozens of new grape varieties and a deluge of fresh expertise. By 1910 grape plantings in the province totaled 110,000 acres!

Before 1990, however, Mendoza’s wine industry focused overwhelmingly on quantity. Despite being the largest wine producing nation outside of Europe, 90% of production went to the thirsty but undiscerning local market. In 1970, per capita consumption peaked at a whopping 92 liters per year – that’s an average of 2.35 bottles per adult per week!

The Andes mountains greatly influence Mendoza's weather, climate and wines. (Photo: The Vines of Mendoza Facebook)

The times they are a-changin’

You need only to know that annual consumption now stands at 18 liters per capita to understand that a lot has changed since then. Reasons for the change include a weak local economy (while there have been some good years, the overall trend is negative) and a change in drinking preferences (beer has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in Argentina).

A 1980s “‘vine pull scheme’ where farmers were paid to rip up old vines” threatened to derail the industry, says Argentine wine expert Tim Atkin. But luckily Mendoza’s winemakers and tourism players were clever enough to think outside of the barrel. Since the 1990s they have turned the old-fashioned and under-performing regional wine industry around spectacularly, using the so-called Napa blueprint. Instead of seeking a quick fix, they have achieved lasting and sustainable growth by improving the quality of their wines, finding new export markets, and building a strong tourist brand that’s based on top-notch wines (especially Malbecs) and incredible Andean scenery.

Founded in 1902, Bodega Catena Zapata is particularly known for its rich, full-bodied red wines, usually made from Malbec. (Photo: Catena Zapata Facebook)

The drip effect

Historically farmers in this hot, water scarce region would flood their vineyards with snowmelt diverted from the Andes. A simple technique, but one laden with limitations. The introduction of drip irrigation from Israel in the 1990s, says Atkin, was “a gamechanger”. Not only did it greatly reduce the amount of water required per hectare but it also allowed farmers to irrigate on slopes. Being able to grow vines at higher altitudes meant more complex and nuanced wines.

A handful of visionaries saw that Mendoza – and specifically the Uco Valley, a dusty Andean backwater to the south of town – had the potential to produce truly world-class wines. And they invested piles of their own time and money into realizing this potential. Local winemakers had long known how good the fruit from the Uco Valley was, says Atkin, but historically it was only ever “added to red blends, to add color and acidity.”

The Napa blueprint

In 1988 Michel Rolland – the superstar French oenologist who played a massive role in improving wine quality in both Bordeaux (from 1973 onwards) and Napa (from 1984 onwards) – bought a 2,100-acre swath of the Uco Valley. Clos de Los Siete, the red blend that resulted from that purchase, remains one of the most influential Argentine wines – year in, year out – and Rolland still spends at least a month every year in the Uco Valley. “I arrived at a time when Argentina needed to change, says Rolland. “It was a coincidence, being in the right place at the right time.”

Rolland’s influence has been huge, but no one has done more for Malbec or Mendoza than the Argentine economist-cum-winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata. During a 1980s stint as visiting scholar of economics at UC, Berkeley, Catena – whose family had owned an Uco Valley winery since 1902 – spent his weekends exploring the Napa Valley with his wife and infant daughter. “Until that time, no one in the new world had dreamed of challenging France on the wine front,” Catena’s biographer states. “Except, that is, for the Californians, who had decided to defy Europe by creating a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that could rival the best French wines.”

When Catena returned to Mendoza, he did so “with a Californian vision in mind.” A vision which saw Mendoza’s upstart wines vying for global recognition and awards.

Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard River Stones 2016 Malbec is the first South American wine ever to receive 100 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. (Photo: Catena Zapata Facebook)

Condemned to quality

Inspired by the incredible, high-altitude wines (mainly red blends and Malbecs) produced by Catena, Rolland and a few others (and buoyed by the strong local economy), investors flocked to Mendoza. By 2000 the rapidly professionalizing industry bore very few similarities to its flood-irrigated former self. Advances in technology, higher altitude plantings and a collective upskilling all contributed to the so-called Malbec Revolution. (The grape which is only used for blends in its native France, comes into its own in the sun-kissed high-altitude deserts of Mendoza).

The economic depression of 1998-2002, which culminated in the Peso falling through the basement, was disastrous for the wider Argentine economy. But it played into the hands of wine producers who, until then, had been hurt by the overvalued Peso. Of course, the crisis also meant that all imports (equipment, vine stock, barrels, etc.) suddenly became a whole lot more expensive. But this was a small price to pay for access to the global (and especially the US) marketplace. In the intervening decades – as the economy has spluttered along and Argentineans have stopped drinking wines – the country’s wine industry has, Atkin says, “been condemned to quality,” as only wines of a certain caliber can compete on the international stage. Luckily, it’s working: “I’ve never been more enthusiastic about the quality of the wines,” says the seasoned critic, who is particularly thrilled by the innovations of the so-called Young Guns movement of new-generation winemakers.

Estancia Uspallata is pushing the envelope even further by planting higher and dryer still. (Photo: Estancia Uspallata Facebook)

The enduring power of tourism

As the winemakers began to up their game in the late 1990s, the province’s tourism sector roused from its slumber too. Savvy individuals both in government and the private sector realized that while the local economy (and even the wine industry) may suffer bad years or periods, international tourism was a safe bet that could only grow year on year. What started with the establishment of formalized Caminos Del Vino (wine routes), 20 years ago, soon established a life of its own as wineries added tasting rooms, restaurants, and accommodation options to their offerings, and standalone eateries, hotels and adventure tourism businesses sprung up. (Follow the links to check out our favorite hotels, restaurants, and daytrips.)

The Vines of Mendoza is one of our go-to accommodation options in the Uco Valley. (Photo: The Vines of Mendoza Facebook)

Till then Mendoza’s spectacular Andean landscapes had been overshadowed by the even more spectacular terrain to its south (Patagonia and the Lake District are hard to beat) and its north (Cafayate and the Quebrada de Humahuaca ain’t too shabby either). Wine was the secret ingredient which would supercharge the region’s fortunes.

And then some. As these words from the province’s Tourism Minister show:

“Mendoza has been growing steadily since the beginning of the last decade, with at least twofold growth in all tourism-related indicators. There has been growth in supply, with quality products, and increasing interest among foreign visitors. The success of Mendoza has spread to the other producing provinces and today we have a country that boasts a great variety and wealth of wine tourism offerings. The results have been very positive. Today, our Caminos del Vino de Argentina wine route is visited by about a million and a half tourists, of which two-thirds come to Mendoza and one in four are foreigners, mainly from the United States, Brazil and South America and Europe. Growth between 2004 and 2015 was more than 200%. In 2004, 62 wineries opened in Argentina, and now the number is more than 200.”

Some of the activities on offer in Mendoza are wine tasting, bike tours and rafting. (Photo: Kelsey Knight)

The only way is up

More than a billion people will economically develop the consuming power to consume wine and travel to Mendoza in the upcoming century, so the long-term economic trajectory is – barring something very drastic – inevitable. The wines are getting better too, says Atkin, who is excited about strides made by new varietals – most notably Syrah and the near-endemic white, Torrontés – and regions. In fact, he has his eye on another even higher altitude valley called Uspallata which recently produced his wine of the year. Napa 3.0 anyone?

While the Uco Valley – and its stellar wines – have come a long way, it’s still got rugged charm and wild landscapes in spades. Check out our carefully curated Mendoza wine tours or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting your very own varietal.

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