Argentina is by far the most important wine country in Latin America, both in terms of the area that it has under vines and per capita consumption. Geographically, there is no other country in the world that has a broader spread of vineyards than Argentina, both from north to south and in the range of altitudes.
Winemaking in Argentina dates back to the 1500's, when Jesuit priests arrived in the Mendoza region with a crucifix in one hand and a bundle of vine-shoots in the other. Early winemaking was in the hands of the priests, who primarily made wine for their own needs. Then trade developed, both across the Andes to Chile and to Buenos Aires on the Atlantic. Following independence in 1810, major factors influencing the wine industry were an influx of immigrants used to both consuming and making wines, a president from the provinces who established wine schools, and the building of a railroad to Buenos Aires, which made delivery of wine both faster and safer.
These factors led to an improvement in the quality of the wines and a shift from total reliance on the Criolla grape - European varietals and European styles were introduced. In recent years the successful wineries produce quality, not table wines, and the export market has become increasingly important.
Most of the wine regions of Argentina are located in the string of provinces that form the western border of the country, those that lie in the shadow of the Andes. Generally speaking, they have well-defined summers and winters. In summer the weather can be hot and there is little or no rainfall. Winters can be cold, but frost in spring is rarely a danger. Annual rainfall varies, but it is supplemented by unlimited water for irrigation, either from the rivers flowing down from the Andes or from artesian wells drawing on subterranean aquifers.
More than in any other wine-producing country in the world, altitude of the vineyards is a powerful factor. The advantages of higher altitudes include better exposures to ultraviolet rays and higher contrasts between day and night temperatures. In the valleys leading down from the Andes, currents of air make for greater differentials. Because of the dryness of the climate, diseases such as mildew and botrytis are rare. Most vines are ungrafted, and phylloxera is not a common problem.
For the most part, soils are sandy and drain well. As you get closer to the Andes, and particularly in historic riverbeds, stones play a more important role in the composition.
Mendoza Province is the heartland of the production of fine wine in Argentina. All but a handful of the major wineries are there. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561. It now has a population of over 600,000, with wide pedestrian streets. Production is split almost equally between red and white wines. The Uco Valley includes the highest vineyards in the region, at Tupungato. The wines here tend to be high in natural acidity and that gives them an aging potential that is lacking in many other wines from Argentina. The traditionally successful vines here have been the Malbec and the Semillon, but new plantings also include Chardonnay, Carbenet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
By arriving late as a New-World producer, Argentina has been able to move smoothly into the latest winemaking techniques - for example, inner-stave treatment for "oaking" of wines. Argentina has been able to embrace the techniques of foreign experts while developing distinctive wines of Malbec and Torrontes in addition to the Big Four French varietals. In many ways, at the moment, Argentina is the most exciting wine country in Latin America.