Argentina Wine

The Argentine Wine Industry

Growing grapes in a desert

Any visitor to Mendoza, or indeed most of Argentina's north-west interior, will be astonished that it is possible to grow anything at all, far less world-class wine. The entire region is in the very substantial rain-shadow of the Andes mountain range. (In fact, the highest peak in the Southern hemisphere, Aconcagua, towers 6,962 metres – 22,841 feet – above Mendoza's capital city).

The result is a dusty, dry countryside where not only does it practically never rain (there is a total average of less than 200 mm of precipitation per year), but the air is generally throat-parchingly dry too, with relative humidity levels between 40% and 70%. (Thanks to the BBC for the weather stats).

Mendoza. It's dry. Fabre Montmayou vineyard, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza. It's dry.

But the Spanish conquerors of the inland region that is now called Mendoza found a peculiarly green and fertile land in the midst of this vast desert.

The reason for this was that the indigenous Huarpes of the region had, many years earlier, developed and built a complex and sophisticated system of irrigation channels to bring water from the Mendoza river to the arid plains. These channels featured advanced hydrodynamics techniques which allowed the regulation and control of the flow of water, allowing efficient use of the scarce resource (the Mendoza river being fed almost solely by snow-melt in spring and summer).

The presence of advanced hydrodynamics techniques suggests that the area was once a southern bastion of the Inca empire, where such techniques were commonly employed, though this is debated. The Incas did not rule the local Huarpes tribe when the Spanish arrived in Mendoza – but that is hardly surprising given that the empire was by that point in its death throes following the Spanish invasion that began 20 years earlier with the territories that now constitute Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Winter flood irrigation at Nieto Senetiner vineyard, Lujan de Cuyo Winter flood irrigation at Nieto Senetiner vineyard, Lujan de Cuyo

The irrigation system inherited from the Huarpes supplies both Mendoza's residents and all its viticulture with water. Irrigation channels have been extended and added to, but the system remains the same. Water is rationed between vineyards and farmers through the opening and closing of miniature flood-control gates. Once on the vineyards, the growers employ similar techniques to flood irrigation channels around the base of their vines periodically. This simple flood-irrigation technique has been used for centuries in Mendoza and is only now, in a very few cases, beginning to give way to more complicated and expensive (if more efficient) drip irrigation systems.

The desert climate and advanced irrigation system gives Mendoza's grape growers a unique advantage. With complete control over the watering of their vines, and in combination with the hot daytime temperatures and cool nights during the grape ripening seasons, conditions are almost ideal for growing grapes with ripe, intense fruit characteristics and good acidity levels.

No grape variety appreciated this climate more than a difficult, minor grape variety from the south west of France: Malbec.

Next: Malbec finds a home