wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)


Visiting Mendoza, Argentina
Part 1: a question of altitude

Harvesting at O Fournier, Uco Valley, Mendoza - altitude 1200 m - Andes in the background

One of the perks of being a wine writer is the chance to travel widely, often at other people’s expense, to beautiful parts of the world where you get to eat and drink very well. As I’m reasonably new to this job, I’m still in the process of ticking off the world’s leading wine regions on my list of ‘places that I must visit’. In November 2007, I visited New Zealand for the first time, then in January 2008 I was in Chile. Then, in March 2008 I made my first trip to Argentina. It’s hard work, all that long-haul travelling, but someone has to do it.

I was really looking forward to visiting Mendoza, Argentina’s largest and most important wine region, because I'd read so much about it. In particular, with my science geek hat on I was intrigued by the effect of altitude. Increased altitude means decreased temperature and increased solar radiation. In most of the world’s wine regions, grape growing stops at around 1000 metres: past this, it just gets too cold to ripen grapes properly. In Mendoza, the average altitude of the vineyards is a heady 900 metres, with many well above 1000 metres (in fact, the highest vineyards in the world are found in Argentina, in Salta, at just over 3000 metres). It’s this topic – the effect of altitude on Mendoza’s vineyards, that will be the subject of this first report from my visit. Then I’ll write-up the individual producer visits in detail.

Riding through the vineyards at Cheval des Andes - the netting is for hail protection

Expectations can mislead. I’d expected Mendoza to have these amazing, sloping high-altitude vineyards in the foothills of the Andes. The reality? All the vineyards look pretty much the same. And they’re all flat. A vineyard at 800 metres looks pretty much the same as one at 1400 metres, because the gain in altitude is a very gradual one on the plateau that leads to the Andes. But this doesn’t change the fact that altitude is hugely important in making quality wine production viable in Argentina. With the exception of Patagonia in the south, Argentina’s wine regions form a strip running down the spine of the Andes in the west of the country and, remarkably, have an average altitude of 900 metres, which makes Argentina unique as a wine-growing country. Of course, elsewhere in the world grapes are grown at altitude – the mountain wines of the European Alps spring to mind, as does Ribera del Duero which is at an altitude of around 800 metres, but Argentina takes this to another level.

It’s worth making a comparison with Chile’s vineyards, which are just a short hop over the Andes. In Chile, site selection is all about understanding the effect of the cooling breezes from the chilly Pacific Ocean, as they work their way inland through gaps in the coastal ranges and up river valleys. Because Chile is such a long, narrow country, all the wine regions are affected to some degree by the proximity of the Pacific, and specifically the chilly Humboldt current. Mendoza is quite different. It’s more than a thousand kilometers from the Argentinean coast, lying to the east; to the west are the Andes, which create a rain shadow, but provide a plentiful supply of irrigation water. In most of the Argentinean wine regions, site selection is determined by the altitude of the vineyards because there is no maritime influence.

Old fashioned pergola-style trellising

But what is the influence of altitude? The most obvious change is in temperature. ‘Without a doubt, the fundamental benefit of high altitude vineyards is the temperature, which gets lower the higher the altitude’, says Dr Rodolfo Griguol, Chief Winemaker for La Riojana. ‘But this is not all: it is also important to consider the high difference between the day and night time temperatures’.

So altitude brings with it two influences on temperature. First of all, it gets cooler, by an average of about 0.6 ºC per 100 metres, and during the important ripening months it’s as much as a 1 ºC difference. And then there is an increased day/night temperature amplitude. Manuel Louzada of Terrazas de los Andes explains the significance of this. ‘During the day the plant produces, via photosynthesis, carbohydrates that are taken into the reserve organs, such as the berries. Throughout the night, respiration takes place without photosynthesis, consuming some of the carbohydrates and other organic compounds. The lower the night temperature and, therefore the bigger the thermal amplitude, the lower the amount of these components consumed during respiration, resulting in more intensity of the grape expression due to a bigger richness in the berry of these components, that affect colour, aroma and palate structure.’ Louzada and his team at Terrazas have made altitude differences a feature of the labelling of their wines, with the term ‘The ideal altitude for each varietal’ displayed prominently. 

‘Altitude is terribly important for us mainly in order to achieve not only extreme high-low temperatures in the summer, but also that low temperatures should be below 14 ºC,’ says José Ortega, president of O Fournier. ‘The extreme temperatures increase
colour and aroma intensity. The low temperature situation allows for added natural acidity and freshness in the aromas. For us, higher is definitely better in Mendoza and that is why we invested in the Uco Valley at 1200 m altitude.’

But it is not just temperature that varies with altitude. There are two other important factors: sunlight intensity, and soil characteristics. ‘The origin of the Mendoza region soils are alluvial. Therefore, as we "climb up" the mountain we will find soils, with similar "mother rock", that have a bigger granulometry’, says Louzada. ‘Soils with bigger granulometry usually have better drainage, retaining less humidity and have
smaller availability of nutrients (mainly organic matter) that makes them less fertile soils where the plant naturally has to struggle to survive. This type of soils allows a better control of the irrigation practices.’

With increased altitude, the intensity of the sunlight increases. The role of this increased light intensity is currently being investigated by Catena’s research and development department headed up by Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil. ‘We are constantly conducting investigations, mostly in high altitude viticulture, on the effect of altitude, high sunlight intensity, temperature and its effect in the characteristics and quality of Malbec’, explains Catena winemaker Mariela Molinari. The Catena vineyards range from 780 m (quite high by conventional standards) in Este Mendocino to 1500 m (Valle de Uco) above sea level. These different altitude vineyards can be matched to different varieties, but what Catena have done in their research project is to examine how one variety, Malbec (right), performs with varying elevation. ‘We have seen that sunlight intensity in the high altitude vineyards has a great effect on the aromatic profile of Malbec. The aromatic precursors of Malbec that belong to the carotenoid family are enhanced with the sunlight intensity.’ In addition, the higher ultraviolet light levels at increased altitude have an important effect on tannin composition. ‘The grape skins in the Malbec from high altitude are thicker, which translates into higher concentration of total tannins’, says Molinari. ‘This is very important since this is an indicator of quality in relation to concentration. But most important is the type of tannins that we find in these grape skins, fewer monomeric tannins and proportionally higher concentration of polymeric tannins. This means that in our high altitude Malbecs we have high concentration and structure, with an incredible amount of total tannins but yet very soft and round wines. This is what makes Malbecs from high altitude vineyards so unique’.

Catena's Adrianna Vineyard, Mendoza - 1400 m

'The same grape variety has totally different behaviours at different altitudes’, agrees Manuel Louzada, who explains the differences that Terrazas find with different Malbecs. ‘Let’s take the example of Malbec. (1) Malbec from warmer regions (below 900 meters) tends to accelerate its sugar ripeness yet with limited fruit expression or developing over ripeness characters, with leathery and/or cooked aromas and flavours with flat structure on the palate; (2) Malbec from the Vistalba region (between 1000–1100 m), has the perfect balance between sugar ripeness and the accumulation of the components that deliver character, expression and concentration. The Malbec wines from Vistalba, display the typical aromas of Malbec like plums, raisins, raspberry, black pepper and violets with a full body, creamy texture yet with sweet and round tannins. We could define this as more elegant and complex Malbec. (3) Malbec from the Uco Valley (between 1000–1100 m yet at the south limit of Mendoza, latitude 33 °S) achieves an incredible concentration yet with aromas that are mainly flowery, specially violets, and fresh fruit like raspberry. In the palate the wines tend to have sweet fruit in the front palate, a lighter middle palate and tannins that are firmer and harder in the back palate. More muscular Malbec.’ Louzada adds that if they tried planting Malbec at higher elevation the ripening cycle would be so long that it wouldn’t complete, and the resulting wines would be green and vegetal. ‘I think it is a matter of the style you are trying to achieve, for example for certain wines, it may interesting to blend the wines obtained with grapes from the vineyards planted at 2 and 3, to increase the level of intensity and some complexity on the grape expression. Nevertheless, if your are pursuing a unique expression of the terroir, as we are in the case of our Afincado, it comes from a small plot within our own vineyard "Las Compuertas" planted in 1929 where we think we have found, by itself, the perfect expression of Malbec.’

Wines tasted 03/08  
Find these wines with

Back to top