Thursday, September 9, 2010
The Unique Vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina
I would like to conclude this review of my wine trip to Mendoza, Argentina with an overview of the vineyards (see previous postings for winery details). In all my travels to the wine regions of the world, I have come to recognize that the soul of a wine is within the vineyard. It is the source of all great wines, and each place on earth is quite different and special. This is also true of Argentina -- especially Mendoza with its desert-like climate, sandy soils, and reliance on the snow in the Andes for water.
During our welcome orientation, we were informed that in 2009 Argentina produced 1.6 million tons of grapes with 220,000 hectares of vineyards, but that 80% of all Argentine wine comes from Mendoza. The Mendoza region includes three major areas: 1) Maipu near the city of Mendoza; 2) Lujan de Cuyo (the first and only DOC in Argentina) and the Uco Valley to the south of Mendoza; and 3) San Rafael to the far south. Since this is the Southern Hemisphere the further south you go, the colder the climate.
Vineyard altitude in the Mendoza region ranges from 1800 to 3300 feet above sea level. The soil is sandy with some clay. Climate is continental.
Malbec is the main varietal in Mendoza, but they also produce Bonarda (called Charbono in the US), Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Chardonnay/Pinot Noir for sparkling. A small amount of Torrentes is grown here, but most is imported from Salta. Finally, they still grow a large amount of the bulk wine grapes, Cereza and Criolla Grande.
In the vineyard there is no one rootstock or clone that has been deemed the best. Instead everyone appears to be experimenting with different types. They also use different trellis and spacing systems – the most common being VSP with cane pruning for malbec on 4x8 feet spacing. However, some still use the traditional pergola (very high trellis), and a few were using tightly spaced guyot. Others preferred VSP with cordon.
They are in the midst of pruning now since it is winter, and I was intrigued with the light brown plant fiber they used to tie the vines – instead of the ugly plastic green tape we use in the States. I was told a side industry has started to produce these ties which are made from river tule and is biodegradable (see photo).
The other unique thing about their vineyards is the yards of hail netting used (see photo). At first I thought it was bird netting and couldn’t understand why they had it up during the winter. However they informed me that they often have hail storms in the spring and summer and so they leave the netting up most of the time. Luis told me that they often have hail the size of baseballs, and that it can destroy a vineyard in a few minutes of they do not use netting.
Irrigation is either flood or drip. Jimena told me that for her 3 hectare vineyard she is allotted 45 minutes of water every 10 days. The water is very precious and comes from the snow in the Andes (see photo). Larger more modern vineyards use drip irrigation, and newer ones have had to dig wells, but high salinity in the water can be an issue.
What I didn’t realize until I arrived in Mendoza is that it is actually a desert. Grapes could not survive here without water. In fact when they’ve experimented with dry farming, the vines die because there is no water retention in the sandy soil. The whole landscape reminded me of Albuquerque, New Mexico with the high mountains and desert. It was also similar to the ancient grape city of Turpan in China that I visited last year where they had to bring water from the mountains in underground canals.
Since I was here in September, which is very early Spring (some buds were just forming on the cherry and willow trees), harvest is usually in February/March. Almost all vineyards are hand-harvested, and there is very little mechanization. Workers currently are recruited from Bolivia and Northern Argentina. It is a law that all wineries must provide worker housing – which is more progressive than US law. Though I asked if they were concerned about loss or reduction of their workforce to more attractive jobs, they said no. Indeed the low cost of labor here is one of the reasons they are able to keep their wine prices so low. I was told by Jimena that there are many poor people in Argentina, and that often the locals will also help with harvest and pruning.