A recent taste of a beautiful Argentinean wine got me to musing on that country’s wine production, and how little I knew about it. Please join me on an educational romp on another country “down under,” the fifth largest wine producing area of the world, Argentina.
Pre-Columbian agricultural history. The story of Argentina’s wine begins not with the Spanish conquest, nor even with the arrival of Catholic priests and the accompanying rite of Communion. It begins with a pre-Columbian (i.e., pre-Christopher Columbus) native population, the Huarpes, who etched out a sustainable culture by building an intricate, highly sophisticated irrigation system that brought water from the Mendoza River to the arid surroundings. This drew the attention of early explorers, including the Spanish Conquistadors who were startled to find lush greenery in such a parched, dry desert landscape. In the area now known as Mendoza, this elaborate and well-built canal system boasted hydrodynamics, which allowed water flow to be controlled over different areas and became the basis for the area’s modern water management systems.
Arrival of the Spanish and the Church. Spanish conquerors and priests arrived in the mid-1500s from Chile on the heels of their Inca conquests. Father Juan Cedrón planted cuttings brought from Chile, establishing the vines that are believed to be the granddaddies not only of Chilean Pais wine, but also of California Mission wine. It is believed that this padre’s vines are related to the modern vines that have been the basis of mainstay Argentinean wine, Criolla Chica, for the past three centuries.
Thus, the first wine regions, Mendoza and San Juan were born. Jesuit missionaries furthered the planting and development of fledgling wine production by enhancing and expanding the already established irrigation systems.
Later developments. In the mid-1800s, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the provincial governor, was responsible for having French wine cuttings brought into the area. Among these were the area’s original Malbec vines.
While the western side of Argentina was growing into a burgeoning wine area, the eastern side with more room per capita was becoming the population center. It wasn’t until 1885 that a major milestone joined Mendoza in the west to thirsting Buenos Aires citizens in the east: the completion of the Argentine railroad. Wine could now be more cheaply and quickly transported, aiding in the industry’s further development.
In two weeks: More on Argentinian wine industry development and regions!