Argentina has an extensive and colorful history with wine, dating back to the days of European exploration in the 16th century. Over the centuries, Argentina’s winemakers have developed their unique traditions, culture, and style. How did Argentinian1 wine come to be? What makes it so unique? And how has it evolved since the times of European explorations? This brief guide will take you through Argentinian wine history and explore how it has changed.
Understand the Wine Culture
Being one of the world’s largest wine producers, Argentina has a strong wine culture and extensive consumption of domestic wine. The only place where more wine is consumed than Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, is Paris. Argentina’s wine history dates back to the early Pilgrim Era when Spanish invaders brought the primary grape varieties from the Old World to Argentina to supply wine for Mass.
In 1556, Father Cedrón was reported to have spread grapevines in Argentina by shipping cuttings from Chile’s Central Valley to San Juan and Mendoza. Despite the early plantings being tiny, vineyards had been established across Argentina by the end of the 16th century, from east to west and north to south, where the Spanish had landed and settled.
During the first two centuries of grape development, winemakers were lured to the Cuyo region due to its altitude and the suitable semi-dry environmental conditions with an overflow of water supplies – an appropriate set of factors for developing vineyards. According to a 1739 survey, Mendoza had 120 grape farms at the time.
Wine History: Colonial Period
Did you know? During the Colonial Period, Jesuit professors brought most of the cuttings from the Canary Islands in Spain. These early mainland cultivars were quickly crossed with native varieties, resulting in the vast Criolla family of grapes.
Criolla grapes were the primary varietals in Argentina for the next 300 years. They produced a tremendous amount of grapes, which made farmers happy since they could supply such a large quantity. But these high yields often produced lower quality wines. In recent years, however, Argentinean winemakers have been working to improve the quality of their wines by planting new vineyards with higher-quality varietals, such as Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. And their efforts are starting to pay off, as Argentinean wines are now receiving international acclaim.
During 20th Century
Argentina’s most successful period in the wine industry was its brief alliance with fine winemaking during its golden age of 1920-1960. As a result of political and cultural stability during this period—as well as a slew of technological advances that included refrigeration—Argentina became a force to reckon with on an international scale.
With U.S. interest in South American wines peaking during the Prohibition period in the 1930s, Argentina witnessed tremendous growth in demand for its signature Malbec variety—and with that came new vineyards and wineries, which pushed production levels through the roof. Consequently, by 1947, both Malbec and Torrontés became established varieties.
In the 19th century and 20th centuries, a wave of European immigrants helped create the winemaking boom in Argentina. Phylloxera, which destroyed tons of vineyards across Europe in the second half of the 19th century, plus the political unrest surrounding the outbreak of WWI, pushed many Europeans to immigrate. Most of these immigrants came from wine-producing nations  (most notably Spain, Italy, and France), and they utilized their winemaking skills to help the Argentinian wine industry grow. Moreover, they brought new technology to the winemaking industry.
Various European immigrants from winemaking regions, such as Felipe Rutini and Italian Juan Giol, who arrived in Mendoza from humble origins, were able to establish wineries. Hence, many such European expatriates were pioneers in Mendoza and Argentina’s wine industry at the time, shaping Argentina’s modern winemaking sector during the 19th century.
Michel Aime Pouget, the Founding Father
Michel Aimé Pouget, a French country architect, is perhaps the most renowned European expatriate to have influenced the Argentine winemaking industry. His winemaking journey started when Domingo Faustino, who was the Governor of the Cuyo region (and afterward became the President of Argentina), proposed to the Argentinean public government that the winemaking industry be advanced and developed. Consequently, Pouget was enlisted as a viticulture subject matter expert, and World Malbec Day was established to commemorate this historic occasion.
Pouget established Argentina’s first farming foundation and plant nursery in Mendoza. He also started importing French wine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Pinot Noir. These grapes adapted well to the environment and produced higher quality wines than Criolla varieties. Argentina’s vine pool grew steadily throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with several types from all across Europe.
The Transandine Railway
The Transandine Railway, which opened between 1891 and 1910, was a crucial component in the growth of Argentina’s winemaking industry. Because of the train, wines could be transported and delivered from Mendoza to the larger markets of Buenos Aires. Before the railroad connection, donkeys would take over a month to transport wine in barrels across the country. However, with the emergence of Transandine, it just took just one day to travel by rail. Consequently, the wine was available to a larger market, creating a higher demand. The wineries matched this demand by increasing supply and planting more vineyards.
The new railway network in Argentina also sparked an urbanization phenomenon, with an influx of foreign employees and their families settling into provincial winemaking regions. Between 1880 and 1900, wineries began to spring up beside the railways, and existing vineyards increased in size tremendously.
Argentinian wineries were affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but by the middle of the 20th century, consumption rose again, and Argentina’s wine production and consumption peaked in the 1970s. Argentine wines are enjoyed worldwide, and the country’s wine industry is a major contributor to its economy. Thanks to the new railway network, Argentina’s wine industry was able to thrive and become one of the most important in the world.
This Day in Wine History
1556: During this time, the first wine plantation was started by Cedron.
1891 – 1910: The Transandine Railway, which opened in Mendoza, was a crucial component in the growth of Argentina’s winemaking industry.
1977: The wine industry in Argentina reached the pinnacle of its output.
Want to read more about Argentina? Try out these books!
A Journey through Argentine Wine History: Guide to Wine in Argentina.” South America Wine Guide, 12 Sept. 2019, southamericawineguide.com/a-journey-through-argentine-wine-history/.