History of Argentine Wine in Colonial Times
South America is part of the new world of wine, and its history goes back over 450 years. Although there were already varieties of Vitis on the continent, during the 16th century the Europeans introduced Vitis Vinifera grapevines.
On his second voyage, Columbus brought vine shoots, but his cultivation did not prosper in the Antilles. Around 1530, the conquerors tried growing grapes in Mexico with little success. On the other hand, in Peru, these crops prospered. In the mid-16th century, the first vines were harvested, and from there, the grapes were taken by the conquerors to the Kingdom of Chile, where it found an optimal ecosystem.
How Did the Vine Arrive in Argentina?
In 1556, the clergyman Juan Cidrón arrived from La Serena (Chile), crossing the mountain range on the back of a donkey with stakes of vines, and settled in Santiago del Estero.
On October 9, 1561, Pedro del Castillo took the vines to Cuyo and allocated a plot of land to cultivate farms and vineyards to a member of his host. However, Juan Jufré was the one who carried out the Spanish colonization of Huarpe land, and in March 1562, he founded Mendoza. There, the first vines were planted, so it is estimated that the first harvest was made in 1564 or 1565.
As part of the colonizing plan, he founded San Juan de la Frontera, north of Mendoza, on the San Juan River. Juan Mallea, who accompanied Jufré, became the first San Juan winegrower. Grapevines were also cultivated in Salta, Córdoba, and Paraguay. There, the production became important, although the wines were sold in Buenos Aires cheaper than those from Cuyo and Chile.
Since colonial times, Mendoza has had the most significant extension of vineyards. The distance of the new city from Santiago de Chile and the need for wine for daily consumption and the Catholic Church encouraged viticulture in the surrounding area. At the end of the 16th century, it ceased to be artisanal and domestic and instead became a fundamental economic activity for the city.
The Criolla grape varieties came from the European Vitis vinifera grape type. Most of these varieties came from Spain and took on unique characteristics in South America not seen elsewhere. The Cereza, Criolla Grande, Criolla Chica, and Pink Muscat from Mendoza stood out. One of the problems of the time, which lasted until the end of the 19th century, was the lack of knowledge and the mixture of varieties. This scarce identification would only begin to be resolved with the development of ampelography in the 20th century.
Did You Know: Many of the grapevine varieties that were first introduced have long ago been ripped up and replanted with higher quality grape varieties. These first grape varieties produced a large quantity of wine, but much of it was low quality.
The vineyards were scattered among alfalfa fields and other fodder productions. The Spanish quadrangular vine system of 3×3 meters was also adopted. The harvested grapes were carried on mules to the primitive wine press made from ox hides. The grapes were then crushed, and the juice was taken in buckets to large clay pots for fermentation. Once this process was finished, it was filtered with a leather sieve and deposited in vessels buried in the ground to preserve it until it was sold.
The Milestone of 1853
In 1853, with the support of President Domingo F. Sarmiento, the Quinta Normal for the Teaching of Agriculture and Technique was founded in Mendoza. The Mendoza government hired the French Michel Pouget to direct the institution. Pouget brought hundreds of new grape varieties from France, established a nursery, and organized a model vineyard with French varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Pinot Noir), as well as scientific methods for their cultivation, such as rational pruning and grafting, and machinery.
The End of the Traditional Stage
At the end of the 18th century, economic reforms imposed by the Spanish Crown harmed the wine trade of the Cuyo provinces. The Free Trade Regulations authorized Spanish ships to trade their wines in Buenos Aires, so Mendoza’s wine lost value. In addition, in Córdoba, Litoral, and Buenos Aires, they also began to make wine, which, although it was of lower quality than Cuyo, was consumed in the rural area of Buenos Aires.
Read also: This Day in Colonial Wine History
In 1805, the only informative gazette of the colonial era spoke of a locust plague that cut down the farms of several provinces of the viceroyalty. The weekly describes the clouds of voracious insects: “suddenly, there was a noise like birds passing by at a great height.” The razed vines were the same ones brought by the priests. In Cuyo, despite locusts, earthquakes, or hail, the grapevines continued to conquer land and create wines drunk in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Tucumán.
Argentina: The Role of Wine in the Liberating Campaign
Wine also played an essential role in Argentine independence. San Martín chose it as food and a source of energy for the grenadiers who crossed the Andes. According to the chronicles of the time, 113 mules were available to transport the same number of wine barrels, with the aim that each soldier had a bottle per day since they considered meat and wine the keys for keeping the army able to withstand the cold of the mountains.
Want to read more? Try out these books!
- Carbonari, Silvia and Cobo, Alejandro – The culture of the vine and wine, Chapter 1 – Fondo Vitivinícola Mendoza, 2003.
- Coria, Luis – Economic Evolution of Mendoza in colonial times – National University of Cuyo, 1988.
- Pigna, Felipe – The cheat that San Martín made to defend Cuyo wine – Viva Magazine, Clarín Newspaper, 2018