What is terroir and how does it affect wine?
Terroir ("tear-wah") is a French word and that's difficult to understand, but it loosely translates to a land's potential to produce agriculture.
Interestingly enough, where and how the grapes grow affects how wine tastes. And so learning about how and where the grapes grow can make you a better blind wine taster!
So, to better understand terroir, let's break it into three categories:
- A wine region's climate
- The soil and terrain conditions
- Common winemaking practices
Together, these three characteristics help explain why certain wines from specific places have this "je ne sais quoi" – an undefinable yet unmistakable taste.
As the hillside erodes in San Juan it exposes a diversity of Argentina wine soils which include clay, sand, gravel, and limestone.
Wine Terroir in Argentina
Argentina is a large country with a variety of climates and terrains. That being said, more than 95% of Argentina's vineyards are within Cuyo (which includes Mendoza), so we should learn about this area first.
Argentina's hot and arid climate is perfect for certain grape varieties, like Malbec.
Argentina has a hot climate for wine
Mendoza is considered a hot climate for wine with an average growing season temperature of 70.5° F (21.4°C) from October 1st – April 30th. So, how does temperature affect wine?
Well, certain grape varieties grow better in hot climates. For example, Malbec needs a lot of sun and heat to become fully ripe. So does Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In general, you'll find deeper, darker red wine varieties perform well in warmer climates. We can also expect wines from hotter climates to produce riper, sweeter fruit flavors.
The Andes snowmelt provides enough water to supplement the arid region.
Vineyards receive water from Andes snowmelt
Arid regions like Mendoza only receive up to 9 inches (231 mm) of rainfall a year. This is important to note because it means it's nearly impossible to dry farm vineyards here. A grapevine requires about 20 inches (500 mm) of rainfall to grow.
Technically, Mendoza is a cold desert climate. For comparison's sake, it's in the same category as the Gobi Desert! It means the region is quite dry, but the summers don't get too hot so they won't burn the grapes. (But definitely bring your lip balm.)
Looking for higher quality? Go higher altitude.
Altitude affects the taste of wine
Producers in Mendoza started planting in higher elevations during the 1990s and shortly thereafter, wines from these vineyards started getting rave reviews. But why?
Well, elevation does a couple of neat things. For one, the increase in altitude lowers the average temperature and helps grapes maintain acidity while ripening. This is good because higher acidity red wines tend to age longer.
Additionally, the atmosphere is thinner which allows more UV rays to penetrate the ground. The vines respond by producing thick-skinned grapes with higher levels of protective antioxidants. The antioxidants (called polyphenols) give wines a more complex color and taste.
Argentina Vineyards To Know
Let's take a look at how terroir affects wine with some real Argentina vineyards.
Gualtallary is a high elevation vineyard area within the Uco Valley. See the map.
Expect wines with fresh fruit flavors and tightly wound tannins.
This small unofficial appellation is where you'll find the vineyards which went into Argentina's first 100-point rated red wines! Gualtallary is located within the Tupungato region of Mendoza and has vineyards as high as 5,250 feet (1600 meters).
The high presence of limestone in the rocky soils gives wines fresh fruit flavors and elegant but powerful tannins. Because of the high altitude, you'll even find cooler climate varieties like Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
Paraje Altimira sits in southern Uco Valley next to a river with a different soil type. See the map.
Expect wines with riper, bolder flavors.
Paraje Altamira sits at 3,600 ft (1100 m) in the Southern part of Uco Valley in San Carlos-Mendoza along the Tunuyan River. The slightly lower altitude in Paraje Altamira and heavier clay (alluvial) soil produces bolder Malbec wines with rich dark berry and floral aromas. Paraje Altamira wines are noticeably riper and more opulent in style.
Valle Pedernal is a tiny high altitude valley in San Juan. See the map.
Valle de Pedernal
This valley sits within San Juan at elevations between 3,900–4,900 feet (1200-1500 m). The elevation makes wines with higher acidity and pure fruit flavors. In an interesting contrast, the high UV exposure gives red wines deep color and noticeable tannins.
The soils in Valle de Pedernal are older and more eroded, so they have higher mineral content. Higher mineral content has been noted to give wines increased aromatics. For this reason, Pedernal is an interesting place to hunt for Syrah and complex expressions of Malbec.