By Peyton Stuart
In the heart of South America’s wine region is Mendoza, Argentina: a city known for its green spaces, sunny weather, and laid-back lifestyle. Although many wines are grown throughout the areas surrounding the city, few have the prowess of the Malbec. To understand why the Malbec is unique and why Mendoza is special, it is critical to have a basic understanding of how wine is made. The wine-making process tends to be long, but it is nothing short of fascinating. After several months of growing, grapes are picked and sorted. From here, some wines require grapes to be destemmed and others not. Including stems in the wine-making process can affect the tannin levels of the wine and add different flavors. Regardless of whether or not the grapes were destemmed, however, the next step is fermentation. Fermentation is an anaerobic process (happening without oxygen) that converts sugar into alcohol via unicellular yeast found on the skins of the grapes. For red wines, the skins of the grapes are typically left on the grapes so that more yeast is present. With more yeast than the typical white wine grape fermentation, more sugar is converted to alcohol during the red wine fermentation process. Hence, it is understandable why red wines are not only less sweet, but higher in alcohol content (since with less sugar, more alcohol has been formed). Although other processes can be conducted from here to preserve tannins or develop certain flavors, most wines are then aged and ultimately bottled for consumption (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). For Mendoza, the province’s poor soil, great irrigation system, and temperate climate make it the ideal location for the growth of the infamous Malbec grape. Rich in both color and flavor, a good Malbec is identifiable via its Earthy texture, delicate tannins, and dryness.
Even though we know what aspects help make the Argentine Malbec superior, the true question is how. Effects of water, wind, and climate all play critical roles in the growth of wine grapes and then the maturation of the vines. As in any plant, grapevines require a certain amount of water and sunlight to grow properly – necessary reactants of photosynthesis. In warmer climates, where evaporation is common, irrigation systems may be supplemented to ensure proper water availability. During droughts, vines will suffer from water stress and produce immature grapes, or perhaps even halt the ripening process completely as the vines begin to allocate all resources towards survival instead of growth (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). In certain climates where water may be readily accessible, soil type and proper drainage are vital for correct vine cultivation. Flooding, or a surplus of water, can drown the vines and ruin the grapes. However, soils with poor nutrients and efficient drainage may prove to be best in these situations. As for sunlight, shaded and leafy vines are susceptible to growth stunting and poor development. From soil type to topography to temperature, all these factors make up a region’s terroir; “a wine’s particular qualities, and generally hinges on the combination of several elements of wine growing” (England, 2019). The terroir can help oenophiliacs (wine-lovers) predict wine type and quality across the globe.
The terroir of Argentina is unique compared to the rest of the world and differs slightly around the country. In Mendoza, being located next to the mountains offers the benefit of high altitude. Not only does this translate to direct sunlight, but the snow from the Andes is a great source of clean, pure water that can hydrate the vines (Slinkard, 2018). Additionally, the high altitude makes it difficult for viruses and fungal diseases to survive on vines, allowing for increased cultivation and better grape yields annually (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). The dryness in the air and the drastic temperature change between day and night help to keep the ripening process constant (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). This prevents the grapes from maturing too quickly, allowing for well-developed, full-bodied wines. Mendoza’s gravelly and quick-draining soil aid in its production of red wines, compared to other areas of Argentina with thick, wet soils usually associated with white wine grape growing.
Although this specific terroir is great for a few, full-bodied reds, none grow as well as the tenacious Malbec. Characterized by dark fruit, warm spice, pepper, and tobacco flavors, combined with round textures and a velvety finish, drinking a glass of Malbec is truly an experience. Its pairing versatility makes it a favorite for nice dinners, complementing dishes from red meats (spicy or tangy) to bold vegetables (Learn About Malbec, 2020). Wine blogger and researcher Stacy Slinkard calls the Malbec an extrovert because of its bold body and strong flavors (Slinkard, 2018). James Suckling, a world-renowned sommelier describes the Argentine Malbec in his Masterclass as “vivid, and elegant” and having a “strong kick” (Learn About Malbec, 2020). Notable author pair Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson note that the Malbec is one of the most “gloriously, velvety, concentrated, lively wines” in their 8th edition of The World Atlas of Wine (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). Although its high acidity, tannins, and dryness tend to off-put the typical light wine enjoyer, it is hard to argue that the Malbec is not a feat of nature. Without the exact terroir that Mendoza provides, the Argentine Malbec would not be as fantastic as we enjoy today.
Understanding that exact conditions must be in place for a region to produce specific grapes and wines, it should be increasingly obvious to everyone that climate change is posing a huge threat to wine worldwide. Rising global temperatures affect water levels and sunlight intensity, altering the terroir. To combat this, winegrowers have had to alter their techniques. Some have moved their vineyards North to keep their vines at consistent temperatures. Others have had to adjust the timing of their growing season to perfectly balance sugar levels in the ripening grapes. In Mendoza, the practice of “netting” has been adopted to protect vines from changing weather patterns as well as sunburn from overexposure to sunlight (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). Nonetheless, these changes all require more resources and risk the loss of a lot of produce. Sustainable techniques are the next step to ensuring a fruitful wine industry moving forward, even in the face of the ever-looming repercussions of Anthropogenic climate change. If we would like to continue to enjoy our rich and robust Malbecs, it is our duty to be conscientious about our decisions regarding the world around us (to others and the environment).
Peyton Stuart (he/him/his) is a Junior at the University of Pittsburgh. Originally from York, Pennsylvania, Peyton is majoring in the Natural Sciences, as well as minoring in Hispanic Language and Culture and Secondary Education. He is also pursuing a Latin American Studies Certificate. He loves travelling, learning more about the world, and researching special needs. In his free time, Peyton enjoys eating good food, drinking good wine, thinking about the Universe, and listening to Kanye West.
England, R. (2019, December 18). What is terroir and how does it affect wine? Cult Wines. https://www.wineinvestment.com/wine-blog/2019/12/what-is-terroir-and-how...’s%20no%20official%20definition,composition%20and%20topography%20(things%20like
Johnson, H., & Robinson, J. (2019). The World Atlas of Wine (8th ed.). Mitchell Beazley.
Learn About Malbec. (2020, November 8). MasterClass. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-about-malbec-wine#what-are-th...
Slinkard, S. (2018, May 31). Beginner’s Guide to Malbec. The Vines of Mendoza. http://www.vinesofmendoza.com/blog/2018/may/31/beginner-s-guide-to-malbec/