The Search for Argentine Terroir

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-24-2011

Antonio Morescalchi and Carlos Vazquez in the vineyards of Altos las Hormigas. Taken by Sarah Trubnick.

Antonio Morescalchi and Alberto Antonini of Mendoza’s Altos las Hormigas recently toured the East Coast spreading the word about their new “Terroir Project” wines. Altos las Hormigas has specialized in Argentine Malbecs since its founding in 1995. Recently, the winemaking and viticultural team of Antonini, Atillio Pagli, and Carlos Vazquez paired up with Chilean soil scientist and terroir specialist Pedro Parra to conduct research on the various productive regions of Mendoza.

After extensive soil mapping, certain areas were chosen for their excellent terroir via Parra’s micro- and macro-zoning techniques developed during his PhD work in Paris. The result? A deliciously revamped line of wines focusing on the concept of terroir, including the top-of-the-line Valle de Uco Terroir and Vista Flores Single Vineyard wines, both full of floral notes, spice, and a distinct minerality said to be characteristic of Uco Valley wines.

This brings forth an interesting point of discussion: the concept of Argentine terroir. In the words of Felix Salmon, financial journalist and Reuters blogger, regarding a recent tasting with Mike Evans of Vines of Mendoza: “I didn’t feel as though I’d discovered anything which could reasonably be called Argentine terroir… when you drink [the Argentine wine] you’re not tasting the unique characteristics of the land it’s grown on, in the way that you do with regional wines from… Burgundy… Maybe that’s hardly surprising, since there’s lots of good reason to believe that new-world terroir doesn’t actually exist.”

So is terroir just a myth in the New World?

The term itself needs defining in order to answer this often debated question. Terroir has influenced the perception of wines since the Ancient Greeks, who sealed their wine amphorae with stamps relating the geographical origin.

Courtesy of Altos las Hormigas.

More recently, the Cistercian and Benedictine monks of Burgundian fame popularized the idea in Europe through their rigorous study of vineyard land and the wines produced from it; they did not make Pinot Noir from Burgundy in their opinion, but Burgundy wine from Pinot Noir instead.

The sum of all factors such as sunlight, soil, and climate affecting the grapevines external to human intervention, or terroir, was considered to be the power behind the ephemeral and luxurious wines that could be produced in this most exalted appellation.

Intriguing but typically ignored changes swept these Old World regions due to the onslaught of phylloxera and subsequent ever-improving technological advancements in winegrowing, changing the concept of terroir even in the Old World. Rootstock introduction and clone selection are viticultural manipulations that must now be considered a part of the expanding definition of terroir. Irrigation is another major one. Old World proponents claim that irrigation belies the argument for terroir in the New World by altering the natural water supply to the vines.

Antonini phrases a retort quite well: “When people, mostly Europeans, say that by irrigating you destroy the terroir, I reply what about Europe — where we have drainage on most of the vineyards we plant? Drainage results in removing extra water which would naturally stand in the soil, so does that mean it changes the natural conditions? I would say yes. Bordeaux, without the very aggressive drainage work over the past centuries, would not exist as a premium wine region.”

And as for claims that New World countries like Argentina do not presently possess an inherent terroir and will not until winegrowers work the land for centuries? Those currently producing wines in these regions have a differing opinion. Pedro Parra says, “The French… have studied their terroirs historically for the last 500 years…and they are now getting the results. They call that ‘experience.’ We in the New World are working faster than they did, learning from them, assessing our own terroirs.”

And Antonini states, “I’ve learnt, from digging the pits and jumping into them with Pedro Parra, that the terroir in Argentina is exactly the same as in Burgundy or Tuscany. It’s amazing to realize how big the soil variation is, just moving a few meters sometimes – and when you keep separate the different micro-lots in a vineyard and ferment them separately you discover a new world you weren’t aware of before. The only difference between the Old and New World [with respect to terroir] is that in the Old World the appellation and the concept of origin started well over 100 years ago, while in the New World it has just started, all the rest is the same.”

Courtesy of Altos las Hormigas.

To understand the current world of wine, we must accept a broader meaning of terroir. Modern terroir includes all the geological, geographical, and climatic influences of nature as well as all of humankind’s manipulation of the earth, vines, and water supply. There are few wine regions in the world today that do not undergo alterations in some sense by soil scientists, viticulturists, and agronomists. Even the average person today has an influence in terroir: our air pollution has created a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This exposes grapes in regions such as Mendoza to much higher amounts of radiation, resulting in a thickening of grape skins and higher levels of polyphenols (the precursors to the aroma and flavor compounds we enjoy in our wines) in order to protect the grape seeds from damaging rays; thus a typically fuller, richer, fruitier wine profile.

New World terroir cannot be shrugged off quite as easily as the Old World advocates would like. Specifically, many Argentine producers are defying the stereotype by making wines that respect or even focus on terroir. Altos las Hormigas’ new line of wines is a perfect example… as Pedro Parra puts it, “[We] are not doing old style wines. We try just to listen to the earth here. It is quite simple.”

For an in-depth look at my recent visit to Altos las Hormigas, check out my recent post on my personal wine blog.

Comments (1)

  1. Great article, Sarah. As you know, the concept of terroir is definitely not a myth in Argentina. Winemakers all over the country are experimenting with innovative new ways to take advantage of the unique conditions (soil, climate, altitude, etc.) of many different growing areas, and also to create the best expressions of each grape variety — not only Malbec. Andrew Catchpole recently wrote a post on the subject for our blog that you might enjoy: