Mendoza is by far the largest wine region in Argentina. Located on a high-altitude plateau at the edge of the Andes Mountains, the province is responsible for roughly 70 percent of the country's annual wine production. The French grape variety Malbec has its New World home in the vineyards of Mendoza, producing red wines of great concentration and intensity.
The province lies on the western edge of Argentina, across the Andes Mountains from Chile. While the province is large (it covers a similar area to the state of New York), its viticultural land is clustered mainly in the northern part, just south of Mendoza City. Here, the regions of Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu and the Uco Valley are home to some of the biggest names in Argentinian wine.
In the 1800s, Spanish and Italian immigrants flooded into Mendoza to escape the ravages of the phylloxera louse that was devastating vineyards in Europe at the time. A boom in wine production came in 1885, when a railway line was completed between Mendoza and the country's capital city, Buenos Aires, providing a cheaper, easier way of sending wines out of the region. For most of the 20th Century, the Argentinean wine industry focused almost entirely on the domestic market, and it is only in the past 25 years that a push toward quality has led to the wines of Mendoza gracing restaurant lists the world over.
Altitude is one of the most important characteristics of the Mendoza terroir. The strip of vineyard land that runs along the base of the Andes lies between 800 and 1200 meters (2600 and 3900ft) above sea level, and it is this altitude that moderates the hot, dry climate of the region. Warm, sunny days are followed by nights made much colder by westerly winds from the Andes. This cooling-off period slows ripening, extending the growing season and contributing rich, ripe flavours to the grapes that do not come at the expense of acidity.
Irrigation is facilitated by the rivers that cross the region, including the Mendoza itself, which runs down from the mountains. Warm, dry harvest periods mean that winemakers are able to pick their grapes according to ripeness, rather than being ruled by the vagaries of the weather. As with other New World countries, this leads to a reduction in vintage variation, as well as consistent quality from year to year. Predictable harvests also afford Mendoza's winemakers the luxury of increased control over the styles of wine they produce – a factor which has contributed to the region's international reputation.
The soils in Mendoza are Andean in origin and have been deposited over thousands of years by the region's rivers. These rocky, sandy soils have little organic matter and are free-draining, making them dry and low in fertility. This kind of soil is perfect for viticulture – vines are forced to work hard for hydration and nutrients, and will produce small, concentrated berries in lieu of leafy foliage. The wines produced from grapes grown on these soils are often highly structured, with firm tannins, and have a distinct minerality that is often attributed to the soil.
The city of Mendoza has become one of the world's wine capitals, and enjoys a significant slice of South America's wine-tourism industry, helped along by the natural beauty of the area. The Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (National Harvest Festival) that is held in March to celebrate the harvest, and combines parades and sound and light shows with a wealth of wine tasting opportunities, is one of the key events in Mendoza's calendar. The city is also a hub for many wine tour businesses who benefit from the concentration of wineries in the surrounding area.
While Malbec is undoubtedly the star of the region, there are also extensive plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Torrontes and Sauvignon Blanc. Mendoza is also beginning to position itself as a producer of sparkling wine.