The Argentine wine industry is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world. Argentine wine, as with some aspects of Argentine cuisine, has its roots in Spain. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, vine cuttings were brought to Santiago del Estero in 1557, and the cultivation of the grape and wine production stretched first to neighboring regions, and then to other parts of the country.
Historically, Argentine winemakers were traditionally more interested in quantity than quality with the country consuming 90% of the wine it produces (12 gallons/45 liters a year per capita according to 2006 figures). Until the early 1990s, Argentina produced more wine than any other country outside Europe, though the majority of it was considered unexportable. However, the desire to increase exports fueled significant advances in quality. Argentine wines started being exported during the 1990s, and are currently growing in popularity, making it now the largest wine exporter in South America. The devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002 further fueled the industry as production costs decreased and tourism significantly increased, giving way to a whole new concept of enotourism in Argentina.
The most important wine regions of the country are located in the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja. Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Aires are also wine producing regions. The Mendoza province produces more than 60% of the Argentine wine and is the source of an even higher percentage of the total exports. Due to the high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions, Argentine vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries. This allows cultivating with little or no pesticides, enabling even organic wines to be easily produced.
There are many different varieties of grapes cultivated in Argentina, reflecting the country's many immigrant groups. The French brought Malbec, which makes most of Argentina's best known wines. The Italians brought vines that they called Bonarda, although Argentine Bonarda appears to be the Douce noir of Savoie, also known as Charbono in California. It has nothing in common with the light fruity wines made from Bonarda Piemontese in Piedmont. Torrontés is another typically Argentine grape and is mostly found in the provinces of La Rioja, San Juan, and Salta. It is a member of the Malvasia group that makes aromatic white wines. It has recently been grown in Spain. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and other international varieties are becoming more widely planted, but some varieties are cultivated characteristically in certain areas.
In November 2010, the Argentine government declared wine as Argentina's national liquor.
Viticulture was introduced to Argentina during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and later again by Christian missionaries. In 1556 father Juan Cedrón established the first vineyard in Argentina with cuttings from the Chilean Central Valley were brought to what is now the San Juan and Mendoza wine region which firmly established viticulture in Argentina. Ampelographers suspect that one of these cuttings brought the ancestor grape of the Chile's Pais and California's Mission grape. This grape was the forerunner of the Criolla Chica variety that would be the backbone of the Argentine wine industry for the next 300 years.
The first recorded commercial vineyard was established at Santiago del Estero in 1557 by Jesuit missionaries which was followed by expansion of vineyard plantings in Mendoza in the early 1560s and San Juan between 1569 and 1589. During this time the missionaries and settlers in the area began construction of complex irrigation channels and dams that would bring water down from the melting glaciers of the Andes to sustain vineyards and agriculture. While a provincial governor, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento instructed the French agronomist Miguel Aimé Pouget to bring grapevine cutting from France to Argentina. Of the vines that Pouget brought were the very first Malbec vines to be planted in country. As the infantile Argentine wine industry became centralized in the western part of country among the foothills of the mountains, the population centers of the country developed in the east. Transporting wine by means of a long wagon journey put a crimp in the growth of the wine industry that would not be eased till the 1885 completion of the Argentine railway that connected the city of Mendoza to Buenos Aires. Don Tiburcio Benegas, governor of the province of Mendoza and owner of El Trapiche wine estate, was instrumental in financing and pushing through the construction, convinced that in order for the Argentine wine industry to survive it needed a market. The 19th century also saw the first wave of immigrants from Europe. Many of these immigrants were escaping the scourge of the phylloxera epidemic that ravaged vineyards in their homeland and they brought with them their expertise and winemaking knowledge to their new home.
Despite total acreage planted declining from 629,850 acres (255,000 hectares) in 1980 to 360,972 acres (146,081 hectares) in 2003, Mendoza is still the leading producer of wine in Argentina. As of the beginning of the 21st century, the vineyard acreage in Mendoza alone was slightly less than half of the entire planted acreage in the United States and more than the acreage of New Zealand and Australia combined. The majority of the vineyards are found in the Maipú and Luján departments. In 1993, the Mendoza sub region of Luján de Cuyo was the first controlled appellation established in Mendoza. Other notable sub-regions include the Uco Valley and the Tupungato department. Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the average vineyards in Mendoza are planted at altitudes 1,970-3,610 feet (600-1,100 meters) above sea level. The soil of the region is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons that affect the grapevine, including winter dormancy.
Historically, the region has been dominated by production of wine from the high yielding, pink-skinned varieties of Cereza and Criolla Grande but in recent years Malbec has become the regions most popular planting. Cereza and Criolla Grande still account for nearly a quarter of all vineyard plantings in Mendoza but more than half of all plantings are now to premium red varietals which beyond Malbec include Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Italian varieties. In the high altitude vineyards of Tupungato, located southwest of the city of Mendoza in the Uco Valley, Chardonnay is increasing in popularity. The cooler climate and lower salinity in the soils of the Maipú region has been receiving attention for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine producers in the region are working with authorities to establish a controlled appellation.