Why Argentina’s San Juan is worth a serious look

Argentine wine regions Mendoza and Salta may have the kudos, but the workhorse province of San Juan is now worth a serious look for its reds, particularly those made from Malbec and Syrah.

Wines from Pedernal have been used to provide a ‘beautiful contribution’ to the wines of Mendoza, but now this GI in the province of San Juan is beginning to carve out a reputation for quality in its own right

As pointed out during a masterclass last week in the city of Mendoza, where 41 Masters of Wine were staying as part of a six-day tour of Argentina, San Juan is undergoing a revolution from a source of table grapes to top-end wines.

Speaking at a seminar on the wines of San Juan, international consultant and Argentine specialist Madeleine Stenwreth MW said that it was now time for this province to be recognised as a home to distinctive wines, particularly from its Pedernal Valley, where vineyards can be found at 1,250 to 1,500 metres above sea level.

Following a tasting of wines from San Juan, she commented, “Hopefully you will see San Juan with different eyes; it has always been viewed as a bulk wine producing area, but for Mendoza producers wanting to boost their blends with something exciting, then adding a component from Pedernal would give a kick to the aromatics; a beautiful contribution.”

Continuing, she said that the nature of the wines from the Pedernal Valley were starting to be recognised in their own right. “We can see Pedernal change from being a blending component to standing up on its own two feet, but it’s always a challenge for any region to find its character.”

Similarly, leading Argentine sommelier Paz Levinson, who also took part in the masterclass, said that “San Juan is in the shadow of Mendoza,” but was seeking an identity, which, she said, was deserved because it produced “purity of fruit that is so beautiful”.

The province of San Juan is located to the north of Mendoza, and is home to several grape growing regions, including the lower valleys of Tulum, Ullum and Zonda, although it is the Pedernal Valley that has become the most revered.

As previously noted by the drinks business, while Mendoza’s Uco Valley, particularly Gualtallary and Altamira, have the kudos to entice all the top producers, the remote, isolated Pedernal Valley has quietly been shored up by just five companies, which together control grape production throughout the entire valley.

Providing Pedernal with its appeal is not only the high altitudes of its vineyards, but also the associated huge diurnal temperature variations, which can be as much as 20 degrees Celsius, along with the soils, which contain calcareous materials.

According to José Morales, wine manager at Bodega Callia, which produces wines in Pedernal under its Pyros label, this part of San Juan is “a landscape of hillsides with different orientations, exposures, alititudes and slopes.”

Noting that the valley only gained GI status in 2007, he said that “Pedernal is the future for high quality wines from San Juan.”

Although Pedernal has embraced Malbec since plantings began in the region in the 1990s, the valley is also known in particular for its Syrah.

Speaking about the latter, Stenwreth said that the Syrah from this part of Argentina “should be taken more seriously,” adding that it is “lovely as a blending component”.

As for the Malbec from Pedernal, according to Gustavo Matocq, vineyard manager for Pyros – which is owned by Mendoza producer Salentein – the wines take on a specific character not just due to the high-altitude climatic conditions, but also the native plants of the area.

“We have a lot of aromatic plants around the vineyard and they give herbal sensations, which is a very nice combination with the fruitiness of Malbec,” he said.

He also told db that he plans to plant more grapes in Pedernal, which currently contains around 800ha of vineyards.

“Our first vineyard was planted in Pedernal in 1994, but now we are going to plant more, and other companies in the region also plan to increase production,” he said.

Notably, Duncan Keen, from Grupo Peñaflor, which owns Pedernal brand Finca Las Moras, told db that the producers of Pedernal were now collaborating to promote the valley.

“We are getting together with Salentein and other companies in Pedernal to form an association to promote the GI,” he said.

Also, speaking more generally about the San Juan province, he explained that the popularity of the wines from the area was already proven in terms of style.

“Finca las Moras has become a phenomenon in Argentina in the last six years with the DADÁ brand, which comes from San Juan, and is now the number one brand in Argentina by volume and value… it proves the potential of San Juan,” he told db.

“We want to plant more in Pedernal to supply the growth of this brand,” he added.

Historically, San Juan was a major area for the production of table grapes, but the planting of Vinifera varieties in the 1990s has catapulted this province to the second largest area for wine production in Argentina after Mendoza.

Nevertheless, 50% of its 47,500 hecatares of vineyards are still used for growing table grapes.

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