Until recently Argentina produced more wine than any other New World country. America's output has since overtaken it, but Argentina remains probably the most important wine-producing country in South America. Its potential is yet to be fully realised, but Chile no longer dominates the market as it did a decade or so ago. A great deal of the wine made is for domestic consumption and is pretty rustic and of low quality compared to some of the superb examples we see in the UK.
The economic climate of the country over the last century or so has dictated what progress and setbacks the wine industry has experienced. In boom years the industry prospered but the problems caused by economic depression meant that foreign investment declined and the industry suffered. In contrast to most other wine drinking nations, the amount consumed per head is actually declining. It is this decline that has prompted the country's better producers to improve the overall quality of their wines in order to exploit the export market, without which it would struggle to survive. Probably the most significant development in Argentina is the care now taken in the vineyards. Previously it was considered that as long as the grapes ripened the skills practised in winemaking (as opposed to vine growing) were enough to produce decent wine. In the 1990s this skill was expanded to include viticulture, and the importance of Argentina as a major player has increased to the point where some truly outstanding wines are produced. Although some decent wine was produced in the past a scant regard for thinning and reducing crops restricted the industry's progress on what was becoming a booming world market. Much more care is taken over suitability of sites for certain grape varieties, vines are maintained properly, irrigation is extensively used as the average temperature is higher than in many wine-growing countries, and the quality of materials used, such as rootstocks, fertilisers and oak, is much better than two decades ago.
A large percentage of wine grapes grown in Argentina are domestic varieties: Criolla and Cereza. These are white wine grapes and although plantings are extensive their popularity is on the wane as better quality grapes become more fashionable, and export markets beckon for those willing to upgrade to internationally renowned varieties.
It was Spanish settlers who first planted Vitis Vinifera vines in Argentina in the sixteenth century, although early plantings were of somewhat inferior grape varieties compared to those around today. Attempts at irrigation made winemaking possible, and the industry was reasonably healthy. The key event which led to the industry's development was the rail link between Buenos Aires and Mendoza in the mid nineteenth century. As more settlers arrived the expanding wine industry embraced new methods of vine growing and wine making, with the newly imported European grape varieties establishing themselves into the market. The ever-growing Argentine wine industry was founded and its value in world wine markets has never been healthier. Classic grape varieties make up a hefty percentage of wine made in Argentina; Malbec has found a particular niche in such a way that the phrase 'Argentinean Malbec' is one commonly heard in wine shops and tasting rooms across the globe.
Vineyards stretch along the backbone of the Andes Mountains with Mendoza the most important region (responsible for over 80% of Argentina's wine production), but other areas of importance are La Rioja and Rio Negro.