In the 17th century, Dom Pierre Pérignon, a French Benedictine monk, discovered that some of the wine bottles he carefully kept in the basement of his Abbey, exploded after a second fermentation. This is the unofficial origin of what we call Champagne. Ever since, acceptance of this voluptuous, sensual, suggestive and bubbly golden elixir— created almost by accident— has reached global proportions, and is now produced in many corners of the world.
In France it is called Champagne, Sekt in Germany, Cava in Spain, Spumante in Italy, Sparkling Wine in the US and Great Britain, and in Latin America Champaña or Espumante. But recently in Argentina, the quality of the local champaña has received important awards and recognition from consumers and demanding international critics. This phenomenon is reflected in the record number of sparkling wine entries submitted this year (220% more than in 2007) to the Argentina Wine Awards 2013, an event that evaluates and rewards the quality and progress of the Argentinian wine industry. In 2012, the country produced 417,000 hectoliters of wine, of which 48,000 were exported, placing the total annual production at 55 million bottles. During the same year exports showed a great progression, due mainly to the increased demand from Latin America and the United States.
In the 1950s, the House Moët & Chandon from Epernay (the center of Champagne production in France) began to consider, for the first time, the possibility of establishing wineries and vineyards outside of France. The chosen country for this experiment was Argentina. Renaud Poirier, who was the company´s oenologist, explored several regions, and concluded that the most suitable terrain for this purpose was the province of Mendoza. One of the fundamental reasons for Monsieur Poirier´s choice was the climate: dry and sunny, the ideal weather for the vines. The winery was completed by 1959. Today, the Argentinian subsidiary of Moët & Chandon produces a variety of widely acclaimed champañas, such as Terrazas de los Andes and Baron B, among others.
Most of the 75 wineries that currently produce sparkling wines in Argentina are located in the area of Mendoza, near the foot of the Andes mountains. The grapes associated with this demarcation are: chardonnay, malbec, pinot noir, sauvignon and semillon, among others. The two traditional methods for the production of champaña are champenoise and charmat, but currently most wineries favor the méthode champenoise. This procedure allows the second fermentation to take place inside the bottles, as opposed to charmat, where the secondary fermentation occurs in large stainless steel tanks. It doesn’t mean that one method is better than the other, since the quality of the final wine and its organoleptic properties do not depend only on the method of fermentation.
It would be very difficult to list all the wineries that produce sparkling wines in Argentina, but there is no risk in highlighting some that stand out for their experience and know-how. In the first place it is necessary to mention the prestigious Bodegas Casa Bianchi in Mendoza, which produces wines of great quality, such as Bianchi Extra Brut or the renowned Stradivarius Extra Brut Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, the only Argentinian champaña to reach the top 10, leading Argentina for the first time in history to the podium of the 10 best champagnes of the world.
Besides the already mentioned Moët & Chandon Argentina, there are other exceptional wineries producing great espumantes, such as Dante Robino (Novecento Extra Brut, Dante Robino Extra Brut), Rosell Boher (Grande Cuvée Millesimee, Rosell Boher Brut), Cruzat (Cuvee Reserve, Classical), Finca Flichman (Finca Flichman Extra Brut), Luigi Bosca (Finca La Linda Extra Brut, Bohème Luigi), and Tierra Mayor (Tierra Mayor Espumante). These companies strive for perfection and, in a short time, have managed to captivate the press, the distributors, and importers in markets as complex as the US, while managing to place Argentina as a top producer of sparkling wines of exceptional quality.
Although there is no definite pattern, the extensive market research indicates that the trend leans toward pleasing a smart consumer, one who is anxious for new experiences without the limitations of strict rules, and not afraid to transgress the classic stereotypes about Champagne.
The main costumers for the Argentinian wine industry are, and will continue to be in the coming years, the United States, China, England, Northern Europe, Brazil and Japan. Several of these markets have a large global impact; and when it comes to wines, we are certain that very soon Argentina will be able to compete with Chile, Australia and South Africa. It is just a matter of time. ■