11/01/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Getting to Know Mendoza's Varied Terroir

When someone offers you a wine from Bordeaux, what do you say? If you've ever paid much attention to French wines, you'll probably ask what part of Bordeaux the wine is from. After all, some of the appellations with the most distinctive terroir are from tiny patches of land that are famous in their own right. In Mendoza, the top wine producer among Argentina's provinces, there's just as much variety - and it's time to start paying attention.

More than a dozen appellations have started to make their way onto the labels of wines from Mendoza, and they really do mean something. A wine from Lujan de Cuyo, just south of the capital city, will taste very different from one from the Uco Valley. And even at the two ends of the Uco Valley, whether Tupungato in the north or San Carlos in the south, the wines have their own special character.

Of course, Mendoza's bigger wineries tend to source their grapes from all over the province; these wines are just labeled "Mendoza" on store shelves. Wines from a single appellation - like "Valle de Uco" - can also have grapes from dozens of different parcels that sit miles away from each other. Yet today, with exporters targeting a more discerning clientele (and thus higher prices), a growing number of wineries are offering single-vineyard selections.

Mendoza is organized into departments that each contain several districts, generally including one that bears the department's name. Here are a few of the standout districts, one each per department, with some of the wineries that are bringing their terroir to the United States. Styles differ, even in the same district, but the terroir tends to shine through.

Agrelo, Lujan de Cuyo. This extremely important district is home to a slew of vineyard belonging to both established and up-and-coming wineries. The production ranges from Finca Decero's sweet and juicy malbecs to the lusty bonardas from Hector Durigutti and Lamadrid. The "Alto Agrelo" area, which supplies grapes to the Pulenta Estate, has some of the province's highest vineyards, at close to 4,000 feet.

Lunlunta, Maipu. Very few wineries that export to the United States use grapes solely from east of the capital - that is, in the opposite direction of the Andes - but two giants of malbec, Nicolas Catena and Enrique Foster, have both created complex and refined wines from vineyards here.

La Consulta, San Carlos. This district, which includes Altamira, has sandy soil with a top layer of loam and pebbles, perfect for wines of a classic Old World style like those of O. Fournier and the old vines of Vistaflores Estate.

Rama Caida, San Rafael. Far south of most of the vineyards in Mendoza, San Rafael is home to Casa Bianchi; its vineyards in the district of Rama Caida have a clay loam soil, but some have broken stone and even outcroppings that break the surface; the variety of terroir offers a multitude of textures and flavors

Medrano, Rivadavia. Achaval Ferrer sources one of its famous malbecs from 13 acres here, and other wineries including ReNacer also bring grapes from the district. With a soil of clay and loam, the character of the wines can be less sweet and lush, more sinewy and structured.

Vista Flores, Tunuyan. Several of the French winemaking families that have come to Mendoza have ended up here, thanks to the excellent quality of the loose and sometimes pebbled soil: Cuvelier Los Andes, Monteviejo, and Lurton are all here, creating refined wines with great potential for aging

Gualtallary, Tupungato. Gualtallary may not be a household name even among aficionados of Argentine wine, but local winemakers have gravitated to these almost mile-high hills to make some of Mendoza's most intense wines; Karim Mussi Saffie's Andeluna and the Michelini brothers' Zorzal are among the leaders, though even Catena gets some grapes from here.

Lovers of Argentine wine are sure to hear about many more districts in Mendoza - Vistalba, Perdriel, Los Arboles, Las Compuertas - thanks to the new generation of Argentine winemakers who are intensely focused on their terroir. They're not just imitating Old or New World styles; they're forging their own. And that means much more local character in every bottle - and much more importance in labeling - for the wines yet to come. Salud!