Wine is a fundamental part of culture in Argentina, and a full understanding of Argentine wine requires some consideration of its place in that culture. It is part of the glue that holds friends and family together, often a humble but appreciated commodity rather than a luxury product. Richard Betts's saying that "wine is a grocery, not a luxury" may be true nowhere moreso than in Argentina -- yet it is also much more.
In the United States, informal gatherings of friends and family can feature beer, wine, spirits, or no alcohol at all. Beer is more common among men, and wine among women. Beer comes after work, cocktails just before dinner, and wine almost solely with food. These distinctions are rare in Argentina. Wine is virtually always available, with beer often as a second choice and Fernet or whiskey third; in fact, all of them may be available at once or in succession. But a barbecue ("asado") without wine is unthinkable; beer alone will not cut it. And the tradition of drinking moscato with pizza is so strong that some restaurants advertise them both with equal stature.
The vast majority of wine in Argentina is extremely inexpensive. For many years, before Argentina began to export wine in large quantities, the prices of wine and beer -- both usually purchased in supermarkets -- were so similar that wine would occasionally be cheaper. By the roadside in the wine country, which can be almost anywhere, locals sell "vino patero" (wine made by stomping grapes) for a couple of dollars a bottle.
Few Argentines will ever spend more than $10 on a bottle to drink themselves. On one visit to a friend's home in the countryside for an asado, another friend proudly presented the star of the afternoon: a bottle that retailed for about $5 in Argentina or $7 in the United States. "Es un caramelo," he said -- a bonbon. It was fruity and clean, just fine for a group steadily plowing through a succession of wines and grilled meats. We all enjoyed it with gusto. Especially for Argentines who remain conscious of their country's gaucho heritage, wine is as important a part of their connection to the land as the meat and vegetables with which it is usually consumed.
That said, wine in Argentina is most often a valued and necessary adjunct rather than a showpiece. Indeed, much more wine in Argentina is consumed on hot afternoons with a smoking grill ("parrilla") nearby than in white-tablecloth restaurants alongside haute cuisine. The function of wine is to bring people closer together, not to encourage solitary contemplation. For this reason, wineries that seek structure, complexity, concentration and potential for aging are aiming at a small portion of their home market and rather more of the market for export.
Fortunately, some asado wines - and wines for many other informal occasions - still arrive in the United States. At Argovino, we try to appreciate them just as much as the subtle masterpieces selling at much higher prices. Sometimes we want to drink Argentine wines the way Argentines drink them. We hope you will, too. Salud!