Generally favourable climatic conditions, combined with improvements in viticulture, technological investment by wineries and better co-ordination at an industry-wide level, have produced an Argentine wine harvest of unprecedented quality. Olly Wehring reports.

The Argentine wine harvest in 2006 has been described by the Centre for Graduates in Oenology and Horticulture of the Argentine Republic (CLEIFRA) as the country's best vintage yet. CLEIFRA attributed the improvement to better vine management and training, technical innovation at wineries and improved management of the wine industry at a generic level.

Starting in the north, both Salta and Catamarca in the Calchaquíes Valley were hit by a severe and windy winter, which produced a lowest temperature of 18ºF. Spring also began with very low temperatures, which delayed sprouting until the beginning of October, just over a fortnight later than usual. Temperatures returned to normal later in October and November, with rain arriving in December.

Although white varieties ripened early in these two regions, red varieties benefited from a dry end to the summer, resulting in what CLEIFRA describes as "a great aromatic and polyphenolic maturity". The Malbec, Merlot, Tannat, Syrah and Bonarda varieties were outstanding, CLEIFRA said.

The region of La Rioja, meanwhile, enjoyed "a great year in terms of quality and quantity". "Good weather conditions and professional vine management are reflected in the top wines obtained," CLEIFRA adds. Although winter temperatures were normal, reaching around 19ºF, the season was longer than average.

In the more elevated areas - 1,400m above sea level and higher - every stage of the La Rioja harvest was delayed by between seven and ten days. In the lower areas, spring was warm and dry. October was dry and windy, although some very high temperatures were recorded in January. The higher areas were not as hot, however, thereby delaying maturity. The lower vineyards enjoyed settled weather from the beginning of February. CLEIFRA singles out the Malbec grown in areas between 800m and 1,500m above sea level as being of particularly high quality.

The San Juan region has been commended by CLEIFRA for recent viticultural improvements. A short winter prompted early sprouting, while spring saw mild temperatures and no rainfall. The region's wines now boast "excellent quality and improved alcohol-aroma and flavour balance".

Mendoza as a whole enjoyed a good harvest, CLEIFRA noted, and is expected to produce some "great wines". Northern Mendoza had probably the best harvest in the last ten years. "It will be a year to keep in our memories," CLEIFRA says. Winter and spring were typical for the region, while the summer was very hot and dry, allowing normal photosynthesis of the vines and good grape development. CLEIFRA believes the Chardonnay will offer an "excellent drinking experience", while the Bonarda, Tempranillo, Syrah and Sangiovese all show "intense and vivacious tinges, due to a good level of natural acidity".

Winter temperatures in the Mendoza River region were low, but the area suffered no late frosts. Indeed in some areas warm winds delayed the growing process of some of the vines. Summer was warm and dry, leading to a "reasonable" amount of irrigation. Despite being hit by unexpected hailstorms, the region enjoyed an exceptional summer. CLEIFRA suggests looking out for the 2006 reds, in particular the Malbec, Merlot, Bonarda and Syrah, which it expects will age very well.

The Uco Valley was said to have seen an unforgettable 2006 harvest. A cold and snowy winter preceded a dry spring with good weather conditions for flowering and reproduction, especially for Malbec. High temperatures were recorded during the summer, leading to a harvest of excellent quality for long-cycle varieties. "Maturity was reached slowly, which resulted in well-balanced wines," CLEIFRA says. In addition to the Malbec, CLEIFRA picked out the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot from the Uco Valley as being of particularly good quality.

The weather in Eastern Mendoza was similar to that seen in Northern Mendoza. The extreme heat of the summer, however, affected photosynthesis in short-cycle varieties. The Tempranillo, for example, took too long to reach maturity. The area's Torrontés is described as excellent, while the Bonarda offered great bunches with good concentration, maturity and balance. The Syrah is the area's most expressive variety this harvest, CLEIFRA says.

Finally in the Mendoza region, a "complicated spring" lowered production capacity in Southern Mendoza. Quality was consistent throughout the area, however. Winter was cold and dry, while warm winds in the spring affected the flowering of varietals such as Chardonnay, Malbec and Merlot. High summer temperatures brought forward maturity for shorter cycle varieties such as Merlot, while a good temperature range favoured the slow maturity of short and medium cycle varieties. The Sauvignon Blanc, Viogner, Tokay and Chenin Blanc from the area were said to be of particularly good quality, while the Malbec offers good ageing potential.

Lastly, in the south, the provinces of Rio Negro and Neuquén in Patagonia also had excellent harvests. Winter was normal for the whole region, with limited rainfall. Spring was cold and late frosts made their presence felt, but a warm, dry summer led to early ripening and higher sugar concentration. This year, the Hoyo del Puyén area, in the Chubut province, produced its first wines, thereby increasing the size of the region's winemaking area.