Desert storm: The priorities of San Juan's wine producers are shifting away from mass production towards quality wines

Drinks: Wines

Previously known for its bulk wine production, there are now wine producers in the arid wastes of San Juan with loftier ambitions, as Clinton Cawood discovers

To the north of Mendoza there are a number of winemakers working in particularly challenging conditions. It rains less, on average, in San Juan than it does in the Sahara desert, as Graffigna’s winemaker, Gerardo Danitz, explained to our parched group of sommeliers during their day’s visit to the region. San Juan also has lower elevation, in general, than many other winemaking regions in Argentina.

As a result of these and other factors, the focus in San Juan has traditionally been on mass production. But this is changing. Like many other regions in the country before it, there has been a recent shift towards producing quality wines, with improvements being made in the vineyard and in the winery. New companies and brands are emerging from San Juan, mainly centred on the Pedernal and Tulum Valleys. One company with significant experience in this region is Pernod Ricard-owned Graffigna, which produces a range of wines primarily from Pedernal Valley.


A newer entrant is Casa Montes, set up in 2004 and based in the Tulum Valley. Like many other producers nearby, the focus here is on Syrah. ‘In San Juan, it’s the best varietal for the climate,’ believes commercial manager for Casa Montes, Sebastian Pizarro. He adds that when it comes to white wine, Viognier is the equivalent focus for the region.

Bodegas Callia reinforces this emphasis on Syrah in San Juan, as does Fincas Rewen. The latter also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as some Petit Verdot. The intention and direction in San Juan is clearly there. There are good value offerings already emerging, and these will, in all likelihood, prove to be ideal house wine candidates within a few vintages: modern, and with good, ripe fruit. And as San Juan’s growing number of winemakers come to grips with well-suited varietals like Syrah, the area’s potential for producing quality restaurant wines is likely to be realised. In the meantime, however, look out for these as they become increasingly available in the UK – ideal gastropub fare. 

San Juan in brief

  • There are three main valleys in San Juan in which wine is produced. These are the Tulum and Zonda Valleys, at 800m above sea level, with the highest, Pedernal, at 1,300m.
  • The area has 49,000ha under vine – the second-largest region for wine production in Argentina after Mendoza, its neighbour to the south.
  • The region has the lowest level of rainfall in the Argentina. Temperatures can reach mid-to-high 30°s, but also plunge to below zero in the winter.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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