The Barrels of San Juan
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Argentina’s Tour of San Juan may be in its infancy as a major international stage race, but when it comes to winemaking this province has been a world leader for centuries. And one of the best ways to fully understand its long history with the brotherhood of the grape is to visit the Santiago Graffigna Wine Museum.
Located on the outskirts of San Juan, on what was once the main property of the wine producer, the museum outlines the history of winemaking through one of its preeminent families. Like boatloads of Italians, Santiago Graffigna immigrated to Argentina in the mid-19th century while still a teenager, and through a family contact he ended up in the San Juan Province. His enterprising spirit helped him open his own winery in 1870, and by all accounts he soon had a virtual empire, one that lasted through several generations until the family sold the company in 1980.
Words/images: James Startt
With immigration providing a steady flow of both Spanish and Italian cultures to Argentina, it comes as no surprise that the winemaking tradition would follow suit. And the sunbaked, arid lands of this western province provided an ideal landscape—not unlike Spain’s Rioja—for the vineyards to expand.
Because of the extreme dry heat, wines from San Juan are known for their robust nature. Syrah, Cabernet and, of course, Malbec, a South American favorite, provide the staple of grapes used in the Graffigna wines. Known for their dry, hearty nature, these wines are not only a constant favorite here in Argentina, but are exported around the world, producing an array of offerings, from solid table wines to world-respected fine wines. And then there’s a limited edition Grand Reserve, which is only produced in what Graffigna considers an outstanding year, the last one being 2011. The irregularity of the Grand Reserve production reflects the volatile climate on this desert plain. Late-season rains, brutally high winds and an occasional earthquake can destroy a season harvest at any moment.
Although the Graffigna museum provides a fascinating portrait of one family’s journey from the old continent of Europe to the Argentinian frontier, the museum also demonstrates the history of winemaking. A centuries-old cowhide stretched across four wooden legs demonstrates how grapes were originally crushed by hand on the skin, so that the juices then seeped through. More modern grape-crushing machines are also on hand. But perhaps the most interesting element on display is the barrel-making component.
Because of the wealth of the Graffigna wine production, barrels were made by their own coopers. Thousands of barrels were manufactured each year in an effort to keep up with the production demands. The biggest, made in 1910, was a 200,000-liter tank that’s said to be big enough to fit in about 70 people. Viewers can step into the biggest barrels and see how the wine reacts with the wood inside—something that’s so key to the character of a wine.
Of course, no visit to a wine museum would be complete without some wine tasting, and the Graffigna museum offers a selection of both whites and reds. But while one can savor the nuances of the different Graffigna wines, none are on sale at the museum. No, the Santiago Graffigna Wine Museum is simply a celebration of the brotherhood of the grape.