Think You Know Argentine Wine? Meet Its Stimulating Counterpart, Yerba Mate.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 10 2012 10:00 AM

Location, Libation, Libation

A tale of two quintessential Argentine beverages: wine and yerba mate.

(Continued from Page 1)

Over the next few centuries, yerba mate was adopted by the rough cattle-rustling gauchos—ethnically mixed descendents of early European settlers and indigenous groups who lived on the broad Pampas plains of the Southern Cone. They continued the Guaraní custom of sharing the same gourd and bombilla, a ritual that continues today. Though the shared bombilla violated "proper" (read: European) notions of hygiene, locals reveled in the intimacy it produced between drinkers. Sharing mate was a way of building community and connection. But mate wasn’t the only drink passed around the circle by the gauchos: They were known for their appreciation of low-grade, locally produced wine.

Starting in the 19th century, the gauchos were replaced by a new wave of immigrants as hundreds of Italian, French, German, Spanish, and other European settlers disembarked daily at the bustling port cities of Argentina. These new groups were farmers or urban artisans who had fallen on hard times in Europe and hoped for a fresh start in the New World. Prior to scattering throughout the country, the new arrivals spent days, even weeks, in immigrant “hotels” in Buenos Aires (the Hotel de la Rotonda and Hotel de Inmigrantes are perhaps the best known) while they looked for work. Every morning for breakfast, these hotels served the immigrants coffee, bread, and their first tastes of yerba mate.

Like immigrants everywhere, the new arrivals followed in the footsteps of family members and friends, settling throughout Argentina. A cluster of German, Polish, and Eastern European families moved into the northeastern frontier—the hottest part of the country, where the yerba mate tree thrives. With a mixture of ingenuity, desperation, and mill technology, they modernized yerba mate agriculture. The much more numerous Italian and Spanish immigrants dispersed throughout the country, but a few key families settled on the eastern slopes of the Andes. They found employ in a small but bustling wine industry to meet the growing demand for the beverage. 

Advertisement

A French oenologist, Michel Aimé Pouget, was hired by his good friend (and the future Argentine president) Domingo Sarmiento to replace local grapes and kick-start the Argentine wine industry in the 1850s. Among the many new vines he introduced from France—cabernet, merlot, pinot, sémillon—Pouget brought the malbec variety in 1853 (an event celebrated annually on April 17, Malbec World Day). For immigrants separated from the Old World by an ocean of economic hardship, winemaking was a way of recreating a bit of home in the New World. Small bodegas (wineries) cropped up along river valleys in Mendoza, San Juan, La Rioja, and Catamarca, supplying the national market with the varieties that took to the microclimates of the region. While mate was associated with moments of repose, wine came to be viewed as the proper accompaniment to family meals, a happy, social beverage that went with asados of grilled meats or dinners of pasta.

Just as winemaking was a way for immigrants to bring a taste of the Old World to their adopted country, drinking mate was a way of feeling more at home in the New World. Acquiring a taste for the bitter stimulant marked the transformation of immigrants into Argentines—a change even celebrated in the arts. In 1857, a Spanish immigrant named Santiago Ramos performed the very first tango written in Argentina, called “Tomá mate, che” (or “Drink mate”). The lines he sang were:

Drink mate, drink mate, my friend, because here in the River Plate, chocolate isn’t the style.

(Hot chocolate was widely popular in Spain.)

Ironically, even as Argentinians embraced mate, they became more ambivalent about Argentina’s wines. An aspiration toward Europeanness so deeply characterized winemaking in Argentina that, in the 1970s and 1980s, producers uprooted acres of malbec. The dark red grape was considered barely suitable for blends in France but not worthy enough to stand on its own, as it did in Argentina. Luckily, this trend turned around in the 1990s thanks to a few stubborn winemakers in Mendoza who insisted that Argentine terroir and the varieties that thrived there were on par with whatever France or California might produce. The international market agreed.

The daily interplay between mate and wine, between an infusion that imparts vigor and a fermentation that lowers inhibitions, is part of a long and storied tradition of better living through psychotropics. Today, if you visit Argentina, you’ll see locals drinking the two beverages, and you’ll find both stocked in ordinary grocery stores. You can take “wine trail” and “mate trail” tours that weave through orchards, vineyards, and the cultural resonances of the two drinks.

From the very start, Argentines have celebrated mate for its authenticity, even if outsiders considered it unrefined. For much of its history, winemaking in Argentina struggled with an inferiority complex so severe it nearly eradicated what we now recognize as the country’s most important contributions—grapes like malbec and torrontés. But wine, like mate, is at its best when the local palate and product are taken seriously. Cheers to that.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.