Location, Libation, Libation
A tale of two quintessential Argentine beverages: wine and yerba mate.
Yerba mate (left), and malbec (right)
Yerba mate photo by Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images. Wine photo by Ed Yourdon.
In 1964, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote the sonnet “To Wine,” which celebrated the wondrous qualities of the drink. “Wine,” the poem proclaimed,
flows red along the great length of generations
like the river of time and on the arduous road
bestows on us its music, its fire, and its lions.
Americans know what he was talking about—we’re crazy about Argentine wines. Malbec has become a standard feature of tasting menus and cocktail parties in the United States, as has, to a lesser degree, the white wine torrontés. Both varietals appeal to our palates without doing too much damage to our wallets.
Lesser known in America is yerba mate, which, along with wine, slakes thirsts, alters minds, and orchestrates the rituals of everyday Argentine life. Mate (which rhymes with “latte” and is sometimes spelled “maté”) is a tea-like caffeinated infusion that outsells coffee and tea combined in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. It’s brewed and served in virtually every home in Argentina. And it was important to Borges, too—in an interview at the end of his life, he reflected, “I drank a lot of mate when I was young. Drinking mate was, for me, the way to feel like a creole of old.”
Borges wasn’t the only fan of both wine and yerba mate—in fact, it’s hard to imagine life in Argentina without both. But just as the simple dish of spaghetti and red sauce actually contains the history of European, Asian, and American interactions (the tomato was a New World plant, introduced into Europe centuries—perhaps millennia—after Italians began eating pasta), the two daily beverages of Argentina shed light on a complicated past. Even the names of the beverages hint at their backstory: The word mate comes from a native language spoken in the Andes; wine (or vino) has Indo-European roots. The story of how mate and wine became the reigning beverages of Argentina is a story of geography, immigration, and taste.
The tale begins in the earliest days of Europe’s colonization of the Americas. Starting with Christopher Columbus, wine grapes accompanied Europeans to the New World because of their role in the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist—without wine, you couldn’t have Mass. The plant didn’t fare well in the hot and humid Caribbean, but in the dry slopes of the Andes, warmed by ample sunlight and watered by the frigid runoff from snow-capped mountains, vitis vinifera flourished.
The first wine grapes planted in Argentina—humble Spanish whites like the moscatel and the hybrid torrontés—were brought by a priest, Juan Cedrón, in the 1550s. The task of winemaking fell to inexperienced colonists, and their product was largely eschewed in favor of stronger spirits by indigenous locals. But the wine sufficed as fodder for Holy Communion.
Meanwhile, conquistadors were also eager to discover new foods and drugs in the New World. (Can we even imagine not knowing about chocolate, vanilla, tobacco, potatoes, or chilies? All were New World plants.) When 16th-century Spanish explorers worked their way westward across the continent, they found that indigenous groups like the Guaraní steeped or chewed the leaves of a local tree, Ilex paraguariensis, for a jolt of energy. The locals called the stimulant ca’a, which means plant in the Guaraní language; the Spanish followed their lead and called it plant, too: hierba, or the older Spanish form, yerba.
The Europeans quickly got into the habit. To properly drink mate, a gourd (called a mati in the Quechua language) is packed to the brim with smoke-dried leaves and stems, filled with warm (not boiling) water, and then passed from one person to another. Each participant drains the gourd through the same perforated straw, which the Spanish dubbed a bombilla. The colonists enjoyed the ritual and the beverage so much that they began trading the leaves throughout the Southern Hemisphere. (The Paraná River basin lacked the spectacular mineral wealth of Mexico and Peru, which meant that the colonists had little else to trade besides mate.)
Christine Folch is assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College and sits on the board of ZanaAfrica. She writes about culture and power in Latin America and is known to enjoy both mate and malbec.