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.

Yerba Mate and Malbec.
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.)

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. 

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.



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