In pre-Columbian times, present-day Cuyo was peripheral to the central Andean empire of the Inkas, but the indigenous Huarpe did pay tribute to the lords of Cusco. As settled agriculturalists, the Huarpe were numerous enough that Spaniards crossed the cordillera from Chile to establish encomiendas.
By the 17th century, vintners were carting casks of wine to Córdoba and even Buenos Aires. Still, it took nearly two centuries to reorient the economy after the creation of a viceroyalty at Buenos Aires and then Argentine independence closed Chilean markets.
In 1835 Charles Darwin contrasted Mendoza’s agricultural bounty with its economic stagnation: “Nothing could appear more flourishing than the vineyards and the orchards of figs, peaches and olives,” he wrote, but “the prosperity of the place has much declined of late years.”
In 1884 the railroad brought Mendoza into Buenos Aires’s orbit and spurred the expansion of grapevines and olive orchards, thanks largely to Italian immigrants. Between 1890 and 1910, the province’s vineyards grew sevenfold to 45,000 hectares; growth slowed in the next six decades, but they still quintupled.
Many vineyards and bodegas are still small owner-operated businesses, but since the mid-1970s foreign investors—American, Chilean, Dutch, French, and others—have acquired and expanded properties. Mendoza still serves the domestic table-wine market, but there is an increasing focus on premium varietals and blends for both national consumption and export.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition