A vineyard in Argentina.

If you asked a group of wine drinkers which country is the fifth largest wine producer, you would most likely get a blank stare.

They might figure out that Italy, France, Spain and the U.S. are the top four, but probably not in that order. Fifth place? That's Argentina, a large country at the southern end of South America that is also the largest producer on that continent.

Grape vines were brought to Argentina in the 16th century by Spanish missionaries. Over the next 400 often-turbulent years, wine became the national drink. However, until recently, quantity overshadowed quality. As European vintners became interested in Argentina, original mission grapes gave way to French and Italian varietals such as malbec, cabernet franc and chardonnay. Many of these vintners took positions in Argentina and now either partner or consult there today.

Being in the foothills of the Andes mountains, Argentinian wine producers became competitive with the elevation of their vineyards. One was listed at 6,000 feet above sea level. While still enamored with elevation, winemakers now espouse more modern practices, such as trellising and drip irrigation. The resulting wines can easily be compared with their international counterparts and are becoming more popular among modern wine consumers.

While Argentina has many growing areas, Mendoza and the Uco Valley are dominant and produce the top wines. A new generation of winemakers, some with local family winemaking history, are focusing more on the terroir (soil) and how each varietal gains from it. Noted Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, in a recent post, described the “perfect Malbec" today as "fresh (picked earlier), textured rather than oaky (often made in concrete not oak) and a terroir expression."

Here are a few wines from the new prominent winemakers. Prices are approximate.

Zorzal Wines Gran Terroir cabernet franc 2019 The winemaker, Juan Pablo Michelini, has produced a sumptuous wine. With a dark richness and smooth balance, this mouth-filling wine exhibits great structure with flavors of blackberry and a touch of green pepper. $19.99

Vaglio Blanco 2018 José Lovaglio is the third generation of winemakers in his family. His mother, Susana, was the first female winemaker in Argentina. At first taste, the Semillon (10 percent) is evident but later blends into a charming, clean, expression of Chardonnay with notes of apricot. Very pleasant. $17.99

El Esteco cabernet sauvignon 2018 Emile Chaumont is descended from a French family that emigrated to Mendoza in the 18th century. He has trained in Napa Valley and with other Argentine wineries. This El Esteco is a fine expression of the cabernet grape. Dark and rich with robust mouth feel, this palate-coating wine shows strong tannins, black fruit and a hint of chocolate. $19.99

Vistalba Corte B 2017 Fernando Collucci has crafted an interesting blend of malbec (68 percent), cabernet sauvignon (18 percent) and bonarda (an Italian grape, 14 percent). This is a big wine reminiscent of a zinfandel. Deep dark color, rich mouth feel, flavors of red plums and dried peaches, and a lingering finish. $24.99

Terrazas De Los Andes Grand Malbec 2017 Marcos Fernandes has created an excellent Malbec from three vineyards all over 3,000 feet in elevation. This is a sumptuous, rich, elegant wine. Full bodied, with depths of flavor and nuances of herbs and mocha. $64.99

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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