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The ABCs of South American Wine

More and more wine from South America seems to be available here in the north in recent years. Long a source of inexpensive, reliable wines for us Americans, wineries in South America are winning over more consumers for their high-quality product.

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Your humble author analyzing the ripening of the soon-to-be harvested Cabernet sauvignon crop in the Maipo valley in Chile.

Both Argentina and Chile produce tremendous quantities of wine, and they started making wine roughly 400 years ago! Notably, domestic per-capita consumption far outpaces that of the United States. In fact, Argentina is also the sixth-largest consumer worldwide! (That’s total consumption! Now I understand the need for that siesta every afternoon ...)

This isn’t all that surprising, in light of the history of immigration from such wine-rich countries as Italy, France, Spain, and even Germany. The current state of affairs can trace its rustic roots to these immigrants and their wine-drinking and grape-growing cultures. Argentina and Chile are both among the top 10 producers of wine in the world.

Foreign investment, notably French, American (not exactly a coincidence, it would seem), Spanish, and Italian, has increased, and with it the means of exporting and a general trend towards modernization. Other South American countries produce wine, but I’ve not personally tasted a bottle; thus, the following is a useful primer on the wines of South America, focusing solely on the two aforementioned nations.

Background

The growth of Argentine and Chilean exports to the United States has rivaled that of their Southern Hemisphere compatriots, Australia and New Zealand. Remember that seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are opposite of ours, i.e., they are harvesting during our spring, etc. Hence, you may see a bottle of 2004 vintage wine from there before we’ve finished harvesting our crop of the same vintage.

Chile exports a large majority of what it produces, while Argentina consumes a vast majority of its production of wine. Most of the people in the wine industry I’ve asked state without hesitation that Chile is more capable of producing serious, high-quality wines. However, after visiting there and drinking more than my fair share of their wines since my return, I must offer a minority opinion on this topic: In the not-so-distant future, Argentina will stake claim to vintner of the finest wines from the continent. More importantly than “who’s better”, however, is that we in the United States can enjoy a wider array and a finer selection of their wares every year. And in a town like Chicago, there abound South American BYOB restaurants that you can affordably frequent and make merry in experimenting with different wines.

Sure, they both have substantial quantities of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc (Chile predominantly for this last one). This is what these countries, again more notably Chile, built their reputations on: inexpensive yet reliable and available varietals (bottlings containing entirely or almost entirely a single grape variety) that were solid values — more so than a majority of our domestic counterparts.

But in the eyes of consumers and critics alike, these countries are developing new names for themselves by the quality of what they are making. Some specifics, now, to help you learn and guide your buying at retailers and restaurants alike.

Argentine Wines

Argentina is simpler to grasp in terms of its wines. Right now, it boasts only one world-class growing area (more later on Mendoza). The Chardonnay available from Argentina can be impressive; the only other white grape of note is Torrontés.

Although the evidence is inconclusive, the Torrontés grape is believed to be Spanish in origin. Further, in its Andean isolation, this grape has evolved into genuine individuality. Light to medium in body, its flavors can run from fresh floral-and-citrus qualities to more exotic notes such as white peach or apricot. Even at this latter extreme, Torrontés still doesn’t show the full-bodied, viscous nature of other peach/apricot-scented wines such as Viognier (from France) or Pinot gris (from Italy or Oregon).

As for red grapes/wines, there is Barbera, a food-friendly grape originating from the Piedmont region of Italy. Simple, light, berryish in nature, it’s an easy spaghetti red that’s also reliably gentle on the wallet. Bonaarda, on the other hand, is a mostly-forgotten Italian variety that is turning up with more frequency. Look for it blended with other grapes, and enjoy it with heartier fare than you would a Barbera. Comparing the two, Bonaarda is denser and more reminiscent of dark/black fruits and spices. I lack specific research to verify this, but I’d speculate that right now all but a trickle of the wines made from these grapes in Argentina is consumed domestically.

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A sample of Argentina’s beef, seasoned heavily with coarse salt and garlic and slow-cooked overnight (hide on) over a brick oven.

I’ve even tried a decent Argentine Pinot noir, but the new plantings of Syrah (a hearty red grape, perhaps to enjoy with some of their world-renown beef) are more indicative of a real trend for the future. Argentina has cultivated Cabernet sauvignon for a long time and the end results can be quite good. Even $10 to $20 can buy a high-quality example. It would certainly rank as the second-best type of wine coming from this country ...the finest wine being Malbec. From Mendoza. Without question, Argentina’s signature wine.

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Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest peak in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres, as seen from the Catena Zapata winery in Mendoza.

Mendoza is the finest growing area there, soaking up abundant sun, enjoying some subtle elevation, and sipping on the slow flow of water from the awe-inspiring Andean peaks to the west. From its humble roots as a blending grape in France’s Bordeaux appellation (considered by many to be the world’s foremost age-worthy red wine region), Malbec has blossomed in Mendoza like nowhere else on earth. In Bordeaux, winemakers utilized Malbec’s dark color and strong structure to “beef up” thin and/or light colored claret. If someone’s Merlot or Cabernet sauvignon crop didn’t fare well, blending it with a decent percentage of Malbec was a way of realizing a good-looking and good-tasting final product. In Mendoza, Malbec has reached new heights, making red wines worthy of bottling as varietals (without other grapes). At its best, it makes wines worthy of aging as well, although this test of longevity is ever a work in progress. Perhaps not reaching the rich, lush, black-currant ripeness of Cabernet sauvignon, Malbec nonetheless tends towards blackberry, peppery, and bitter-chocolate/roasted-coffee aromas and flavors here where it can properly ripen.

If you’ve not had an Argentine wine, especially one of its Malbecs, do so soon.

Chilean Wines

Chile produces some interesting Sauvignon blancs, as already noted; they tend to have more distinction than most of the Chardonnay I’ve had from there. These Sauvignon blancs would work well alongside an array of seafood and shellfish. From my experiences there (and from simply staring at a map long enough), I know Chileans tend to eat much more seafood than their beef-consuming Argentine neighbors.

For red wine from Chile, remember the name Maipo. It is where their best Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot are heralding from these days. I spent a day in the valley, and it was bloody hot by noon. The slight altitude of the valley allows for significant cooling off during the night, however, and this balance of heat and cool helps the grapes ripen fully but retain the natural acidity necessary for the balance found in better wines.

Chile also cultivates Carmenere, a red grape that is to Chile what Malbec is to Argentina. This grape tends to make wines that are soft and red-fruit and green-herbal in aromatics and flavor. Its main drawback is this very tendency towards weedy/overly green characteristics when it fails to fully ripen. But with more trial and error, Chilean winemakers are sure to improve its overall quality.

It was only recently determined that a substantial percentage of the Merlot grapes grown in Chile is actually Carmenere. This means that we in the United States have unwittingly been consuming Chilean Carmenere for literally decades! (DNA testing was the method employed to reach this significant conclusion; the same was utilized in determining the Zinfandel grape’s relation to Italian Primitivo).

There is another chapter to this story: Carmenere is a ‘lost’ Bordeaux variety that hardly has any other home in the world (sound familiar?). Centuries ago, it was widely planted in the Bordeaux (wine-growing) region in France. But after the phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century that decimated most of the known world’s vines; the consensus was towards replanting with other “superior” varieties. Thus, Chile has played a historic role in propagating a variety that would have otherwise been lost to the pages of enological history.

Wineries by Name

Well, that’s as fitting an end as I can think of for South American Wine 101. You’ve probably noticed that I intentionally avoided mentioning wineries by name; equally likely is that this disappoints more than a handful of you. So, below is a list of recommended wineries, with some specific wines in parentheses.

Argentine Wineries

Chilean Wineries

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Goat being cooked outside a winery in Argentina (or is it a Black Sabbath album cover?).

Don’t forget a few good general rules for purchasing fermented fruit from the vine: With whites and inexpensive reds, stick to younger vintages. Ask your local retailer for specific suggestions and slowly get to know them — they’ll eventually figure out your personal preferences and steer you right far more times than not. And if you live in a great restaurant city like Chicago (where I reside), take maximum advantage of the BYOB policy at many establishments — if they don’t have a liquor license, they’ll let you bring your own wine for a minimum of a corkage fee (if any at all). On the Windy City’s north side, visit Tango Sur (Argentine) and Las Tablas (Colombian), especially if you’re carnivorous in nature.

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