In vino veritas, part IX: South American wines

As with Australia and South Africa last November and December, let’s stay the course during the zenith of our winter with a post about our neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere, where the summer is in full swing. I’ve chosen to approach the wines of South America as a singular unit — a move not borne out of any deficiency of viticultural narrative in each country or any laziness on my part, but because of their common ancestor: Spain.

Building on this, the two primary candidates for discussion are Argentina and Chile given their top 10 volumes of global production. As such, I will focus on these two nations. However, this does not preclude such other burgeoning and smaller growers like Bolivia, Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul, Paraguay, Peru (especially the spirit Pisco) and Uruguay.

Taken together, Argentina and Chile now make more wine by tonnage than the United States, respectively as the fifth- and tenth-largest worldwide producers. This was not always the case, however. Both nations were wracked by decades of turbulent governments and economic strife throughout the 20th century. Looking back even further, although colonization was the key spark for the import of grape stocks and grafts in the 16th century, Spanish overseers sought to restrict viticultural development in the New World to prevent competition with vintners back at home.

Nevertheless, wine culture prospered, giving us many unique tastes and stable appellations for which we can now fully reap the savory benefits. Of particular note, South America largely escaped the phylloxera blight that ruined vineyards throughout Europe in the 19th century. This devastation caused many French, Italian and Spanish winemakers to emigrate to Argentina and Chile, bringing with them their varietals and wisdom. But most of the production during this period was still devoted to table grapes and jug wine for local consumption.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that South America really took to the world stage with a gallant desire to compete at the international level. For this, vineyards hired flying winemakers throughout the 1990s and 2000s to elevate the quality of wines to modern standards of export set for large buying countries like Great Britain, United States and, more recently, China, as well as a greater replanting and focus on the more pervasive commercial mainstays.

Nowadays, South American wines are widely considered New World in their taste spectrums, particularly for the whites, but there are some peculiarities about them that can prop your wine list up with that extra slice of allure. Namely, the early grafters didn’t properly control their varietal lineage, and consequently some obvious mislabeling has occurred. No matter, the ampelographers are on the case. As for us, let’s take a look at the grapes of these two nations and see what’s there.

Proceeding in alphabetical order with Argentina, what is most apparent about Argentine wines is that the vast majority of export-quality production takes places in Mendoza and its neighboring province of San Juan in the Andean foothills directly west of the capital city, Buenos Aires. This high-altitude, semi-arid cordillera environment, with its hot summers and sharp nighttime temperature drops, elicits softer flavors with bolder tannins in the reds. It’s no wonder that Malbec is now the grape of choice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an appellation elsewhere in the world that does this wine better.

Moreover, reds account for over 60% of wine exports with other key varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and the esteemed Spanish grape Tempranillo. Worth noting is the Italian Charbono strain, locally known as Bonarda, which was almost completely extricated from European fields by the phylloxera epidemic. Surviving in Argentina, it is now a flavorful runner-up in popularity to the Malbec. Given their black skins, the Charbono is somewhat counterintuitive as the wine has a deep empurpled color yet a fruity, acidic profile.

An important postscript for the Argentine Malbec, they’ve been bred more towards the tart flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon and less like the conventional Malbec, which belies a sugary plum and cherry taste. To bolster this dissimilarity, it’s rather common to find Malbec the major grape in a mix that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot, which in turn creates a diverse array of wines to choose from.

On the white front, Argentine exports have more or less adopted the international cornerstones of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Semillon and Viognier, while the jug wine varietal of Pedro Giménez continues to decline. From personal experience, if you plan to dabble with Argentine alcohol, stick with the reds and the most perfected of the lot, Malbec and Bonarda — the former for a solid expression of a familiar grape and the latter for something a tad more exotic and intrepid.

As for Chile, any agronomical discussion should include a brief overview of the country’s svelte, latitude-crossing geographic borders along with the inescapable presence of the towering Andes. Together, these two have caused most of the premier Chilean flights to aggregate within the 800-mile stretch between the 32nd and 38th parallels centered on the capital, Santiago, where the climate most imitates that of the Mediterranean. Further, the mild Pacific currents along with the rain shadow protection induced by the Andes and the coastal range provide vineyards with some of the most stable growing conditions in the world. Minimal weather fluctuations mean consistent vintages — a boon for rolling purchase orders.

Much like how Argentina has the Malbec, Chile has the Merlot, for which the country’s harvest rivals the renowned incumbents in California and France. Chile also favors the Cabernet Sauvignon, although their produce leans toward a softer palate akin to a proper Cab-Merlot blend. Third in the reds, and contributing towards many of the country’s taste discrepancies, is the Carménère grape, which, like the Charbono in Argentina, was largely destroyed by the phylloxera scourge only to live on the New World.

Carménère, with its archetypal rubicund coloration and rich, mellow profile, has largely been incorrectly labeled as Merlot. Now that more professional vintners are active, this once-popular French varietal is back in vogue nearly 150 years after its disappearance from Europe. The lost grape is recognized as a distinct lure for the country’s wines, restored to its own pedigree separate from Merlot as well as thriving as a near-exclusive Chilean blending ingredient.

These same “mistaken identity” suits apply to many Sauvignon Blanc vineyards where the parent stocks have been found be of Sauvignonasse and Semillon descent, affording many Chilean whites with softer, floral notes instead of the quintessential fruitiness of other Sauvignon Blanc flights from the New World. Whatever the case, the top four picks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc will definitely add some variety and perhaps a few interesting conversations to your wine list.

So, there you have it. I hope, at the very least, that this preamble to South American wines has given you enough wiggle room to decide where to investigate next. Any stigma in a patron’s mind about wines from this region should be alleviated with some basic knowledge and narrative about these two nations’ viticultural upbringing. Furthermore, Argentine and Chilean prices are quite reasonable when compared to French and Italian offerings. As always, I suggest that before you restock and put dollars down, you consult a professional with more knowledge of the local terrains. Get ready and sample them all to be sure, just don’t drink and drive!