Making a Case for South America

posted in: South America, wine | 0

Argentina and Chile have long been on the wrong side of what a winemaker friend likes to call the Law of the Exception. The idea is that if an overlooked winery, region, or grape variety can produce one phenomenal wine, then the question becomes ‘”Why not do it all the time?”

With Chile and Argentina, the possibility for exceptions was pretty obvious. Both countries have big-league wine industries (Argentina’s is the world’s fifth-largest), nearly 500 years of vintages and growing areas with Eden-like climates for farming wine grapes–so warm and dry that grapes easily ripen and pesticides, fungicides and anti-rot measures are often unnecessary. Around here, much of what is painstakingly “organic” practice in wetter climates is second nature, as it were.

Of course, if warm, dry weather were all there was to making great wine, the Sahara Desert would be Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But South America’s main wine-producing regions offer a couple of crucial advantages.

Great Grapes

One is water. Snowmelt from the Andes Mountains provides all the grapes need for irrigation. The other is cool temperatures morning and night. On the Chilean–Pacific–side of the Andes, that’s courtesy of the ocean and the cold Humboldt Current. It keeps the grapes’ natural acidity from respiring out before the grape fully ripens, which means that rich, mature fruit doesn’t yield flabby, jam-like wine.

The trend among top wineries in Chile today is to explore ever cooler, more ocean-influenced pockets in growing areas like Casablanca, Leyda and Limari up north and Bío Bío in the south for grapes such as pinot noir that love lower temperatures.

On the Argentine side of the mountain range, the evening chill-out comes from getting high. Very high. Argentina is the world leader in sky-scraping vineyards–the average vineyard there is planted at 900 meters (about 2,950 feet). That’s remarkable considering that “mountain grapes” in the U.S., such as those from Ridge Vineyards’ famous Monte Bello vineyard, grow at, say, 1,300 to 2,600 feet.

And these days, Argentine wineries with a taste for risk seem to be engaged in a game of chicken: You’re going to try to ripen grapes (and dodge hail) at that crazy altitude? Well, watch this: We’re taking it up another 500 feet.

Several wineries feature their altitude level on their labels along with their alcohol level. These include Bodega Catena Zapata 2006 Malbec and Trapiche 2005 MalbecVina Eleodoro Aciar. The current cutting edge is a near-preposterous 9,849 feet at Bodega Colomé’s Altura Maxima vineyard, owned by Swiss entrepreneur Donald Hess, who also owns Napa Valley’s Hess Collection.

The flip side of South America’s gifts from nature is human nature. With harvesting healthy grapes so easy, the urge to push things–to challenge your vineyard workers, your winemaker, shareholders, accountants and customers–hardly seemed necessary to many of the big wineries that dominate the scene in both countries (particularly in Chile). All too often in South America, the good has pushed out the great.

In Chile, the blame falls on its heavily export-oriented market, which traditionally competed based on price, and in Argentina on its huge domestic market, whose public didn’t demand better.

“When I began making wine here in 1989,” says well-known California-based winemaker and consultant Paul Hobbs, “nearly all the wines were oxidized, tired and brown. Argentines thought that’s what good wine meant.”

The ambitious wines we are drinking today didn’t come from nowhere, of course. Says Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinosa (Antiyal, Emiliana), “We have seen a huge improvement even in the past three years, but the quality arriving now is not from the work of three years but from what we have done in the past 15 years.”

The stones were set rolling by such quality pioneers as Nicolás Catena in Argentina and Aurelio Montes in Chile; by Espinosa, Chile’s first “garage winemaker”; by international consultants like Hobbs and France’s ubiquitous Michel Rolland; and by high-profile foreign joint ventures like Almaviva between Mouton-Rothschild and Chile’s Concha y Toro. Those stones have gathered into, well, maybe not a full-scale avalanche but an avalanche-ette.

Name That Tune

The current success also ties into the question of identity: South American wine needed one. If you are peddling yet another chardonnay or cabernet in the overcrowded global wine marketplace and don’t have a familiar brand name, or you come from, say, Bordeaux or Napa, it is very tempting, maybe even a matter of survival, to keep your prices low.

But the visionary winemakers decided it was better to gain recognition through bottling something distinctive, or at least marketable, as your own–think what “shiraz” has done for Australia. We are now getting used to seeing wines like carménère from Chile, malbec (and torrontés and bonarda) from Argentina, and even–keep an eye peeled–tannat from Uruguay.

There are two surprising things about these grapes. One is that they are vinous refugees, mostly discounted or no longer planted in their home countries. Except in specialized local pockets, “carménère, malbec and tannat” makes a good response to “Name three of the least-loved traditional grapes of southwestern France.”

The other surprise, given the emphasis these countries place on their signature grapes, is how recently anybody there came to give a hoot about them. Chile may be the only country in the world to produce fine, smoky, spicy reds from carménère, but up until 1994, no one in Chile even knew it existed there. What we now recognize as carménère was thought to be a particularly irritating type of merlot, one that never ripened as early as the “good” merlot.

Turns out that if you don’t treat it like merlot–if you pull more leaves to get sun on the clusters, let the grapes hang for a few extra weeks–mira! You get carménère just like we like it. Plus, the red leaves are stunning in the fall.

Malbec, a minor Bordeaux blending grape, was once best known, if it was known at all, for making France’s Cahors wines. It is lucky to have survived in Argentina. As recently as the 1980s, it was being ripped out by the tens of thousands of acres to make room for more fashionable grapes, such as chardonnay. In Argentina, malbec’s gift is that it readily makes a likable $10 wine but can also make luscious, exuberant, distinctive wines, usually in blends, when given the royal treatment.

As for the tannat grape, which Uruguayan vintners would dearly love to market as a malbec-like local phenomenon, it is a problem child supreme. Three times more tannic than cabernet sauvignon (its name even derives from the word “tannin”), tannat, when poorly handled, makes a wine that will take your tonsils down with it. The suave texture of the best tannats from Uruguay shows that the Law of the Exception is alive and flourishing there too.

In fact, as a tasting of the life-enhancing imports now arriving from the top vineyard regions of South America proves, the exceptions are starting to rule.


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