There was a time when wines originating from South America were just cheap commodities, often scarcely palatable. Back then, if your friend served you a South American wine, either he or she had fallen on hard times or it was time to find a new friend.
History gives us a rationale for such plonk. Spanish monks who helped colonize the continent brought with them clippings of vitis vinifera, which they planted and cultivated largely for use as altar wines, an enterprise less concerned with capitalizing on the character of the grapes. The 19th century saw an influx of French varietals, but the vintners’ expertise remained rudimentary, with an emphasis on quantity over quality.
That all started to change in the 1980s. Expertise developed and new winemaking techniques like stainless steel vats and oak barrel aging were introduced. More wine was exported and more of it was worth exporting. As time passed, the reputations of South American wines, particularly those from Argentina and Chile, steadily improved.
At the end of the 20th century, an influx of French immigrants into Chile and investments by French and American winemakers turned the trend into a seismic shift. Chile and Argentina’s oenological advances are now the wine world’s best-kept secret.
Better wines from the two countries have become mainstays on local restaurant wine menus and in bottle shops thanks to the higher quality and continued lower prices of the product. Today, if a friend serves you South American wine, he or she may still be cost-conscious, but also on the cutting edge of an emerging movement. And that’s someone you may want to get to know better.
Here are some suggestions to consider next time it’s your turn to pour:
Like neighboring Chile, Argentina’s wine industry dates back to the 16th century and is strongly influenced by Spain. Argentina at one time was the world’s fifth largest wine producer, but 90 percent of its output was consumed locally because the quality was too low to export.
In the 1990s, Argentina’s financial needs encouraged an increase in the export market, which boosted the quality of the country’s wines. South American economics, including the 2002 devaluation of the Argentine peso, also have helped keep prices low, making the country’s wines an excellent value.
Argentina’s best-known winemakers hail from the Mendoza province. Consider Antucura, which grows its grapes in the region’s Uco Valley. Head winemaker Herve Chagneau’s 2014 Antucura Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) is characterized by bright fruit and soft tannins, both of which make the wine more approachable. Aged three months in French oak, the wine delivers red fruit, spices and licorice notes to the nose and the palate.
More distinctive, perhaps, is Chagneau’s Cherie Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé ($15). Expect the bubbles to deliver floral aromas of yeast, toast and candied fruits, all of which reappear on the palate. Sparkling rosés come and go, but one is worth trying.
Mendoza also is home to Bodega Luigi Bosca, established in 1901 and Argentina’s oldest family-owned winery. The winery’s Finca La Linda brands offer both a red and a white of intriguing taste and sound characteristics.
The Finca La Linda Torrontés ($12) draws on Argentina’s white specialty grape, similar to muscat in its characteristics. The wine has floral aromas, reminiscent of lavender and rosehips, and delivers a slightly sweet taste of peach and orange peel. Its balanced acidity makes it suitable either for sipping or supping.
The Finca La Linda Bonarda ($12) may be a little more interesting. Unrelated to the three types of bonarda grapes grown in Italy, the Argentinian bonarda is in fact genetically identical to France’s douce noir and California’s charbono. The Finca La Linda version pours a ruby red, with aromas of red fruit and figs. The rounded, full-bodied wine arrives velvety on the palate, with ripe tannins providing backbone to the wine’s lingering finish.
Luigi Bosca cranks it up a notch with their 2012 Pinot Noir ($21). Vinted from grapes grown in Bosca’s east-facing El Paraiso vineyard in Lujan de Cuyo-Maipo, the wine pours ruby-red, with aromas of strawberries, chocolates and red fruit. The wine is full-bodied and fresh, vigorous in its approach and elegant in its finish.
Casarena, another Mendoza vineyard, weighs in with a truly notable wine, the 2011 Single Vineyard Jamilla Malbec ($38). The rocky limestone soil of the Argelo and Perdriel vineyards in the Luján de Cuyo give the wine a pronounced minerality, which nicely tempers its floral and fruit tendencies. Expect flavors as diverse as blackberry, licorice, bitter chocolate and even crushed rock, with a good acidity to strengthen the wine and temper the palate. This one is a keeper.
Although its trajectory closely followed that of Argentina, Chilean wines gained a foothold in the United States slightly ahead of its neighbor. Chile is now the fifth largest exporter of wines in the world and the ninth largest producer. The climate of the narrow, mountainous country, which runs roughly half the length of South America’s Pacific coast, has been called a cross between California and France, which makes it prime winegrowing country.
The Casablanca Valley, in Chile’s Aconcagua region, is one of the country’s best known wine-producing areas, and Casas del Bosque winemaker Grant Phelps is doing some good things with locally produced grapes.
Phelps’ 2013 Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc ($17) draws on two different clones of the grape grown on nine-year-old vines in a hillside vineyard planted in red clay mixed with granite. The soil suitably stresses the vines, resulting in a wine with a nose of grapefruit and smoke tempered by a hint of salted sea air. A palate of guava, kiwi and other tropical fruits is tempered by a zesty acidity that adds to the wine’s structure and strength.
A similar brightness follows in the 2014 Reserva Rose ($13). Produced from deep red syrah grapes, the wine boasts a nose of key lime, grapefruit and other fruits, again tempered with a little salinity. Expect flavors of citrus and ginger, with a mineral backbone and sufficient acidity to give it character.
The syrah reappears at full strength with the 2012 Gran Reserva Syrah ($19). The deep red wine wines arrives with aromas of strawberry and spice, delivering a palate of plum, fig and black olive flavors, with chocolate and spice on the back palate for a richly textured finish. A strong oak backbone and well-integrated tannins make this an exceptional wine.
One cannot talk about Chilean wines without at least mentioning Concha y Toro. The historic winery’s Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere ($23) is just one of the reasons why. The deep red wine arrives with aromas of ripe black fruit and spicy black pepper. Flavors of blackberry, chocolate and oak-induced vanilla fill the palate for rich, luxurious mouthful.
This wine is the perfect place to end this South American wine tour, but it may be an even better place to start a journey of your own.