The wines of South America are best represented by Chile and Argentina. Other countries do produce wines, including Uruguay, known for its Tannat-based wines, most of which are sold to the neighboring giant next door, Brazil. However, it is Chile and Argentina that are significant in both quality and quantity of South American wines.
Chile and Argentina seem to have taken different tacks, intentional or not, in either focusing more on terroir, in Chile’s case, or varietals in Argentina’s. The question which the world market will determine in the next decade is whether Argentina will be so identified with Malbec that it may face the same predicament that now faces Australian wines in the U.S. market – that of being solely identified with a single varietal which has lost some of its charm. Argentina is a new entry to the world market and has successfully penetrated it by marketing Malbec. Chile has focused on changing world market perceptions to recognize that it can now offer world quality wines from a growing number of appellations.
Chile has a history of winegrowing dating back 460 years and stretching from Limarí in the north, to Bío Bío in the south (about 650 miles of vineyards north to south and 75 miles east to west). However, it has only reached the consciousness of world wine consumers in the last 20 years due, which is due to to producers’ emphasis on quality that came about only once the country had opened its borders to trade. Chile is also known to be the only phylloxera-free country, though increasingly many of the vines are grafted for added resistance to nematodes.
Argentina has a similarly long history, with vines brought across the Andes by monks from Chile to Mendoza on the high desert plain at the western feet of the Andes. While Chileans were accustomed to drinking low-quality wines made from the País grape (the same as the Mission grape in California), much of which was distilled into Pisco, Argentina’s history was primarily influenced by the wine-drinking mass immigrations from Spain, Italy and Germany in the late 19th century. The key to Argentina’s wine consumption was the completion of the railway in 1885, which provided Buenos Aires with ready access to its prime viticultural region of Mendoza. Argentina, unlike Chile, had a large domestic market, whereas Chile has depended on its export market for growth. Argentina has actually seen a significant drop in its total acreage by nearly a third due to a precipitous drop in domestic wine consumption. That drop, as well as the opening to foreign investments and markets in the 1990s, has spurred Argentina’s producers to focus on its export market and thereby forced them to also concentrate on quality.
Chile’s viticulture shares some similarities to California’s but has greater diversity. Its dominant Mediterranean climatic conditions include the Pacific Ocean with the very cold Humboldt Current, a protecting coastal mountain range broken up by river valleys to the west allowing cool air to be drawn into the central depression called the Central Valley, and the Andes mountains to the east. The lack of rain for the most part and cool but drying air flow provides Chileans with the greater ability to produce organically or bio-dynamically grown grapes.
The coolest growing regions are along the coastal mountain ranges and close to the foothills of the Andes mountains; these geographical features cause significant diurnal ranges between day and nighttime temperatures of as much as 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There has been discussion of reorganizing the wine regions based on the distinct climatic conditions of the Costa region, Cordilleras region between the mountain ranges and the Andes. However, for the time being, they include four primary regions: Coquimbo, Aconcagua, the Central Valley and the Southern Regions.
The most northerly region is the Coquimbo, which borders the Atacama Desert and includes the Elquí, Limarí and Choapa sub-regions. This small region represents less than 2% of Chile’s production. It includes vineyards that are as high as 6000 feet in altitude, enjoying very brilliant sunshine and cooling breezes from both the Pacific and Andes mountains. In Elquí, while there is more Cabernet Sauvignon than any other variety, it is Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc that have attracted some notoriety. While vineyards were first planted in the 16th century in the Limarí Valley, it is only recently that investments have been made in this very dry sub-region. It is here that some of Chile’s best Chardonnays are being crafted. The Choapa valley is where the coastal range meets the Andes; it has few vineyards and has yet to have a winery.
Further south, towards Santiago, is the Aconcagua region, which includes the Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio and Leyda sub-regions. The Aconcagua sub-region is becoming known for its rich reds including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah. The sub-zones of Casablanca and San Antonio are where cooler sites prevail, making this somewhat unique in that white wines predominate, especially Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc from Chile is beginning to make an indelible impression, being reflective of the variety with racy acidity. There are also very high-quality Pinot Noirs produced here and in Leyda.
The dominant region is the Central Valley, which includes the names of Maipo, the Rapel Valley, which is further sub-divided into the Cachapoal and the famous Colchagua DO’s, and the Curicó and Maule regions. Traditionally, Chile vineyards were focused on the Maipo Valley of the Central Valley close to its capital, which is home to a disproportionately high 28% of population. This is primarily red wine country, where Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Carmenère flourish.
It was not until 1994 that a French botanist discovered most of Chile’s Merlot was, in fact, the somewhat forgotten Bordeaux varietal, Carmenère. It is what gives many of Chile’s Bordeaux blends a distinctive quality.
Today’s vineyards have increasingly been planted on slopes rather than the valley floor, and this more than any other factor has raised quality levels, especially in ultra-premium wines such as Apalta. The rich alluvial soils of Maule and Curicó are best known for the inexpensive blends, while in the cooler ocean-influenced western Colchagua, there is more emphasis on high-quality whites.
In the southern region, it is in Bío Bío and Malleco that there are indications of real potential for high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, even though growing conditions are more challenging, given lower growing temperatures and higher rainfall.
Chile will offer a greater variety of high-quality wines from more diverse regions as the investments both domestic and foreign begin to yield increasing returns. While Bordeaux varieties dominate, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and other international varieties are proving successful.
Argentina’s winegrowing regions are for the most part in irrigated desert oases, and, with a couple of exceptions, are at very high altitudes with the highest vineyards in the world at over 6000 feet. The altitude provides very bright sunlight and high diurnal ranges resulting in thicker grape skins, which give Malbec its concentrated color, long hang time, and allow the flavors to fully mature while maintaining acidity. The greatest threat has been summer hail that causes significant damage, though this has been reduced in the past decade due to the use of special netting. As with Chile, Argentina lacks humidity and pest problems, allowing for greater organic farming.
The export variety for which Argentina is best known is Malbec, which can vary in style depending on whether it is grown in the lower or higher altitudes. It is only recently that Malbec became the leading variety, a position previously held by Bonarda. The degree to which this latter variety can be expressed in a qualitative way and exported will be very telling. The other grape variety exported in significant quantity is the Torrontés. This is believed to be a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica. Its best expression is from the most northerly Salta region, where the highest vineyards in the world allow Torrontés to maintain its acidity.
The most extensive and largest wine region in the world is Mendoza, with over 395,000 acres accounting for more than 70% of Argentina’s production. This enormous region only has one official sub-appellation, the Lujan de Cuyo, and it is also known for some of the ultra-premium Malbec as well Cabernet Sauvignon. Some producers are beginning to use this and other appellations, such as the Uco Valley and Maipu, to help differentiate themselves but for the most part, the consumer is oblivious to the distinction. Other regions include San Juan, which is building its reputation on Syrah and Viognier. The newest appellation is Neuquen, which is the most southerly along with Rio Negro; both hold promise for Pinot Noir and other cool climate grapes.
As the world market continues to change radically, especially with the growing presence of China, the wines of Chile and Argentina provide restaurateurs and retailers with new opportunities to win over customers and differentiate their wine lists. As most wines are sold by varietal, they are easier for customers to understand. At the qualitatively higher end of the market, it will be key for consumers to be able to taste the wines by the glass and become more cognizant of the growing reputations of these New World appellations.