South America’s outstanding wine oddities

By - Mar 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Nate Norfolk

There is a glut of inexpensive South American wine and just about every other grape-growing region in the world. The best thing about this is that consumers have wider access to inexpensive wine. The down side is that a lot of the inexpensive wine is either just plain bad or redundant and boring. The bulk of South American wine coming in to the U.S. is definitely on the cheap side, but if you are a little adventurous you can find some truly unique bargain wines. Chile and Argentina are good places to find them. Although these two countries are regarded as relative newcomers to our retailers’ shelves, they have been producing wine for hundreds of years.

A brief version of a long history
The grape vines of Chile and Argentina were planted by missionaries who came from Spain with the conquistadors in the mid-sixteenth century. As the country’s population expanded, wine production moved from the church to European plantation owners. It was so successful by the early 1800s that the North and South American wines imported to Europe began to affect the Spanish wineries. The Spanish government took action to protect the wine industry there. All across Mexico and South America, vineyards were uprooted and heavy taxes were placed on those remaining. This all but destroyed the wine industry in Mexico, but Chile and Argentina continued to produce wines commercially.

Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, and its star red grape is called Malbec. Originally from southwestern France, it is used in small amounts in the red wines of Bordeaux and as the main component of a rather obscure French wine called Cahors. Although many will argue that Malbec is Argentina’s finest grape varietal, other reds and whites are being successfully introduced, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and the mysteriously floral, yet dry white grape Torrontes.

Malbec wines from Argentina taste a lot like Merlot wines made elsewhere, though with the current Merlot backlash that may not be a great selling point. When you taste a Malbec wine for yourself, you will likely encounter a full-bodied wine with a soft mouth feel full of soft silky tannins and dried fruit flavors. There will be plenty of black currant, cassis and red fruit flavors like plums and berries as well as hints of black pepper and other spicy notes. A really good Malbec wine is something to behold.

In Chile, almost half the grapes planted are Cabernet Sauvignon, but other reds and whites are grown there, the most important being the red Carmenere. The history of Carmenere wines is similar to that of Malbec. Both were once prominent in France, both were brought to South America in the mid 1800s by the French and both have become a very important part of South American wine-making. They also have both fallen out of favor in their native country of France and are only produced in extremely small quantities anywhere outside of South America. That’s where the similarities end. While Malbec produces big tannic wines with a lot of red fruits and spice, Carmenere is a much mellower grape with soft tannins and distinct herbal accents.

Chile has such an ideal climate for grape vines that well-known, international labels such as Spain’s Miguel Torres, France’s Baron de Rothschild and Chateau Lafite and the U.S.’ Robert Mondavi have established relationships with Chilean vineyards. The Almaviva winery is a cooperative operation pairing Concha y Toro with the house of Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The wine produced there is the only Chilean wine allowed to be sold on the Bordeaux wine market in France!

A few modestly priced recommendations:

Elsa Bianchi Malbec 2005 (Argentina) $7.99
This deep red wine is rich and fruity, with dark cherry and blackberry flavors, a clove and earthy spice on the finish – just a hint of smooth tannins completes the wine nicely.

Casa Silva Carmenere 2004 (Chile) $9.99
Carmenere is a crazy grape, with aromas of chocolate, black pepper and toffee notes, and flavors of plum, more chocolate and a touch of sweet oak.

Bodega Lurton Pinot Gris 2005 (Argentina) $7.99
This nice and plump Pinot Gris has citrus peel, butter, floral and peach flavors with a round, clean finish.

Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes 2006 (Argentina) $12.99
This Torrontes comes from the Cafayte region and bursts with flavors of peach pit, white pear, flowers and oranges. VS

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