Across South America, vignerons are demonstrating a better understanding of their terroir. It’s led to a general improvement in quality levels for wines made from international favourites as well as more esoteric grapes. By David Williams
The success of South American wine in the modern, mass-exporting era has been built on a familiar set of grape varieties. Argentine Malbec, Chilean Carmenère and Uruguayan Tannat are generally joined by the usual French classic suspects (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc plus a smattering of Pinot Noir and Syrah) in most merchants’ selections from the continent.
More recently, much of the dramatic upward shift in the quality of South American wine has been driven by improvements in working with those very same grape varieties. For many producers, the focus has been on better, more sensitive winemaking from better-sited vineyards planted to familiar grape varieties, rather than on expanding their varietal palettes too widely.
To generalise and simplify wildly, the continent’s quality-focused producers have come to understand that the climate, soil and topography that work for one grape variety may be entirely wrong for another. And that’s changed their approach entirely. Rather than finding a piece of land and just planting it with whatever set of varieties are currently fashionable, regardless of conditions, today the standard practice is to start with a variety and find the right site for its needs.
This terroir-focused work has in some cases led to the emergence of entire new wine regions, of which the establishment of coastal Chile – from Aconcagua Costa to Colchagua Costa via San Antonio and Leyda – for the production of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is perhaps the most dramatic example.
But it’s also enriched the wines and winemaking practice of the continent’s established winemaking heartlands. At the turn of the last century, for example, there was very little discussion or awareness of the enormous sub-regional differences in Mendoza. With pioneering work by Catena (see page 56) and others showing just how dramatic an effect those different terroirs can have on the character of Malbec, we are now seeing a terroiriste flourish that is establishing the region as a kind of Andean Burgundy.
Exciting and important as this transformation of what we might call mainstream South American grape varieties has been, however, it isn’t the whole picture. Indeed, for independent merchants looking to build a point of difference, those off-the-beaten-track varieties that Australians would call “alternative” are also flourishing, and often in the hands of exciting smaller, or more artisanal winemakers.
Some of these varieties are relatively new, at least in commercial volumes, to the continent. Others, intriguingly, are re-appraised and reinvented leftovers from the days before South America’s big vinous players took on their modern, export-focused form. Here The Wine Merchant profiles four of the most promising of these varieties, with some of our favourite examples of each.
País / Criolla Chica
Until very recently, if you asked a Chilean winemaker about País or an Argentinian winemaker about Criolla Chica the temperature in the room would drop: let’s move on now, we have better things to talk about, you’ll only ever find that stuff in (face contorted in disgust at the very idea) domestic wines.
For anyone who has experienced that disdain first hand, the emergence of critically adored wines made from varieties that had been for so long regarded as the mass-produced lowest of the low is a salutary reminder of how quickly fashions and tastes can change.
País and Criolla Chico are synonyms for a grape variety that is known further north in California as Mission, and in the Canary Islands as Listán Prieto, and which, having arrived with the conquistadors, are the oldest vinifera varieties in the Americas.
The impetus for the variety’s revival has come from a handful of adventurous producers on both sides of the Andes, who saw the potential for making something very different – paler, red-fruited, exuberant, Beaujolais-esque reds with plenty of acidity and light, grippy tannins – from the often very old, neglected, sometimes wild bush vines.
In Argentina, the Criolla Chica renacimiento has been led by two high-altitude old-vine projects: Sebastián Zuccardi’s Cara Sur in San Juan and Marcelo Pelleriti, who has a superbly vivid example in his Vallisto stable.
In Chile, the País action has been largely focused on old bush vines down south, in Itata, Bío-Bío and Maule, and from a growing band of producers that includes DeMartino, Torres, Bouchon Family Wines, Garage Wine Co and Rogue Vine, some of them working solo, and some finding success with blends with Cinsault.
Given the reverence winemakers in Argentina and Chile have historically had (and, in many cases still do have) for Bordeaux, Sémillon was never going to endure quite the same public shaming as País/Criolla did.
All the same, its recent history has followed a very similar arc in southern South America. In Chile, for example, it was for much of the 20th century the most widely planted white grape variety, peaking in the 1950s with 35,000ha, or around a third of the total vineyard, before plummeting to around 950ha today.
In Argentina, the Sémillon bug struck a little later, and to a slightly less extreme effect. Still, in the 1970s it was the country’s second most abundant white grape variety, with some 5,500ha planted, before it fell back to something like 750ha today.
As with País/Criolla, it was the age of often-neglected Sémillon vines that attracted the more experimental winemakers in both countries in the 2010s. And just as País/Criolla provided red wines that were at the opposite end of the taste and texture spectrum to the prevailing rich, dark norm in Argentina and Chile, so Sémillon was able to do something similar in a white context.
The best Argentine and Chilean Sémillons are all about textural depth, herbal notes and savoury flavour, all while keeping their vibrancy and acid balance, putting them in sharp contrast with the lively, fresh, aromatic mainstream dry whites made from the current dominant white variety, Sauvignon Blanc.
Among the Sémillon names to look out for in Argentina are Matias Riccitelli (in Patagonia), Mendel and Bodega Teho Zaha (both Mendoza), while Chile has Carmen, Bouchon, Rogue Vine and Santa Carolina.
In much of South America, Albariño is only at the very beginning of its journey.
And, as you might expect, given that the great Galician grape’s ancestral home is in the Atlantic-breezy Rías Baixas, producers have chosen to plant in coastal sites.
In Chile, the pioneer is cooler-climate specialist Garcés Silva, which will have its first harvest of Albariño from its plantings in the Leyda Valley in 2022.
In Argentina, meanwhile, Bodegas Trapiche has made the variety one of the centrepieces of its Mar y Pampa brand in vineyards in Chapadmalal, on the Atlantic coast, around 300 miles south of Buenos Aires.
Further up the Atlantic coast in Uruguay, however, the story is rather more advanced. It began with Bodega Bouza, which was the first producer in the country to make the connection between the Atlantic-influenced humidity of the company’s vineyards in both Cannelones and Maldonado, and which released its first vintage from the variety in the early 2000s.
Since then, Bouza has been joined – and in terms of volume, eclipsed – by Bodega Garzón, now the country’s largest Albariño producer, with extensive plantings in Maldonado. Garzón produces four different Albariño cuvées, from bright-and-breezy entry-level to a high-end, single-plot wine fermented and aged in a mix of large neutral oak barrels and concrete. It can already make a feasible claim to be one of the handful of leading Albariño producers outside the Iberian peninsula.
Cabernet Franc is no newcomer to South American wine. The vine first found its way to Argentina in the 1890s, making its way to Chile shortly after. Still, plantings didn’t exactly take off. As recently as the early 1990s, neither country could boast more than 100ha of Cabernet Franc vineyard.
Increasingly, producers have seen the potential for Cabernet Franc to do something pretty special on its own
The past couple of decades have been something of a boom time for the variety, initially because producers were looking for something fresher, tighter and leaner to add to Bordeaux blends or, in Argentina, to leaven the fleshiness of Malbec.
Increasingly, however, producers have seen the potential for the variety to do something pretty special on its own, and the plantings of the variety have spread rapidly. There are now around 1,250ha of Cabernet Franc in Argentina, and some 1,500 in Chile – with a further 250ha in Uruguay.
The results are particularly impressive in Argentina. The variety seems to like the high altitude, and there are some stunningly vivid, aromatic solo examples being made in the Uco Valley by the likes of Atamisque (Serbal), Zorzal and Bodega Teho (Zaha), and the variety has also been used to great effect in blends from top Mendoza producers such as Catena and Achaval Ferrer.
In Chile, meanwhile, a more sumptuous, easy-fruited style has emerged from producers such as Undurraga (Terroir Hunter series), Lomo Larga, Valdieveso, and Viña La Rosa (La Capitana).