Chile Argentina Uruguay South Africa
Chile is a large producer of wine and exports much of it. You’ll find that, in general, the wine is quite good and it’s a great value. The wine industry in South America is older than in the U.S. due to not having the interruption of Prohibition. Thus, many Chilean wineries have been growing grapes and producing fine wine for 100 years or more.
Quality-wise, Chile’s system is less strict than Europe and basically amounts to the name of particular valleys on the label. Thus, each valley strives to achieve its own reputation for quality wine.
The Chilean wine industry is located in three major regions, each one of which trends north/south and is wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains further inland. The climate and soil conditions are perfect for making world-class wines. The names of the regions are Aconcagua, Valle Central, and Sur.
Within the overall wine area are numerous transverse valleys which each have their own distinctive growing conditions. These east/west valleys funnel cool, humid air in from the Pacific at night and are just what wine grapes require after a day of basking under a hot sun. Many of these valleys have excellent reputations and you should make it a point to become familiar with the ones mentioned below.
Besides offering many of the standard French varietals commonly found in other countries, Chile has taken a liking to the Carmenère grape, a red variety that had all but disappeared elsewhere in the world. Chile produces a lot of it, and it’s a wonderful medium to full-bodied red that pairs with a wide range of hearty food dishes.
Two well-known valleys are Casablanca and Aconcagua, located to the north and northwest of the capital, Santiago. Aconcagua produces excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, while Casablanca produces outstanding Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, it’s my opinion that Casablanca produces some of the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. It has its own distinctive grapefruit elements and is a great value.
Some of the better known valleys around and to the south of the capital that you’ll see on labels include Maipo (pronounce ‘my-po’), Rapel, Curicó, and Maule. Here you’ll find great red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carmenère, as well as very good Chardonnay. The Maipo, in particular, produces awesome Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tasting Tip: I’ve had the privilege of touring the Concha y Toro (‘Shell & Bull’ in Spanish) winery just outside Santiago which offers English speaking tours. Besides inexpensive reds, it has repeatedly year after year produced one of the great Cabernet Sauvignons of the world – Don Melchor. Unfortunately, the secret is out and the wine is now on the expensive side, being roughly $60 in 2011 dollars. Nevertheless, it shows that Chile can produce very highly rated wines.
The Sur region—meaning ‘South’—is the southernmost region and has not historically been a player on the international market. However, I recently came across wine from the Bío Bío Valley that was quite decent, so this situation is changing.
Tasting Tip: Chile has begun exporting Pinot Noir to the U.S. in recent years and I’ve tried several different labels. Although inexpensive, I’ve found the wine to be too much on the light side for my palate – very different than the lush, fruit-forward West Coast Pinots or the dry, tart cherry, chalky Burgundys. You’ll have to try them yourself and make up your mind.
Up until recently, Argentina wine was simple to understand. There was good, inexpensive Malbec from Mendoza and that was that. My, how times have changed! Argentina has expanded the varietals they export, so there are currently many wonderful wines to enjoy from this unique wine-producing country.
More than any other country, Argentina has tied its fortunes to obscure grape varieties and the pay-off has been huge. The wine world has embraced these wines big time, and Argentina has become a major player on the international scene, being the fifth largest producer in the world.
The vast bulk of Argentina’s wine production occurs in this region located in the northwest part of the country in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. In fact, some of the highest elevation vineyards in the world occur in Mendoza and to the north.
Originally, Malbec was the big grape here and large quantities of Malbec wine continue to be exported to the U.S. It’s a great tasting red at an inexpensive price, but in recent years some very cheap, not very good Malbec has shown up. You’ll just have to experiment and make note of which labels you enjoy the most.
Tasting Tip: People of Argentina, like those in neighboring Uruguay, enjoy fire-roasted meat. Malbec pairs very well with steaks and roasts of beef, goat, and lamb prepared over an open flame.
Argentina is more than Malbec, however. You can now enjoy white wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and the unique Torrontés, a medium bodied, inexpensive, medium-acidity alternative to Chardonnay. Of these three whites, I believe Argentina does the best job with Torrontés.
Tasting Tip: Those of you who live on the U.S. west coast probably have New Age available at your local wine retailer. It’s a low alcohol (9%), slightly fizzy blend of Chardonnay and Torrontés from Argentina that retails for about $9. It’s a great patio wine for a hot summer day. Serve it with ice cubes and a wedge of lime (squeeze it first into the wine).
For alternative reds, Argentina has given us Bonarda, a delightful wine that’s medium-bodied with medium tannins. It’s also a great value, and lately Argentina has been producing some highly rated ones.
The other region of Argentina that is exporting significant wine to the U.S. is in the southern region of Patagonia. Pinot Noir, especially, has been showing up, and at inexpensive prices. It seems to be hit or miss with me: I enjoy some while others seem to lack character and body. You’ll just have to experiment yourself.
One final note about Argentina: it produces sparkling wines that are available in this country, and at attractive prices. The quality seems to vary, however, so check with your local wine retail expert for advice.
I had not been aware of any wines from Uruguay being available at my local wine retailer until 2002 when I visited the Juanico winery outside Montevideo. What a wonderful surprise! The wines were impressive and I understood for the first time that this little country is serious about producing great wines.
Tasting Tips: The Juanico winery offers English speaking tours and I highly recommend a visit. Their wines are quite good and they are paired with cold cuts and cheeses.
The problem with Uruguay is that the country is so small that the wine industry probably will never export a large amount of wine. Nevertheless, excellent tasting wines from Uruguay are showing up in the U.S.
Uruguay’s big claim to wine fame is their production of what was once an obscure red grape – Tannat. It's a big, deep-colored, and robust wine, high in tannins (the origin of the name of the grape) and reminding me of favorable comparisons to Nebbiolo and Brunello. It’s not for the faint-hearted; you need to be a serious wine enthusiast to enjoy this bad boy, and also have the right food pairing. Tannat mellows out with age, so cellaring for at least several years is advisable.
Tasting Tips: If you have a juicy T-bone steak sizzling on your platter, a Tannat from Uruguay can be an excellent pairing. People of Uruguay like fire-roasted food, and they developed their red wines to enjoy with their meals.
South African Wines
South Africa has come lately on the international wine scene due to its policy of apartheid that, up until the mid 1990s, resulted in an international boycott of South African exports. After apartheid ended and the country began exporting wine, it found that the wine wasn’t up to export standards, especially when transported without proper climate controls.
After this rude awakening, the South African wine industry make a concerted effort to improve the quality of their products and they largely succeeded by the early years of this century. Today, you can purchase most South African wine with confidence.
South Africa uses a quality designation called Wine of Origin, or WO, along with a regional designation. The major regional designations of significance are Western Cape and Coastal. However, you’ll buy higher quality wine if you look for a specific sub-WO on the label.
Quality WOs that you’re likely to see on bottles of South African wine include Breedelkloof, Mossel Bay, Paarl, Stellenbosch, Tulbagh, Robertson, Walker Bay, and Worcester.
South Africa is best known for its whites such as Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. However, good red wines are now also produced and include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and blends.
Note: One of the most popular red wines in South Africa is Pinotage, a hybrid cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. A lot of Pinotage is also exported and you are certain to find it in your local bottle shop. It is a very different tasting kind of wine. You will have to try it and see what you think. Some people like it; I definitely do not.
Tasting Tip: It’s worth your while to become acquainted with South African wines, especially the whites. Most are quite good and they’re terrific values.