South American wines come of age

South America produces some wonderful wines. Most noteworthy are those from Chile and Argentina, and to a lesser degree, Uruguay. Chile and Argentina’s products are really hot right now, while Uruguay is up and coming. There are grape varieties that have put these countries on the map. Let’s examine them.

There’s no doubt that Chilean wines are popular today. Well over a decade and a half ago, they started the ball rolling with decent quality wines under cork for very reasonable prices. Of course, prices have risen since, but the wines still represent good value for the dollar.

Although Chile produces many traditional European varietals, more than any other produced, Carmenere has to be its claim to fame. This Bordeaux varietal (rarely seen in Bordeaux any more) with its dark-fruited, tobacco, tarry, leathery, herbaceous, coffee, chocolaty, medium-bodied character has become their shining star. It’s great as a single varietal wine and fab when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly enough, it looks a lot like Merlot in the vineyard. It wasn’t until a French oenologist came down to Chile and told them that the wine they were often bottling as Merlot was indeed Carmenere that the variety really took off. The rest is history. Great with grilled/roasted red meats, hearty stews and casseroles, vegetarian cuisine, seasoned cheese and of course, empanadas!

Compared to Chile, Argentina is a wine giant, often in the top five volume producers in the world. Again reasonably priced, quality wine was their calling card and like Chile, prices have risen. Also like Chile, many traditional European varieties are planted. What makes them unique though are the red Malbec and white Torrontes.

Malbec is traditionally from Bordeaux and used as a blending grape. It’s simply too cool in Bordeaux to ripen it enough to warrant it as a single varietal wine. However, in Argentina, warmer temperatures allow the grape to hang on the vine much longer, solving this problem, and wonderful single varietal samples are produced. An inky black wine, full of blackberry, cherry, plum and chocolate, it normally does not age long, but in Argentina there are many that will stand the test of time. Check it out with grilled beef, rich stews, savory spicy dishes, and older cheese. Empanadas love it here too.

Torrontes is an interesting grape. It’s extremely aromatic like Gewurztraminer or Muscat. Peach, flowers, spice, lychee, good acidity and an overall delicate disposition are what it’s all about. Unlike Malbec, it is only produced in Argentina, making it a true Argentinean variety. Not as well known as its red partner, it is gaining notoriety very quickly. Try it with exotic cuisine like Thai, Indian, Mexican, Hakka Chinese, and smoked fare.

That brings us to Uruguay, a small country on the Atlantic Ocean bordering Brazil and Argentina. It has a very prolific wine industry, but has yet to make the scene here. Although it too produces numerous European varieties, the one that stands out is Tannat. This red varietal, used a lot in France’s Madiran region, has found quite a home in Uruguay and has become its signature wine grape. Generally, it is thick-skinned, producing chewy, tannic reds with dark red fruit, raspberry and blueberry notes.

Having judged wine competitions in Uruguay several times years ago and tasting hundreds, I found really approachable ones hard to come by. However, today longer hang time on the vines and cold maceration of the fruit is rendering tannat that is much more vibrant and fruity. It’s still a firm little number, but much easier drinking – divine with grilled or roasted red meats and hard, seasoned cheeses!

With the holiday season soon upon us, do yourself a favor. Include some of these South American signature wines in your festivities and send your palate south for a vacation.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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