Exploring South American Wines

(Originally published September 2002)

It's no great secret that, with a few notable exceptions, South American wines underwhelm Hanes. It's not that these wines out-and-out stink, it's more that in the context of global competition there's usually wines from other countries or regions more preferable to drink. The strong grip South America once had on the least expensive segment of the wine market has weakened.

To address this pressing issue, Hanes will act as a wine industry ambassador for South America, explaining the wine regions and viticultural wonders to be found there. His vast and powerful influence will then prop up these sagging economies and soon have them on the road to recovery.

South America is a big place. They grow lots of grapes and make lots of wine. The wine industry tends to be dominated by large, national companies and an increasing majority of the wines are exported to other countries. Because of this, and the history of European influence throughout the continent, there remains a focus on popular European varietals (e.g., Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot). If smaller, more "artisinal" producers exist most of their product is sold within their country's borders. Another recent trend revolves around foreign investment. Many foreign wineries or wine conglomerates have forged alliances with local wineries or opened their own operations, bringing international viticultural practices into regions which already possessed excellent terrains and grapes but not the winemaking skill and/or capital to craft truly exemplary wines. As one might suspect, these "new breed" wines are not cheap.

Far and away, the two countries with both the most advanced wine industries and American market penetration are Chile and Argentina. Other countries that produce wine but really gotta get their acts together include Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico (yeah, he's throwing them into South America), Peru, and Venezuela with Uruguay and Brazil presenting the greatest likelihood of penetrating the U.S. market anytime soon. So, Hanes will focus on Chile and Argentina and if any other region gets with the swing of things soon, well, that's fodder for a future Hanes Wine Review...

Chile is a long, thin country with around 4,000 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. There exist many regions within Chile representing different climates but they are all in some way influenced by the many mountain ranges within the country, especially the Andes mountains that separate Chile from Argentina. The weather is mostly dry and warm with not much rainfall. Coastal regions are somewhat cooler. The majority of vineyards are on flat, fertile soil which can raise proper irrigation and drainage issues. Moreover, the lack of sloped vineyards and more rugged terrain makes it hard to "stress" the vines, something which often helps produce fewer but higher quality grapes.

Until recently, not many people paid attention to which region their Chilean wines were coming from, and with good cause. Yet, with quality increasing, it makes sense to pay attention to the region names as qualitative differences should become more apparent with time. It's like you don't confuse the climates and terrains of Napa with Sonoma, or Paso Robles with Santa Barbara, right? Right? RIGHT?

While all of Chile's wine regions are in the south-central part of the country, Aconcagua is the most northern of these. It is very warm there and few wines here merit regional designation. So don't look for it. Moving southward, Casablanca is next. Because of it's cooler climate as a coastal region, a lot of white grapes are grown here, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. If you're getting specific, this is your best bet for whites when scanning Chilean labels.

Further down and inland is the Maipo Valley. This is a very well-known region and it produces most famously Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines. Big names like Viña Almaviva, Viña Concha y Toro, and Viña Santa Rita make their expensive "luxury" wines from this region. The wines can be very good but rarely worth the price asked -- they must be thinking if you want to convince people the wines are "world class" you have to charge "world class" prices. Whatever, man.

Next to the south is the Rapel Valley. Now we're talking! This is probably Hanes's favorite region in Chile. It is one of the warmer regions and they achieve nice ripeness in their grapes, without a lot of the stemmy, herbaceous flavors that plague Chilean wines. Hanes faves Casa Lapostolle, Santa Laura and Dallas Conté make many wines here. The best sub-region of Rapel is the Colchagua Valley -- try a few wines from here and you should receive a favorable impression.

The Maule Valley is next, perhaps the biggest single wine region in Chile. It's fairly cool and temperate, and plenty of wines escape the vines here. But, so far, little has stood out to Hanes. Areas like Maule are the backbone of the basic Chilean wines you drank in high school or college. Or now, you cheap mofo.

The southernmost region is Bío-Bío. Frankly, Hanes cannot remember ever having a wine specially designated as from this region. The name is cool, though.

One of the fun things about Chile is that recently they discovered a big "oops" on their part. Hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of grapes they thought were Merlot after genetic testing turned out to be another grape entirely, Carmenère. They look and taste very similar. This whole mess is slowly being sorted out and, as a result, you will see more Chilean wineries producing bottles labeled as Carmenère. Which is good, since this old Bordeaux varietal has more or less died out across the globe, so they have cornered the market. Don't be scared off by the unfamiliar name, chances are it, err, tastes just like Merlot...

Now, to Argentina!

Argentina is way big. With many, many wine producing regions (only a few countries produce more wine than Argentina). Yet, 99.9% of the Argentinean wines you will drink come from the southwestern region of Mendoza, just east of the Andes mountains. What, does the Argentinean mob work out of Mendoza or something?

Mendoza's climate has four well-defined seasons with an average amount of rainfall, mostly during the summer months. Hail can be a big problem, at times becoming severe enough to damage vines. The soil is composed of clay, sand and a thin layer of rich topsoil. Ripening of the grapes is not usually that large of an issue but achieving good concentration of flavors can be.

Argentinean wine is all about the Malbec grape. Historically grown in the French regions of Bordeaux and Cahors, Malbec has taken amazingly to the Argentinean lands and thrives like nobody's business. Malbec makes a dark-colored, earthy and chewy wine, the kind of big and vigorous wine you'd expect to pair with a juicy steak. Given the huge size of Argentina's cattle industry, the popularity of Malbec comes as little surprise. Other red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah and Tempranillo. Almost the most widely planted grape next to Malbec, Bonarda is a basic blending grape that can be at times interesting but usually not enough to create an international craze for it. As far as Hanes knows, the jury is still out on the history of Bonarda, and whether it is actually the varietal known elsewhere as Charbono or the varietal Croatina. Stay tuned for late-breaking reports.

Argentina grows a boatload of Chardonnay and on the whole it's not bad, more or less in line with inexpensive expressions of the grape from places like California, Chile or Australia. Other white grapes grown in larger quantities are Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. But the diamond in the rough is the Torrontés grape. Loosely linked to the Spanish grape of the same name, Torrontés makes for a wonderfully floral and lightly fruity wine similar in some respects to Scheurebe or Muscat. Like both, it can be vinified as a dry table or as a sweeter dessert wine.

Again, for the U.S. market there isn't much to say about the Argentinean regions beyond Mendoza. Hanes has seen a few wines from Río Negro, San Juan or La Rioja but there's not much to say about these regions except they probably contribute their grapes to generically labeled Argentinean wines. Perhaps some young go-getter is even now scouring these lands for hidden gems to export to a hungry American marketplace.

Brazil is the third largest South American wine producer. Hanes has never had a Brazilian wine. Supposedly they make a decent amount of sparkling wine. Two major nationwide brands, Miolo and Valduga, apparently dominate the Brazilian wine scene. Brazil grows a mixture of European varietals such as Trebbiano, Malvasia, Chardonnay, Barbera and Merlot and hybrid American grapes such as Concord, Norton or Catawba. No clear qualitative winner has emerged yet. We're waiting.

Uruguay is next in line after Chile and Argentina for producing quality wines. On the whole, the climate is similar to southern Europe and fairly temperate. They grow the usual suspects such as Chardonnay, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. But their shining star is supposed to be the Tannat grape, most well-known as the grape used in France's Madiran region. Uruguay's Tannat wines are reputed to maintain the earthy rusticity of Madiran wines but with rounder fruit flavors and less of a rough-edged tannic bite. Hanes is on a mission to taste some Uruguayan wines so watch for tasting notes coming soon to a wine review near you.

Then there's the also-rans. Some of you might have had the "local flava" when on vacation to countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela or Mexico. But it doesn't seem any of these wines make it to the U.S. So, it is fair to say only that they exist, somewhere out there. Maybe Agent Sculley will discover some in a corner case stack in some Upper West Side wine store and bring them to Hanes to taste the next time they get together.