South America: It’s the ‘other’ New World that is home to the majestic Andes Mountains, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and a diverse people. Moreover, it is a land that produces, some of the most complex and satisfying wines of the world, especially in the regions of Chile and Argentina.
Most people tend to combine the two countries of Chile and Argentina, despite the clear distinctions between the wines of each region. The first major difference is the climate. The Andes divides the two countries: Chile sits on the west coast. The weather pattern comes in from the west, travels across Chile and hits the Andes mountains. As
the elevation rises, rains fall on the Chilean side, but on the east side in
Argentina, the climate becomes dry, arid and dessert-like. This is known as the ‘rain shadow effect’ and plays an interesting role in the terroir of the region.
Volcanos and arid conditions in the north and massive glaciers and wetness in the south make the climate of Chile diverse and surprising. But it is the ‘cool factor’ that makes the most of its wines. Argentina, the ‘hot spot,’ is more consistent. With very little rainfall in some of its best wine regions, irrigation is key. The slopes of the Andes are home to some of the finest Argentinian vineyards climbing up to 5,000 feet. Hot during the day and cool at night, the vines yield some of the finest mountainside fruit.
Carménère is Chile’s signature grape. While carménère was long thought to be merlot, ampelography—the fascinating study of vines and leaves—proved otherwise. (I say this whole-heartedly because I was lucky enough to have a quick study with one of only four ampelographers in the world at Napa’s St. Supéry Winery a few years ago.) Deep, rich, complex and balanced, carménère stands its ground and represents the region well. As a style, Chilean wines resemble the refined, old world wines of Europe, in contrast to the bold and flashy new world styles of Argentina.
Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc also have shown success in the Chilean wine regions but the rising star is clearly syrah. Chile has only been planting syrah since 1990, but is starting to produce such good syrah that it will soon match some of the world’s best.
On to ‘the darling’ of the South American varietals: Argentina’s malbec, which has allowed Argentina to—in some ways—outshine Chile, shows success in low- to mid-priced categories.
Mendoza, known for its malbec, sits on the foothills of the Andes and is Argentina’s most-known wine region. Bonarda is Argentina’s second-most planted red grape. Good by itself, but equally great for blending, it adds depth and color to many wines. The most widely planted white grape, torrontes, is indigenous to Argentina and excels in high altitudes.
South American wines are touted for their value, but how are such quality wines from Chile and Argentina so reasonably priced? Cost of land and labor is inexpensive compared to regions like Napa, Burgundy or Tuscany. You may have to experiment a little to find the wines you like, but it’s worth the journey.
Old World vs New World: Europe is considered Old World and all other regions are New World. Stylistically, New World wines from America and Australia, produced in warmer climates, are more fruit-forward, higher alcohol wines.
For white wine lovers, try a torrontes, which can be very floral and fruity, yet still quite dry; otherwise, try a nice chardonnay. Red lovers: Surely you’ve had a malbec, so try a carmenere or bonarda. Cheers!
Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.