I frequently recommend wines from South America because they quite frankly offer many of the best inexpensive wines in the world. Perhaps only South Africa and regions in southern Spain can compete on a quality-price basis.
But no other region has as many good, low-priced wines in the China market as do the twin pillars of South American winemaking - Chile and Argentina. As economically and deliciously compelling this story may be, I feel it's also a disservice to the many premium winemakers in South America.
The story of South American wines is much more than just good prices, in fact the continent is now making some of the world's finest premium wines. And we should also keep in mind that premium wines from South America generally cost a great deal less than their counterparts from European, the United States or even Australia. This begs the question of why Chile and Argentina are able to make reasonably priced world-class wines.
Money and mother nature
Today anywhere in the wine world, the making of premium wines at any scale necessitates sizable investment. From talented winemakers and skilled labor to the latest technology for cultivation, fermentation, aging and bottling, making quality wines consistently is expensive. Fortunately, because of more stable political climates and natural potential, money from domestic as well as international sources has poured into South American wineries.
Mother nature has also blessed the Andean neighbors. Snowmelt from the Andes Mountains provides a pure and ample source of water to irrigate vineyards. The high-technology drip irrigation system carefully regulates the ideal water flow. On the western side of the Andes, Chilean vineyards benefit from the cool Pacific Ocean Humboldt Current that acts as a natural evening and morning air-conditioner to the hot and sunny days.
This cooling of the vines from afternoon to morning helps the grapes retain their acidity and freshness while it also slows the ripening process, resulting in more elegant and complex wines. On the other side of the Andes, Argentinean winemakers rely on altitude to achieve the same beneficial effects.
Argentina boasts many of the world's highest vineyards. The average vineyard is planted at nearly 1,000 meters with some of the best wines made at much higher altitudes. The Altura Maxima vineyard that's owned by Bodega Colome is a remarkable 3,000 meters in altitude.
Altitude in Argentina acts in much the same way as the Humboldt Current in Chile, providing large diurnal temperate ranges that slow the ripening of the grapes providing a longer growing season with better quality grapes.
Years ago I interviewed Nicolas Catena, the legendary owner and winemaker of Bodegas Catena Zapata and he pointed out the altitude also helped soften the tannins of Malbec wines. He claimed the higher the altitude the bigger the wine, yet the softer the tannins. Anywhere else in the world, trying to make 100 percent Malbec wines with such concentration and robustness would also result in overly astringent tannins.
There's one more gift from Mother Nature. Because of the relatively stable weather patterns and use of drip irrigation both Chile and Argentina boast some of the most consistently good vintages.
As recently as a few decades ago, the natural potential of Chile and Argentina to make premium wines was mostly unrealized. Many reds were oxidized and brownish in color while the few white wines were fleshly and indifferent. The aforementioned Nicolas Catena in Argentina and Aurelio Montes in Chile both played key roles in the movement to quality in their countries. Catena is often referred to as the Robert Mondavi of Argentina and he was the catalyst in promoting the planting of Malbec vines in the best vineyards.
In Chile, Montes was the first boutique winemaker to capture the adulation of the wine world. High-profile joint ventures like Almaviva between Chile's Concha y Toro and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Cheval des Andes, a joint venture between Argentina's Terrazas de Los Andes and Chateau Cheval Blanc, also garnered world attention and helped raise the winemaking bar.
Leading international winemaking consultants like Michael Rolland and Paul Hobbs further helped precipitate this southern hemisphere wine revolution. The critical mass of money and talent has helped make Chile and Argentina two of the most exciting premium wine nations in the world.
Premium red picks
I'd be remiss if I only expounded on the beauty of South American premium wines and didn't cite a few of my favorites. Two of my preferred Malbecs from Argentina are Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec and Trapiche Vina Eleodoro Aciar. Both wines exhibit a delightful combination of power and elegance.
For Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wines, I'm a big fan of the Montgraf Ninquen and the Don Melchor. The Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon in particular is one of the most consistently excellent Chilean reds. The joint venture Almaviva and Cheval des Andes wines along with the Casa Lapostolle that's owned by the same family that owns Grand Marnier are all superb blends that justify their relatively high prices. A more affordable premium blend that's still quite good is the Norton Privada.
The best recognized and most popular premium wines of South America are still mostly red wines, however an increasing number of refined white wines are also being made, especially in the coolest climates. The white varietals that are showing the greatest potential are of course the mainstream French grapes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and also Riesling, Viognier and Torrontes whites.
Some brave souls in the very southern Chilean Bio Bio wine region are battling the very edge of cold climate winemaking and turning out some distinguished Pinot Noirs. Could this be the southern hemisphere's next Central Otago?
In the "I bet you didn't know" category, one surprising style of South American wine that's starting to make some noise is Tannat from Uruguay. Tannat is a red variety native to southwest France that provides strong tannins to the Mandiran and Tursan wines of the region.
Benefiting from the Atlantic Ocean breezes blowing up the Rio Plata, a few top Uruguayan Tannat reds have started winning awards at international wine competitions. These tend to be very big, macho wines with weighty smooth textures.