Wine Guide South America
Wine Guide South America – Wine Region MapOver the last half decade the wines of both Argentina and Chile have become firmly established on the international wine map. This reputation has been built on value and, particularly in the case of Chilean reds, vibrantly fruity styles. More recently some impressive super-premium wines have emerged, suggesting real potential. There is some way to go before either country can compete in absolute quality terms with either Australia or California but new wines and producers are continuing to surface. The only other countries with potential for fine wine are Brazil and Uruguay. Some decent wines are emerging from the far south of Brazil, while Tannat is widely planted in Uruguay but as yet there are only a handful of reasonable examples.
South America Wines
Argentina is as yet less established internationally than Chile and many wineries seem to have some way to go to match the fruit quality achieved at lower levels by her neighbour across the Andes. The country is, however, the fifth largest wine producer in the world, with a vast bulk-wine industry centred around the main region of Mendoza, which accounts for around nine out of every ten bottles produced. Argentina does appear to have real promise for good and indeed premium wine production and a number of impressive reds and whites are now being made. Outside expertise from the likes of Michel Rolland is increasing as is investment in new vineyards and wineries.
In the north of the country are the hot and dry vineyards of Salta, Tucumán and Catamarca. The lower lying vineyards are too warm for quality wine production and irrigation is vital. Within these regions, though, there are a number of better sites with vineyards planted at high altitude, in particular those in the Calchaquies Valley at Cafayate. Some good results are being achieved with both Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the aromatic Torrontés.
The bulk of Argentina’s vineyards are in the Cuyo region to the south of Salta. Most northerly of the areas is high altitude La Rioja, a source of good reds and Torrontés. The centre of the country’s wine production though is to the south at Mendoza. Areass that are of particular note are Luján de Cuyo, Maipú and the Uco Valley. The best of the vineyard area is planted at considerable altitude and some of the wines are world class. Malbec is very successful here but there are also widespread plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese. Bonarda is important both varietally and as a component in many wine blends and is the most widely planted red variety. Chardonnay inevitably is important and produces really striking wines in cooler sites. To the south in Patagonia are the regions of Neuquén and particularly Río Negro. The climate is cool and early ripening Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Chardonnay have all been grown with some success here. However, stylish, elegant examples of the red Bordeaux varieties and Syrah are also appearing and there are ongoing efforts to realise the potential complexity of Pinot Noir.
The country is split into five viticultural zones. Running from north to south, they are: Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Valle Central and the Región del Sur. These zones contain a number of sub-regions and these may also be further subdivided. Atacama and Coquimbo are well to the north of the country. These are hot and dry, requiring mass flood irrigation, and generally produce basic table grapes as well as Pisco, the local brandy. There are new vineyard plantings at Coquimbo nearer the coast, where the climate is moderated by sea breezes. Some good rich and full-bodied reds are also now being produced both from the Bordeaux varieties and from Syrah further inland at altitude in Limari. You have to travel further south, though, to find vineyards capable of providing good quality wines in any volume. The region of Aconcagua includes the important sub-regions of Casablanca and San Antonio, where the vineyards are cool and nearer the coast. These is now a well-established source for some of the better white wines in the country with fine Syrah and Pinot Noir also emerging from San Antonio. Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc are all successful. The Valle del Aconcagua itself is warmer and and becomes increasingly hot further inland. Eastern Aconcagua is largely red-wine territory. Some of the best sites are on well-drained slopes and the super-premium Seña blend is sourced from the area. The Valle Central is a substantial zone, which includes Chile’s capital city Santiago to the north. The suburbs encroach into the vineyards of Maipo, the northernmost of the zone’s sub-regions. The valley runs 400 km north to south, taking in Rapel, Maule and Curicó. The two key elements which influence grape growing here are the coastal fogs, which drift a long way inland and moderate the climate, and the Andes Mountains. The latter provide an important water source for irrigation. One of the problems encountered over the past decade has been over vigorous and over productive vineyards. Increased use of sophisticated drip irrigation systems is helping to overcome such vineyard problems. More wines are offering ripe and vibrant fruit now as opposed to some of the overtly green flavours that were so widespread just a few years ago. The best reds from Maipo have traditionally been Cabernet-based but increased plantings of Rhône varieties is a continuing trend.
Rapel is very promising for fine wine production with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and particularly Carmenère successful in the warmer south of the region at Colchagua, while earlier ripening varieties including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are more successful in cooler Cachapoal. There are both promising reds and whites to be found at Curicó. Growing conditions are aided by large mid-season temperature fluctuations which help in preserving the acidity in the grapes. Maule to the south is largely dominated by white varieties but there is some good Merlot too. The coastal vineyards of Leyda offers fine whites as well as good Pinot Noir. To the south is the Región del Sur including the two sub-regions of Itata and, immediately to the south, Bío Bío. Unsurprisingly, this being the most southerly of the grape-growing regions, the climate is cool and rainfall is also high. Sophisticated trellising and the planting of early-ripening Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as Alsace varieties has shown some potential. The best results so far have come from Bío Bío.
Bento Gonçalves, a city of 105,000 people, is the Bordeaux of Brazil. It lies at the centre of the Vale dos Vinhedos (Wine Valley), a sub-zone of the Serra Gaúcha wine region in Brazil’s southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul. Money, mostly private, is being pumped into the Brazilian wine industry like newly fermented wine into an empty steel tank. Export markets are being targeted enthusiastically.
Located at parallel 29°, Serra Gaúcha has an average winter temperature of 12°C. In the summer, temperatures average 22°C, much cooler than in the north. The humidity caused by high rainfall means that spraying is essential. The lush landscape implies very fertile soils, which, because they encourage excessive vegetation, are not always the best for growing grapes for quality wine.
The prevailing soil type is argillaceous, with plenty of clay. This suits Merlot well and also tempers the acidity promoted by the region’s high altitude. Bento Gonçalves is at 690 metres above sea level, though vineyards in the Vale dos Vinhedos tend to be a bit less than that. Vinifera rather than hybrid vines are now universal for “fine wines.”
The Rest of South America
The only other country to have any real potential for quality wine production is Uruguay. Hybrid varieties are still important in the area planted but high quality vinifera varieties are becoming more significant. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are all cultivated. Most important from a quality wine perspective is the Tannat. Elsewhere the climate is too hot and humid.