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BERGER: About the wines of Chile, Argentina


To hear some U.S. wine consumers talk about it, South American wine comes from one place: Chilergentina.

Yet there couldn't be two more divergent and yet adjacent wine countries than Chile and Argentina, both of which have had great success selling wines to the United States and Great Britain.

The two nations at the southern end of the wine world share Spanish as their common language. And there the similarity ends.

<BL@199,12,11,10>C<CW-48>hile, one of Latin America's most stable economies, has an inflation rate of 4 percent and a strong middle class, and makes a wide range of wines from warmer and cooler regions.

</CW><BL@199,12,11,10>Argentina, with higher inflation and an unstable economy<NO1>and whose residents refuse to accept the government-stated inflation rate of 10 percent<NO><NO1>and tell you it's closer to 30 percent<NO>, makes only a limited number of wines and has much internal strife<NO1> based around an unstable economy<NO>.

A three-week trip to see a few of the wine areas of both countries was eye-opening in terms of quality. Both countries are making great strides to upgrade the quality of their wines, with Chile a bit ahead because of its maritime climates and the head start it got.

Both countries have long had wine-grape vineyards and both made a lot of wine, but before about 1980, little of it was exported. It wasn't until the early 1980s that Chile began to ship wine to the United States, most of it selling for $5 to $7 a bottle.

Today, Chile ships 70 percent of its wine to the export market. Argentina didn't get its vinous act together for another 15 years or so, and when it began to import wines to the United States, the Bordeaux blending grape Malbec was the wine that caught on fastest.

Interestingly, on our trip here we found cabernet sauvignon also does very well in Argentina's warmer climates, and a few larger houses are sending more cabernet to the United States than in the past, to a welcome reception.

The only drawback seems to be that most of the wines come from Mendoza, a vast, warm region near the Andes in the central part of the country, and many of the red wines are quite similar to one another.

Chile, by contrast, has more than a dozen different growing regions, ranging from Elqui and Limari in the north to Bio Bio and Malleco in the south, so it can make a wider range of styles of wine. In recent years, aggressive planting in the cooler Casablanca Valley, north of Santiago, has allowed Chile to make some stellar sauvignon blancs and syrahs.

Both countries are starting to market their wines a bit differently from the recent past.

Argentina's most energetic white wine of late, stealing attention from some good chardonnays, is Torrontes, related to Muscat. The best of them come from the region called Salta<NO1>, <NO><NO1> north of the city of Mendoza<NO>. Most of the wines are spicy and slightly sweet, and work nicely with spiced Asian foods.

The country also has rediscovered a local red wine grape called Bonarda, also called Charbono in California, which has slightly better acidity and adds much to Malbec blends. On its own, it can be tasty when paired with pasta dishes.

Chile also has an alternative red. Carmenere, once thought to be merlot, now makes a number of excellent red wines and adds much to cabernet blends.

<CW-50>Wines of both countries are steadily improving, to where a number are now being offered for $50 to $90 a bottle. A decade ago, such pricing would have seemed absurd, but with new wine-making technologies and a class of millennial-generation buyers eager to try new wines, Chile and Argentina are clearly defining themselves as wine countries with separate identities.

</CW><CF103>Wine of the Week:</CF> 2009 Finca el Origen Malbec, Uco Valley, Gran Reserva ($20) — This wine is from an Argentine winery owned by one of Chile's most successful wine companies, Santa Carolina. It has a superb violet and spice aroma, deep, complex fruit, and a lot of intensity to match with grilled steaks. From one of the best regions in Mendoza, it was aged in French oak for 15 months and tastes like a wine worth twice the price.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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