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.

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