Signature grapes of South America

TastingIt may come as something of a surprise but  South America is the second highest wine-producing continent, after Europe.  It has some strong home markets (especially Argentina) and big exports from Argentina to north America and from Chile to the UK.  But does it offer something distinctive? Do each of the main producing countries have a grape variety which gives it profile in the world of wine?  Andover Wine Friends’ June 2013 tasting set out to explore these questions.  The wines were sourced from South American Wines online.

Brazil – sparkling wine

It has to conceded immediately that Brazil has yet to establish a signature grape. But its wine production, mostly for inexpensive local consumption, does have a large segment, 22%, devoted to sparkling wine and so this was the obvious choice as a starter.  As with all the main Brazilian sites the chief challenge here in Serra Gaucho, close to the southern border with Uruguay, is the all too abundant rainfall (1800mm per year) and so there is the constant threat of fungal disease. Brut NV, Metodo Tradicional, Pinto Bandeira, Serra Gaucho, Cava Amadeu Elemento, Geisse, 12% is made from 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir.  The wine opened with a slight sulphur note which passed, then ripe apple and some yeasty brioche notes, the product of 18 months on the fine lees in the second fermentation stage.  It has a noticeable slightly sweet finish. The amount of residual sugar is declared as 10g/l.  In contrast to acidic Champagne, 10g/l tastes sweet over fully ripe Brazilian fruit.  Decent value at £16. 

Argentina – Torrontés and Malbec

TorrontesArgentina not only has the largest production in South America, it also genuinely has signature white and red grape varieties.  Probably just about every wine drinker in developed markets has consumed red Malbec while the white Torrontés is less well known.  It is a natural cross between Muscat of Alexandria and a member of the Criolla group,* the common, low quality, varieties which used to dominate South American wine production. Fortunately it is the Muscat genes which shine through.  Our example was Torrontés, Valle Calchaqui, Salta, Colomé 2012.  The key point here is that the vines are grown at a staggering 1,700m of altitude in the Salta province. This means exceptional solar radiation and a long, cool, ripening season which preserves acidity and builds up aromas.  In the glass the wine shows quite a marked grape, rose water and grapefruit bouquet, while the lean palate is full of citrus fruit but with noticeable spicy and mineral tones. Good acidity and decent length complete the picture.  This was one of the most impressive examples members of our group had tasted.  

Before we get to the Malbec we had a digression by way of Bonarda.  There are at least three grape varieties in northern Italy which use this name, none of which are TapizArgentinian Bonarda. In fact this is Charbono or Douce Noir, which originally comes from Savoie, eastern France.  But whereas it is a local curiosity there, nearly 19,000 hectares are currently grown in Argentina. If it weren’t for Malbec, Bonarda would dominate Argentina’s red wine production.  Mostly it is grown for inexpensive quaffing wine, but our example was definitely several steps up from that. If anything it was trying too hard to be an ‘important’ wine.  Bonarda, Tapiz, Fincas Patagonicas, 2010: grown at an altitude of a mere 1030 metres, showed oak-derived toffee notes which rather dominated the fruit, decent acidity and high tannins, presumably derived from both fruit and oak. 

We moved on to two Malbecs, both of which came from the southerly Neuqén area, rather than the Malbec kingdom of Mendoza.  (I didn’t notice this until the ordered wines had arrived.)  The grape variety itself originates fTwo Malbecsrom around Cahors in south west France where it is experiencing something of a revival where 6,200 hectares are grown. It is marginal in Bordeaux where it was not replanted after the frosts of 1956.   By contrast it has been a run-away hit in Argentina where it now amounts to a massive 28,000 hectares.   The first example, Saurus, Familia Schroeder, Patagonia Malbec 2009 was a bit underwhelming with a soft entry, slightly linear fruit, quite luxurious but it lacked the bold fruit which is Malbec’s big thing. Is 24 months in new French oak just too much?  A better fruit-oak balance is struck by Malma, Reserva de Familia, NQN, 2009 which shows more concentrated fruit on the nose and greater intensity and length on the palate.  12 months in mixed French and American oak.  But really we missed a high quality non-oaked example. 

Chile – Carmenere

On to Chile, which is a rather a different scene. This long thin country has shown great capability with a wide range of grape varieties – Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and, nowadays, Syrah – but none of these has really claimed the position of signature grape variety.  Cabernet perhaps came closest but it would have to do something remarkable to complete with Bordeaux and virtually every important wine making country with a warm climate.  By contrast Carmenère (with an accent as we are in France) is down to just 21 hectares in its native Bordeaux – nobody bothered to replant it after phylloxera as it has a problemTwo Carmenere with poor fruit set and, riskily, is a late ripener. In the warmer, more reliable climate of Chile it has blossomed to the extent of occupying 7,000 hectares.  (Thus Carmenere is close to the top of the ratio table at 1000:3: hectares planted in South Amercia against hectares planted back in Europe. The table would read 1. Torrontés – ?; Bonarda/Douce Noir – astronomical because of the tiny amount in Savoie; 3. Carmenere.)  As befits a close relative of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it shows fine fruit, some pepperiness, a hint of tomato skin and interesting savoury tones.  Both our examples performed well.  Single Vineyard Carmenere, Maule Valley, Oveja Negra, 2008 was almost too perfect for its own good with very soft red to black berried fruit, vanilla and cloves, but just a bit too obviously ripe? Great value at under £12.  Carmenere Reserva, Elqui Valley, Viña Falernia, 2009 is a big wine with 15% alcohol achieved by harvesting grapes that have been semi-dried on the vine. Like the first Carmenere a further touch of richness is added by oak ageing in a mixture of French and American oak, if in this second case for just four months.  Fresh fruit, raisins, excellent impact on the palate with rich, intense fruit and high acidity giving balance. Good length with a touch of chocolate on the finish.  A complex wine for £16. 

Uruguay – Tannat

Just one Tannat!If all these South American wines tend to be ripe and easy to approach, Uruguay’s Tannat adds some proper astringency for those who like to suffer a bit with their gustatory pleasure. That includes me along with all Sangiovese and Nebbiolo lovers.  Tannat was introduced to Uruguay by Basque settlers in 1870, its home being south west France, Madiran in particular, where 3,000 hectares are still grown.  There are 18,000 hectares in Uruguay, a significant 22% of its vineyard.  Ours was a superb example and for me, the wine of the evening: Family Reserve RPF, Tannat, Pisano 2007.  Simultaneously austere and aromatic (graphite, blackberries) on the nose and palate, high moderately grippy tannins which add structure. There is plenty of black fruit and acidity so that, given time, those tannins would soften but it would be perfectly drinkable now with hearty meat dishes. 

This tasting showed the now proven ability of the wine producing countries of South America to produce distinctive wines in a mainly ripe, fruit forward style.  More intriguingly, they have each developed wines of real quality from grape varieties which are often in retreat in their French home territories.


* All the information about grape varieties given here and the hectares planted are drawn from Wine Grapes (2012). 

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