The Vines of Mendoza

"Argentina's and Chile's wines are earning global kudos and fans" by Jancis Robinson


Friday, August 3, 2007

Jancis Robinson

We are constantly reminded of Asia's emergence on the international scene as both consumer and producer.
We have been aware of Australian wine for decades and South African wine for centuries. But the continent that is currently making a particularly marked impact on wine lists around the world for the first time ever is South America.

Until being overtaken by the United States in the early 1990s, Argentina made more wine than any country outside Europe, even if the majority of it was unexportable, coarse stuff made from local Criolla and Cereza grapes. But in the cocktail of immigrants that make up the Argentine population, those of Italian stock are so numerous as to have kept Argentina's average per capita wine consumption up in the top 10 - a fact that has to a certain extent distracted the country from exporting her better quality wines.

There is also the unavoidable fact that until the very late 20th century, only a tiny proportion of the massive volume of wine made in Argentina was sophisticated enough to find favor abroad.

Today, however, Argentina well and truly belongs to the outside world. When I tasted well over 300 wines there earlier this year, judging the first-ever Wines of Argentina awards, I was amazed, and only very slightly disappointed in a nostalgic sort of way, to see how sophisticated most of the wines had become.

Even the big, beefy Malbecs, made from Argentina's signature grape, seemed to have dropped a degree or two of alcohol and received what I am tempted to call a French polish.

Indeed, so marked was the transformation of Argentine Malbecs that it inspired the guy in charge of promoting Argentina wines in the United Kingdom to challenge me to choose a range of Pinot Noirs to put up against them in a blind tasting. What this proved was that it was not too difficult to tell the Pinots from the rest, but the Argentine wines were often surprisingly similar in quality and texture.

But Argentina has long had a much wider range of grape varieties to play with than Chile - not just Malbec but oceans of a grape called Bonarda (that has been identified with not the Italian grape of the same name but with the rather obscure Savoie grape known as Charbono in California), lots of Cabernet and Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah and Pinot Noir planted at increasingly high altitudes.

Among whites, Argentina's own headily perfumed signature light-skinned grape Torrontes, recently established as the progeny of Muscat of Alexandria and one of the Criollas, has now been joined by Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc.

Even though Argentina was for ages a particularly isolated country, and the wine business has tended to be dominated by small- and medium-size fiercely independent family companies, the Argentina wine business is slowly starting to export wine.

Exports on the rise

By 2006, Argentina was exporting about 10 percent of its annual production. The country is enjoying particularly strong demand in the United States, not least, I suspect, because it can offer wines that have the body and direct fruity flavors of California at generally much lower prices.

The fact that the famous consultant French oenologist Michel Rolland has so publicly embraced Argentina by setting up his own substantial operation in the hills above Mendoza has done no harm to Argentina's image, either. But this is the beginning of a long road for Argentina, which is finding progress slow in Europe but may well simply decide to concentrate its export efforts on North America.

Less than an hour's hop from Mendoza across the spectacular snow-covered Andes, which provide the key to viticulture in these parts through meltwater irrigation, is the region at the center of Chile's wine industry. That country's wine industry is well under half the size of Argentina's, but already exports three times as much wine as Argentina - a massive 75 percent of its production, in fact.

Unlike Argentina, Chile does not (yet) have a vibrant wine culture, even though it has been planting vines so enthusiastically that the government has announced a vine-pull program. Chileans are much more likely to drink beer and spirits than wine (though it is their grape-based spirit pisco, for tangy pisco sours, that tends to appeal to visiting wine lovers).

The Chilean winescape is quite distinctive - indeed, many viticulturists regard Chile as the single most privileged place in the world to grow vines. Phylloxera has never struck here, perhaps thanks to the protection of the Andes to the east and desert to the north. Most vines are therefore ungrafted and were planted simply by sticking cuttings in the fertile ground.

Bordeaux varieties thrive

Many of the vines, like the Chilean varietal speciality Carmenere that was wrongly identified as a strain of Merlot until the late 20th century, are the direct descendants of cuttings brought from Bordeaux before phylloxera wiped out the Bordeaux wine business in the late 19th century.

In general, Chilean vineyards are subject to hardly any vine pests and diseases, and none of the hail that perennially plagues Mendoza.

Although some of the newer, cooler regions such as Casablanca and Malleco in the far south have been known to suffer from spring frosts, the major difficulty that Chilean vine growers encounter is that vines are too productive - a problem that is currently being addressed by the increasing proportion of truly ambitious wine producers.

Until the beginning of this century Chile was known chiefly as a useful source of reliable and inexpensive red Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but it has been working hard to upgrade and broaden this image - with considerable success.

Today, thanks largely to exploring much more challenging terrains than the flat, easily irrigated, extremely fertile Central Valley, Chile can offer a wide range of increasingly fine white wines (facilitated by the same sort of cooling Pacific fogs that help so many California vine growers), quite subtle Pinot Noirs, some very serious Syrah indeed and a wide range of other grape varieties influenced by terroirs that vary, as in Argentina, from semi-desert in the north to southern districts strongly influenced by the Antarctic.

It will be interesting to see how these two big wine-producing rivals fare in their attempts to seduce the wine lovers of the world now that they are both making wines of real sophistication and value. If it's beef you want, Argentina is probably still the place to head for, but Chile can now boast a much, much wider menu than even five years ago.

Jancis Robinson is a London-based wine journalist. Visit her Web site at and e-mail her at

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