An introduction to South American wines

Posted by on August 14th, 2013

Chile and Argentina are two of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of wine, and their wines are readily available in the US and Europe. Plenty of their excellent wines don’t make it to the foreign market, however, and are waiting to be discovered on your visit to the region. Use this guide to scratch the surface, and unearth your new favorite South American wines.

 Argentine varietals

Argentina is most famous for its Malbec. Malbec is an old French grape which is mainly used in blends in Europe, but in Argentine conditions it produces hugely expressive reds which stand alone. Another homegrown red is Bonarda: it lacks the panache of Malbec, but it is distinctly Argentine and makes for very easy drinking.

Argentina’s flagship white is Torrontes. It’s a very fresh, aromatic wine which is great for summer quaffing and has been compared to Muscat and Gewürztraminer. There is also a Spanish varietal called Torrontes, but DNA research shows that the Argentine version is entirely different, and that the grape variety was hybridised in Argentina.

Grapes which are better known internationally also produce exceptional wines when grown in Argentina, and three of the most popular are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Argentine regions

60% of Argentina’s wine comes from the Mendoza region, and its Lujan and Uco valleys are the undisputed home of the best Malbecs in the world. Torrontes flourishes to the north of Mendoza, where conditions are hotter and drier, with the province of La Rioja being the epicenter: Torrontes Riojano is what to look out for on the bottle.

San Juan province – between Mendoza and La Rioja – produces some excellent Syrahs, while the regions of Salta and Cafayate in the far north-east of the country are known for their Torrontes and Cabernet Sauvignons. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Rio Negro province in Patagonia produces excellent cool-climate wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Follow this link for an excellent map of South American wine regions.

Chilean varietals

Although Chile produces less wine than Argentina, it started focusing on high quality output before its neighbor, and as such its wines are better known internationally.

Chile has made Carmenere – an ancient European grape, which had fallen out of favour in the old world – its own. Even in Chile it was long presumed to be a hybrid of Merlot – due to its similarities on the vine with its famous cousin – but recent DNA testing has disproved this. Chile is by far the biggest producer of Carmenere, and although it is mainly used in blends, Chilean wineries are now starting to produce it as a varietal with incredible success.

Probably the best Chilean wines are its Cabernet Sauvignons, which achieve quite a different character to traditional Cabernets when produced in Chilean conditions. Chile’s best known white wines are its Chardonnays, but Sauvignon Blanc is also gaining in popularity.

Chilean regions

Casablanca Valley, Chile

Chile is a long, thin country, and its wine producing regions are all wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains in a north-south band that extends about 500 miles. This incorporates 14 different valleys, each of which has its own unique terroir.

Among the most famous regions are the Maipo Valley (nearest to Santiago and great for Cabernet Sauvignons); the Casablanca Valley (west of Santiago and famous for cool climate whites); and the Colchagua Valley (south of Santiago with a warmer climate which yields fantastic reds.

If you want to know more, here is a very in-depth article about Chile’s wine regions.

Uruguay and Brazil

Only the most seasoned wine experts will be familiar with wines from Brazil  (which produces surprisingly good sparkling wines and fruity whites) and Uruguay, which is famous throughout the continent (though not internationally) for its tannats. Argentina and Chile might produce the most famous South American wines, but they are not alone, and – with over 1000 wineries – Brazil might well be the next big thing in winemaking

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