South American wines have come a long way. Prolific and well established Chile and Argentina are leading, but up and coming neighbours are finding their own voices with the improved quality that technology and sovoir-faire bring. Last year Peru took home Gold at the Mundus Vini Award in Germany while Uruguay earned Silver at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards. This year, the same competition saw Brazil and Bolivia achieve the coveted Platinum. A first for both nations and the promise of an exciting future.
The Four Waves of South American Wine
The region is known for its diversity and a mixed, welcoming culture which permeates into art, food and of course, its wines, which are a blend of local talent with a good deal of Spanish, French and Italian influences. In order to understand South American wines better, a good exercise is to break down their history into four “wine waves” that represent different stages.
The first South American wine wave started with the arrival of Spanish colonies that settled in the region after Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Soon enough, they were planting grapes nearby the newly founded South American cities, with the purpose of making wine for Mass. Fine wine however, was imported from the Old World and drinking it was a status symbol preserved for the upper classes.
The XIX century saw two important catalysts for a second wave: Independence wars and the subsequent consolidation of States as well as the phylloxera catastrophe that decimated Europe’s vineyards. This time, besides Spanish, there were numerous Italian and French people looking for a land to start over, and this time they were experienced winemakers. For decades, they were working is relative obscurity but making good progress and soon a wine culture developed, often with clear Francophile inclinations and little interest in exporting.
The third wave arrived during a convulsed XX century with two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War followed by the Francoist regime created a context in which the expression first world problems would have meant something very different. While Europe was recovering, South America received yet another influx of Old World vines and people with the ability to turn them into serious bottles. A larger domestic market, a growing global demand and more cost-effective methods of transport saw the massification of winemaking. Perfectly acceptable, inexpensive wines became a staple and both Chile and Argentina were seen as innocuous one-trick-ponies responsible for cheap tantastic Central Valley reds and fruity Mendoza Malbecs respectively.
More recently, a fourth wave of South American wines is rocking the boats of wine lovers worldwide. As vines grow old and local families start counting generations in the business, now they are doing the travelling too, training, learning and turning their efforts towards quality. And the exchange goes both ways, as prestigious European names are establishing wineries in the Sur. This time professional winemakers were not venturing into the unknown or holding one way tickets while hopping for the best, they are moving with resources, solid business plans and all the intention of creating extraordinary wines, often at very competitive prices. Research and organisation have also contributed to the sophistication, as a better classification of soils, valleys and even grape varieties allows them to get the most of the vineyard.
Now it’s time for a taste of what the new wave of South American wines can offer…
14.5% ABV – Available at O’Briens Wines
€20.95 – Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon
Argentina (Uco Valley, Agrelo and Las Compuertas)
This powerful yet smooth red blend comes from a joint venture between Argentina’s prestigious producer Nicola Catena and Bordeaux’s legendary Domaine Barons de Rothschild Lafite.
Hand-picked and de-stemmed grapes combine in a velvety and full bodied red that combines ripe forest fruit with just the right amount of cedar, toast, cocoa and warm spices.
13.5% ABV – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat
€32 – Available at O’Briens Wines
Third generation winemakers at Family Deicas have done extensive research over the last 15 years to identify micro-terroirs and to get the best out of each grape planted. Preludio was created in 1992 and was deemed as Uruguay’s first great wine and it is still one of the countries iconic bottles well worth trying. Complex and full of life, this intense red offers elegant tannins with ripe and dried dark berries and moderate acidity. Toast, roasted coffee and leather notes give away its age, and while it’s ready to drink now, it will pass the test of time with honours.
13.5% ABV – Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Merlot 15%
€14.95 – Available at Baggot Street Wines
Chile, Colchagua Valley
Colchagua Valley is a name to keep an eye on for fine Chilean wines. This one recently earned a Gold Star at the Irish Wine Show Awards 2016-17 and was chosen as the Best New World Red Under €15. Intense ruby coloured and with a pleasant mix of ripe blackcurrant, cinnamon and toasted aromas with a dainty hint of minty leafiness. With a full body and the tannins to match, this is a serious Cabernet Sauvignon that offers exceptional value.
13% ABV – Semillon
€20.99 – Available at the Celtic Whiskey Shop
Argentina, Uco Valley (Mendoza)
Uco Valley offers a high altitude terroir known for quality wines. This white benefits from malolactic fermentation in tanks, which can be appreciated in its creamy texture and lemon curd notes and from a brief maturation in French oak that adds a pleasant almond aroma to its complexity. Low acidity and ripe citrus with white flowers and a mineral touch combine for a fine and versatile white. Check out our food pairing suggestion with this wine by Julie Dupouy, Best Sommelier in Ireland: wild Irish salmon and Mendel Semillon.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.