5 February 2016

Why South America’s fine wines deserve to be taken seriously


Flight time from the leafy, tree lined avenues of Mendoza with their relaxed café’s and bustling restaurants to the sleek, urban freeways of Chile’s capital Santiago is just 45 minutes. The young couple next to me, returning home from a brief trip away had obviously flown it many times before judging by the way they gripped the back of the seats in front them for take off and stared nervously straight ahead. It’s only a short hop but the aeroplane needs to clear one of the highest points of the Andes mountain range which, according to the World Atlas of Wine, pierces the sky at 6,000 metres. So take off is a series of twists and turns before we straighten out to cross 400 miles of ragged Highlands. Fortunately, despite the loud cheers and clapping on arrival, our flight is smooth. A spectacular view of this mountain range with its volcanoes, glaciers and desert is only partially obscured by clouds.

The wine growing regions of Chile and Argentina, sandwiched either side of the Andes couldn’t be more different. Chile’s wine lands, originally centred around the farmlands of Santiago now encompass some thrilling cool climate regions in the north: Limari and Elqui valleys and Bio Bio and Malleco in the south. This a country which made its name on producing easy-drinking Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Seducing everyone with their consistency but most importantly their price. In the UK they dominated the market which had originally been fuelled by French country wines and then smooth, easy to drink, fruity examples from Australia. With its Mediterranean climate, fertile soils and a plentiful supply of water from the Andes, (transported to the vineyards by an intricate irrigation system), life for the winemaker in Chile is pretty good. But it wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Andes the winemakers of Mendoza blitzed the international market with hedonistic, fruity, oak aged Malbec. A generation of consumers, particularly in north America, were seduced by its supple, soft charms. Like Chile, what it had in its favour was a low cost base and consistency – these wines could be relied upon to accompany the family barbeque under cutting the prices of their more famous European counterparts.

But both countries have moved on significantly and to couch the wine styles of these two countries in such terms is missing the point.

Having just returned from a busy tasting trip visiting winemakers and vineyards in both countries one of the themes which emerged was a move towards producing a more restrained, European style of wine. By which I mean lower alcohol levels, less oak (which translates into a cleaner flavour with more fruit and less of the creamy, vanilla character) and less overly ripe fruit. These are wines one can drink, enjoy a second or third glass without feeling overwhelmed with alcohol and strong flavours. Bodega Volcanes Pinot Noir 2014 from the Bio Bio in Chile is a case in point. Hugely aromatic with notes of cherry and raspberry it has a lively kick. Once sipped it almost feels Burgundian with a crisp, dry finish.

These are wines that have sommeliers, wine critics and connoisseurs purring in satisfaction at their freshness, vitality and energy. Almost every winemaker I spoke with had either worked in Europe or was born there, bringing fresh ideas and a new way of working to the vineyards.

The dark skinned Carmenere with its succulent fruit impressed me in Chile, but I was particularly taken with how Malbec is improving in Mendoza. This is a grape variety which produces a red wine which, in good examples, has the tangy acidity of a good Chianti Classico with aromas which can range from soft dark fruit, violets, red currant, dried herbs, finishing off with a supple finish and freshness.

But there is ambition brimming in both countries to take on the world’s very best. No one exemplifies this more than Eduardo Chadwick, owner of Viña Errázuriz, who has dedicated his life to proving that when it comes to the world’s very best wines his can compete with Bordeaux. Originally he teamed up with Robert Mondavi to launch Seña, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I went in with an open mind but in the past I have always found these wines fall just a little short. More fool me. At a tasting on his farm just outside Santiago, after a tour of the vineyards in which Eduardo explained he had planted over his father’s prized polo pitch with a vineyard, we explored some back vintages. The Seña 1996 was an absolute revelation. On a first sniff if you didn’t know what the wine was from you might place it on the Left Bank of Bordeaux such was its aromas of cedar, old cigar box and dried tobacco. It perhaps lacked a little of the structure and body of a 1996 Bordeaux, but that is a minor point – this is a sensational wine. Earlier we tasted the youthful 2011 and 2013, the latter an absolute star which will give huge amounts of pleasure for many years.

Along with Viñedo Chadwick, Don Maximiano and Casa Real by Santa Rita the future for Chile’s premium wine industry looks very good indeed. Over in Argentina estates such as Cantena, Achaval Ferrer, Cheval des Andes and Pulenta are taking the interpretation of Malbec to new levels. As one winemaker remarked: “We are writing the history of high end wines, we are at the very beginning and still learning.” In terms of European wines, they’ve only just begun.

Three to Buy

2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Tabali, Limari Valley, Chile

Produced from vines which sit just 300 metres from the pacific this is very pale, with a subtle nose and a delicate character. What impresses me about this wine is its finesse and understated poise. A near perfect ‘house wine.’

2010 Casa Real, Santa Rita, Chile

An almost faultless growing season has produced a delightful wine with a compact nose, packed tightly with red fruit flavours, black currant and spice. Once sipped there is a remarkable freshness and Old World elegance to this wine with a powerful, long after taste.

2013 Seña, Viña Errazuriz, Chile

What started life as a joint venture with Robery Mondavi is now 100% owned by Viña Errazuriz. 2013 is undoubtedly the best wine they have produced so far. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot it is still a puppy. But even so at this stage you can make out its complexity. Juicy, silky with lively acidity and a bright texture this is one of South America’s great wines.

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.