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South American wine for dummies

Wine drinkers in the US may think they are familiar with Chilean and Argentine wines, but a trip to South America will confirm that there’s far more to South American wines than Norton, Trapiche and Concha y Toro. Argentina and Chile are home to some amazing boutique wineries, and even Brazil and Uruguay produce some pretty excellent bottles these days! Use this guide to scratch the surface, then decide for yourself which is your favorite varietal.

Sunrise in the Valle de Uco, Mendoza (Picture: Tony Bailey)

What to drink in Chile

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

Chile has made carmenere – an ancient European grape, which has long since fallen out of favor 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 world’s biggest producer of carmenere, and although it is mainly used in blends, some wineries are now starting to produce it as a varietal with incredible success.

Arguably, the best Chilean wines are its cabernet sauvignons, which achieve quite a different character to what one would traditionally expect from this grape. Chile’s best known white wines are its chardonnays, but sauvignon blanc is also gaining in popularity.

Caliterra Vineyard, Chile.

And where to find it...

Chile is a long, slender 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. There are 14 different wine-producing 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.

A vineyard marker in Chile. (Picture: Carlos Varela)

What to drink in Argentina 

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 you dare not blend. Another homegrown red is bonarda: it lacks the panache of malbec, but is distinctly Argentine and makes for very easy drinking.

Argentina’s flagship white is torrontes. Torrontes is a fresh, aromatic wine which is great for summer quaffing. It’s been compared to muscat and gewürztraminer, and 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 hybridized 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.

Some fine Argentine reds. (Picture: Dave Longhorn)

And where to find it...

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 of production for this fresh, fruity white: 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.

Check out this link for an excellent map of South American wine regions

The ultra-modern O. Fournier winery near Mendoza. (Picture: Dave Longhorn)

Yes, they really do make wine in 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 has long been famous through the continent (but 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 (along with China) might well be the next big thing in wine-making.

If you're ready to test your palate in South America, we invite you to start planning a Dionysian journey to Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Santiago. If you'd like to start with a North American wine expedition, why not venture first to the North Coast Redwoods and Wine Country, to later compare with our neighbors in South America? Thanks to Dave Longhorn who also took the cover photo for this post.

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