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Nov 17, 2017

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Chile & Argentina
by Sophia Schweitzer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.6

The Integrity of a Vine Stock

On both sides of the Andes Mountains, in vineyards across a diverse landscape, great purity permeates strong vines. There's nothing mysterious about the great wines from Chile and Argentina. Like Neruda's poems, they're glowingly healthy -- definitely intelligent, deeply erotic. They also grow increasingly expensive with each passing day.

Foreign investors, as well as local winemakers, are thriving on a growing export business. This has somewhat to do with the feverish interest in wines from the Southern Hemisphere, where most prices are still low and traditionalism hasn't yet killed curiosity and exploration. But for Chile and Argentina, a more user-friendly political climate, sans military regimes and dictatorships, has helped.

Mind you, wines have been made in South America since the mid-16th century, when missionaries needed sacramental wine, and Hispanic-Italian immigrants brought the European traditions of a natural wine culture with them. Strictly speaking, however, it's impossible to talk about Chilean and Argentinean wines in one sentence.

The country of Chile is a maritime ribbon -- a sliver of land 2,700 miles long yet no broader than 150 miles, cleft by Andean river valleys. It's bordered by the Atacama Desert on the north and the ice fields of Patagonia on the south. On the other side of the Andes, Argentina -- four times Chile's size -- spans the grassy plains of the Pampas across the continent. Viticulture reflects this difference.

CHILE

Known for reliable, cheap stuff, Chile is increasingly respected for great, delicious wine. As elsewhere in the New World, appellations are less important than varietals and winemaker skills. But, with Chile's ideal climate and perfect soil conditions, it's hard to deny the influence of superb growing conditions. Add to this vinestock history. In 1851, just before phylloxera -- a louse that attacks the roots of the grape vine -- devastated European vines, a variety of vinifera cuttings was shipped to Chile. While Europe had to start anew, phylloxera never touched the newly planted isolated vines. Thus, Chile hosts a rare integrity of ungrafted vines from old, historic stocks that give concentrated, rich fruit.

Why did it take so long to profit from these exceptional circumstances? Chilean winemakers adhered to less-than-sophisticated techniques; local customers didn't seem to care. Only when democracy returned in the 1980s did foreign winemakers, eager to find uncharted potential, rush in to work with the high-quality vines. Chile has since attracted top producers who've either teamed up with local wineries or started their own. Miguel Torres of Catalonia pioneered the trend with a new winery in 1978. Domaines Barons de Rothschild has partners in Los Vascos, and Robert Mondavi has invested in Caliterra. G.H. Mumm and Franciscan Estates founded their own wineries. Kendall Jackson's Calina comes from Chile. Sebastiani exports enormous amounts of bulk wine for its inexpensive Vendange label. An anonymous amount of Chilean wine comes into the United States for blending. Several other wineries have joined the lucrative venture. Well established and original Chilean wineries such as Cousi-o Macul, Concha Y Toro, Undurraga, Carmen and Vi-a Casablanca also took advantage of new interest and advanced winemaking skills. They're creating cool export wines and no longer filling the bottomless vessels in local bodegas (wineries).

Centered around Santiago, Chile's three most important wine-producing regions sprawl across an area of 300 miles in the foothills of a volcanic landscape. Nourished by a moderate climate, vines grow on ashen, pebbly, well-draining soil. There are six distinct viticultural areas: In the north, just below the Atacama Desert, the Aconcagua Valley in Valparaiso runs into the cooler, sandy slopes of Casablanca, west of Santiago. Casablanca, by the way, is becoming the leading wine region of Chile and is especially known for chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. In the Central Valley, where most wineries are located, rivers from the Andes irrigate the prolific vineyards of Rancagua, San Fernando, Curic, Lontue and Talca in the four valleys of Maipo, Rapel, Mataquito and Maule. But wines from this ideal strip of land tend to vary more within a valley than from region to region: In Chile, the greatest differences in terroir -- and fruit -- occur from east to west, from Andean to coastal ranges.

Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are Chile's leading red varietals, though some great malbecs, pinot noirs and syrahs are emerging. Whites are predominantly sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, with Gewurztraminer, chenin blanc and viognier showing enormous potential as well.

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ARGENTINA

A major wine region, Argentina produces vast amounts of product. But in this isolated land, development of viticultural potential has long trailed behind in time and technique. Under military regimes, Argentina was closed off to modernization. Because wine used to be such an essential part of daily Argentinean life, the word "export" wasn't even spoken. Bodegas supplied popular watering holes with a thin, rough and dusty wine to satisfy consumers, who were easily drinking 24 gallons each per year. In the early 1990s, with a dramatically diminished domestic demand, political ease and a more stable economy, a foreign market hungry for new wines cleared the path for higher quality products.

Bodegas Catena initiated the export business with wines in a Northern California style. Then 1996 came along, with its irresistible vintage, proving once and for all that Argentinean wines are all right. Many bodegas now make an effort to steer away from bulk wines, and Seagram, Pomerol, Martini & Rossi and several French Champagne houses have established local wineries.

Only the broad strip bordering the slopes east of the Andes is amicable to the noble grape. Near the Andes, some vineyards grow at 1700-meter elevations! This contrast between mountainous slopes and warm plains defines Argentinean wines. Aridity in the north and devastating hail storms in the south plague the vineyards. Irrigation is a necessity but is often overused. Principal growing areas are, from north to south, the Andean North-West region, with vineyards around Jujuy, Salta, La Rioja, Catamarca and San Juan; the Cuyo region, better known as the prestigious Mendoza and producing Argentina's finest wines (it includes Maipu, Lujan and Uco Valleys); and the southern region, with the plains of San Rafael and the Rio Negro Valley. Rio Negro borders the ice fields of Patagonia and produces cool-climate white wines.

Argentina's most exciting varietal is malbec. Native to Bordeaux, where it fell out of favor a long time ago, malbec, especially in upper-Mendoza, results in a robust, deep, passionate wine. While red and rustic Italian and Spanish grape varieties -- criolla, barbera, sangiovese, dolcetto, tempranillo, bonarda and nebbiolo -- cover most of Argentina's grassy land, many vineyards are switching to malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. As for whites, uniquely fragrant, light torrontes, with its three different strains, has given Argentina its fame. There's good chardonnay fruit, from a clone named "mendoza." Also grown is sauvignon blanc and riesling.

My take on the story: Chile, with the integrity of its vines and sunny vales, spells success. And don't be surprised to see more and more great Argentinean wines in a store near you. But the catch? As more and more well-established winemakers get involved and quality rises, prices might too -- and soon. So drink it while you still can!

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