Argentinian and Chilean producers are working to reinvigorate grape varieties that have historically not gotten the respect they deserve.

By Brian Freedman
October 29, 2019
Bruno Maia/Getty Images

When I first visited Argentina in 2010, the country was in the middle of the inexpensive Malbec boom. Many of the producers I spoke with then had serious concerns about their calling-card grape variety falling into the same consumer-perception trap that Australian Shiraz had. Even though there were plenty of excellent ones being produced, Malbec was, at least among consumers, more or less synonymous with the cheap-and-cheerful bottlings that had been flooding the American market at the time.

The producers didn’t want that to be the end game.

Since then, I’ve traveled to Argentina and Chile several times. On each visit I’ve been struck by the strides that both countries have made toward improving the overall quality of the more affordable wines. Thankfully, many are using less new oak than was once in style. And while there are still plenty of examples being produced that fit into the commodity-wine category—that’s the case everywhere in the world—there is more excitement to be found throughout the price spectrum, year after year, on both sides of the Andes.

Last week, during a visit to Mendoza’s Uco Valley, I walked a new vineyard high in the Gualtallary appellation with Martín Di Stefano, the viticulturalist, agronomist, and vineyard manager for Zuccardi Valle de Uco. Argentina, Di Stefano argued, is the only country in the world that has a consistent wine identity throughout, which in this case is that they tend to make mountain wines. In general, almost all of the important wine regions are near or impacted by the Andes. And because Mendoza is technically a desert, irrigation is necessary. Since that water can only come from the mountains, there’s only enough to irrigate approximately 3% of the land in Mendoza. The approximate breakdown is 1% of the water goes to vegetables, 1% to fruit, and 1% to grapes, he said. As a result, only a small percentage of the land in Mendoza has been planted with vineyards.

Within that area, however, the diversity of geology, aspect, and microclimate is huge, which is where the excitement can be most readily found. In the Uco Valley alone, there are 44 distinct alluvial fans—essentially areas of runoff from the melting of ancient glaciers and the streams of water that resulted—which means that the diversity of soil types in this one appellation gives growers and winemakers a remarkable tapestry to work with.

Chile, on the other side of the Andes, is one of the few countries in the world where you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. That’s how close the mountains and the sea are to one another. As a result, vineyards there can be influenced by the Andes or the Pacific, depending on where they’re planted. Producers are increasingly taking advantage of that.

Viña San Pedro, part of the VSPT Group that produces more than 15 million cases of wine a year, grows grapes throughout the country in an attempt to express the range of what the long, narrow nation is capable of. Their excellent Cachapoal Valley Syrah, planted in volcanic soils in the cool, windy foothills of the Andes, could not be more different stylistically from the more ethereal reds coming out of the Leyda Valley, whose influence is more oceanic.

Viña Montes is leveraging properties on both sides of the Andes, with their eponymous one in Chile, and Kaiken in Argentina. They make it a point of keeping them separate, despite the family’s ownership of both.

“We have independent commercial and winemaking teams on both sides of the Andes,” Aurelio Montes, Sr. said. “They are managed using local teams. The idea is to leverage our philosophy and expertise on quality and management, but in Chile we produce Chilean wines and in Argentina, likewise, Argentinean wines, brands. Montes and Kaiken are different in terroir and spirit.”

Then there are producers who are working to reinvigorate the grape varieties that have historically not gotten the respect they perhaps deserve. Or that haven’t earned a great deal of respect in Chile or Argentina because they hadn’t been planted in the proper places and vinified with the appropriate focus on quality. Recently, however, I’ve been charmed by a number of wines crafted from País (J. Bouchon makes a delicious one), Pedro Ximenez, and more.

The point is that Chile and Argentina are two countries whose most interesting wines are bursting with a sense of excitement and possibility. Here is a selection of readily available bottles, at a range of price points and listed alphabetically, from widely distributed producers that are worth seeking out.

Alamos Winery

Alamos “Selección” Malbec 2016 Mendoza, Argentina

Waves of chocolate and blueberries are intertwined with vanilla, cinnamon, and blackberries in this everyday-priced red. Perfect alongside a grilled hamburger. $20

Viña Mayu Pedro Ximenez 2017 Huanta Vineyard, Elqui Valley, Chile

Aromas of stone fruit and chalk precede a savory, almost saline palate with mashed almonds lending heft to hard pears and apricot pits. Approx. $14

Cheval des Andes 2015 Mendoza, Argentina

Cherry pipe tobacco, black raspberries, and purple flowers lead to flavors of blueberries, cassis, violets, and leather. Decant it now or cellar it for over a decade. This has the structure to last. SRP: $100

Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Puente Alto Vineyard, Puente Alto, Chile

Lifted and concentrated at the same time, this showcases the fresher side of Cabernet Sauvignon without sacrificing any sense of richness. A silky texture carries flavors of currants, cedar, cigar tobacco, and mineral, all of it impeccably balanced and mouthwatering. Approx. $100

Domaine Bousquet Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Tupungato, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina

Crafted from grapes grown organically at close to 4,000 feet above sea level, this is zipped through with currants and cedar, finding an excellent balance between generous fruit and more savory spice notes. A great value at under $15.

Finca Decero

Finca Decero The Owl & The Dust Devil 2015 Remolinos Vineyard, Agrelo, Mendoza

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Tannat that shows floral and black raspberry aromas cut through with minerality, all of which precede flavors of black cherries, black raspberries, and sweet spice as well as a finish of violets and floral peppercorns. $33

Montes “Taita” 2009 Marchigue Vineyard, Colchagua Valley, Chile

Based on Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2009 Taita, even at a decade of age, remains almost inky in color. Fully mature aromatics have turned to ambrosial notes of dark chocolate ganache, cigar humidor, espresso, and sandalwood. The first sip reveals a wine at its peak, with balsamic flavors vibrating through currants, cedar, spice cake, plums, blackberry liqueur, and hoisin sauce, all of it finishing with soy sauce and ripe black plums. Montes only made 5,000 bottles of this wine, but if you find one, snap it up immediately. $260

Nieto Senetiner “Don Nicanor” Malbec 2016 Mendoza, Argentina

Dense and brooding at first, this spicy, peppercorn-flecked wine is subtly kissed with a hint of violets, but it’s mainly about the dark cherries and brambly berries. Bring on the steak au poivre. Approx. $15

P.S. Garcia “Bravado” 2015 Itata Valley, Chile

A blend of Syrah, Carignan, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, and Grenache that is remarkably complex, with a swirl of black figs, brandied cherries, sweet spice, floral peppercorns, mineral, and something vaguely meaty beneath it all. $19

Primus Carménère 2017 Apalta, Colchagua Valley, Chile

Minty, spicy, and bursting with tobacco leaf, this has loads of concentration and lift. The first sip doesn’t disappoint, either: An earthy bass-note lends muscle to flavors of ripe plums, black cherries, and sweet spice, with a finish of iron-like minerality. $19

Veramonte Pinot Noir 2017 Casablanca Valley, Chile

A nose of herb-laces cherries and cranberries follows through to the palate, where rose bushes, raspberries, and cracked peppercorns join in. Serve close to cellar temperature: A slight chill will be perfect with this under charmer. $11

Courtesy of Viña San Pedro

Viña San Pedro “1865” Selected Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Maipo Valley, Chile

Notably fresh aromatics of red berries and currants dance with a hint of fresh-picked mint and precede ripe wild berry and cherry flavors spiced with a sweet touch of vanilla. $19

Zuccardi “Emma” Bonarda 2017 Uco Valley, Mendoza

Generous, mouthwatering, and broad yet structured, this Bonarda pops with flavors of purple flowers, black cherries, mulberries, spice, and a kick of mineral that swoops in on the finish. $27

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