Never have the wines of South America offered so much quality, richness and value than today.
The wine industries in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have evolved rapidly, with dozens of modern producers making wine of higher and higher quality in a multitude of different styles and varieties.
One of the hardest parts of my job as the store’s wine buyer for these countries is trying to decide what wines to put on our shelves from the dozens of delicious, well made and well-priced red and white wines presented to me.
The country of Chile is a prime example. For years, the Chilean wine industry concentrated on low price, mass produced wine of various quality levels – some good, some not so good and some exceptionally good considering the low price point - leading to a spot as a top five exporter, but with an overall less than stellar quality reputation. Few sought out Chilean wine if they wanted a “good” bottle of wine. To try and get out of the low-quality wine cellar, there has been an on-going effort to produce more high-quality wines.
Another factor in this quality quest is emotional - the Chileans are intensely proud and want to be taken seriously on the world wine stage, particularly when they see their bitter rivals, the Argentines, doing so well in this higher end of the wine universe.
So amongst the new breed of quality conscious Chilean wineries there have been major investments in infrastructure, particularly newly built, state-of-the-art wineries and the employment of improved viticultural techniques, resulting in lower yields and better quality fruit. New regions have been explored and developed, with an eye to optimally matching specific varietals to soils and climates in ways that hadn’t been explored before.
There have also been improvements in winemaking techniques, with many Chilean wineries realizing their shortcomings and seeking outside help via some of the world’s best technical talent, such as “flying winemakers” and vineyard management experts from Australia, California and Europe, particularly France. This new talent and expertise, when coupled with Chile’s excellent weather, old vines, low labor costs and reasonably efficient logistical infrastructure, is producing and delivering some exceptional wines, many of them still at incredibly low-price points. Add in the successful development of new regions and un-traditional varietals and you have a boom in this higher quality tier of wines.
The country of Uruguay, which is not generally considered a serious wine producer, boasts one of the highest per capita consumption of wine in the world, consistently ranking in the top 10, so they certainly should be considered a true wine culture. They, too, had a spate of modernizing in the 1980s, spurred by the creation of the local Mercosur open market, which opened the Uruguayan market to low production cost neighbors Argentina and Chile and forced the Uruguayans to modernize and defend their own local market share. While production has mostly been focused on the domestic market, a new focus on exports has seen them climb by over 500% since 2011.
Recently, things have really started to take off for the export side of the Uruguayan wine industry, led by, of all things, an Argentine billionaire, Alejandro Bulgheroni. Mr. Bulgheroni owns wineries across the globe, including Renwood here in California, Château Suau in Bordeaux and wineries in Tuscany and Argentina. He has invested over one-hundred million dollars in creating, from scratch, a world class winery complex (first to be completely LEED certified) and world class vineyards at Garzon, a few hours by car from the capital of Montivideo. He hired the very best people he could find, like esteemed traveling winemaker Alberto Antonini of Antinori fame. The Garzon winery is producing both world class Tannat, the signature red grape of Uruguay, and Albariño, the Spanish white grape which is perfectly suited to Garzon’s granitic soils and maritime influenced climate. I keep selling out of the Garzon Reserve Albariño (we’re now on the brand new 2017 vintage) and the 2015 Garzon Reserve Tannat which we carry has recently landed on the Wine Spectator Top 100 wine list, among other accolades. The only accolade I care about is that our customers love this wine – it is the top selling wine in the entire Southern Hemisphere wine department so far this year.
Argentina, which is one of the world’s top ten wine exporters, has led this South American quality revolution. Using predominately overseas investment, they too have been modernizing their entire wine infrastructure. There are now world-class wineries in all regions. And a new generation of Argentine winemakers has travelled the world, learning from the best and then returning home to perfect their craft. There have been improvements in vineyard management and winemaking techniques and the Argentines have also been successfully developing new regions and producing wines from locally un-traditional varietals.
Due to a difficult local economy and unfortunate government policies, the Argentine wine industry has had difficulties in the last few years, with both overall exports and local consumption dropping. Luckily for us, there has been a portion of the Argentine wine industry that realized they could only succeed financially if they moved away from low priced, low margin wines into wines of higher quality and profitability.
So, with their famous red wine Malbec leading the way, they’ve combined their new generation of world-class winemakers and viticulturists with modern facilities, old vine fruit and savvy marketing to move up-market. The result is a plethora of really good wines at the thirty-five dollar and under price point – and more than just Malbec, with Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and other red varietals and red blends leading the way.
If you’re curious about the wines from these three South American countries, join me on April 27th at 7:30pm for one of my rare Friday night wine seminars. I’ll be exploring the red and white wines from the remarkably different regions (and their distinct-in-the-world terriors) of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, with an eye towards the affordable fifteen-to-fifty-dollar a bottle sweet spot of the high-quality wine spectrum. There will be powerful wines from some of the highest vineyards on earth in Argentina, intense and complex biodynamic/organic wines from Chile and the just plain delicious under twenty-dollar Tannat and Albariño from Uruguay that are taking the wine world by storm. There will be at least twelve wines poured for the unbelievable price of thirty-five dollars. And probably a surprise special pour or two. Make your reservation now at 562 597-8303 – this is sure to sell out.