I thought I would start my day today writing a brief general note on South American wine. I say South America but could say Latin American wine (i.e. the region including Central America and Mexico) as Mexican wine is now truly growing and produces interesting things. Also for the record only, it is most likely that the first grapes destined to wine where planted in Hispania brought by catholic missionaries. This Caribbean island is known now as Dominican Republic. I will come back to Mexican wine another time and will concentrate here on what is the heart of wine production in the region that is Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay. I will focus grapes, vinification techniques, irrigation and country specifics.
IMPORTED GRAPES FROM EUROPE
Contrary to Europe there are very little autochthonous grapes in South America. All existing grapes where imported from Europe starting from the 16th century and brought by missionaries. An interesting grape, which has now disappeared from Europe is the Pais, which can be found in Chile and was the grape used for mess wine.
Basically three countries, three iconic grapes. Malbec for Argentina (roughly counting for 70 % of the red wine production), known in France as Cot (Wines of Cahors). Cabernet Sauvignon, king of Bordeaux’s vineyard, for Chile (About 40 % of the total vineyard) and Tannat (grape of the Madiran in France) for Uruguay (40 % of the vineyard). Brazil does not have any specificities apart from its renowned sparkling wines produced in the south of the country.
Beyond those key grapes this countries produce wine from various other grapes. A total of around 60 different grapes are planted in the region. Argentina also produce specific grapes such as the Torrontes in Salta and Mendoza or even some more exotic such as Caladoc ! (Crossing between Grenache Noir and Malbec elaborated in INRA in France in 1958…)
In reality, one can find a large variety of grapes. In Argentina for instance some grapes originating from Italy such as Bonarda or Sangiovese but also from Spain with Tempranillo and Albarino. But Argentina also has numerous other grapes originating from France such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot for the reds. And for the whites, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin, Semillon and even some white malbecs !
Chile, beside Cabernet Sauvignon also has, same as Argentina, the French grapes mentioned above. But one has to mentioned Carmenere, a specific grape only discovered recently en 1994. Some ampelographic advanced studies permitted to identify this grape which was until then believed to be Merlot. Chileans, renowned export marketing experts, jumped on that opportunity to put Carmenere forward as their own distinct grape. But Chile is also, and I would say more and more a country of white wines. Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc in the Casabalanca region or Chardonnays of the Center Region.
In Uruguay, with its small vineyard, as compared to giants Argentina and Chile, is producing high quality refined wines. Besides king Tannat, one can find other grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Griego and Albarino.
Brazil, for its part has its specificities. Due to its tropical climate, 90 % of the wine is produced in three states only. The larges is Rio Grande do Sul at the border with Uruguay. Grapes there are very French and Italian. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot noir and Tannat. Ancellota and Trebbiano. Chardonnay, Riesling and Moscatelle for the whites. Brazil also uses some hybrids to produce wines. Vitis Bouquirna and Vitis Labrusca are also used along Viti Vinifera.
As a conclusion on the grapes, another characteristic of the region is that the vast majority of wines are issued from single grapes. Blends are growing but still remain a high end product.
WINE MAKING TECHNIQUES
In the last twenty years South American wine and more specifically in Argentina and Chile, has registered an enormous flight to quality. Improved processes, modernization of equipments (, new instruments( refractometers, PH marquers and installation of laboratories in wineries). The arrival of a number of renowned international oenologist like Michel Rolland, Paul Hobbs or Atilio Pagli also participated in this transformation. Wineries are using classical techniques of wine making in Inox or cement tanks, and then ageing French or American barrels. Many of the new wineries are also working in gravitation. Helping natural sedimentation. Unlike in France for example, wine is far less clarified.
Because of the climate in general, wine does need to be chaptalized. The issue in most countries and especially in Argentina is to find acidity rather than sugar. There are frequent cases where tartaric acid is added during the wine making process. This is not the case in Uruguay which benefits from an oceanic climate and has frequent rain falls.
Wine in the region can reach alcohol rates of 16%. The average being around 14 %. Chile, given its climate manages to produce red wines at lower alcohol content than in Mendoza. Many wineries also add chips to provide an oaky flavour to the wine.
IRRIGATION REMAIN KEY IN MANY COUNTRIES
Plants are irrigated or inundated depending of the region. Something which is forbidden in France for example. In most large producing areas the level of yearly precipitation rarely exceed 200 ml. Let ‘s recall that in order to grow well, Viti Vinifera needs between 400 to 700 ml of rain per years and this well distributed along the year.
The exception in the region is Uruguay and its oceanic climate (being the only country of the New Wold with New Zealand to share this). In Uruguay, vintages are particularly important to follow. In fact some years are disastrous generally due to heavy rains during the harvesting period. In some years precipitation can reach up to 1200 ml.
More than wine to be kept for years the four producers of the region make “ready to drink” wines. That is to say wines that can be consumed immediately after having been bottled. Because we are in the Southern Hemisphere we can also drink the wine of the year. Harvesting is usually done between February and April. The wine for the whites would pass 3 to 4 months in tanks and would reach the market in October. Same for the basic reds.
SOUTH AMERICAN WINE:A MARKET RELATIVELY CLEARLY SEGMENTED
Generally, Bodega or fincas, would propose three to five different wine lines. An entry line generally with wines from young plants and a short wine making cycle in stainless or cement tanks. A second line generally called “Reserva” made with older plants and ageing in barrels between 6 to 12 months. And finally a high end line “Gran Reserva” with older plants, selected grains, specific terroir lots, and ageing in barrels above 12 months. To finish many bodegas or fincas have also selected and limited edition wines (special vintages, new grapes, experimental grapes as well). The important producers generally have also a set of sparkling wines including ones utilizing traditional method (Champenoise). There is also a growing number of bio wines notably in Chile.