The world's wine lovers are currently hearing a great deal about Asian wine's emergence on the international scene. They have been aware of Australian wine for decades and South African wine for centuries. But the continent that is really making a particularly marked impact on wine lists around the world for the first time ever is South America. It is worth getting to grips with their very distinct and fast-changing styles of wine.
Until being overtaken by the US in the early 1990s, Argentina made more wine than any country outside Europe, even if the majority of it was unexportable, coarse stuff made from the unimaginably prolific local Criolla and Cereza grapes that have no pretensions to quality. But in the cocktail of immigrants that make up the Argentine population, those of Italian stock are so numerous as to have kept Argentina's average per capita wine consumption up in the top ten – a fact that has to a certain extent distracted the country from exporting her better quality wines.
There is also the unavoidable fact that until the very late 20th century, only a tiny proportion of the massive volume of wine made in Argentina was sophisticated enough to find favour abroad. Thanks to introductions from Argentina's longest-serving wine writer Dereck Foster, I toured the bodegas of Mendoza, Argentina's wine capital, in the mid 1990s and was amazed by what I found. The people were delightful, but the bodegas were warm and dusty and many of the wines somewhere between a syrup and vinegar. I brought back some of the best examples of Argentina's signature grape Malbec, revelling in the fact that with their unashamed potency and velvety texture they were so very different from the European norm. I tried them, blind, on a few fellow wine professionals back in Europe. They were not a success.
Today however Argentina well and truly belongs to the outside world. When I tasted well over 300 wines there recently, judging the first-ever Wines of Argentina Awards, I was amazed, and only very slightly disappointed in a nostalgic sort of way, to see how sophisticated most of the wines had become. Even the big, beefy Malbecs seemed to have dropped a degree or two of alcohol and received what I am tempted to call a French polish. Indeed, so marked was the transformation of Argentine Malbecs that it inspired the guy in charge of promoting Argentina wines in the UK to challenge me to choose a range of Pinot Noirs to put up against them in a blind tasting (see this account).
But Argentina has long had a much wider range of grape varieties to play with than Chile: not just Malbec but oceans of a grape called Bonarda (that has been identified with not the Italian grape of the same name but with the rather obscure Savoie grape known as Charbono in California), lots of Cabernet and Merlot, Tempranillo, more recently Syrah, and Pinot Noir planted at increasingly high altitudes. Among whites, Argentina's own headily-perfumed signature light-skinned grape Torrontés, recently established as the progeny of Muscat of Alexandria and one of the Criollas, has now been joined by Chardonnay, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc, currently regarded as ultra-fashionable by the Argentines themselves.
Even though Argentina was for ages a particularly isolated country, and the wine business has tended to be dominated by small and medium sized fiercely independent family companies, the Argentina wine business is slowly starting to export wine. (They have long had an extremely successful trade in exporting grape concentrate to cola and fruit juice manufacturers in the US, and to Russia and Japan, which usefully provides a market for those inferior grape varieties.) By 2006, Argentina was exporting about 10 per cent of its annual production and is enjoying particularly strong demand in the US, not least I suspect because it can offer wines that have the body and direct fruity flavours of California at generally much lower prices. The fact that the famous consultant French oenologist Michel Rolland has so publicly embraced Argentina by setting up his own substantial operation in the hills above Mendoza has done no harm to Argentina's image either. But this is the beginning of a long road for Argentina which is finding progress slow in Europe but may well simply decide to concentrate its export efforts on North America.
Less an hour's hop from Mendoza across the spectacular snow-covered Andes which provide the key to viticulture in these parts through meltwater irrigation, is the centre of Chile's wine industry which is well under half the size of Argentina's but which already exports three times as much wine as Argentina, a massive 75 per cent of its production in fact. Unlike Argentina, Chile does not (yet?) have a vibrant wine culture, even though it has been planting vines so enthusiastically recently that the government has announced a vine pull programme. Chileans area much more likely to drink beer and spirits than wine (though it is their grape-based spirit pisco, for tangy pisco sours, that tends to appeal to visiting wine lovers).
The Chilean winescape is quite distinctive – indeed many viticulturists regard Chile as the single most privileged place in the world to grow vines. Phylloxera has never struck here, perhaps thanks to the protection of the Andes to the east and desert to the north. Most vines are therefore ungrafted and were planted simply by sticking cuttings in the fertile ground. Many of the vines, like the Chilean varietal speciality Carmenère that was wrongly identified as a strain of Merlot until the late 20th century, are the direct descendants of cuttings brought from Bordeaux before phylloxera wiped out the Bordeaux wine business in the late 19th century. In general Chilean vineyards are subject to hardly any vine pests and diseases in general, and none of the hail that perennially plagues Mendoza. Although some of the newer, cooler regions such as Casablanca and Malleco in the far south have been known to suffer from spring frosts, the major difficulty that Chilean vine growers encounter is that vines are too productive – a problem that is currently being addressed by the increasing proportion of truly ambitious wine producers here.
Until the beginning of this century Chile was known chiefly a useful source of reliable and inexpensive red bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but it has been working hard to upgrade and broaden this image – with considerable success. Today, thanks largely to exploring much more challenging terrains than the flat, easily irrigated, extremely fertile Central Valley, Chile can offer a wide range of increasingly fine white wines (facilitated by the same sort of cooling Pacific fogs that help so many California vine growers), quite subtle Pinot Noirs, some very serious Syrah indeed and a wide range of other grape varieties influenced by terroirs that vary, as in Argentina, from semi desert in the north to southern districts strongly influenced by the Antarctic.
It will be interesting to see how these two big wine producing rivals fare in their attempts to seduce the wine lovers of the world now that they are both producing wines of real sophistication and value.
If it's beef you want, Argentina is probably still the place to head for, but Chile can now boast a much, much wider menu than even five years ago.