South America's grape treasure


San Francisco-based food and wine writer Evan Goldstein has just written a book* on the wines of South America. The photograph of Brazilian wine country is the work of Silvia Tonon.

I have always thought that, for the inherently curious, life’s perfect metaphor is a Russian nesting doll – also known as a matryoshka doll. As you ferociously remove babushka tops to see how many more layers there can possibly be, you are not satisfied until you have reached the innermost (and final) layer. I have attacked most passions in life like this and wine is at the forefront. After all, with wine, the more you think you know, the less you realise you really do know. There are always more layers to discover while the wines in the bottle constantly evolve and each year brings a new harvest.

Some of you may know that writing on wine and food pairing has been my pre-eminent bread and butter (pardon the pun). Over the past few years, however, I decided to attack the South American matroyshka and write a manuscript on the wines of that continent – an effort resulting in a book which has recently been released. This part of the world is well known for many of its wines (witness the success stories of Argentine and Chilean wines throughout the world) yet the wines of Brazil, Uruguay and especially Bolivia and Peru are little known abroad.

While only the world’s fourth-largest continent, South America is the second most important wine-producing continent after Europe. It embodies a number of geographic and climatic extremes, including the world’s highest waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela), the largest river by volume (the Amazon), the longest mountain range (the Andes) and the driest place on earth (the Atacama Desert in Chile). This diverse continent is also home to an amazing range of quality wines… and grapes. Nonetheless and as with most New World areas, we tend to assume that grape-growing in South America is limited to a handful of varieties. In truth, the continent has a vast selection of grapes that mirrors the multiplicity of its settlers and immigration patterns over the centuries. Official sources indicate commercial plantings of 165 different grapes in Argentina, 117 in Brazil, 65 in Uruguay, and over 60 in Chile.

The origins of these grapes can be traced to Europe: specific cultivars emanate from Spain (including the Criolla family of grapes that were first brought over by the conquistadores and early explorers in the late 15th and 16th centuries), Italy (especially varieties found in Argentina and Brazil), France (whose strong influence can be felt in Chile, which in turn shared it with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), and Portugal (mostly in Brazil). South America is also home to abundant quantities of native North American and North American hybrid grapes that form the backbone of the Brazilian and Uruguayan table wine industries and are also critical for the production of grape juices, jellies, jams, table grapes, raisins, and concentrates.

As I removed each successive layer of this grape matroyshka, I was dazzled by a range of grapes rarely seen in their native countries but with prominent, albeit niche, success as expatriates and most notably (and curiously) in Brazil! What follows is a small compendium of those worth seeking out.

Arinaroa A rare but nevertheless remarkable variety, it’s a tongue-twister of a name and among the most off-radar red wine grapes. With less than 35 hectares planted on the continent, it needs to be sought out, which is complicated by how rarely it’s produced as a varietally labelled wine. Preponderantly grown in Uruguay (with almost 80% of the planted vines), it’s a cross of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon (not Merlot and Petit Verdot, as claimed in the mid 1950s) and its name, as pointed out in Wine Grapes, comes from the Basque arin, meaning light, and arno, meaning wine. When well made and isolated, you will find mulberry, cassis, liquorice, and laurel notes in a tight and lively package.
Best producers: Casa Valduga (Brazil), Giménez Méndez (Uruguay)

Ancellotta Once rarely seen outside Italy, this grape cuts a swathe across lower South America, notably in Argentina and Brazil. It can be found bottled as a varietal wine in Brazil (which makes sense given Brazil’s viticultural connections to northern Italy). In Argentina, it’s apparently used solely for blending: I have not encountered it as a varietal wine. As in its native home of Emilia-Romagna (where it is used in Lambrusco blends), the grape is prized for its colour and structure. In Brazil, the finest examples fall somewhere between a Grenache and an Amarone-styled wine punctuated with concentrated, almost desiccated flavours of mocha, raisins, cherry, and aniseed.
Best producers: Pizzato, Don Guerino (Brazil)

Egiodola Right up there tipping the scales with Arinaroa on the obscurity meter is Egiodola, a cross between the grapes Fer Servadou and Negramoll (also known as Mollar). Although Egiodola has rarely achieved greatness in France, where it was first crossed, it somehow made it as far as South America, and it makes some distinctive and occasionally tannic wines in Brazil. Small amounts of this usually rich but softer style of wine can also be found in Uruguay. The name is Basque for 'true blood'. As you doubtless notice, Brazil seems to be a hub for obscure grape varieties. Brazilian Egiodola has the typical semi-opaque colour and deep raspberry and roasted-chestnut flavours that characterise it in southwestern France, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same bite or ferocious tannins.
Best producers: Pizzato, Cave de Pedra (Brazil)

Marselan Perhaps the greatest discovery of my tastings of the last couple of years was this grape’s wines. It was love at first taste and indeed several examples were high on my list of noteworthy bottles. For the unfamiliar, it’s a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache (developed in France in 1961), and at its best it embodies the best of both. Although it is also planted in Uruguay, it’s at its best in – surprise, surprise – Brazil. Marselan has the creamy, fleshy texture of Grenache along with the peacock’s-tail complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon, which also imparts a trace of tannin to the mix. It has a little of everything: tasty red-cherry fruit, a somewhat flashy mouthfeel, and soft but discernible tannins.
Best producers: Perini, Pizzato, Casa Valduga (Brazil); J Chiapella, Gonzalez Santiago (Uruguay)

Pais This is the historic variety also known as Criolla Chica in Argentina, Mission in California and Listán Prieto in Spain. There are 14,450 acres of it in Chile, especially in Maule, and 1,050 acres in Argentina. Originating in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha long ago, Pais was brought from the Mexican territory of New Iberia in the mid-16th century and was first planted in Peru before being cultivated further south, after invading Argentina and Chile. Until 2008, it was the second most-planted grape in Chile. With close to 300 years of history, Pais was the backbone of Chile’s wine industry until eyes began wandering to France in the 1800s. With the recent emphasis on improving quality, the grape has fallen out of favour but there is a movement, especially in Maule, to preserve Pais and treat it with more respect in the vineyard to produce lower yields. However, this undertaking is more sentimental than it is effective in yielding brilliant bottles. Pais makes wines with, shall we say, unique savoury and meaty flavors. It is usually vinified rustically into a light to medium cherry-red, orange, or light pink wine with biting acidity. This quality enables it to be made into tasty sparkling wine, as exemplified by Miguel Torres’s Santa Digna Estelado. 
Best bottles: Luyt, Torres (Chile)

Prosecco/Glera While bordering on over-exposed in northern Italy, this renamed grape is rarely planted elsewhere and more rarely made successfully into successful wine. Enter Brazil. Noteworthy in the Serra Gaúcha region, the grape is often as tasty in Brazil as it can be in Italy. With notes of ripe pear, bitter almond, citrus blossoms, and candied citrus peel, Brazilian Prosecco is not the global juggernaut that has taken the world by storm but it sells well domestically where it’s allowed to maintain the moniker of Prosecco legally as long as it’s not exported from Brazil.
Best producers: Garibaldi, Perini, Peterlongo (Brazil)

Sauvignon Gris This is a grape that is rarely found outside France but there’s a small amount planted in Chile and, to a lesser degree, Uruguay and Argentina. It’s probably at its best in Aconcagua’s San Antonio and Uruguay’s Canelones regions. In South America, it is valued for its resplendent aromatics and a rich and creamy texture. Although historically cherished, it has fallen out of favour because of its low yields [although it seems increasingly popular in France – JR]. At its best, the wine is full of ripe white stone fruit, pink grapefruit, yellow apple, and pear.
Best producers: Secano, Viña Leyda (Chile); Casa Filgueira, Bodega Carrau (Uruguay)

Alicante Bouschet Increasingly the pride of Portugal’s Alentejo region (though with roots in France), this variety seems more at home speaking Portuguese as varietally labelled wines from Brazil will attest. That said, the grapes can also be found in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay although its primary use in those three countries is for blending where this red-fleshed grape is prized specifically for its intense colour, tannin structure, and ability to add complexity to simple, fruity reds. As the best bottles show, it deserves a chance in the limelight, as the inherent spicy and peppery, black-fruit compote, cola nut, and cacao flavors are distinctive.
Best producers: as a varietal bottling, Pizzato, Dal Pizzo and in blends, Lidio Carraro and Salton (all Brazil)

Wines of South America – the essential guide by Evan Goldstein MS