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Value In South America's Signature Reds by Timothy Buzinski & Mei Ying So, owners of The Artisan Wine Shop, Beacon

If you study the wine scene in South America, you might notice a curious connection with southern France, southwestern France in particular. Argentina is now famous for its malbec, while Chile has its carmenère, and up and coming in Uruguay is tannat. Much as in the US, most of the popular grape varieties planted in South America have French roots, even though it was to Spanish conquistadors that Central and South America had fallen. Scholars believe most of these varietals arrived in the mid-1800’s along with settlers from various parts of southern France and the Basque country, rather than with the Spaniards some three hundred years prior. What makes this use of French grapes dissimilar to that in the US, or in other countries around the world? One major difference for Chile and Argentina is the ability to plant vines on their own rootstock without fear of phylloxera, the tiny louse that devastated the wine industry beginning in the mid-1800’s.

To avoid an outbreak, growers in affected parts of the world graft vines onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock, which some argue may alter the quality of the wine. The other major difference lies in South America’s successful cultivation of grapes rarely planted in other regions, grapes like malbec, carmenère, and tannat. These grapes are rooted in French winemaking history yet they have fallen from favor in France; this may seem surprising considering US wine imports from South America are booming even in the face of economic woes. This strong showing is in no small part thanks to the signature grapes of South America. Much as Australia is known for shiraz and Tuscany for sangiovese, so are Argentina, Chile, and to a lesser extent, Uruguay, known for their “it” grapes.

Argentina: Malbec
Perhaps the clearest statement about the importance of the signature grape is in Argentina, with its malbec grape. This variety has exploded on the US wine scene, with its easy drinking fruit and affordable prices. One of the permitted Bordeaux grapes, malbec rarely makes up more than a small percent of any given wine from Bordeaux. However, it is the dominant grape in another area in southern France, Cahors. Even so, the importance of this region has been easily eclipsed by the grape’s success in Argentina. With its mountainous terrain and high-altitude vineyards, Argentina offers malbec what few other countries can: more exposure to the rays of the sun. This creates riper fruit, in fact, many vintners wait until the fruit reaches phenolic ripeness, when the seeds and stems are brown and brittle, before harvesting. This develops complexity in the finished wine, and the region’s advantageous diurnal temperature variations create exceptional balance, keeping acid levels in place. This creates wines of great richness, but also elegant balance, outshining the scant group of malbecs produced in other areas. When malbec was introduced to Argentina, few could have foreseen this glorious combination for what it would become.

Chile: Carmenère
The signature grape of Chile developed in an entirely different way, with a more compelling story. Like malbec, carmenère’s strongest roots are in Bordeaux. Plantings in this French region dwindled around the time phylloxera hit Europe and very little was replanted due, in part, to lack of quality. Meanwhile, Chile had been growing merlot and a clone of merlot called (you can’t make this stuff up) “merlot clone.” In 1994, Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered that the “merlot clone” was not related to merlot at all, but was in fact carmenère from the cabernet sauvignon family. This discovery drastically changed the track of Chilean winemaking. Growers were able to isolate the variety and study its performance. In Chile, carmenère ripens later than already late-ripening cabernet sauvignon and much later than the earlier-ripening merlot. Armed with this knowledge, winemakers were able to begin crafting wines offering compelling aromatics and flavors. Currently, there are a number of carmenères available, each with its own nuances, somehow melding the soft easy appeal of merlot with the depth and complexity of cabernet sauvignon. While cabernet sauvignon is still king in Chile, plantings of carmenère are increasing. More ambitious bottlings of carmenère are popping up as well, which will continue to push this grape into the spotlight.

Uruguay: Tannat
Perhaps the most obscure and still an up-and-comer, Uruguay is quietly making inroads on the global wine market with a grape called tannat. This intense grape is most at home in the Madiran region of southern France, but some believe it has Basque origins. Its name, tannat, suggests toughness, alluding to the significant tannins in the grape. However, winemakers in Uruguay have managed to tame this grape with methods found in Madiran as well, softening the harsh tannins through lower yields and plenty of oxygen, sometimes through oak aging. While Argentina and Chile are major suppliers to the world, Uruguay has more limited vineyards and has thus taken a road towards quality versus quantity. Most of their exports stay in South and Central America with few if any wineries enjoying distribution in all fifty states, but good examples can be found, even here in the Hudson Valley. Despite declining acreage in France, Madiran is still the most recognizable place for tannat-based wines, but that may soon change since Uruguay has demonstrated more than mere proficiency with this variety. Getting to know a little more about South American wine is not too difficult if you look for these signature grapes.

Here are a few to seek out:

La Flor de Pulenta Estate Malbec Mendoza 2007
This suave and elegant wine offers loads of black fruit, with a silky texture and just enough freshness to keep it lively. $13-$15

Finca Flichman Gestos Malbec Mendoza 2007
Fruit-focused, this malbec is a blend of fruit from two sites planted 400 meters apart in altitude. Each brings its own focus to this wine, creating a unique balance. $14-$16

Terra Andina Carmenère Valle Central DO 2007
This straightforward wine offers grapey red fruit with a touch of earthiness that gives it added character. $10-$12

Anakena Carmenère Single Vineyard Rapel Valley DO 2006
This outstanding wine offers a touch of smoky fruit with more intensity and weight. A great choice for hearty winter fare. $14-$16

Domaine Monte de Luz Tannat San José 2007
Produced by French transplanted winegrowers, this full-flavored wine has intriguing earthy fruit with a touch of tannin and lots of blackberry flavors. $9-$12

Viñedo de los Vientos Tannat Atlántida 2006
A more powerful version, with a dark color and intense concentration. You’ll find a touch of tannat’s characteristic tannins, but also plenty of generous fruit. $15-$17

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