My recent visit to South America reminded me there is much to be excited about with Chile’s wine scene – and I hardly scratched the surface. Winemakers are exploring new regions, and rediscovering old grape varieties. Large wineries are pursuing “icon wines,” while independent mom-and-pops are crafting soulful vino at very affordable prices.
Chile’s big problem – at least here in the US – may be its image as a producer of cheap plonk. As my friend Alfredo Bartholomaus, the now-retired importer who popularized Chilean and Argentine wines in the 1980s and 1990s through his Billington Imports, likes to say: “Chile made the mistake of coming into the US long ago at $1.99 a bottle. Once you fix that price in the consumer’s mind, you can’t go up.”
Luckily, I didn’t have to drink the cheap plonk while I was there. My main purpose for going to Santiago was to be one of 45 judges from 12 countries evaluating wines for the Catad’Or wine competition, an annual, privately run judging now owned by Pablo Ugarte, a former rock musician in Chile. The competition featured 636 wines from 150 wineries in seven countries; mostly Chile, but also Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and even Australia. Ugarte aims to highlight the wines of the “southern cone,” and he organized separate categories for small producers and what he called campesinos, or farmer wines, to be sure we weren’t focusing solely on the icon wines. With very few exceptions, the wines my panel tasted impressed me with their quality and consistency across these categories.
And I was interviewed by CNN Chile.
Argentina doesn’t necessarily have Chile’s reputation for cheap wine, though there’s plenty of inexpensive Malbec to go around. Argentina’s excitement remains the exploration of the Andes foothills and the “alluvial fans” that brought granite and limestone down from the mountains when the glaciers melted. In an all-too-rushed visit on my last day, I toured the spectacular new winery the Zuccardi family built in the Uco Valley, a 90-minute drive south of Mendoza. And during a visit with the Catena Zapata team, I enjoyed a fascinating (and frigid) vineyard visit and tasting in Gualtallary.
There are some common themes in Chile and Argentina, which I will write about in future posts. And these won’t be unfamiliar to wine fiends in general. Everyone seems to be doing electro-magnetic mapping of their vineyards to identify their “micro-terroirs.” The name of Pedro Parra, a winemaker and vineyard consultant known as Chile’s “Dr. Dirt,” is whispered with awe and reverence by his clients. It’s hard to walk through a vineyard without tripping into a soil pit. Many vintners are dialing back on new oak and high alcohol, believing the “international style” of wine masks the true expression of their vineyards. Several winemakers described their efforts in identical language, so that I began to wonder if Wines of Chile and Wines of Argentina had distributed official talking points for 2017. But the wines were delicious.
And of course, the scenery was magnificent. More to come …