Brazil has a large population with a considerable thirst for wine, but much of the country has a tropical climate, not really suited for fine wine production. Grapevines need a winter in which to go dormant, and they do not like excess heat and humidity. Despite this, the country grows wine grapes on 170,000 acres. Less than ten percent of the grapes are vinifera grapes. Most plantings in Brazil are of indigenous grapes or hybrids that can better stand the heat and humidity.
The Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul sits in the extreme south, bordering wine producing countries Uruguay and Argentina. In addition to almost reaching the 30th parallel, the usual minimum latitude for fine wine production, the region enjoys considerable elevation, up to 4500 feet above sea level. It has the added advantage of a population that reflects considerable immigration from Italy. The major international grape varieties, as well as Portuguese varieties, make up the wine menu here. While we might someday see some of these wines on the American market, the Brazilians drink rather than export most of their wine.
Bolivia makes up for its low latitude by extremely high altitude. Most Bolivian wine traditionally went for brandy, especially the clear grape brandy called Pisco, but some growers are starting to plant international varieties at altitudes ranging from 5500 to nearly 8000 feet. A similar situation exists in Peru, the taste leader in the Pisco world.
The people of Uruguay are very fond of wine. Basque immigrants brought the Tannat grape from southwest France to the country in the 1870s, and, like the French grapes Malbec and Carmenere that became the signature red grapes of Argentina and Chile, respectively, Tannat became Uruguay’s own. French investment in the country’s wine industry is significant, supporting a range of international grape varieties in addition to Tannat. Most vineyards are clustered in the south of the country across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina.
Argentina and Chile may share a long north-south Andean border and the Spanish language, but they differ widely with respect to climate. Chile has cooling Pacific influence. The Atlantic gives no corresponding benefit to Argentina. Chile exploits the Pacific benefit up and down a wide stretch of latitude. Argentina fine-tunes its available altitude for its vineyards.
Argentina produces full-flavored deeply-colored red wines at significant altitudes and aromatic whites at even higher altitudes. The Mendoza region looks up to the high Andes to the west. Elevations here push 4,000 feet, the air is dry, and day/night variation makes for flavor and acidity in the region’s characteristic Malbec (the grape came over from France in the 1860s). Unfortunately, spring frosts can endanger vines, as can summer rains, and hail is a consistent menace.
Mendoza is a huge producer, making two-thirds of Argentina’s wine. Average vineyard elevation is 2,000–3,600 feet above sea level.
The departments of Maipú and Luján are the principal producing regions of Mendoza, but the Valle de Uco with its Tupungato Department is an up and comer. Malbec is the most important grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and the pink-skinned Criolla Grande and Cereza grapes. The soil of Mendoza is mostly loose alluvial sand over clay. Water descends from the Andes in several river systems, which in turn flow into a network of irrigation channels, canals, and reservoirs that in many cases date back centuries.
North of Mendoza, closer to the equator and lower in altitude, the province of San Juan is Argentina’s second largest producer. San Juan is considerably hotter than Mendoza and produces red varietals from Syrah and Bonarda, as well as brandy, vermouth and fortified wines along the line of Sherry. The next door province of La Rioja traces winemaking back to the earliest Spanish missionaries. Heat and lack of water are issues in La Rioja. It specializes in the white grapes Muscat of Alexandria and Torrontés.
Still further north, and hence at lower latitudes, the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta include some of the highest vineyards in the world: up to 8000 feet. Catamarca is the most widely planted. The Cafayate region of Salta, with its mile high vineyards, is making an international reputation for its environment: temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the days (on vineyards closer to the sun), with nighttime temperatures dropping into the fifties, one of the widest day-to-night temperature swings in the wine world. The Torrontés from here is richly acidic and pure. Cafayate is attracting significant foreign investment.
In Patagonia to the south, the province of Río Negro, with its chalky soils, has a consistently cool climate (thanks to Antarctic influence). Rio Negro has traditionally served as Argentina’s principal fruit growing region. Dry weather and winds here keep vine diseases down, and growing season is patiently long. Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon were brought here in the early 20th century. French and Italian wine houses are investing in this region, reaping a return expressed in Torrontés, Sémillon, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and a lighter version of Malbec. To the west bordering Chile is the province of Neuquén, more a matter of 21t century wine expansion, producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Malbec. In the far south, in the province of Chubut (off our map), Mendoza’s Bernardo Weinert is planting early ripeners like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling to produce high acid, low alcohol German-style whites.
Even though the Spanish introduced the grapevine to Chile, French influence, now in its third century, has been consistently strong. French wine consultants are active in Chile, seeing that French financial infusions bear fruit. French vines varieties rule Chile. Of course, they predominate elsewhere, but in Chile, the French influence extends to winemaking. That means Bordeaux blends, usually led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chile’s most produced grape, accounting for a third of all Chilean vines. Where Cabernet goes, also goes Merlot. For decades, Merlot had an identity crisis—literally, as Merlot and the Bordeaux blending component Carménère were often comingled and confused. Vine scientists—ampelographers—had to come in and untwine these two vines. Carménère is nearly extinct in Bordeaux, but it has found a new identity in Chile where it was introduced in the 1850s. It is hence parallel in function to Malbec in Argentina, Tannat in Uruguay, Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, Shiraz in Australia, Chenin Blanc in South Africa, and Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand—all French emigrants that have become the signature grapes of countries in the New World.
If the French presence were not enough, Chile is in many ways the ideal country in which to produce wine. Most of its regions are dry, but it has ample irrigation water from the Andes. Its ultra-long pacific coast interacts with the Humboldt Current coming up from Antarctica, creating unparalleled cool-climate viticultural possibilities. In Chile, you can fine-tune both latitude and altitude. The country has ample supplies of inexpensive labor. What’s more, phylloxera never reached Chile, so most vines are propagated on their own roots.
This last attribute, un-grafted vines, has a downside. Once grafting to downsideylloxera became the norm, rootstocks were developed to respond to a wide range of environmental challenges such as resistance to other diseases and pests, soil salinity, calcium content, soil acidity and alkalinity, too much water, too little water, cold resistance, heat stress, and so forth. Chile’s un-grafted vines cannot avail themselves of any of these benefits. For years, many Chilean growers could not pay attention to these kinds of “modern” details. Chile had a reputation for inexpensive, quaffable wines. That is changing rapidly in the 21st century, as highly trained European winemakers come to fine tune and micromanage their Chilean wineries and vineyards.
We will look at Chile’s wine regions starting in the north and working our way south. The Elqui Valley, just off our map, was for many years primarily a producer of grapes for Pisco but has more recently become a Syrah specialist—on granite hillside vineyards at elevations of over 6500 feet. Limari is a much more open wine valley, directly cooled by the Pacific because of the absence of a coastal range (coastal ranges buffer most of Chile’s regions). The result is Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The Aconcagua region takes its name from the highest mountain in the Andes, which looms over the appellation at 23,000 feet. The warm Aconcagua Valley has 2500 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Syrah. The Casablanca Valley, closer to the ocean, makes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. South of Casablanca, the San Antonio Valley, closer still to the Pacific, produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Are we starting to get a theme here? We are: French grapes.
A hop over the national capital of Santiago brings us to the Central Valley: Maipo (pronounced MY-po), Rapel (made up of Cachapoal and Colchagua), Curicó and Maule. Maipo is the warmest of the Central Valley appellations, dotted with wineries and vineyards within smog distance of the capital, and basically one word describes it: Cabernet, some of it world class.
Rapel’s constituents Cachapoal and Colchagua are the regions usually found on wine labels. Cachapoal, particularly its sub-region of Apalta, is known for Cabernet and Syrah. The clay soils of Colchagua naturally favor Merlot, which likes that kind of environment.
Curicó, the next region down, is warmer, since the Coastal Range veers farther east and blocks Pacific influence. Curicó is the source of everyday drinking wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Maule is the oldest wine region in Chile. Here some old vine Cabernet and Merlot produce age-worthy Bordeaux-style blends. Parts of Maule have the clay soil Merlot adores.
The Central Valley has width as well as length. East-west orientation can affect vines as much as the north-south direction. Nights are colder nearer to the Andes, favoring retention of color and acidity. The land in the west gets afternoon cooling from the Pacific. The best wines tend to come from the mountain side, raised at significant elevation. Since 2011 Chile has allowed winemakers to use a trio of east-west label descriptors: Costa (coast), Entre Cordilleras (between the mountains, i.e., between the Coastal Range and the Andes), and Andes.
The three regions of Chile del Sur (southern Chile), Itata, Bio Bio, and Malleco, are not only closer to the South Pole but they lack protection from a coastal range. Think cold and wet. These regions are big producers of the Pais and Moscatel vines that for centuries have supported jug wine production in the country. As with any such area (anywhere), pockets of quality stand out, producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer (the last two are not French!) Wine colonizers are trekking even further south of the Malleco Valley, catching and barbecuing penguins as they search for the holy grail of cool-climate Burgundian and German growing conditions.