Seismic shift in South American wines

20 January, 2012

There has been a seismic shift in the Chilean and Argentinian wine industries, according to some leading experts.

Master of Wine Peter Richards was speaking at a seminar on South American wines, which was held last week (January 17) in London.

The author of a definitive book on Chile, Richards said that the two main wine-producing countries in South America were growing so fast that there has been a “seismic shift" in the two competing industries. He went on to say in his opening remarks that it was “a time of great opportunity and there were opportunities as well as risks”.

Tim Atkin MW chaired the conference which was sponsored by Santa Rita Estates, the major Chilean wine producer that farms 4,000 hectares in both Chile and Argentina. Atkin said that when he first visited Chile in December 1990 there were 11 companies that exported their wines. There are now 300.

While Argentina is a long standing, traditional grape grower – the 10th largest in the world, Chile in 1989 produced only 400m litres a year, valued at US$35m of which 7% were exported. Chile is now the largest exporter on wine in the world after Australia and was increasingly looking to new markets such as Brazil, China and Canada. It now produces 1 billion litres, worth $1.4bn of which 70% is exported. It was also described as the most consolidated wine-producing nation in the world.

Attendees went through flights of Chilean and Argentinian Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Carmenere and Malbec. There was a major presentation by Brian Croser one of the founders and of the modern Australian wine industry and one of the world’s most respected consultants on vineyard management and winemaking.

During the Chardonnay flight Atkin commented that he was “appalled” by the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) campaign or movement. The well known journalist and broadcaster said that in his opinion Chardonnay – the grape variety of white Burgundies such as Chablis, was a more noble grape variety than Riesling. He said we are living in a “golden age of Chardonnay”. He said he had recently tasted a Chardonnay from one of Argentinian producer Catena’s highest vineyards and it was “one of the greatest Chardonnays" he had ever tasted.

Richards in his address titled ‘Heritage and Heresy’, warned that Chile was not going to be a “low cost producer (of wine) forever”. Therefore Chilean moves to more diversity in their wine offerings, more premium wines and plantings near to the coast and closer to the Andes to seek more elegant wines, was to be applauded.

Argentina is widely regarded as having the highest commercial vineyards in the world. There are some at just over 3,000 metres above sea level. Richards told the seminar audience that a vineyard was being planted currently at 3,500m in Chile’s Atacama desert as part of a mining company’s social welfare project. Drinks International asked what grape varieties were being planted but Richards had no further details.

Brian Croser gave a quite technical presentation revolving primarily around optimum diurnal temperature ranges for wine grape growing. He said the Chilean wine industry was centred on the Cabernet family of grape varieties: Cabenet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Carmenere. The challenges along with “refining that base was the new exciting part of the matrix of possibilites being the likes of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. He sees tremendous opportunities in cool southern Chile for sparkling wine grape varieties.

Croser complimented Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon saying that it had spicy briary notes plus the essence of Cabernet: mulberry, cassis on a plain of grainy, fine, savoury tannins that were virtually unique to Chile and quite different from Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernets. He cited Western Australia’s Margaret River and south-eastern Australia’s Coonawarra as the only regions which produced Cabernets of similar distinction.

On Malbec, Croser said that Argentina had managed to get a fleshiness in their texture that Australia had failed to get. Atkin said he preferred the new generation of Argentine Malbecs which were fresher, compared to those of some well known consultants such as Michel Rolland or Paul Hobbs which he found he could only drink one glass of.

In an amusing aside, Atkins asked whether Chile’s ‘unique’ grape, Carmenere was a “first division grape variety”.  Richards after some hesitation said he thought it was. A far more sceptical Atkin gave a football analogy. “It has recently been promoted to the Premier Leauge (UK football’s first division) and under new management it may avoid relegation but it will never make Europe, the Champions’ League.”

He felt that for Carmenere to succeed as a single grape variety in a wine, where the vines were planted and who was the winemaker or consultant (nod to Croser) was crucial – more crucial than with other leading grape varieties. The two best Carmeneres in the tasting both turned out to be blends.

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