U.S. foodies love wines from South America. We think of them as rich, fruity, friendly to our palates and pocketbooks.
Throw a party with a South American theme and you can serve crisp, fruity chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, rich and hearty cabernet sauvignons and merlots.
You also can serve exotic, lesser-known wines from South America. From Argentina, you can serve malbec, a grape that used to be used to add muscular tannins and acids to France’s famous Bordeaux reds, but in South America turns soft and fruity, tasting like chocolate-cherry candy. From Chile, you can serve white torrontés, unique to that country, with exotic flavors of lychees, peaches and citrus. From Uruguay you can serve tannat, a sturdy red with the tannin to stand up to chewy, grass-fed gaucho-raised steaks.
Some think South America is a bit warm for good grapes. But its vines stretch across the continent’s temperate zones. Chile and Argentina straddle the Andes, with Chile cooled by fogs from the Pacific Ocean’s chilly Humboldt Current and Argentina’s vines cooled by being planted high in the foothills.
Uruguay is straight across the continent from these top wine regions. Brazil, while cut by the equator at one end, has a wine region 1,800 miles south of there and 2,000 feet up into the Serra Gaúcha mountain range, where it’s plenty cool enough to grow good grapes.
American wine fans also think of South American wines as something that arrived stateside 20 or 30 years ago, just as we were learning about California wines. But the subcontinent’s wine history is far more complex.
For starters, it’s centuries older than the U.S. grape industry. As early as 1532, Portuguese conquistadors brought their native grapes, and their Spanish counterparts brought the black mission grape to Chile and Argentina by 1560.
The mission grape got its name because it was planted around missions and used for religious purposes. It made wimpy wine, by all accounts, but it served a purpose.
Grapes did well in those countries. Too well – and the industries were shut down by Spanish and Portuguese colonial rulers because they were competing too well with their own wines.
Restrictions were eased in the late 1800s, as Europe’s grapes were devastated by the root louse phylloxera, which South America avoided because it was so isolated from Europe.
South America today, still phylloxera-free, has some of the world’s oldest vines – often 100 years old – because of this. And vineyard managers there ask foreign visitors to wash their shoes before walking among the grapes.
Vineyards in Chile and Argentina flourished in the late 1800s, importing top pre-phylloxera European grapes including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, malbec and others.
In the 1900s, however, South America’s grape industry was hurt by political and economic strife that stifled exports.
South America’s real wine boom began after tensions eased in the 1980s, and massive investment arrived from Europe and the United States, bringing expertise and equipment the region so long had lacked.
• 2012 Bodega Garzón Tannat, Garzón Region, Uruguay: powerful and aromatic, with flavors of red raspberries and bittersweet chocolate; $20. (Highly recommended)
• 2013 Bodega Garzón Albariño, Garzón Region, Uruguay: steely and lean, with floral aromas and citrus flavors; $17. (Recommended)
• 2013 Bodega Garzón Sauvignon Blanc, Garzón Region, Uruguay: crisp and lively, with aromas and flavors of white grapefruit; $17. (Recommended)
• 2009 Santa Rita “Medalia Real” Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile: (95 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent cabernet franc): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries, vanilla and spice; $20. (Recommended)
• 2013 Alamos Torrontés, Salta, Argentina: floral aromas, flavors of lychees and white peaches, crisp and light; $13. (Recommended)
• 2013 Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina: aromas and flavors of black cherries, dark chocolate and herbs; $13. (Recommended)
• 2010 Trapiche “Finca de Escobar” Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: soft and lush and intensely fruity, with aromas and flavors of black cherries, mocha and mint; $50. (Highly recommended)
If you’re a meat lover, you must dine at a Brazilian restaurant. They do meat Gaucho-style, skewering massive chunks of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and sausage on huge swords. And they come around and replenish your plate as you try without success to empty it.
They’ll be a nice addition to our wine repertoire.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.