by Kevin Keith
You would think that the majority of South America’s grapes would be primarily of Spanish (or Portuguese) origin, yet like much of the world, the grapes thought of to be more French in affiliation dominate the wine regions of South America. The countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have even laid claim to certain French grape varieties as their “signature,” or defining grapes. Argentina has Malbec, a Bordeaux grape that isn’t grown much at all in Bordeaux anymore but in the Southwest French region of Cahors (though it is also grown here in the U.S. and in Australia as well). In Chile, it is the Carmenere grape of Bordeaux (it doesn’t exist there now) and Uruguay has Tannat (known primarily to hail from the Southwest French region of Madiran). Yet the winemaking culture began when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes brought vinifera grape varieties to the New World via Mexico in the early 1500s. Subsequently, it was mandated by Cortes that all landowners plant vines on land allocated to them.
Viticulture spread to Peru, where winemaking became prolific enough that Peruvian winemakers were shipping their wines back to Spain. Chile and Argentina soon followed suit. However, by the end of the 16th Century, King Phillip II tried in vain to ban new plantings in the Americas.
Argentina’s emergence as a winemaking region began as early as 1557, yet it wasn’t until much later after Jesuit missionaries were able to determine the best growing regions, that Malbec was introduced to the region from France. Over time, Malbec grapevines took to the Argentina climate and soil with exuberance, and the consensus of the winemakers of the region have more-or-less determined Malbec as its calling card to the world.
Chile on the other hand, found their signature grape almost by accident. Carmenere is the long-lost grape variety of Bordeaux - you could almost think of this as the grape version of Atlantis. Cuttings accidentally labelled as Merlot made their way to Chile via France and were grown and marketed as Merlot for some 40 years before DNA testing determined it to be the long-lost Carmenere. Over the past two decades it has become Chile’s signature grape in the world.
Uruguay too, has their own signature grape variety. Tannat, as I mentioned previously, comes from the Madiran, in Southwestern France, neighboring the Armagnac. It is a big, dark and brooding grape variety that is difficult to grow. Its wines can be very tannic, but Uruguay seems to have as well-suited a climate for Tannat as Argentina is for Malbec.
Other grape varieties that South American winemakers are beginning to hang their hats on are Bonarda (Italian in origin, where it is otherwise known as Charbono, yet becoming prominent in Argentina), Torrontes (considered the only native South American grape) and the ancient grape Pais (known here in the U.S. as Mission and in Argentina as Criolla), which is experiencing a resurgence among Chilean winemakers.
We’ve a great selection of these wines in our stores, which are definitely affordable to try at any time. Check out these wines: