Latin Class

Susan Leopold - May 2008

As wines from South America and Mexico build steam, they're gaining a more esteemed presence on U.S. lists.

Not that long ago, most stories on Latin American wines would have begun with a somewhat purple (and notably overwritten) observation that, "The vintages of South America are the Rodney Dangerfield of fermented grape juice—they just don't get no respect." The copy would have gone on to say that the stuff is, for the most part, "cheap and cheerful…a good wine to drink when the in-laws drop by and you don't want to open the good stuff."

That was then; this is now. Consider: At the Tokyo Wine Tasting of 2006, organized by Fumiko Ari­saka, founder of Vino­thèque magazine, and the fabled Steven Spur­rier, the man who gave us the landmark Paris Wine Tast­ing of 1976, at which Cali­fornia de­mol­ished the myth of the unassailable superiority of French wines, five of the top 10 wines were from Chile.

The competition was not meek or mild. The Chileans were competing against Château Latour, Châ­teau Margaux, Château Lafite-Roth­s­child, Tignanello, and Sassicaia. Châ­teau La­tour was at the top. But immediately be­low it were wines from Sena, Viñedo Chadwick, and Don Maximiano—wines that ranked above both Margaux and the Lafite. And this wasn't a quirk. Two years prior, at the Berlin Wine Tasting of 2004, Viñedo Chadwick and Sena took the top two spots.

Consider as well, the annual listing of "Great Wine Values" in the December 2007 issue of Consumer Reports. Ranking way up there were several Chilean wines, vintages from Casa Lapostolle, Walnut Creek, Concha y Toro, and Montes. The Chileans did especially well in the magazine's tasting of Merlot, although it was a strong presence in the tasting of Sauvignon Blanc as well. The wines are getting respect—and lots of it.

To lump the wines of Latin America into one big cask is a bit nuts, although it's what most wine drinkers tend to do. As a rule, when we speak of Latin American wines, we usually mean Chil­ean. It's the 800-pound gorilla of South American viniculture. And yet, there are plenty of grapes being grown and fermented in Ar­gen­tina, Brazil, Uru­guay, and Mexico.

Mexico really does suffer from a Rodney Dangerfield complex; even the fine dining restaurants of Mexico City carry a finite selection of Mexican wines. But give it time. There's serious wine being produced around the town of Porvenir, in the Valley of Gua­dalupe in Baja, where American winemakers like Don Miller at the Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards have put down roots, literally and figuratively.

Not only is Chile the big dog of Latin American wine producers, it also ranks as a major player on a world scale. Only France, Italy, Spain, and Australia export more wine than Chile. Its share of world wine exports is 6 percent, which may not sound huge, but it's greater than the United States, Portugal, or Germany, which places Chile among some pretty high profile neighbors.

Back in 1994, the government of Chile decided it was time to get serious about winemaking and officially divided the country into five "viticultural regions" (read appellations): Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley, and the South. The government also encouraged the increased production of a grape called Carménère, which Bill Brandel, wine manager at Southern Wine & Spirits, refers to as "the lost Bordeaux varietal." It had been planted in Chile in the 1800s, before phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France. For years people thought it was actually Merlot, but with a weedy, bitter edge. Then, they did a DNA analysis at University of California at Davis, and they discovered what it really was. The wine made in Chile is the same as wine produced in France hundreds of years ago.

Interestingly, Argentina is actually a larger producer of wine than Chile. But Argentina prefers drinking its wine to exporting it; it ranks at number 13 among exporters. Where the defining grape of Chile is Carménère, the grape that dominates in Argentina is Malbec, although Bonarda and Torrontes are common as well (as are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay).

One of the great champions of Argentinean wines is the ebullient Fernando Salazar. As the vice president of f&b at the Omni Hotel chain, he introduced a series of tastings of Argentinean wine—a program he's continued and expanded as vice president for f&b for Wyndham Worldwide. "Argentina has made tremendous strides in its wine production. In terms of quality, it's caught up with Chile, and even surpassed Chile in certain areas."

Salazar also adds that although the wines of Argentina are perceived as being beef intensive, they go well with lighter dishes as well. "Malbec is the Argentine wine everyone knows. And it's best with red meat. But Torrontes is superb with fish. And I keep telling people to watch out for the wines of Uruguay. They're particularly manly wines. Once you develop a taste for them, it's like an addiction."

Perhaps nothing has given the South American wine industry more worldwide respect than the involvement of major names from abroad. In 2003 the Viña Haras de Pirque winery in the Maipo Valley of Chile entered into a joint venture with Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy, the scion of a family that's been producing wines since 1385. In 1988 Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) took over the Los Vascos estate in northern Chile. Since 1996 the Rothschild family has been coproducing Almaviva in a partnership with Chile's Concha y Toro. Seña is a coventure of Viña Errázuriz and Robert Mondavi Winery; Casa Lapostolle is a product of the Marnier-Lapostolle family, which also owns Château de Sancerre in the Loire Valley and produces Grand Marnier.

One of the giants of the burgeoning Chilean wine industry is Agustin Huneeus, former president of Napa's Franciscan Estates, who now runs Veramonte in Chile. "I chose the Casablanca Valley of Chile, because it has both the microclimates and the soil of Napa Valley, especially Carneros. There was never any doubt that Chile could produce world-class wine, especially higher end reds. What we've had to work on is a process of infiltration. First the wines are introduced at restaurants, and then, when people come to appreciate them, they seek them out on the retail level. Like making the wine itself, it takes time and patience to get the word out. But our product is on par with the best of Bordeaux and Napa. Respect will come."

According to Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth, the magazine's lead taster for wines from Argentina and Chile, the time for respect is long overdue: "Wines with world-class quality have been coming from Argentina and Chile for years. Right now, it seems as if Argentina is on a faster track than Chile. Chile is perceived as the land of value wines, while consumers are more ready to accept pricier wines from Argentina. But with wines from so many other countries growing increasingly expensive, the Latin American price range is hard to resist. It's a matter of consumers accepting that inexpensive and cheap aren't the same thing."

Wine commentator Meridith May concurs. "Educating the public is our greatest challenge. Even serious wine drinkers tend to limit themselves to California, France, and Italy, with side trips to Germany and Australia. It wasn't that long ago that no one took Australia's wine industry very seriously. Now, it's highly respected on the high end and low end. The wines of South America, especially Chile, keep getting better and better. The prices are incredible. The time for respect is now."

It's respect that could be felt at a series of wine tastings/seminars presented by Omni hotels across the country, the creation of the above-mentioned Fer­nando Salazar, where the wines of Argentina were introduced. After sending their chefs on a tour of Buenos Aires and Mendoza "to immerse themselves in the rich language, culture, spirits, and flavors of Argentina," the wine seminars turned into culinary events as well. It was as if one of our most middle-American hotels had discovered the meaning of life half a world away. It also resulted in a menu at the Omni's Noé in Los Angeles that matches a 2005 Pinot Gris from Bodega Lurton with Dungeness crab stuffed loup de mer with asparagus fettuccine and a 2004 Malbec from Terrazas de Los Andes with miso-cured Colorado lamb with wilted watercress.

For the most part, Latin American wines have been slow to find their way onto North American wine lists. At the highly wine-intensive Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar chain, wines such as Primus from Veramonte (which goes well with the veal chop), Cuvée Alexandre from Casa Lapostolle (both its Merlot blend and Chardonnay are suggested with the New Zealand king salmon fillet), and Los Vascos (its Cabernet Sauvignon is recommended with the 20-ounce prime bone-in New York strip) are offered. "The wines are very different from what's produced in the United States or Australia. They're more herbal, more green, more mineral. When ripe, those are very nice touches." says Marian Jansen op de Haar, wine director for Fleming's. "The prices are very good, so it's easy to tempt people. But we need to tell them more about the wines. We have such a large list, it's easy for these wines to get lost."

Brian Owens, a partner at the new Crave Ceviche Bar in New York City, chose several South American wines for his very limited list because "they're spicy and strong. The flavors of Carménère blend from Montes in Chile, or the Torrontes from Crios in Argentina hold up very well to the high acidity in our food. And because seviche is from South America, we felt it was important to include South American wines on our list. It's drinking the wine of the region with the food of the region. It just feels right." The Carménère is especially good with the veal sashimi; the Torrontes with cedar-smoked arctic char.

It also felt right to Gary Dusek, wine director at Lucy in New York City. He came to Lucy from Felidia, where he had been submerged in an ocean of Italian wines. He was up for a taste of something new, and the wines of South America seemed perfect. Where half a dozen South American wines (or fewer) is par for the course at many wine-savvy restaurants, Lucy has more than 50, with names found no where else—Alamos Viognier from Argentina (peekytoe crabmeat/avocado terrine with Key lime mayonnaise), Viñedo de los Vientos Estival from Uruguay (grilled churrasco steak encebollao with Vidalia onions), Altair Sideral from Chile (Chilean sea bass with corn broth).

Dusek is impressed by the unique regional characters of Latin American wines. "The wines of Uruguay in particular are remarkable," he asserts. "They're imperfect and can be very tannic. And they have a very distinctive taste, a terroir like none other. There are wines from Uruguay with flavors that are very earthy, even creepy, and dirty. We have a wine that needs to be decanted four hours before it's consumed, and triple decanted. It costs just $30 a bottle, and it's one of the most remarkable wines I've ever tasted."

And therein lies what may be the greatest problem with South American wines: They're so inexpensive that diners don't take them seriously. "I've had wines on our list that were only $16," says Dusek. "They were exceptional, but people wouldn't order them because $16 was what they'd pay for a glass of wine. So, I've had to raise the prices. If you charge more, the wines get more respect. It happened with Australian wines and South African wines. South America is definitely ready."