A wonderful thing about spending much of 2015 travelling around both Argentina and Chile was that we had an opportunity to do quite a lot of wine tasting in two of the world’s great wine regions. This was a task we took seriously to heart and luckily there was some trekking in Patagonia to try and offset the expanding waistlines…
I must admit that I now have a great regard for the wines of this part of the world and so I decided that I would jot down some of my thoughts. As I am no wine expert, I’ll start by explaining a bit about my general approach to tasting wines in a new country, some general reflections on the wines here and then I’ll highlight a few specifics for each country. The non-vertical nature of some of the photos of bottles perhaps shows how much we enjoyed them…
When trying different wines in these (and other) countries, I tend to start with a mid-priced Reserva (say @50 pesos in Argentina and @5,000 pesos in Chile, about £3.50 and £5.00 respectively at 2015 coversion rates). In general, the Reservas are more expensive than the non-Reservas as they have usually spent six months or so in oak barrels. The Gran Reservas are yet more expensive, with extra time in the barrels. I also presume that the grapes that go in the higher end wines are more carefully selected but I have no real basis for this assumption.
If the Reserva tasted good to me (note – my wine tasting notes are non-technical and often consist of ‘yummy’ or ‘yeuch’!), I would then look out for wines across the range from that vineyard (and occasionally for a treat we would try a Gran Reserva). However, if the Reserva was a bit dodgy (and there were a few), then I would usually give up on that wine maker…
One thing that is obvious from the moment you step foot in a wine shop here is that there are a few very big wineries in Argentina and Chile and that these dominate the markets. This is not necessarily a bad thing as they have ranges of wines from the very cheap to the exceedingly expensive. To me it wasn’t always the case, though, that wineries that make good cheap ranges of wines necessarily do worthwhile wines at the middle end (we tried very few high end wines). Trapiche in Argentina and Concha y Toro in Chile are definitely very drinkable across their ranges, whilst I was disappointed by the more expensive Nieto Senetiner wines (the cheap mass produced Benjamin wines are very consistent and quaffable at 30-40 Argentinian pesos).
In Argentina and Chile, most wines are drunk very young, which is a shame as, although they are usually good, they can be very fruity. Occasionally, we came across some old bottles in supermarkets and snapped them up. So far, they have proved to be excellent and more ‘Old World’ in their taste, although we have had one that hadn’t improved on the ‘young’ bottles. My guess is that the Reservas and Gran Reservas are more likely to age better in the bottle because of the initial time spent in oak. There is at least one winemaker in Mendoza who tries to buck the trend. Carmelo Patti is an Italian who insists on aging his wine upside down for a number of years before selling it and shows what can be done. However, with the general taste for young wine, I fear that he is an endangered species.
Most of the wines (apart from the really cheap and really expensive ones) tend to be single varietals rather than blends. This is fine as you can then really get to experience the range of characteristics of, for example, the Argentinian Malbecs. However, more and more, bi- and tri-varietal blends can be found and they are well worth trying.
The bubblies are a lot cheaper than Europe and you do find that some of the big Champagne houses have wineries over here, particularly in Argentina. However, my advice is to look at the label and see what the grapes are and how it was made. ‘Méthode Traditionelle’ wines tended to be a bit more expensive but were generally a lot more complex and worth the extra expense.
Now for some specifics!
There is, in general, a wider range of grapes used in Chile, ranging from the ‘classics’ of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to some more obscure varietals. There is also Carmenére, which is the pride of Chile. Personally, I still remain to be converted to Carmenére and I think that Chile does the major grape varieties the best – some of the more minor varieties were a bit dodgy, unless they were in a blend.
There are a huge variety of terroirs and climates in Chile, from the more humid coastal regions to some of the mountain valleys, which are at altitude. This means that it can be quite difficult to get your head around the multitude of wines that are available but one good way to scratch the surface is to do a tasting of ‘flights’ (50cl tasting of each of three different wines) at somewhere like the winebar Boca Náriz in Santiago. They have a huge range of wines from all the different regions that can be tasted by a flight or drunk by the glass. This is certainly a good way to compare, for example, Sauvignon Blancs from the coast to the mountains. And the food is excellent as well…
Morandé – this winemaker is not so easy to find but I would buy it whenever I could. They do several ranges and the cheapest is not that cheap. They are at the top of my list of likes. In fact, we unexpectedly found some bottles of the 2008 Pinot Noir Reserva in a hotel in Bolivia that tasted as good as a £20 burgundy (for half the price and without the sediment) and this was our wine of choice whilst staying there.
Conch Y Toro – They do some excellent Gran Reservas and the Reserva bubbly is not bad at all. At the bottom end of the spectrum, the ‘Exportacion’ blends were very consistent and quaffable.
There are a LOT of wines in Argentina but the less variable climate in the wine regions (dry, hot in the day and cool at night) makes them a lot more consistent. The wineries range from Del Fin del Mundo in the north of Patagonia, which is the most southerly region, to Viñas de Payogasta in the far North near Salta. They do a full range of grapes and their major varieties are generally consistent. The Argentinian specialities are Malbec and Torrontes, which are well worth investigating. I generally think that Malbecs from the south, around Mendoza, are often more full-bodied and robust than those grown in the northern high altitude vineyards. I prefer the bigger flavours of the southern Malbecs. Mind you I have a very strong preference for the northern high altitude Torrontes and didn’t really come across a Torrontes from Mendoza that passed muster for me.
Mendoza, which has about 1,000 of the 1,500 wineries, is actually a difficult place to taste lots of different wines. You usually need to do organised tours of vineyards and turning up on spec is difficult. There is a good wine bar that has just opened up (Cantina Wine Club, closed on Mondays), with lovely helpful staff who can arrange an off-the-cuff tasting if you want!
South of Mendoza is a boutique vineyard in the Uco Valley, The Vines of Mendoza. The Vines is a project that sells small plots to many, many private owners who then get to decide what grapes to grow and how to blend their own wines, with the guide of the vine master and the master blender. The Vines team does most of the work throughout the whole process. People sometimes come to help at different stages, but almost always turn up for the blending. Any grapes that are left over are bought up by The Vines to make their own excellent Recuerdo Gran Corte wine. They also do tastings of wines from the vineyard and one of the best restaurants in Argentina is onsite if you want to splash out (The Siete Fuegos).
Further north, Calafayte, in the heartlands of the northern Torrontes region is a good place to visit wineries as the Tourist Information publishes lists of the wineries, opening times and prices. Many are within walking distance of the town and some are free.
Bubblies – Alta Vista Atemporal – expensive (£15) but stunning and as good as a £50 bottle of Champagne; Del Fin del Mundo extra brut – difficult to find but about £8.50 and excellent. This was a wine we sought out when we could.
Malbecs – Don David, Trapiche Reserva, San Filipe Roble, Alta Vista Terrior Selection (expensive). This covers a decent range of quality and I think would show off what you can get for the different prices (£5 – £20)…