South America – observations and learnings

Talk about potential! Chile and Argentina have been improving every aspect of wine production since the 80s, and as they learn more about their unique terroir and which varieties and styles to focus on in their regions, the sky’s the limit. Chile in particular seems to have such an amazing range of different climates, soil types and elevations that they could theoretically produce any wine style imaginable. People in the industry here are some of the warmest and most genuine I have ever encountered. The quality of the wines speaks volume, but it is the enthusiasm and honesty with which they are produced that makes them so special. In many of the wineries I visited I felt so welcome it was hard to leave so soon.

Very old vineyards in Cafayate, Argentina

Wine tourism is a rapidly growing business, particularly in Mendoza where it seems hundreds of backpackers are taking bike tours to wineries every day. The proximity and number of wineries in places like Mendoza and Salta make them a bit more attractive for wine tourism, compared to the fewer and more dispersed wineries in Chile. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily better, as I saw some very sophisticated and in some cases personalised and premium examples in Chile. They just need to bring more people there for wine. Whilst tourism is becoming very advanced, communication is not. Countless emails I sent either through my browser or via the winery website went unanswered, which makes it very hard to make appointments. It defeats the purpose of providing contact details on a website if emails are not going to be checked. Many travelers don’t have access to a phone to make calls, and even if they do their Spanish might not be very good and thus are anxious about speaking on a phone.

At Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza, Argentina

There seems to be more stylistic variety in Chilean wines compared with Argentinian. Whether this is to do with the variety in climates in Chile, or the willingness to make wines against the grain, I am unsure. Malbec too often is too similar under US$40, and in some cases over $40 it is hard to see what you are paying for. In Chile I tried a great variety of sauvignon blancs and carmeneres that always represented great value. There are many large wineries in both countries, and these tend to produce very similar commercial styles of wine, but it is the smaller artisan producers that are the future of quality wine in these countries. Some of the highlights were Casa Marin, Amayna, Neyen de Apalta and Antiyal in Chile, and Mendel, Carmelo Patti, Monte Quieto and Colome in Argentina. Whilst some may be part of larger groups, the hands-on and yet hands-off approaches to these wines were exceptional.

With a friend in the Apalta Valley, Chile

Single varietal wines are the focus here, taking a leaf out of the success of Australian wines in the export markets. These wines are much more approachable in style and understandability (it’s a word!), but I feel there is so much potential with blended wines, as many of the best I tried took advantage of the best of each variety and combined them into one great wine. It is not hard to understand the historical significance of French varietals in South America, particularly considering the edge they have over the rest of the world with old-vine cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, malbec and torrontes. Considering the climate and the limited access to water, it is a shame there isn’t as much of a push with Spanish and Italian varieties here as there is in Australia. The few that I tried were outstanding, particularly tempranillo and bonarda, but there are many other options as well. Considering the Spanish heritage and language, I would have thought it made more sense to plant Spanish varieties…

Amongst the barrels in Colchagua, Chile

Export strategies are paramount, particularly in Chile where they export far more than they consume. Not only do they understand their markets by placing employees in market, but they also understand the value of not relying too much on too few markets. When you consider the state of the global market, Europe and North America might be down, but Asia and Brazil are up, so it is just a question of shifting focus as markets fluctuate. Salta is expensive and extremely isolated. I’m still trying to determine if I enjoyed my time there. People taking the afternoon off for lunch and a siesta makes things difficult in regions.

A little carried away in the Maipo Valley, Chile

The continent is wide open for organic viticulture; the climate is very warm and dry, and there isn’t much water to be shared. So often I would look at my GPS and it would say I was travelling over a large river, and I would look down to see a trickle of water underneath me. Dry-farming and organics need to be invested in as a much more sustainable and long-term approach to viticulture and wine production.

Carmenere was ‘rediscovered’ here in the Maipo Valley, Chile

Best region and variety matches;

Alto Maipo: cabernet sauvignon
Cajon de Maipo: chardonnay
Apalta: carmenere
Leyda/San Antonio: sauvignon blanc
Elqui: syrah
Uco Valley: malbec
Lujan de Coyo: tempranillo (potentially)
Cafayate: torrontes, Colome: ???

With new friends in Santiago, Chile


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2 responses to “South America – observations and learnings

  1. Querido James, I enjoy reading your blog, learn a lot and happy to see your gap year is not only holidays. You are doing a lot of work on writing here, and I hope you will teach us about world wine business.Abrazos y feliz viaje, Jaime


  2. Hi Jaime,Thank you so much for your kind words; it means so much coming from someone so important in the Chilean wine industry. I sincerely appreciate all the support you have given me, and look forward to the day we cross paths again.James.


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