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South America (April 3, 2006)

The first time I tasted wine in Chile the earth moved. Okay, so the earth has moved for you on occasion. This is a wine experience I'm talking about. It was Sunday, March 3rd, 1985, and I was sipping a Sauvignon Blanc in the town of Curico, a two hours' drive south of Santiago, with Miguel Torres. We were sitting chatting in the living room of his vineyard manager's house when an earthquake hit at around 7:15 pm. Afterwards we found it measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. A lot of wine was lost that night as steel tanks in the wineries crumpled like beer cans and wooden barrels split open with the force of the quake. The wine in our glass at the time, ironically, was Torres' oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, labelled "Bellaterra."

Twenty-one years ago the modern Chilean wine industry was in its infancy. It was Miguel Torres, the Spanish master vintner, who revolutionized winemaking in Latin America by introducing cool fermentation techniques for white wines in stainless steel tanks. Until Torres arrived in 1979 – the first non-Chilean to invest in vineyard land there – the convention was to ferment in cement tanks and leave the wine to age for years in barrels. The result was wines with an oxidized, sherry-like flavour – particularly in white wines – that were appreciated locally but not on the export market, a market that called for fresh, fruit-driven wines.

What attracted Miguel Torres, and the host of international winemakers who followed, were the perfect grape-growing conditions that exist in vineyards that could be planted in the 800-odd kilometres between Limari in the north and the Biobio Valley in the south. And the fact that, of all the world's wine regions, Chile has never had an infestation of phylloxera, the dreaded louse that destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Chilean growers want to plant a new vine, instead of having to graft their shoots onto phylloxera-resistant North American root stock, they just bury a cane from an existing plant and, when it takes root, cut it off from the mother vine.

The first vineyards in Chile were established in the mid-nineteenth century with imported varieties from Bordeaux, amongst which was a rare vine, no longer grown in Bordeaux, called Carmenère. For generations Chilean growers believed they had Merlot in their vineyards until DNA testing in 1995 showed what they really had was Carmenère – a variety that has now become Chile's signature grape.

Chile, because of its grape-friendly environment, has attracted such famous French names as Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild, William Fèvre (Chablis), Paul Pontellier (Château Margaux) and Bruno Prats (former owner of Cos d'Estournel), Michel Rolland (Château Le Bon Pasteur) and Marnier-Lapostolle, and the Brothers Lurton, who have a joint venture projects with Château Pujol in Uruguay, wineries in Chile and across the Andes in Argentina. Californian Kendall-Jackson has vineyard holdings in Chile and so does Ontario's Gabe Magnotta.

While Chile and Argentina are both known for bargain-priced reds and whites, they are also producing ultra premium reds like Errazuriz Sena, Almaviva (the Concha y Toro/Mouton-Rothschild joint venture wine), Casa Lapostolle's brilliant Clos Apalta, Montes Alpha M, a Bordeaux blend, Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve and Concha y Toro's Don Melchor. These wines are priced between $50 and $95 a bottle when they land here. Less costly but in the same league is Veramonte Primus from the Casablanca Valley, a blend of 60% Carmenère, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot, which is probably the best value of the up-market Chilean wines.

Argentina, the largest producer in the southern hemisphere, is about ten years behind Chile in developing a range of ultra premium wines, but they have already shown it is on the cards with Catena Alta's Malbec, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Michel Rolland's magnificent Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon, Clos de Los Siete (a Merlot, Syrah blend), Jacques & François Lurton's Malbec Piedra Negra and Altair Vineyards Sideral.

While these wines are a sometime thing in our market – they arrive occasionally at Vintages or in the Classics Catalogue – the general list offers some good bargains from Chile and Argentina that are worth trying. These are my picks from the wines most readily available:

  • Caliterra Suavignon Blanc (LCBO #275909, $10.10)
  • Casa Silva Cabernet Shiraz (LCBO #588749, $13.00 )
  • Casillero del Diablo Carmenère (LCBO #620666, $11.95)
  • Cono Sur Pinot Noir (LCBO #341602, $9.95)
  • Errazuriz Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon (LCBO #335174, $18.05)
  • Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc (LCBO #263574, $11.60)
  • Carmen Chardonnay 2005 (LCBO #235663, $9.95)
  • Bodega Lurton Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (Vintages #591735, $14.95)
  • Bodega Norton Chardonnay (LCBO #589531, $10.75)
  • Masi Tupungato Passo Doble (LCBO #620880, $15.00)

If you try these wines, maybe the earth will move for you.

Looking into the future, I predict that Argentina will be producing some of the world's greatest wines in the next few years. So have a look at the Malbecs they are producing and start laying them down. The next frontier will be Uruguay. Look for Tannat (the grape of Cahors) to be the next flavour of the month.




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