BY BOB HOSMON
If you’re looking for something new and different in wine, take a look south of the border — way south — to Chile and Argentina. Each of these Andean countries has developed or is developing a reputation for great wines from little-known grapes, all at affordable prices. You owe it to yourself to try them because you’re going to like them.
Of the two countries, Chile has a long-standing advantage when it comes to marketing. When Chilean wine first appeared on the American market in the 1980s, winemakers sent their best and concentrated their efforts on varietals – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay – that were already familiar to consumers here. But one Chilean wine, a delightful red wine made from carménère grapes, didn’t show up for decades later.
In the mid-19th century, cuttings of carménère vines from France were planted in Chile, where they flourished. But because they were planted among merlot vines, their original identity was forgotten, and everything became known as “merlot.” In 1994, however, a scientist from France conducted DNA studies of grape vines in Chile that proved that some vines were not merlot but the carménère grape varietal, which has virtually disappeared from European vineyards. At first the vintners in Chile were perplexed by the discovery, not knowing what they would or could do with a grape called “carménère.” But some saw the red varietal as a unique opportunity for Chile and began producing wines that are deep red in color with soft tannins on the palate, aromas of spice and berries on the nose and hints of cherries in every sip. It’s also a very food-friendly wine that can be served with everything from red meat to Indian curry dishes.
Carménère is still not the well-known varietal that it deserves to be, but its market is growing. I personally prefer it to a lot of merlots I’ve had and particularly like the carménères produced by Casa Lapostolle, Montes Alpha, Errazuriz, and Concha y Toro.
On the other side of the Andes from Chile, Argentine wineries have developed a strong market for red wines produced from the malbec grape. In today’s market a number of good to excellent malbecs are offered at a range of prices, and some of the best come from the wineries of Catena, Rutini, Trapiche, Finca La Linda and Terrazas de los Andes. But there’s a newer white wine coming out of Argentina that has the potential to become as well identified with that country’s wine industry as malbec.
Torrontés is a white grape with a somewhat murky past (it is not related to the grape with the same name that grows in Galicia). There aren’t a lot of torrontés vineyards in Argentina, but their numbers are growing as connoisseurs are discovering the wine. Some would argue the best place to grow the grape is in Salsa, but there are also successful vineyards in Mendoza and the Calchaquí Valley. The best-made torrontés wines are smooth on the palate and show aromatic spices on the nose. They’re great as aperitif wines or when paired with fish (I love them with ceviche), Thai cuisine and pasta primavera. Reliable labels to look for include Catena, Colomé, Norton, Michel Torino and Terrazas de los Andes. λ