South American Sojourn

By: Ron Kapon

“Wine is the force of youth and the milk of old age”

When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he decided to climb Mt. Everest, he said “Because it was there”. That was the raison d’etre for my recent South American sojourn. Plus the fact that there was only an hour difference in time between New York and Buenos Aires, eliminating jet lag. The last time I had been to Argentina and Chile was 1980 and boy has things changed.

My three week trip took me through five countries, although only the first three will be discussed here. There were two oceans (think A&P), the widest river in the world (200 miles), and a steak dinner for four costs $70, with two bottles of wine. It gets warmer as you go north, not south (the toilets flow the other way also) and mi espanol es muy malo. I was there to taste, visit and learn about the wines of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Wines from the Southern Hemisphere countries may appear on the US market six months earlier than their Northern Hemisphere colleague’s. Harvest time is February/March rather than September/October. So, the first vintage 2005 wines reach US shores in the fall of 2005 instead of the spring of 2006. Also Southern Hemisphere producers use varietal labels (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay etc) instead of unprounceable place names. When I last visited South America there were lots of quantity but not much quality. This has also changed with new capitol investment by European and American wine companies (Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, Franciscan, Lafite & Mouton Rothschild, Grand Marnier, Moet Chandon & Torres to name just a sampling). Facilities have been upgraded or build from scratch with top-of -the line equipment and many winemakers are now trained at Europe or American viticulture schools. Because the harvest season differs from their Northern Hemisphere brethren often winemakers work their vintage and then move to Europe or the US for another harvest season. Or as often happens their counterparts finish their fall harvest and then come south for the spring vintage season. There are lots of experiments with new grape varieties for South America (Syrah, Pinot Noir, Carmenere and even Zinfandel) and they are not copies of another country’s style. I almost got my head bitten off when I mentioned New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as the winemakers here have a different style and are proud of it. Chardonnays are not heavily oaked; there are Bordeaux style blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) and Tannat using 100% of the varietal or blending it with some other grape. I tasted exquisite single vineyard limited production wines at $75 and wine that retail at $6 wines that I enjoyed and would recommend both.

The wines of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay just need the guidance of a US marketing and PR person or agency. The various governments have to be creative and not hire the same old tired agencies that promise a lot but produce little. Forget all the grand tasting and fancy dinners and work the grass route circuit. Your wines are wonderful and deserve the proper showcases. Work together the way the Australian do. For years the Australian Wine Bureau has promoted the wines of the country first and brands second. Your fellow wineries are not your competition; every other wine producing nation is.

This article can not possibly cover the whole wine industry in the three countries so I have included a brief history and listed only the wineries I actually visited.

ARGENTINA- A plug for Aerolineas Argentinas which flew to Buenos Aires non-stop and besides giving me a very good media rate also upgraded me to Business Class where I slept 6 hours out of the 10 plus hours of the flight.

The second largest country in South America, after Brazil; the largest producer of wine in the Southern Hemisphere and number five in the world they produce four times as much wine as Chile. Almost all of Argentina’s wine production had been consumed locally making export sales unnecessary. That has changed as domestic consumption has fallen by almost 50%. Argentinean vineyards have much higher yields than their Chilean counterparts and that had hurt their quality image. They have begun replanting vineyards with quality grapes and although no winery commands the presence in the US that Concha Y Toro does, they have attempted fairly successfully to promote Argentinean wines as a country.

Vines were first planted in Argentina in 1556 and the arrival in the late 19th century of Italian, Spanish and French immigrants jump started the industry. Bad military and democratic governments were used to protect inefficient and poor quality producers. A stable government and peso have brought the industry into the 21st century. 2/3 of all wines are produced in the Mendoza region which at 60,000 square miles may be the largest wine region in the world. Park Hyatt was my hotel of choice. On the Chilean border (only 100 miles from Santiago by air but a 10 hour bus ride) with the Andes Mountains between them these high altitude temperate climate areas are warm by day, cool at night and desert dry. Here Malbec is king. (with the white grape Torrontes queen). Known as a blending grape in Bordeaux or the “black wine” of Cahors it is the ultimate steakhouse table pleaser with lush flavors and a minimum of bitter tannins. .

Visited- Catena Zapata (also owns Alamos & Weinert), Lurton (Bordeaux family is also in Chile), Navarro Correas, Achaval-Ferrer, Terrazas (owned by Moet Hennessy), Norton, La Rural, Salentein, O.Fournier & Familia Zuccardi. Argentina is half-way between two wine worlds. The French-style “Old World” where they sell the wines they make and the Australian “New World” where they make the wines they sell.

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CHILE- Has been considered the premier producer of quality wines with Concha Y Toro once the largest selling import brand in the US (pre Yellow Tail). The phylloxera louse never plagued the vineyards and Chile’s ungrafted vines are often twice as old as those in California and France. The Andes Mountains divide Chile from Argentina and they supply favorable air currents, drainage and sources of water from the melting snow. Most wines are made in areas north and west around Santiago (Casablanca for white wines & the Maipo Valley) and along the route two hours south (Santa Cruz & the Rapel Valley). San Cristobal Tower in Santiago was a superb hotel choice. Santiago Adventures acted as my guide and driver for all my winery visits.

Vinifera vines came to Chile in 1523 courtesy of the Spanish explorer Cortes. Chile is 2,800 miles long and only 96 miles wide with the 23,000 foot high Mt. Aconcagua (also the name of one of the best wine region) the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere. The fresh breezes of the Pacific Ocean strike the high mountain and are perfect for the production of all fruits (grapes, peaches, strawberries, melons and pears). Sunshine is abundant and temperature variability has hot sunny summers (spring frost is rare) with cool afternoon and evening breezes that blow from the Pacific and the Andes. “Today Chile is the most advanced, most efficient vitivinicultural country in South America”. There are reasonably interest rates, good highways and telecommunication services, as well as an experienced work force with labor laws and union rights. Many young and talented European, Australian and American winemakers are anxious to work in Chile.

Visited- Montes, Errazuriz ( Also owns Caliterra and formerly partnered with Robert Mondavi in producing Sena), Los Vascos (owned by Lafite Rothschild, also owns Santa Rita), Casa Lapostelle (Grand Marnier family), Miguel Torres (Spanish & California wine family. First foreign investor in 1979), Concha Y Toro (largest winery, also in Argentina).

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URUGUAY- Winemaking has been practiced in Uruguay for over 250 years with vineyards planted north of Montevideo (90% within one hour) along the Rio de la Plata River, the widest in the world (200 miles at its widest point).Uruguay is located between Argentina, Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean and has a population of only 2.3 million people. The mild climate is tempered by ocean breezes with high rainfall. Tannat is king here being blended or as 100% varietals and is best known for the red wines from southern France’s Madiran region. Ideally suited to the local terroir it yields intense, powerful wines with high levels of tannin. Uruguay is less about technology and more about viticulture with many vineyards having been replanted and most wineries are family-owned. 95% of wine consumption is domestic but INAVI (Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura) is working very hard promoting exports especially to the US.

Visited- Bodegas Carrau (has a winery in Brazil), Establecimiento Juanico, Bodega Bouza, Los Cerros de San Juan.

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About The Author

Ron is a Professor at the International School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he built the Ron Kapon Wine Library. He also teaches at Hudson County Community College's Culinary Center. You can read Ron in Cheese Connoisseur Magazine, Tasters Guild Journal, Wine Country Intern. Mag, Real Travel Adventures, Allways Traveller, The Fifty Best, NATJA, Fab Senior Travel, Nightlife Magazine, Resident Magazine, Travel Writers Assoc. & Local Wine Events

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