Conquistadors pillaging Central America entered Peru at the beginning of the 16th century and soon realized the absence of grapes. Galleons were dispatched to Spain with the request to ship appropriately packed vine cuttings. Spaniards, thinking that the “ New World “ vineyards could eventually become competitors, decided to ship inferior vines cuttings.
The first shipment consisted of Pais known to produce mediocre wine at best. Eventually vines were brought to Chile from Peru. Argentina’s vineyards were started from genetic material brought in by four different routes: the first directly from Spain, the second, cuttings via Peru from Spain, the third, grape seeds that were germinated in Argentina but originated in Spain, and fourth from Chile in 1556.
Regardless, vines thrived in the Mendoza region of Argentina, and today this country is the largest producer on the continent.
Chile on the other hand is considered to produce better quality wines, although Argentina is now producing outstanding wines.
Brazil and Uruguay are two other South American wine producing countries along with Colombia and Peru.
The indigenous population of South America was not and has never become wine enthusiasts.
Only European settlers were interested in growing grapes and making wine. For the clergy, wine was important, and the good fathers encouraged grape growing thus starting a wine industry.
Today wine plays a significant role in both Argentine and Chilean GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
Since the beginning, Argentina emphasized quantity over quality and developed along these lines. Vineyards and wineries were laid out with quantity in mind. Buoyant economic periods helped expand sales, but recessions had devastating effects. At one time Argentine wineries had so much surplus that they had to sell tanker loads of red wine to the USSR for less than Coca Cola (18 cents per litre in 1970). Now quality has become paramount and mostly achieved in an attempt to increase exports.
Argentines of European origin enjoy wine regularly and per capita consumption used to be very high (70 litres), but recessions precipitated by coup d’etats initiated by the armed forces forced the population to reduce wine intake, which created significant surpluses of unwanted, and inexpensive wine that had to be distilled.
It became crystal clear that quality had to come before quantity for wineries to survive.
Executives convinced that wine quality had to improve knew exactly where to start, i.e. in the vineyard, but since grape growers are independent, they had to be convinced that better fruit quality was their salvation too. Wineries also planted experimental vineyards partly to show growers how and what to plant but also to send a message that if need be they would get into the grape growing business too. They had the capital to invest. Wineries showed growers how to prune, trellis, look after the vineyards and also educated them about the various diseases and how to combat them.
Today many Argentine wineries produce fine varietal wines and export bottled wine, whereas previously bulk wine sales dominated their export revenues.
After successive military juntas the last dictatorial government was toppled by elections and political life stabilized, foreign investment started to revive the moribund industry. American conglomerates were the first to see the potential followed by the French, Germans, Spaniards and Italians.
New equipment was purchased. Huge, old almost dilapidated oak casks were replaced with new barrels from France. Modern wine making technology was introduced and gradually wine quality improved appreciably and continues to as vinification techniques improve and newly planted vineyards get older.
Today Argentine cabernet sauvignon, malbec, sangiovese, bonarda, cabernet franc, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling, torrontes wines are proof of what the country can produce.
Some of the wineries are huge and try to cater to the low- and high end of the market by two distinct lines of product. Others, mostly small, and family owned try to satisfy the middle class and also make wines to sell to the wealthy. Penaflor, the largest winery in Argentina, is the export leader; especially with its premium label Trapiche. Bianchi, Finca Flichman, and Pascual Toso are large wineries producing value wines.
Bodegas Lopez and Bodegas Esmeralda own substantial acreage and produce fine wines. Weinert on the hand buys wines for purposes of maturing and blending.
Etchart, Umberto Canale, Santa Julia and Lurton brothers from Bordeaux, specialize in quality wines. Most of the wineries mentioned above are already exporting to Ontario and soon other provinces may be included.
Martini e Rossi, Moet et Chandon have been successfully producing wine for decades but refrain from exporting for obvious reasons. Deutz, Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck are relatively new comers to the Argentine wine scene but are determined to produce fine sparkling wines for the market which is potentially very lucrative.
This narrow and long country stretching (5000 km) from the Atacama Desert in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south enjoys a reputation for producing the finest wines on the continent.
The first vines were planted my missionaries from cuttings Spaniards brought from Peru. These wines were for religious ceremonies but no doubt bottles came into the possession of civilians.
Chile is a narrow country (250 km) at its widest, between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountain range, which forms a natural boundary between it and Argentina to the east.
The country exports substantial amounts of fresh grapes to North America during the winter months from its 50,000 hectares table grape vineyards located close to the Atacama Desert where the weather is warmer and the grapes tend to be sweeter.
Wine grape vineyards measure about 70,000 hectares and are constantly growing. Chiles’ dry summers permit growers to use minimal amounts of pesticides and fungicides, which is a plus from a cost perspective but also from a taste perspective.
Phylloxera vastatrix never entered the country; thanks to the Andes mountains in the east and strict quarantine rules for vine cuttings imported. The best grapes come from Casablanca-, Maipo-, Cachapoal-, Colchagua -, Curico and Lontue Valleys, all of which are located in the central Chile between the port of Valparaiso and Maule River in the south.
After general Augusto Pinochet installed himself as president and dictator, the country’s political life stabilized, but the economic situation worsened and the population was forced not only to consume less but also to drink less. Chilean wineries had no other choice than to export at rock bottom prices. They exported bulk wines to Europe for blending and/or bottling and tried to break into the North American market with bottled wines that were the least expensive of all imported wines.
Although little foreign investment occurred the industry evolved, not because of government policy but the industry was forced to look outside the country for opportunities to expand rather than trying to cater to the internal market. Wine always played an important role in Chile’s economy and large well-established, family-owned wineries knew how important they were for the wellbeing of the population. They were able to convince government officials to free foreign exchange to import new equipment and expertise. New, more appropriate vineyard sites were selected and planted with modern management techniques in mind. New vineyard sites are on the foothills of the Andes Mountains, which afford better air circulation and drain age two factors important to growing high quality fruit.
During Pinochet’s rule the only foreign winery interested investing in Chile was Torres from Spain; thanks to the foresight of Miguel Torres. A few years later old well established wineries like Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Santa Carolina, Santa Rita and Undurraga decided to invest in their young and bright winemakers by sending them to Germany, France and the USA to upgrade their wine making knowledge and also to look for modern equipment in an attempt to improve wine quality. The quality of the fruit was always good, but never exceptional. Substantial investments were made in equipment and cooperage. Most importantly the quality of wines was improved which led to unprecedented export increases to The USA and Canada. The U. K. also started to look favourably to the Chilean industry and wines. Robert Mondavi and other Californian wineries started to produce joint-venture wines such as Sena which is selling at a relatively high price, but well worth it considering its quality and refinement. French beverage companies not to be outdone felt compelled to invest in Chile as well. Casa Lapostolle set up a winery and planted substantial acreage with fine grapes, Chateau Lafite has a joint project with Concha y Toro.
Today the country has a vibrant wine industry investing in vineyards, employees, wineries and most importantly marketing.
Chilean wines are exported to the USA, UK, Canada, Japan and EU countries. All of the export wines are well made although some reflect more taste preferences of the importing country and the suggestions of the importer than the “ terroir “.
Cabernets, merlot, shiraz, malbec are the main red grapes. Chardonnay, Semillon, sauvignon blanc, riesling and a few other experimental grapes make up the white category.
Vintages vary from year to year but more subtly than is the case in Europe or Ontario. Chilean wines are always made from ripe grapes and as a consumer you are unlikely to find a red wine that smells of vegetables, as might be the case in Bordeaux and/or California. Fruit destined for better wines are always hand picked and transported to the winery in small containers to prevent fruit damage and only the best bunches make to the crusher and stemmer. Most of the Chilean wines possess excellent fruit, are less tannic than their counterparts elsewhere, low in acid and dark in colour.
In general Chilean wines are expertly made, fruity, soft, well extracted slightly alcoholic but should not be stored for too long – few years at best, maximum four to five years for the best vintages. It is believed their red wines to be more appealing than whites for most North American palates.
For sparkling wines the jury is still out!
Cousino Macul, Los Vascos, Montes, Portal del Alto, Santa Monica are old, well-established wineries with sufficiently large vineyard holdings to cover their fruit needs and even sell some of their crop to others wineries. Santa Rita, Santa Carolina (produces four categories of wine Casa Real the best, Medalla Real, Reserva and Linea 120 all of which are fine and repre4sent excellent value), Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Undurraga are large operations that rely on contract growers and the open market for their needs.
Casa Lapostolle owned and operated by the famous Lapostolle family – the owners of Grand Marnier, committed to making ultra premium wines from both estate grown fruit and contract-purchased (the company owns 725 acres and contracts 400 acres).
The vineyards are in the Rapel Valley 200 Km. South of Santiago and planted on hillside locations for better drainage and air circulation. 6600 vines per hectare allow sufficient room for the root system of each plant to develop well. The winery produces 100,000 cases under the watchful eye of Michel Roland, the consulting oenologist from Bordeaux. During a recent tasting in Toronto all of the Casa Lapostolle wines showed very well.
Errzuriz now produces an ultra premium wine called Sena which shows outstanding characteristics, is expensive and in very short supply. The intensity of fruit, its smoothness, balance and depth are phenomenal.
Consumers and restaurateurs interested in Chilean wines could convince themselves about the quality and price ratio by conducting blind tastings with a few “ ringers “ thrown in for good measure. The results may be very revealing.
The fourth most important wine producing country of the continent was making 600,000 hectolitres of wine late 1970’s which increased to one million 20 years later. By all accounts, this is very respectable increase and the population consumed most of the production. Only recently wineries have been making efforts to export. Gradually the American and Canadian markets are targeted with some success. The UK is another important market.
Uruguays’ predominant grape is tannat, here known as harrigue, followed by muscat hamburg, petit manseng and isabella, a hybrid. New vineyards are planted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc and a few other experimental grapes.
The most acclimatized of all is the tannat producing extremely dark and coarse wines. But they are also the most typical of all Uruguayan wines. Most old vineyards are located south of Montevideo, the capital, but new vineyards are planted closer to the Brazilian border in the south where the climate is cooler and hence more appropriate.
This huge tropical country ranks third on the continent with regard to wine production (Three million hectolitres).
Although Spanish introduced viticulture as early as 1532, it was never successful because of the heat and humidity, two arch enemies of grapes. The location of vineyards was poorly selected, so were grape species. Eventually isabella was planted. It thrives especially well in Rio Grande do Sul but produces an insipid and neutral wine more appropriate for processing to sparkling wine and/or vermouth than dry table wines. Later Italian immigrants brought their own grapes namely, bonarda, barbera, moscato and trebbiano. Today chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit syrah and a number of muscats are planted in Sierra Gaucha on 700 metres altitude to take advantage of the cooler weather.
The Brazilian wine industry started to expand only after Moet et Chandon from France invested heavily to start their winery. Martini e Rossi also has plant for their vermouths. Both companies market their products in the country exclusively.
Grapes are picked before they reach maturity, to preserve acidity and keep sugar levels low. Regardless, the wines taste “ green “ and unripe because physiological maturity was never achieved. The old saying “ wine is made in the vineyard “ is still true today as it was when the saying was coined.
Brazil has some 40,000 hectares under vines and more are being planted in southern states that are cooler than those in the north.
Brazilian wine quality improved significantly in the last decade and now some wineries are exporting their products.
Chilean, Argentine and Uruguayan wines are a different and could potentially become even more important for the middle-of-road and high-end market.