No region on earth has geography more grape-friendly than South America. The Chilean valleys and Argentine plateaus that frame the Andes between the 25th and 40th parallels both feature unusually fruit-friendly weather patterns, but with significant differences that shape the distinctive flavors of their wines.
Chile’s wine valleys are stacked along the coast like Jenga blocks, clustered around Santiago and the picturesque port of Valparaiso nearby. Cloud-free skies during the key months when grapes ripen magnify the positive influence of sunshine and evade the negative results of humidity and rain. With dueling cooling effects from the mountains and the sea, Chilean vintners excel at both white and red wine styles from a variety of noble grapes — not just Cabernet Sauvignon and red specialty Carménère, but Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as well.
Driving up and over the mountains from Valparaiso, it takes less than six hours to reach the eastern flanks of the Andes that comprise Argentina’s wine country, but the growing conditions change dramatically from coastal valleys to arid high plains. Argentine vineyards stretch further north and south than those of Chile, but the vast majority of them fall within Mendoza Province and easy reach from its capital. Here vines require irrigation from seasonal rivers of meltwater in a climate that favors red grapes over white. Argentina’s top grape Malbec is perfectly suited, but other thick-skinned reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah thrive here as well.
ARGENTINA’S MOST LUXURIOUS WINES
Dominio del Plata ‘Nosotros’ Malbec – Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
This voluptuous red is 100 percent Malbec from Susana Balbo, Argentina’s first female winemaker. It amply demonstrates what this grape can offer: layers of five-spice aromas in a wine as plush as a black velvet robe.
Catena Zapata ‘Nicolás Catena Zapata’ Cabernet Blend – Mendoza
This spectacular flagship from one of the region’s leading lights is blended on multiple levels, not simply combining firm Cabernet Sauvignon and plump Malbec, but also the best fruit from three of Mendoza’s best sub-regions.
Vina Cobos ‘Corte uNico’ Cabernet Blend – Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
California’s Paul Hobbs masterfully harnesses the raw power of Cabernet Sauvignon in this wine, whose fierce herbal-tannic edge is softened with roughly 20 percent Malbec.
Achaval-Ferrer ‘Finca Altamira’ Malbec – Valle de Uco, Mendoza
Achaval-Ferrer is making some of Argentina’s most expressive single-vineyard Malbec, of which the most consistently balanced is Finca Altamira. It features both the red and black fruit dimensions of the grape entwined.
Per Se ‘La Craie’ Malbec Blend – Valle de Uco, Mendoza
This hard-to-find bottling from an upstart vintner is turning heads with its poignant aromatics and refreshing finish, not to mention its quirky two-parts-Malbec-to-one-part-Cabernet-Franc blend.
Bodega Chacra ‘Treinta y Dos’ Pinot Noir – Rio Negro, Patagonia
Pinot Noir lovers will rejoice to add Patagonia to their list of cool-climate sources for this finicky grape. Here, Bodega Chacra coaxes sublime purity of red berry flavors from 90-plus-year-old vines with little or no intrusion of oak flavors.
THE BEST WINES OF CHILE
Almaviva – Maipo Valley
Chile’s answer to Opus One, Almaviva is the legendary Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s joint venture with Chile’s own Concha y Toro — the Bordeaux blend deftly balances power and grace.
Errazuriz ‘Vinedo Chadwick’ Cabernet Sauvignon – Maipo Valley
This splurge-worthy wine pays homage to the Errazuriz family’s patriarch from a spectacular vineyard planted on his old polo pitch. This beautifully crafted tribute is dripping with dark fruit and French oak.
Terrunyo ‘Carmín de Peumo’ Carménère – Cachapoal Valley
If Carménère is Chile’s most unique wine, made from a lost grape of Bordeaux resurrected here, then this is its finest expression. It offers the decadence of Merlot combined with the density of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Aristos ‘Duquesa’ Chardonnay – Cachapoal Valley
A ravishing white rarely seen outside Chile, it is made in the image of grand cru Burgundy and walks a tightrope between food-oriented restraint and hedonistic opulence.
Montes ‘Folly’ Syrah- Colchagua Valley
The “folly” of planting a steep slope in prime Cabernet terrain to the Syrah grape has paid off for Montes in a wine that earns rave reviews for its inky depths of peppery flavor (and wry Ralph Steadman label).
De Martino ‘Vigno’ Carignan Blend – Maule Valley
This uncommon organic field blend falls well outside of the expectations for a Chilean red, not simply in its oddball grape variety, but also with its retro-chic emphasis on earthy character over oaky spice.
Casillero del Diablo – Devil’s Collection – Limarí Valley, Casablanca Valley, Rapel Valley
Casillero del Diablo is the most notable line by prestigious Chilean wine producer Concha y Toro. The Devil’s Collection is a distinctive, pioneering assortment of three superior wines comprising a red, white and brut. From the high-impact, mature and elegant red to the fresh, light and enveloping white to the distinct and glamorous brut, the Devil’s collection offers a refined taste for every palate.