When the Spanish colonised Argentina and Chile, they brought grape vines with them, particularly pais and criolla grande. This genetic vinestock still survives; for instance, Cacique Maravilla’s Pipeño Pais is made from vines planted in 1776.
Pais accounts for a considerable volume of production but most of it is consumed as jug wine or pisco in Chile.
Across the border, criolla made a big comeback in Argentina during the 1960s when winemakers sought out high-cropping cash crops. Although these heritage vines could enjoy a fine wine renaissance one day, Bordeaux’s influence on wine production has been a major foundation stone for both Chile and Argentina.
To understand this influence, one must go back to the mid-1800s, and the methods, philosophies and inventions surrounding Bordeaux wine production, including Guyot-trained vineyards and barrique maturation.
After the phylloxera catastrophe of the 1850s, the dominant Bordeaux varieties became cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and carménère.
During the 1850s, the governor of Mendoza, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (later President of Argentina) encouraged French agronomist Miguel Pouget to bring new plant and vinestock material from France.
Malbec has proven to be a formidable grape variety, with a natural affinity for the warm climate conditions around Mendoza and in the cooler Uco Valley, which boasts a magnificent series of colluvial gravelly fans derived from millions of years of erosion. The result is a kaleidoscopic range of malbecs as varied and interesting as Australian shiraz.
Mendoza’s Achaval Ferrer, Altos Los Hormigas, Catena Zapata, Decero, Kaiken, Lagard and Santa Paula all produce exemplary expressions of the variety. But Zuccardi’s Finca Piedra Infinita, based on marbleised granitic stones covered with calcium, promises to become Argentina’s great modern cool-climate malbec. Edy del Poplo’s PerSe Volare del Camino and Familia Mayol Finca Montuiri 1926 Old Vines Malbec are also wonderful examples of individuality and form.
‘Wines with latitude and altitude’ is a common theme. The abrupt and steep-sided Andes in Chile prohibits plantings above 1,000 metres, but the country has more latitude than any other in the world.
The influence of the cool Humboldt Current, which moves up the Pacific coast, modifies the growing season substantially. Recently, poor winter snows, drought conditions and forest fires have motivated wine producers to promote sustainable practices with near religious conviction.
Chile is a major source of bulk wine (particularly for China) and supermarket brands. Nonetheless Eduardo Chadwick (Seña) and Concha y Toro (Almaviva) have successfully built up premium brands through La Place de Bordeaux.
Large family companies like Santa Rita, San Pedro and Casa Silva seem to dominate the agenda with generally excellent wines, overshadowing an emerging boutique wine scene.
Carménère, once prolific in Bordeaux before phylloxera, was brought out during the 1870s and has provided an excellent point of difference. The consistently fresh and buoyant Montes Purple Angel is a very good example.
The remarkable Maquis, with a history going back to the 18th century, captures the essence of the Chilean fine wine identity. Owned by the same family since 1916, its highly aromatic and vigorous red wines, typified by its Viola Carménère, seem to evoke a particular specialness of place.
Chilean cabernet sauvignon, which enjoys maritime influence, probably has the greater commercial promise, especially when vineyard parcelling and yields are controlled.
The 700-metre Puente Alto subregion in the Maipo Valley is clearly a star performer. Viñedo Chadwick Puente Alto, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon and Almaviva (Concha y Toro’s joint venture with Château Mouton Rothschild) are marvellously consistent and beautiful wines.
Ethical and sustainable practices are accompanied by experimentation and individual winemaking gestures everywhere. Cement egg/concrete fermenters and maturation in large-scale vats or foudres highlight a spirit of change, while the magnificent architecture and visions, including VIK Winery and the Familia Zuccardi, illustrate grand dynastic plans.
Nonetheless Chile and Argentina’s wine industries are threatened by a tinderbox of political, social and environmental challenges on a grand scale.