Most wine lovers have already savored a glass of Argentinean Malbec or Chilean Carménère, but the breadth of the South American wine industry does not stop with these two signature grapes, nor is it contained to the usual suspects of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. These “noble grapes” may dominate much of the export market these days, but intrepid winemakers are experimenting with other “forgotten” varietals exiled to the Americas over the past five centuries in hopes of discovering the next great South American vino.
Production is ramping up everywhere from Patagonia to The Pampas, and as it does, winemakers are uncovering a wealth of diversity hidden within some of the New World’s oldest vines. What does this mean for you? Well, if you’re looking for something new to show off at your next dinner party, we’ve got the lowdown on five grapes thriving in South America that, while rarely noticed north of the Equator, deserve a closer look. Best of all, none of the bottles recommended below should set you back more than $20.
If you’ve ever stooped to the bottom shelf and snatched a dubious-looking box wine from Chile, chances are you’ve already sampled the Pais grape. Don’t let that scare you. This easily cultivated jug wine favorite might not be the most expressive in its youth, but by carefully selecting fantastically gnarled 100-year-old vines from the Maule Valley (Chile’s oldest wine region), winemakers have begun releasing some incredible bottles made from this once maligned varietal. “The old vines produce less, but their grapes have much more concentrated flavors, which result in a deeper, more complex wine,” explained Chilean wine expert Marcela Chandía, of Chile diVino. Proof of Pais’ potential came in 2012 when a sparkling rose from esteemed winemaker Miguel Torres – the grape’s biggest advocate – won top honors at the Wines of Chile Awards. Now a number of boutique producers like Chilcas and Huaso de Sauzal are making powerful reds from this humble grape that arrived in South America 500 years ago with the Spanish conquistadors.
What To Buy: Chandía recommends Miguel Torres Santa Digna Estelado Sparkling Rosé
It was in the wake of Chile’s deadliest earthquake in 1939 that the government turned to Carignan (a grape commonly found in southern France) as a way of boosting the livelihood of rural farmers in the hard-hit Maule Valley. But the plan never really took off and Carignan sold for a pittance right up until the 1990s when international demand for Chilean wines skyrocketed and forward-thinking winemakers realized the untapped potential of their old vines. Fast-forward another two decades and the grape has hit it big with the formation of Vignadores de Carignan (VIGNO), an advocacy and co-marketing organization formed in 2011 that mandates, among other things, that its members’ wines be made from dry-farmed (un-irrigated) vines at least 30 years in age. Old-vine Carignans are being touted as Chile’s “next Carmenere,” and an increasing number of bottles are creeping onto US shelves. Chandía said if you find the VIGNO label you can expect vino that’s “very structured, has a big mouth and is perfect for red meats.”
What To Buy: Chandía recommends Gillmore Vigno 2011
Though Uruguay has been releasing some stellar Tannats in recent years, those in the know are even more excited about the potential of an even lesser-known grape: Albariño. This transplant from the Galicia region of northwest Spain produces a white wine with a botanical aroma akin to Viognier or Gewürztraminer and a peachy-fresh finish. Albariño is one of very few niche white wine grapes to have made a splash in South America, with Torrontés (below) being the other notable exception. It pairs well with seafood or salad and is a great porch-sipper on a balmy day. Claudio Angelotti, executive director of Bodegas del Uruguay, said the two Albariño producers to keep an eye on are Bodega Garzón (for something crisp) and Bouza Bodega Boutique (for a wine with more body). Whichever you choose, Albariño is easily the biggest crowd-pleaser on this list.
What To Buy: Angelotti recommends Bodega Garzón 2013 Albariño
Torrontés is the shining star of a stark landscape, grown almost exclusively along Argentina’s dusty northwestern frontier in the world’s highest altitude vineyards. Widely consumed in Argentina, but little known beyond its borders, this grape produces the kind of white wine that’s fresh and fruity without being cloyingly sweet. In fact, it has a deceptively floral nose that belies a dry finish, according to Argentinean wine expert Diego Kostic, of Le Bon Vin in Buenos Aires. Kostic believes Torrontés is a grape that has a very bright future abroad. “If we know how to tell the story of Torrontés it can become very successful because it is 100% Argentinean,” he said. “There is no Torrontés anywhere else in the world.” Kostic recommends pairing Torrontes with Argentinean empanadas, but this versatile wine also matches well with other ethic cuisines like tacos, sushi or curry.
What To Buy: Kostic recommends Colomé Torrontes 2014
It was the most cultivated grape in Argentina up until a decade ago, but don’t mistake Bonarda’s slight dip in production in recent years for a drop in quality. This red from Italy was, like Pais, once reserved largely for table wines, but has emerged in recent years as a standalone varietal that’s a great alternative for anyone who already harbors an affinity for Argentina’s more famous export, Malbec. Kostic said Bonarda and Malbec are actually quite similar. “Many winemakers want to sell Bonarda as ‘the new Malbec’ but that would be a mistake,” he noted. “It’s a beautiful wine, but not because it’s similar to Malbec.” Bonarda tends to be light and fruity, making it a food-friendly pick for burgers or barbecues. That said, several winemakers are experimenting with older vines and producing a new breed of Bonardas that are big, tannic mouth bombs better suited for a juicy steak.
What To Buy: Kostic recommends Durigutti Bonarda 2010