|If I asked you to tell me about South American wine, you’d probably immediately think of Argentina and its star grape variety, Malbec. That’s unsurprising, given Argentina has become the world’s fifth largest wine producing country. Today, Malbec has become so synonymous with Argentina – Mendoza in particular – that many wine drinkers aren’t even aware the grape originates in Cahors in southern France.
Across the Andes, Chile has experienced a similar wave of international exposure in the past 30 to 40 years and is still overcoming a stereotype of being home to primarily low-value supermarket wines. Chilean ‘first growths’, such as Almaviva, Seña and Casa Real, the last of which has just recently been released via the high-end distribution network La Place de Bordeaux, have helped to combat this image, increasing the recognition of the fantastic Bordeaux blends and old vines this long, narrow country has to offer.
These two countries form the basis of most wine drinkers’ understanding of quality wine from South America. But that’s not the full picture. Winemaking in South America is much more far-reaching, with established and growing industries in Uruguay, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. As Amanda Barnes says in her comprehensive book The South America Wine Guide: ‘South America was the first major wine producer outside of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin and still makes a 10th of the world’s wine, and yet its wine regions remain among the least documented and understood.’
It’s a little-known fact, for example, that South America’s winemaking history actually began in Peru. Grapevines made their first journey to the Americas in 1493 with Christopher Columbus; plantings in Central America eventually spread north into what is now the United States and south into the South American continent. The first grapevines to be cultivated in South America were in Lima in 1539.
Peru was the epicentre of South American winemaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a series of setbacks – religious and imperialistic restrictions, natural disasters including volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, as well as the arrival of phylloxera in the late 1880s – saw its winemaking industry replaced by cotton and sugarcane farming.
Today, winemaking is once again a nascent industry in Peru, though you’d be hard pressed to find many Peruvian wines outside of the country itself. Many wines are made with Criolla varieties (grapes native to the South American continent born of native and Spanish origin, also known as ‘pisco varieties’ in Peru), including Quebranta, Albilla and Italia (also known as Moscatel de Alejandria), though international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and Tannat are increasingly being planted. The majority of vineyards stretch south down the coast from the capital city of Lima. An example of a modern Peruvian winery is Tacama, which produces Tannat, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and other varietals in the desert climate of the Ica Valley in the southern part of the country.
On the eastern coast of the continent, Uruguay has already become a familiar name to many wine enthusiasts, especially when it comes to Tannat, which is to Uruguay what Malbec is to Argentina. Here, with a smaller industry, more variable weather patterns driven by the Atlantic Ocean and distinctively higher costs than its neighbours, Uruguay has had a slow journey to global recognition. Bodega Garzon, the creation of Argentinian billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, has helped put Uruguayan wines on the map, with an ultra-modern winery and on-site restaurant by the celebrated Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann.
Then there are the wine regions within Brazil and Bolivia, hidden gems to the few in the know. Five years ago I visited Brazil’s Serra Gaucha region, where sparkling wine dominates, though it by no means has a monopoly. Bolivia’s industry is much smaller and only just getting started in the arena of premium wine production (despite a history dating back to the 1550s). Although Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted international grape variety in Bolivia, the most promise has been seen with Tannat and Marselan.
With a history dating back centuries, varied climates, topographies, grape varieties (and even species – we’re not just talking Vitis vinifera), there is an incredible world to discover across the wines of South America.
Want to learn more about South American wines and even taste a Peruvian Tannat? Come join me at Hedonism Wines on Monday, 16th October at 6.30pm for our monthly Hedonism Wine School event, focused this month on The Wines of South America. Tickets are available HERE. The South America Wine Guide by Amanda Barnes, distributed by Académie du Vin Library, will be on sale at the event.
Sherry Rose Stolar is events manager at Hedonism Wines in London.