South American Wine | Discover The Americas

Harry Lambourne
7th December 2023

South American wine is rich and varied. It goes well beyond Malbec from Argentina and we’re here to show you the ropes of this mammoth wine-producing area.

We will take you through the biggest hitters, such as Argentina and Chile, but we will also take some time to hopefully introduce you to some new wine-making nations and along with some new wines to try! It is a huge area and has so much to offer.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into the exciting world of South American wine. You won’t look back!

South American Wine – Argentina

Argentina is the most well-known of the South American wine producing nations. This is largely for the rivers of Malbec that the world guzzles down. Yet, it is not a one-note wine-making nation and viticulture dates back to the 16th century when Spanish missionaries and conquistadors brought cuttings across from Spain.

Over time things progressed as winemakers noted the potential in the coastal portions of the country, as well as the foothills of the Andes Mountains. These allowed for long hours of sunlight and slow ripening. These two natural factors were instrumental in the production of deeply flavourful South American wines.

Vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina | Argentinian Wine
Mendoza, Argentina

While the location was excellent, there were other factors which caused production to stall. Political and economic instability was perhaps the main factor, but also Argentina didn’t put too much stock in the export market. It wasn’t until Chilean wine began to boom, that Argentina realised they were sitting on a goldmine.

Argentinian wine modernised. New french oak barrels, stainless steel temperature controlled vessels, new forms of trellising and farming techniques all found traction. Suddenly, the export market boomed.

We’ve mentioned Malbec and that’s with good reason. It’s the star of the show. These small and dark grapes originated in Cahors in France, (where it is known as Côt). Compared to the French style, Argentinian Malbec is fresher and more acidic due to it being grown at altitude. Yet, it has the deeply concentrated black fruit flavours and a texture of velvet. This is produced up and down Argentina. Every region will have their own style, but Mendoza is the most well-known.

Another key red wine grape is Bonarda. These are bold and often age-worthy due to strong tannins. You’ll pick up flavours of plum, cherry, fig and touches of baking spice, cinnamon and cardamom.

In terms of white wine Torrontés is a speciality. Few wines match this grapes floral quality and it is deeply aromatic with delightful citrus and stone fruit flavours. Cafayate is home to some of the world’s highest vineyards in the world and the altitude helps to lock in that freshness. It is a source of wonderful Torrontés.

Cafayate Vineyards - Natural Factors in the Vineyard | South American Wine
Cafayate Vineyards

You’re never too far away from Chardonnay either. This is true in Argentina. Many seek to emulate a Californian style of Chardonnay, but you can also expect to find lean and acidic wines to match those of Chablis in Burgundy.

We mentioned Cafayate and we’ll loop back around to it now. One of the key wine-producing provinces in this South American wine-making nation is Salta. It sits in the northwest of the nation and is a warm, humid climate that has chilly nights and some of the world’s highest vineyards. This helps look in acidity and freshness, so it is particularly well-known for white wine.

Yet, Mendoza is the beating-heart of the Argentinian wine world and is likely the most famous region in the whole of South American wine. Mendoza sits to the west of Buenos Aires with vineyards that can reach up to 4000 feet above sea level. It is a dry region with ample sunshine, (known locally as sunlight density). This combination of dry weather, altitude and sunlight makes it a perfect little microclimate for a wealth of wonderful wine.

South American Wine – Chile

Now, just a hop, skip and a jump over the Andes mountains to Argentina’s neighbour – Chile. This is another key South American wine region. We mentioned that Chile were quick to capitalise on the export market and this quickly established themselves as a source of affordable wine, but their roots go back further and you can find a lot of high-quality Chilean wine.

In stark contrast to South American wine-making nation of Argentina, Chile was influenced by Bordeaux. In the 19th century, rich Chilean land owners started buying up large chunks of land. This included wineries and vineyards. Their aim was to recreate the great Châteaux’s of Bordeaux.

This influence can be seen today. Chilean wine frequently features all the major Bordeaux grape varieties. This includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The key Chilean grape is another Bordeaux speciality, that fell out of favour in its homeland, Carménère. In France, these grapes were devastated by phylloxera but today they produce rich and complex red wine from Chile. Expect black fruit flavours to meld with spice, dark chocolate, coffee and vanilla. True luxury.

Chilean Wine Landscape
Chilean Wine Landscape

In terms of the terroir, Chile is a unique landscape. It is home to the Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the ‘Entre Cordilleras’ area, (between the ranges). These serve, to an extent, to isolate Chile from the rest of the world. You have a microclimate that is in many respects perfect the viticulture, but also carries low disease pressure which is perfect for organic production.

Frequently, the best wines are grown in the foothills of the mountains. Once more, altitude is the friend of winemakers and Chile has plenty of sunlight to let these grapes reach their full potential.

The wine regions themselves are spread out over a long and narrow width. The northern portion of Coquimbo is known for the Elqui, Limarí and Choapa Valleys. Expect to find fantastic Sauvignon Blanc and world class leaner, peppery Syrah that isn’t miles apart from the offerings found in the Rhône Valley.

Further south is Aconcagua. The Aconcagua Valley is found on thigh-burning slopes where red grapes rule the roost. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carménère are all ones to watch.

In the centre is the Central Valley. This is the key centre of production, due to vast areas of warm and fertile flat plains. However, these are mostly home to unremarkable table wines. Yet, there are four key sub-regions which are known as a place for quality wine. They are the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule Valleys. There are a lot of valleys in Chile! The former two tend to lend themselves to bigger bodied full red wines, while the latter have found success with more acidic and fresh creations, (both red and white).

The last sub-region of this South American wine great is the ‘Southern Region’. This section is noticeably cooler and wetter. The Bío Bío Valley and Malleco Valley have garnered acclaim within the southern region. If you love Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or the regional speciality of País, then this is the place to go.

South American Wine – Uruguay

Uruguay is one of the lesser known producers of South American wine. However, they actually do have a history in viticulture which dates back to immigrants from the Basque region of Spain and also Italy.

Interestingly, their primary export is the Tannat grape variety, (known in Uruguay as Harriague). This is a relatively lesser known grape variety, which is primarily known for wines from the South West of France. In particular, the appellation of Madiran.

Tannat in Uruguay is world’s apart, (literally and figuratively), from those of France. In France, you’ll see very high levels of tannin and high levels of alcohol. In Uruguay those tannins are much softer with defined black fruit flavours. You can find it blended with Pinot Noir to produce particularly lighter wines reminiscent of Beaujolais.

A further distinction can be found between old vines which come from cuttings that were brought over from Europe and the new clones which are being produced today. The newer expressions are more alcoholic, but lack the acidity and fresh fruit characteristics of the old vines. Interestingly, the new vines more closely resemble the old world.

Beyond that, you can expect to find fresh and vibrant Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. An interesting speciality from this particular South American wine region is Albariño. Albariño grapes were first introduced to the region by Galician immigrants in the 1950s and they’d really begun to garner international acclaim, as wines with rich citrus and stone fruit notes.

There are a number of different wine regions in Uruguay, but there are two which have established a reputation above all others. We will begin by discussing Montevideo. This is the capital city of Uruguay and normally the capital city of a nation isn’t renowned for its viticultural capabilities, yet Uruguay is different. The yields here are low, but the quality is high in this particular South American wine region.

Uruguayan Wine
Bouza Winery, Montevideo

The climate of Montevideo is actually fantastic for wine and an excellent South American wine region. You can find Montevideo vineyards in close proximity to the coast. This mild maritime climate is not dissimilar to Bordeaux, but the speciality of this area is Albariño. These wonderful wines deliver notes of pear, pineapple, peach, lime, orange blossom, spice, caramel and orange peel.

Moving from the north east of Montevideo, we get to Canelones. This is the backbone of the Uruguayan wine world and accounts for 60% of the production and more Tannat vines than anywhere on earth.

It is different from many of the other South American wine regions. The landscape is flat and low-lying, which stands in stark contrast to much of the vineyard space in this continent which is found in high-altitude mountainous areas. Once more, the proximity to the coast causes winemakers to draw comparisons to Bordeaux.

However, the grape varieties are more varied than Bordeaux. Expect to find Pinot Blanc as you would in Alsace, or even Nebbiolo to rival some of Piedmont. Whether it’s in Barolo or Canelones, Nebbiolo is always a treat – especially when it is so unique. South American wine can throw up these unexpected gems and Canelones Nebbiolo is certainly one of those.

South American Wine – Brazil

Now we move to Brazil. When you think of the sprawling cities and wild jungle of this nation your first thought may not be wine. Indeed, beer and Cachaça are perhaps their most well-known exports, but there is a wine industry within Brazil and it is something of which you should be aware.

In terms of vineyard area, it is second only to Argentina and Chile in the South American wine nations, but this shouldn’t be surprising as it is comfortably the largest country in the continent.

Brazilian Vineyards
Vineyards in Caixas do Sul, Southern Brazil

The production of quality wine within Brazil has been much slower, compared to the other South American wine-making nations which we have mentioned. A hot, tropical climate which breeds diseases on the crops and a huge expansive landmass which can falter transportation have proved to be stumbling blocks.

Yet, times are changing. Brazil has a varied landscape and pockets are well suited to a variety of different grape varieties. Interestingly, Brazil has found success with sparkling white wines in high-altitude and cooler locations in Southern Brazil. They can be traditional method wines like Crémant and Champagne, or styles reminiscent of Prosecco and other Italian Spumante wines. You can also expect to find Italian varieties such as Sangiovese, Trebbiano and Nebbiolo.

In Central Brazil, winemakers will employ a tactic known as ‘winter viticulture’. The winter months are drier and cooler which suits the grapes and you can expect to find some great Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

Last up is the Northern portion of Brazil. Here, we have a tropical climate, but rather uniquely the harvest can be done twice a year. This is something wholly uncommon in the world of wine. Admittedly, little is known about this wine region currently. However, some have expressed great hope for Syrah and Chenin Blanc.

This has been our tour of South American wine, but it doesn’t stop here. If you see something from Peru, then pick it up. Wine is an adventure, so it’s always good to be as adventurous as possible!

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If you’d simply just like to learn more about wine from the comfort of your own home, be sure to check out our online blog and sign up to our mailing list. We’re always looking to teach people about different regions, grape varieties and producers. Beyond that, you can expect to find a whole host of playlists, cocktail cards and recipe cards packed full of wine pairing ideas. There might even be some special offers along the way so make sure that you don’t miss out!

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