South American Wine Underdogs

Make room for carménère and torrontés at the dinner table

photo courtesy Viña Tarapacá

photo courtesy Viña Tarapacá

Two grapes come to mind when South American wine is a topic of discussion: malbec and sauvignon Blanc. These grapes dominate Mendoza and Casablanca Valley plantings and hold firm stakes in export markets. There’s certainly no question of their popularity and no foreseeable end to this king and queen’s reign. However, there are two homegrown grapes of the South American continent that exude the tenacious history of its people from grape to glass.

The South American darlings of carménère or torrontés have overcome tumultuous history and have enjoyed some successes, but still struggle to find their place at the dinner table. Wine underdogs, in general, are wines that are overlooked by the average fermented grape juice lover. The common thought: “Why spend $20 on Chilean carménère, when I can get a Bordeaux table wine for the same price?” Though for the adventure seeker these wines overdeliver. If you are a novice of these two, now is the time to send your senses leaping for joy.  Plunge into the plush, bell-peppery notes of carménère and bathe in the distinct floral notes of torrontés that jump out of the glass with an enthusiastic salutation.

Let me lay out of the case for carménère. The grape itself is a cross between gros Cabernet and cabernet franc. The carménère vine (or so they thought) made its way to Chile from the Bordeaux region in the 1800s. Across the Andes, Torrontés was carving out a place in Argentinian history with the Spanish missionaries (more on that later). Chilean winemakers of the time hoped to mirror the success of famous Bordeaux chateaux especially after the famous 1855 Classification. The grape never achieved much success in Bordeaux’s cold, rainy climate. The grape was late-ripening, last to be harvested and did not add much finesse to blends.

In the late 19th Century, phylloxera devastated French vineyards. The pest, which made its way on American rootstock being transported to Europe, devoured non-resistant vine roots like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Consequently, thousands of hectares of crops and livelihoods were destroyed. Winemakers and their families looked elsewhere to rebuild and to start over. After the epidemic, carménère was almost non-existent in the replanting of Bordeaux. Approximately four hectares remain today, mostly in the Haut Médoc.

Carménère’s identity crisis

Cafayate Salta torrontés harvest, courtesy Alta Vista

Cafayate Salta torrontés harvest, courtesy Alta Vista

With a small French population established in Chile already, French winemakers made their way to Chile to chase their passion for making great wine. This new wave of French winemakers in Chile played an integral role in the local industry. Carménère was thriving, soaking up the sun in the long growing season of Chile. However, carménère was mis-identified during the influx of pre-phylloxera vines. It was thought it be a clone of the merlot grape. Through DNA testing in the mid-1990s, French botanist Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered that what they thought was a clone of merlot, was actually the long-lost French grape carménère. After the discovery, some wineries ripped the grape from the ground planting actual merlot. Others saw an opportunity planted right in front of them. In fact, approximately 5 million cases of carménère are produced annually—with nearly 85% of it coming from Chile.

Carménère found a home in Chile to flourish, singing its magnum opus of silky chocolate-covered-bell peppers to your taste buds. The grape lives its best life in bottlings from Central Valley DO and Aconcagua Valley DO.

Getting to know torrontés

Torrontés may have not the rough childhood that carménère had, but it still struggles greatly in today’s marketplace.  Mostly known for making up cheap supermarket guzzlers, the grape is also capable of making enticing expressions in the right hands. The parent grapes of torrontes immigrated to South America from Spain during the 19th Century. The pink-skinned criolla chica (The Spanish mission grape) and white grape muscat of Alexandria were crossed, resulting in the birth of torrontés. Though not Argentina’s most planted white grape variety (that’d be Pedro Giménez used for bulk production) it offers something so uniquely Argentinian and the country’s only native grape.

Thriving in the high elevation vineyards of Salta there are three types: Riojano, Sanjuanino, and Mendicino. Torrontés Riojano is the most planted of the three, offering robust, unctuous floral aromas that are reminiscent of a summer jaunt through a wildflower patch. Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendicino are very rare and not as finessed as their popular sister. Some of these are so fresh, so floral, so zippy—not to mention accessible in price—that will have you replacing your old faithful Sauvie B faster than you can say “patio pounder”.

Try these notable (and delicious) examples of these two South American wine underdogs

Alta Vista Estate Torrontés 2018 -  Salta, Argentina ($14)

A cool vintage gave this bottling its crisp, refreshing edge. Classic floral notes, ripe peach and perky tropical fruit notes are all in attendance. Incidentally, Alta Vista won a silver for their 2016 Estate Malbec at the 2018 New York International Wine Competition.

Bodegas Krontiras Dona Silvina Torrontés - La Rioja, Argentina ($12)

A ripe, fresh, fruity expression from outside the Torrontés epicenter of Salta is worth your time and dime, especially from Bodegas Krontiras who won The Berlin International Wine Competition Argentina Winery of the year for 2017.

Bodega El Porviner de Cafayate Laborum Oak Fermented Torrontés 2016 - Cafayate, Argentina ($17)

For those who enjoy a round, rich wine, El Porviner’s oak fermented version of torrontés satisfies that need. Candied pineapples wrapped in notes of vanilla and honey erupt onto the palate giving the grape a fun, modern expression.

Winemaker Sebastian Ruiz, courtesy Viña Tarapacá

Winemaker Sebastian Ruiz, courtesy Viña Tarapacá

San Pedro Gato Negro Carménère 2017 - Central Valley, Chile ($10)

This wine may be low in price but that doesn’t mean quality suffers. Ripe blackberry and blueberry notes are coated in tobacco and velvety vanilla notes. Gato Negro was selected as the as Chile’s Wine Brand of the Year at the 2016 New York International Wine Competition.

Viña Tarapacá Gran Reserva Carménère 2015 - Maipo Valley, Chile ($18)

Maipo Valley makes some of the best expressions of carménère from Chile. Viña Tarapacá’s version is no exception. It sees a bit of time in oak, gifting the wine with notes of espresso bean, alongside olive and ripe purple plums.

Errázuriz Estate Series Carménère 2016 - Aconcagua Valley, Chile ($20)

Some of the first French grape varieties in Chile were planted by Don Maximiano Errázuriz in 1870. The 2016 Estate Series is essentially a blend with carménère leading the pack with syrah and petit syrah playing supporting roles. Violets, red peppers, and clove notes dominate. A finessed, elegant version perfect to change your mind about carménère.