The South American wine adventure
This month our Swindon tasters took a viticultural tour of South America and found several wines to tickle their tastebuds.
Wine One - Sauvignon Blanc - Santa Macarena (Available from Magnum wine shop, £9.99)
The grapes for this wine are grown in one of the most coastal vineyards in Chile, just 5km from the ocean. The winemakers take advantage of the sea air and morning mists that bring temperatures down, which the Sauvignon Blanc grape loves, and the climate creates a freshness and crisp acidity in the wine. The grapes are handpicked in the early morning to retain that freshness.
The wine went down well with the tasters, who agreed it was fresh and a good alternative to the many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc bottles on our shelves.
Wine Two - Fairtrade Torrontes (Available from the Co-op, £5.49)
Torrontes belongs to the “aromatic grape” classification and thus has distinctive perfume and flavours. It is indigenous to Argentina and grown almost exclusively in Argentina. Like the Sauvignon Blanc, it is a fresh summer grape, although our tasters preferred the wine before, even though it was almost twice the price.
The key to Torrontes is altitude, and the Torrontes heartland is Salta, home to the highest vineyards in the world, or Mendoza, which is slightly lower in altitude, producing more peachy tones to the wine.
This Fairtrade Torrontes comes from La Rioja region and is made by the La Riojana cooperative. A small premium from each bottle sold gets ringfenced to spend on projects in the community. Premiums from this wine has contributed to a new school, a minibus (to transport children to school from the outlying villages) and a water treatment facility.
Wine Three - Cono sur Viognier (Available from major supermarkets, from £7.25)
Back to Chile for this next wine, although Viognier is a grape commonly found in France. The Cono Sur Viognier is 100% Viognier- If a single grape variety is stated in the labels, rules dictate that there has to be a minimum 75% of the grape in the bottle (or 85% if destined for EU export).
Cono Sur are one of the bigger players in Chile, the third largest exporter. A relatively young company, founded in 1999, with the first wines vinified in 2003. Despite their size and status, they have sustainable principles, specialising in organic wines. The bicicletta range is a nod to the practice of workers on the estate as they cycle around on bikes.
The vines themselves are in the Colchagua Valley, benefitting from Andean snow melt for irrigation, and good drainage on the gravelly soils. The colour of this wine was more golden than the previous two, thanks to six months aging in tanks.
One other notable feature is the word “Reserva” on the label. In Europe, the word would refer to aging times, but confusingly in South America this relates to the alcohol content. A wine labelled “Reserva” must be at least 0.5% higher in alcohol than the legal minimum of 12%. For wines labelled “reserva especial” and serves privada” the legal minimums are higher AND the wine must have spent time in oak.
This wine was a hit, with many liking the fuller body to the previous two wines.
Wine Four - Butchers block Bonarda Shiraz (Available from M&S, £7)
Bonarda - not to be confused with Italian bonarda, which is a completely different grape - is Argentina’s second most planted grape variety after Malbec. Which seems odd, as you really have to hunt to find it being sold in the UK. Sometimes it can be found blended with Merlot, but in this case we found it blended with Shiraz. It’s a grape that is too light and fruity on its own, so needs to be blended with weightier grapes to give it extra body and complexity.
Even so, pouring out this wine, it was clear this was as light in body as a Pinot noir, but it was a popular choice with many of the tasters (or maybe they were just pleased to get onto reds after the whites!)
It comes from Mendoza, where two thirds of Argentina’s wines are produced. In the foothills of the Andes, the Mendoza vineyards are dry and arid, but benefit from snowmelt. The farmers over the years have invested a lot of time and energy into creating irrigation channels and 17,000 boreholes. Cheers to them for that!
Wine five - CM Carménère (Available from M&S, £9)
The Elqui Valley is home to the most northerly vineyards in Chile, where it is a landscape of slopes, small towns, boutique vineyards and nature trails. It was the worlds first “Dark sky sanctuary” due to the clear skies and lack of light pollution. The Valley is famed for its quality Syrah and Carménère.
Carménère is originally a French grape (from Bordeaux) but you’ll also find it grown in Italy and California. Despite the bureaucracy and rules surrounding French wine, Carménère is still permitted in Bordeaux blends, but most winemakers choose not to use it. The Chileans have taken the grape under their wing and made it their own.
This wine from Marks and Spencer’s was another hit with the tasters - bursting with black fruit and spice from the American and French oak barrels us for ageing. It was a runaway favourite of the night, with over half the tasters voting it as favourite.
Wine six - Irresistable Fairtrade Malbec (Available from Co-op, £7.49)
Like the Torrentes earlier, this wine comes from the Famatina valley in Argentina and is another Fairtrade example from the Co-op. The Famatina Valley is dry and dusty, and with altitude from the foothills of the Andes. At around 1000 metres above sea level, it is higher than Mendoza, and the north-south alignment of the valleys enables winds to funnel through the valley to cool the vines. This climate means longer growing days that results in riper fruit.
Malbec is also a grape of French origin (known as "Cot" in France) but many of the vines were killed off during harsh frosts in 1956. The French never bothered to replant new Malbec vines, except for in Cahors, where you can still find Malbec grown. France's loss was Argentina's gain as the grape grows extremely well there, and the Argentines have adopted it as their most planted grape variety.
Wine seven - Pisano Tannat (Available from M&S, £10)
Based in Progreso, 15 miles inland from the Atlantic coast in Uruguay, the Pisano winery was founded in 1914 by Ligurian immigrant Cesare Pisano. It is run today by his sons and grandsons, and Pisano has become one of Uruguay’s most respected bodegas. They pride themselves on carrying out many of the vineyard practices by hand (such as removing leaves to increase sun exposure to the grapes, as well as the harvest itself).
On a recent visit, M&S winemaker Jeneve Williams was impressed by Gabriel Pisano’s characterful Tannat, a grape from South West France that is becoming Uruguay’s signature variety. Sometimes the Tannat grape can be quite harsh, but Uruguay are using cloned vines that produce softer tannin and a blackberry character.