On either side of the Andes, Chile and Argentina are developing their high-altitude vineyards, producing wines of real character. JEFF COX investigates

On either side of the Andes, Chile and Argentina are developing their high-altitude vineyards, producing wines of real character. JEFF COX investigates

A South American fable has it that when God finished creating the earth, the angels in charge of fashioning the land came to Him and said: ‘We’ve got a lot of mountains, valleys, and rivers left over.’ God answered, ‘Dump them at the end of the earth.’ And that’s how Chile and Argentina were made.

Very lucky for grape growers and winemakers. The eternally snow-capped Andes split the continent right down its spine, tossing valleys and elevated plateaux left and right through the mountainous foothills and crisscrossing them with torrents of meltwater from the snows above. Today, some of the finest and most interesting wines of Chile and Argentina come from those high-altitude sites.

It used to be that the valley floors were planted with high-yielding varieties and well irrigated with meltwater to produce oceans of indifferent wine for local markets. In the late 1970s, Argentina was the fifth largest wine-producing country in the world, almost all sold at home. But in the last few years, that’s all changed as both Argentina and Chile have entered the world market for fine wine.

Production has gone down, but quality has gone way up as established wineries have caught on to the wealth of fine, high-altitude vineyard sites they have close at hand, and as big international players in the fine wine game – think Rothschild and Mondavi, among others – have shown a desire to be involved in the development of prime sites.

Choice upland sites with poor soils have been identified in both countries. On the Chilean side of the Andes, the topography is much like that of California, with high, snow-capped mountains to the east, a central valley, and a coastal range of mountains flanking the cold Pacific. Along the Andean foothills, vines are planted up to 975m above sea level, and on the slopes of the coast range up to 600m. Across the Andes to the east is Argentina and the elevated desert of the Mendoza region. Here vines are planted in sites along the eastern edge of the Andes from 900m up to 1,500m above sea level. The topography is similar to that of eastern Washington in the United States. These upland sites experience warm days of intense sunlight and cool nights.

In the best vineyards of both countries, indiscriminate flood irrigation is being replaced by precisely controlled drip irrigation. Instead of sprawling canopies and huge crops of mediocre quality, vines are trained to vertical shoot positioning with lower yields of high-quality grapes.

Modern winemaking has arrived, replacing old beechwood fermenters with stainless steel tanks and French and American oak barrels. In Chile, a group of young, well-educated and well-travelled winemakers are at the vanguard of progress.

‘We call our wineries “the group of six”,’ says Rafael Tirado Santelices, winemaker at Veramonte in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. Besides Veramonte, the group includes Almaviva, a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Chile’s Concha y Toro. Almaviva is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet Franc grown in hills just south of Santiago and is made by Rafael’s twin brother Enrique. Its creators call it ‘the first primer orden wine of Chile’, the Spanish equivalent of grand cru classé. It’s arguably the best wine made in Chile today. Enrique Tirado also makes Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s premier wine from the high-elevation Andean foothills at Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley.

GOOD VALUE

Also included in the group of six are Errazuriz in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago; Seña, a joint venture between Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi, and Montes and Casa Lapostolle in the Colchagua Valley south of Santiago. ‘They are devoted to telling the world about the improving quality of Chilean wines,’ says Rafael.

While the quality of some Chilean wines was surprisingly impressive, their prices were surprisingly keen. The first wine I tasted after arriving in Santiago was Big Tattoo Red from Two Brothers Winery – a mouthfilling, juicy, rich blend of 50% Colchagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Syrah, and 10% Merlot that sells for $9 in the US. ‘Syrah is the soul of this wine,’ says wine exporter Alfredo Bartholomaus, whose sons Erik and Alex make and sell the wine. ‘The Syrah vineyards are handled by Eduardo Silva, the best viticulturist in Chile.’ Silva is currently trialling Syrah in eight vineyards from 400km north of Santiago to 300km south of the city to see where it will produce the best wine.

At Montes, whose vineyards climb out of the Colchagua Valley floor up into the Andean foothills, Syrah is planted so high up on steep hillsides that all work needs to be done by hand. The stressed vines give a fat, generous wine under the Montes Alpha label. The high-elevation hillside Syrah vineyards are topped with avocado trees, and a predatory mite hosted by the avocadoes works its way down into the Syrah vines and helps control red spider mite. The 1999 Errazuriz Max Reserva Syrah has a good peppery nose and fine fruit expression.

Chile and Argentina each have a grape variety closely associated with their nation: Carmenère in Chile and Malbec in Argentina. A friendly rivalry between the countries is apparent when these varieties are mentioned. In Chile, Malbec is mostly relegated to Bordeaux blends, if it’s used at all. And yet, in their respective countries, these grapes have found a real home. Carmenère – which was widely planted in Bordeaux in the 18th century but has since almost disappeared there – gives a deeply coloured, bold, rather rustic red that can add backbone to soft, ripe Chilean Cabernet-based blends.

The big surprise, in my opinion, is what happens to Malbec in Argentina. While this variety has a slender flavour profile that’s useful in blending but hardly stands on its own in Bordeaux and California, it blossoms into a lush, full-flavoured, colour-saturated, ageworthy wine in Argentina.

For years, people thought Argentinian Malbec was so good because the country has exceptionally good old clones of the variety. ‘Not so,’ says Robert Pepi, a Napa Valley winemaker who consults at the Valentin Bianchi winery in San Rafael, about 240km south of the city of Mendoza. ‘The Argentines did field trials with modern clones of Malbec just brought over here and they produced the best Malbec ever,’ says Pepi. ‘So that shoots down the theory that years ago they got lucky with the clone they brought over.’

American influence is popping up in both countries. Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen winery in Glen Ellen, California, has been contracting for grapes in both Chile and Argentina since the mid-1990s and selling them under his Terra Rosa label back in the States. Kendall-Jackson, the wine behemoth of California, has its own labels – Tapiz from Argentina and Calina from Chile. But it’s not the Americans, French or Italians who are creating the rising tide of quality. It’s the shrewdness of South American winery owners. One of the chief movers who has shown the way is Nicolas Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata in Agrelo, a high desert region south of the city of Mendoza.

Catena sells five lines of wines, most from vineyards that are at 900m or more. In descending order of price they are Catena Zapata, Catena Alta, Catena, Alamos and Argento. Look out also for a Malbec from the Adrianna Vineyard, grown at 1,500m. This will be released next year as a single-vineyard wine from the 2002 vintage and is one of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted in years, with a huge, unique nose of blueberries, berries, and plums and rich, round, concentrated flavours to match. These high-altitude wines have the ‘nerve’ that Tim Mondavi talks about – that electric, sinewy thread down the middle, created by strong phenolics, that brings a wine to vibrant life. ‘At that elevation,’ Catena says, ‘there’s more intense sun and a greater amount of ultraviolet radiation.’ The intensity of sunlight and ultraviolet exposure at this elevation evidently has a profound effect on the phenolics, which many scientists believe cause the beneficial effects of red wine on the heart and cardiovascular system. These compounds test out higher in red wines, especially Malbec, grown at high elevations. But that’s not all.

Endothelin-1 is a bad-guy enzyme that contributes to coronary atherosclerosis (a disease that blocks the arteries). The phenolics in red wine can inhibit its growth. Dr Laura Catena, Nicolas’ daughter, winemaker and a doctor in San Francisco, has revealed results of chemical analysis on the phenolics of red wine produced at high elevations in the Andes foothills, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The amounts of these protective compounds were through the roof.

So here’s to the high-altitude wines of Chile and Argentina.

Jeff Cox is a wine writer based in the US.

Written by JEFF COX