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South America’s top 10 winemakers

Plenty of candidates for this list, from the globe-trotting pioneers building on tradition, to the younger generations moving in radical new directions. Tim Atkin MW had the task of narrowing it down to just the 10 most exciting winemakers in Chile and Argentina...

Sebastián Zuccardi

Argentina: Zuccardi and Cara Sur

‘I’m an evangelist as much as a winemaker,’ says Sebastián Zuccardi (pictured above), staring out from the company’s new winery towards the Andes. ‘Winemaking isn’t just about science, however important that is. Things that aren’t proven still exist.’ You hesitate to use the word spiritual, but Zuccardi always seems to see a broader canvas in his quest to produce ‘Andean wines with a sense of place’.

Scroll down for Tim Atkin MW’s wine pick from each of his top 10 winemakers in South America

Generational shifts are not always easy in family-owned wineries, but at Zuccardi the process has been very harmonious. Sebastián took over from his father, José, in 2009 after spending seven vintages working overseas. ‘I’ve never had a guru,’ he says. ‘I’ve been allowed to follow my own instincts.’ The result has been a remarkable transformation in the winery’s focus and fortunes, moving away from its traditional base in the heat of eastern Mendoza to the cooler Uco Valley.

Under his leadership, the Zuccardis have made a string of exceptional, terroir-driven wines, most notably under the Aluvional and Piedra Infinita brands. More recently, Polígonos, sourced from young vineyards in San Pablo, is very promising too. And then there is another small project, Cara Sur (south face), made with his friend Pancho Bugallo in up-and-coming Barreal.

David Bonomi

Argentina: Norton and PerSe

David Bonomi of PerSe winery

David Bonomi of PerSe winery

Friendly, popular and charming, David Bonomi never stops smiling. And smile he should, given that he’s now taken over the full-time winemaking position at Bodega Norton, where his single-terroir Malbecs and red blends are exemplary and his whites are getting better with every vintage.

But Bonomi has another reason to be happy. With Edy del Popolo of Susana Balbo Wines, he also has a small, yet increasingly world-class brand to his name: PerSe. So far, the partners have only made wines from purchased grapes in the upper part of the Uco Valley, but the two hectares they have planted in the limestone-rich grounds of the Monasterio del Cristo Orante in Gualtallary are enough to make anyone believe in divine intervention. ‘A place like this doesn’t have a price,’ he says. ‘It’s simply magical.’

No one, yet, has tasted the first vintage (2016) produced from this site, but just sampling the grapes is a special experience. And given what Bonomi and del Popolo have already achieved with their Malbec (Volare del Camino) and two Malbec-Cabernet Franc blends (Iubileus and La Craie), not to mention a Sherry-style, non-vintage Chardonnay (Volare de Flor), you know it will be a revelation.

Julio Bouchon

Chile: Bouchon

Julio Bouchon with his father Julio Sr

Julio Bouchon with his father Julio Sr

Trained as a journalist rather than an oenologist, Julio Bouchon says that he’s not really a winemaker. ‘I’ve only ever worked in my family’s winery, so my CV is very poor, too.’ And yet walk with him around the family estate in Maule and it’s clear that he’s right when he says, ‘wine is flowing in my blood’.

Bouchon has only been running the business for three years, but is taking it in a radical new direction. ‘We realised that we were Bordeaux-oriented, but our place has nothing to do with Bordeaux. I decided that we needed our own identity.’

The result has been a switch to mostly dry-farmed Semillon, Carignan, Malbec and País, grapes that have a history in Chile’s Secano Interior region. País – grown out of ‘conviction’ rather than because it’s fashionable – is a focus. The vines are wild, more than 100 years old, and curl around tree branches in their search for sunlight. To pick the grapes, Bouchon’s team has to use ladders.

Like most of the new generation of producers, Bouchon only uses foudres, cement tanks and amphorae to ferment and age his wines. ‘I haven’t bought a new barrel yet. I don’t want to copy Bordeaux.’

Marcelo Retamal

Chile: De Martino, Viñedos de Alcohuaz

Marcelo Retamal among the young vines of the Alcohuaz vineyard in Chile’s high Elqui Valley

Marcelo Retamal among the young vines of the Alcohuaz vineyard in Chile’s high Elqui Valley

Marcelo Retamal went to see a fortune teller recently, who, believing in reincarnation, told him that he was on the last of his five lives. If that’s true, he hasn’t wasted it. Retamal is arguably the most influential winemaker in Chile, a man who has had a radical impact on the way his country makes wine. Widely travelled, as well as an avid consumer of wines from other countries, Retamal is as creative as he is open-minded. He started working at De Martino in 1996 and has transformed the style of the winery’s reds and whites, moving them towards lower alcohol, less extraction and little or no oak. ‘I want to intervene as little as possible,’ he says. ‘Less is more.’

Retamal has been one of the key figures in the rebirth of the Itata region, promoting the use of amphorae and traditional grapes such as Cinsault and Muscat, but he makes terroir-driven wines all over Chile. Since 2007, he has also been involved with Viñedos de Alcohuaz, a remarkable new project high in the Andes on granite soils. The two Mediterranean-style blends he makes there, Grus and Rhu, are two of Chile’s most exciting reds.

Alejandro Vigil

Argentina: Bodega Aleanna and Catena

Alejandro Vigil takes overall charge of winemaking at Catena, also producing his own El Enemigo label

Alejandro Vigil takes overall charge of winemaking at Catena, also producing his own El Enemigo label

Very few winemakers run a restaurant from their own back garden. But turn up at the Casa El Enemigo on any given night and the place is packed, with live music, great food and bottles passed from table to table.

This is not just any old restaurant – it’s an eatery, but it’s also a party. In much the same way, its proprietor Alejandro Vigil is a winemaker as well as a performer.

Vigil’s home base also houses the small winery where he makes his extensive range of El Enemigo wines, focusing on Bonarda, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (especially blends of the latter two grapes). This is where he gets to experiment and push the boundaries of Argentinian wine, especially with the use of whole-bunch fermentation and old-vine, single-terroir reds.

But that’s only one side of Vigil’s working life. He is also in charge of the extensive Catena Group’s portfolio of vineyards and wineries. He’s on a slightly shorter leash here, but the extensive resources he enjoys – allied to his background as a soil scientist – have enabled him to make some of Argentina’s best and most ambitious wines: Nicolás, Adrianna Vineyard’s Mundus Bacillus and his award-winning Chardonnay, White Bones.

Francisco Baettig

Chile: Errazuriz and Viñedo Chadwick

Francisco Baettig, chief winemaker at Chile’s Viña Errazuriz, Viñedo Chadwick and Seña.

Francisco Baettig, chief winemaker at Chile’s Viña Errazuriz, Viñedo Chadwick and Seña.

Francisco Baettig likes to quote Groucho Marx when asked about his winemaking philosophy: ‘If you don’t like it, I’ve got others.’ What he means is that his approach to his craft is always changing, influenced by experience and overseas trips. ‘I’m not swayed by fashion or commercial considerations,’ he adds, ‘just my own development.’

Widely regarded as one of the best oenologists in Chile, not least by his peer group, Baettig is a quiet, thoughtful presence in the winery. Over the years, his style has come to resemble those of his European winemaking heroes – Michel Lafarge, Alain Graillot, Bernard Baudry, Bartolo Mascarello, Paul Pontallier, André Perret – favouring elegance and terroir over oak and power: ‘I want people to drink a second bottle, preferably on the same night as the first one.’

The scary thing for his competitors is that he’s still improving. The Las Pizarras Chardonnay 2015 is the best example of the grape ever produced in South America, shimmering with Burgundian-like complexity, while the 2014 Viñedo Chadwick is everything a great Maipo Cabernet should be. ‘It’s like the Chilean wines of old,’ Baettig says, ‘but with a modern touch.’

Matiás Riccitelli

Argentina: Riccitelli Wines

Matiás Riccitelli

Matiás Riccitelli

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree’ is the name of one of Matías Riccitelli’s brands, but it’s also a neat summary of his life. His father, Jorge, is one of the legends of the Argentinian wine industry and the parental influence has clearly been important. Matías started as a cellar hand at Norton at the age of 16, and he and Jorge still make a wine together called Riccitelli & Father. ‘I’ve always followed his example,’ he says.

Riccitelli Junior has been making his own wines since 2009, first alongside his day job at Fabre Montmayou and now at his own winery in Luján de Cuyo. His creativity is hard to keep up with – the portfolio now runs to 22 wines, and includes everything from Torrontés to Bonarda, Sauvignon Blanc to Merlot.

And yet the grape with which he has made his name has been, appropriately enough, Malbec. In fact, you could argue that with wines like the ‘direct, transparent’ Hey! Malbec and Republica del Malbec, he has increased the variety’s appeal to a younger generation. Less well known is his old-vine Semillon, which has helped to resurrect the reputation of this historic Argentinian grape.

Alejandro Sejanovich

Argentina: Buscado Vivo o Muerto, Estancia Los Cardones, Finca Uspallata, Manos Negras, TeHo and TintoNegro

Alejandro Sejanovich trained in France and worked at Catena for 16 years before setting up his own venture in 2010

Alejandro Sejanovich trained in France and worked at Catena for 16 years before setting up his own venture in 2010

Known as ‘El Colorado’ because of his red hair, Alejandro Sejanovich is one of Argentina’s most intellectually gifted winemakers. Few people can explain the country’s different terroirs as well – and in three different languages. Following a year at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique in France, he went on to run the viticultural research and development side of Bodega Catena Zapata for 16 years.

In 2010, he left to do his own thing with another Catena employee, Jeff Mausbach, making wines from Cafayate in Argentina’s north to Patagonia in the south, mostly from purchased grapes. Sejanovich’s experience with Catena means that he knows Argentina’s vineyards intimately and is able to source the right material to express his distinctive range of styles. ‘Great vineyards are a winery’s most important asset,’ he says.

Sejanovich’s wines are at their most profound in the Uco Valley, especially from TintoNegro’s 1955 vineyard in La Consulta and the four different soil types of the La Escuela vineyard. But look out for the small lots under the Buscado Vivo o Muerto label and the Malbec from Uspallata, located at 2,000m in the Andes.

Leo Erazo

Altos Las Hormigas and Rogue Vine

Leo Erazo of Altos Las Hormigas and Rogue Vine

Leo Erazo of Altos Las Hormigas and Rogue Vine

Making wine on both sides of the Andes isn’t unique in South America, but it’s still unusual. Leo Erazo is a Chilean who works at Altos Las Hormigas in Argentina alongside its Italian owner, the consultant Alberto Antonini, as well as producing his own wines in Chile’s Itata region under the Rogue Vine and Leonardo Erazo labels.

In terms of varieties and climates, the three wineries couldn’t be more different. Altos is focused on Malbec, especially Malbec grown on limestone soils, whereas Rogue Vine and Leonardo Erazo specialise in blended reds and whites from grapes such as Cinsault and País, Muscat and Semillon, grown on unirrigated granitic soils. Yet the approach is remarkably similar: old vines (where possible), little or no oak and minimal intervention.

‘I’m a terroirist trying to go back to the roots of viticulture,’ Erazo says. Erazo did a Masters at Stellenbosch in South Africa in 2009 and shares some of the ideas of the new generation of Cape winemakers.

‘I have learned from professors, scholars, winemakers and viticulturists, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance of intuition,’ he says. ‘At university, they teach you a recipe, but intuition is a vital part of the creative process.’

Rafael Urrejola

Chile: Undurraga

Rafael Urrejola at Undurraga’s winery near Santiago

Rafael Urrejola at Undurraga’s winery near Santiago

Rafael Urrejola has one of the great Spotify accounts. Sit and taste with him at Undurraga, in a room festooned with awards, and music is invariably playing in the background.

Urrejola’s eclectic tastes extend to his wines, too. As technical director, part of his responsibility is to seek out special parcels of vines for the winery’s TH (Terroir Hunter) series. There are 16 of these now, made in small 300- to 500-case lots from grapes as diverse as Carmenere, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

The TH line-up is a comparatively small part of what Urrejola does – Undurraga is among the biggest wineries in Chile – but it’s the one that has propelled him to the front rank of the country’s winemakers since it began in 2011.

Using grapes from Limarí in the north to Maule in the Secano Interior, he has produced a range of brilliant, site-specific wines. Nor is this entirely down to the quality of the grapes; Urrejola’s winemaking touch is gentle and unobtrusive, yet still apparent.

‘Chilean wines are finally beginning to express our magically abrupt geography, the Andean influence, the volcanic subsoil and the print of the Pacific,’ he says.

Tim Atkin MW is an award-winning wine writer and regular contributor to Decanter. His 2017 Special Reports on Chile and Argentina are available at www.timatkin.com

See Tim Atkin MW’s wine pick from each of his top 10 winemakers in South America

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