NORM ROBY last visited the wine regions of Chile and Argentina in 1992. On a recent trip, he was bowled over by the dramatic leap in quality

My first impressions of Chile and Argentina were formed in 1992. Wines were cheap, primitive flood irrigation in vineyards was the norm, and ill-equipped wineries were all too common. Back then, Viña Montes was a start-up operation and Trapiche, Argentina’s largest winery, was delighted to waltz guests around the world’s largest wooden wine vat.

Today, with annual production levelling off at 350,000 cases, Montes is finishing a new winery in Apalta. Trapiche has been bought by Peñaflor, and smaller wineries have since assumed the lead. On my most recent visit, winemakers on both sides of the Andes explained with great enthusiasm how they were applying the latest technological practices in both viticulture and in the cellars to improve their wines.

And it is not just in terms of methodology that the two countries are progressing. Recent tastings of new vintages show Chile and Argentina preparing to take the international wine market by storm with their top wines. At a tasting in Berlin, Chile’s Seña and Chadwick Estates’ Cabernet outshone Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are beginning to receive similar attention. Argentina is defining a new style of Malbec that will blow away most Zinfandels and Syrahs on the global market. The country has also come on strong with highly attractive Chardonnays in their price ranges. Both countries are just beginning to explore Syrah and Pinot Noir. In many ways the atmosphere is reminiscent of the youthful enthusiasm that took hold in Napa Valley in the 1970s and Sonoma in the 1980s.

On both sides of the Andes, the quality surge began in the 1990s when the big names among the old guard made a serious financial commitment to the export market, introducing high-tech equipment into the winery, and modern techniques into the vineyards. As Concha y Toro’s chief winemaker, Enrique Tirado, puts it: ‘All the changes in the 1990s were part of a new mentality for the industry in terms of export.’

Winemakers also adjusted their thinking and got off their high horse, sometimes quite literally, to focus on vineyards and vineyard care. ‘Before the whole viticultural revolution of the 1990s, winemakers were in the winery only,’ says Andrés Ilabaca, winemaker at Santa Rita. ‘When the new generation of winemakers started, they recognised that grape growing was essential to producing great wines. Our winemakers began to work closely with our viticulturists.’

Heading the priority list of better vineyard practices was irrigation and water management. To set up restrictive water regimes in countries where water flows uninterrupted through canals and streets 365 days a year must have required a serious attitude adjustment. Discussing how strict irrigation control has improved quality, Argentina’s Nicolás Catena says: ‘I can honestly say that after 20 years we know more about irrigation management than about any other viticultural operation worldwide.’

Drip irrigation is the latest rage in Chile. Drip emitters are now visible even along the steepest slopes where Errázuriz grows Cabernet for its Don Maximiano wine. By next year, Santa Rita will have all of its 1,900 hectares under drip. Both Cousiño-Macul at Buin and Dallas Conte in Colchagua invested in drip systems. At Los Vascos, where they have enormous reservoirs, winemaker Marco Puyo explains that they still flood irrigate but limit irrigation to two applications per season, and prefer not to irrigate at all.

CHILE TODAY

Chile’s trump card remains Cabernet Sauvignon, and winemakers now have the know-how to control yields and tone down the once tell-tale, weedy, green tannin character. Green harvesting, unheard of a decade ago, is now a firm part of the greatly expanded Chilean vocabulary. ‘Once we decided to develop new vineyards in Buin, we threw the old ways out and applied the latest vineyard technology,’ explains Matias Rivera, Cousiño-Macul’s head winemaker. ‘This meant drip irrigation, dense vine spacing, canopy management, green harvesting, harvesting by physiological maturity, and sustainable farming. We can now exert control over our vines.’

As Chile moves forward, winemakers are exploring regional styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. Advocates of the Maipo Valley, where over half of the vineyards grow Cabernet, are pushing Maipo as the most distinctive Chilean Cabernet. The area is home to such highly regarded Cabernets as Almaviva, Don Melchor, Santa Rita’s Casa Real, Cousiño-Macul’s Antiguas Reservas, Viña Aquitana’s Lazuli, Carmen’s Winemaker’s Reserve, and Cono Sur’s Vision. There are two newcomers worth following – Chadwick Estate and Haras de Pirque.

Currently, there is a major push to narrow the Cabernet Sauvignon terroir to a small section in Maipo known as the Alto-Maipo. ‘Here,’ says Enrique Tirado, ‘we have perfect conditions for great Cabernet.’ The Alto-Maipo Valley, the area closest to the Andes, has warm days during the summer [it hits 28–30?C during the day] but at night the temperatures fall close to 10?C, thanks to the cold winds that descend from the mountain. This fluctuation favours the maturity of tannins. ‘The Cabernets’ tannins are kind and elegant, yet lively and expressive in fruit aromas,’ continues Tirado. ‘This makes for very attractive wines.’ The prime movers joining Concha y Toro are Santa Rita, Almaviva, Cousiño-Macul and Chadwick Estate.

Meanwhile, as new regions such as the cool Leyda Valley are being explored for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, regionality has become another word added to the Chilean lexicon. Cabernet grown in Rapel Valley – Colchagua, Cachapoal and Apalta – is ripe, forward in fruit, and often round and supple. Montes led the way in this generous, juicy style of Cabernet. Now MontGras’ Ninquén, La Joya, Viu Manent, Casa Silva and Lapostolle’s Cuvée Alexander are following a similar path.

Developed as the great hope for Chilean Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley is now demonstrating more regionality for Sauvignon Blanc. It also looks promising for Pinot Noir and Merlot. Veramonte, which led the charge for Casablanca Chardonnay, has recently invested in Sauvignon Blanc. The Sauvignons range in style from the razor-sharp, gooseberry style of Santa Rita’s Florestra and Casablanca Vineyards to the melon and nectarine fruit style of Veramonte, Los Vascos, Montes, Santa Rita Reserve, and Concha y Toro’s delightful Terrunyo Sauvignon.

In less than a decade, Carmenère has gone from being an unknown to being a rising star. It now seems to be returning to yeoman service as a key blending component. Except for the superb 2001 Terrunyo Block 27, most Carmenère wines are incomplete unless more than 30% of Cabernet or something else provides amplitude. Many are either hollow in the middle or too intensely bell peppery. I like what Santa Rita does with its Triple C, combining Carmenère with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Agustin Huneeus, who was among the first to jump on the Carmenère bandwagon, still defends it. ‘It is an interesting discovery that will continue to be present in many of the greater reds wines of Chile, giving them a difference that may be considered “the Chilean taste”,’ he says. ‘At Veramonte, we like what Carmenère contributes to a blend, with mouthfeel and exotic aromas.’ Strong supporting evidence is supplied by Lapostolle’s powerful Clos Apalta, which relies on Carmenère as a blending block, and by Antiyal, a blend of Carmenère, Cabernet and Syrah.

Until 1993, Merlot was intermixed and confused with Carmenère, and it is for all practical purposes a new varietal to Chile. Once viticulturists had sorted it out from the late-ripening Carmenère, they began looking at its special needs. The primary requirement for Merlot is well-drained soils. What will unfold over the next few years should be exciting. Montes and Lapostolle suggest that Apalta is ‘the’ place for the variety. Others are convinced that Maipo is cooler and has more well-drained sites, while a few voices from Casablanca say the cool climate there is perfect.

ARGENTINA TODAY

In 1991, the majority of Argentinian Malbecs were either big and over-extracted or simple and rustic. The area where Malbec was grown had been reduced to a third of what it was in 1970, and winemakers held out more hope for unsung varietals such as Barbera, Bonarda and Torrontés. Much of the vines that remained were old, old vines. Winemakers have figured out how to put those old vineyards to good use and are now producing wines soft in tannin with more exotic spices. In fact, Malbecs have now become unique to Argentina. Bonarda and Torrontés, unfortunately have been overlooked in favour of Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet and, yes, Syrah.

Malbec arrived in Argentina in the 1850s and, through natural selection and adaptation, evolved into an original. Catena is in the midst of a major clonal project, with the University of Mendoza studying 145 clones. Nicolás Catena reports that the best fruit is being obtained from the home-grown clones that ‘produce small clusters and small berries, and tannins that were sweet and velvety’.

There is no doubt that Argentinian Malbec is quite distinct from the big, heavy-duty wines of Cahors in the south of France. As Ricardo Stradella, a partner in Valentin Bianchi describes it so eloquently, ‘the beauty of Malbec in Argentina is its ability to combine a rich, weighty mouthfeel with a soft silkiness normally associated with lighter wines.’

In the early 1990s, most vineyards were located within the district of Maipù (Luján de Cuyo) and San Rafael. But a few winemakers had begun exploring cooler sites at high elevations. Tupungato was the first to attract their attention. Ranging in elevation from 900m to 1,500m, Tupungato was originally conceived as the perfect site for Chardonnay and possibly for Pinot Noir. Further investigations of high-altitude sites led many to develop vineyards within the Uco Valley, southwest of Mendoza, which includes Tupungato, Tunuyán, San Carlos, Vista Flores and La Consulta. Here, where the nights are cold and the daytime sunshine intense, winemakers became convinced that changes in elevation create microclimates even when vineyards lie only a few kilometres apart.

Although Argentina’s quality push came a few years after Chile’s, consumers can now enjoy exploring this ‘work in progress’ because both 2002 and 2003 are excellent vintages. The 2002 Malbecs show real improvement, and a number of producers seem to have made headway with Cabernet Sauvignon. Among the noteworthy 2002 Cabernets are those from Catena, J&F Lurton’s Gran Lurton, Bodegas Terrazas, Valentin Bianchi, Norton, Salentein and Susana Balbo. Bianchi may be emerging as the Cabernet leader. Its limited production 2002 Particular and 2001 Enzo Bianchi are ultra-ripe, supple, and so soft in tannins that you could be fooled into thinking they were California cult Cabernets.

If you like New World Chardonnay, you will love the new and improved Chardonnays from Argentina. The best from 2002 and 2003 continue to offer exceptional value. Catena remains among the quality leaders, but Felipe Rutini, Santa Julia Reserva, Terrazas Reserve, Valentin Bianchi, Alamos, Alta Vista and Trumpeter have good value written all over them.

Good-value wine from Chile or Argentina was what caught our attention in the early 1990s. A great-value wine is not necessarily the cheapest, simply the best in its price category. This is what Agustin Huneeus had in mind when he predicted: ‘Chile will compete with quality and value at every level. I believe that at any price point, Chile will be able to offer a very competitive if not superior product to most wine regions of the world.’ For Argentina, I might add, ditto.

Norm Roby is co-author of the best-selling New Connoisseur’s Handbook of Californian Wine (Knopff).

Written by NORM ROBY