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Best South American Wine - Guide to South American Varieties

Best South American Wine - Guide to South American Varieties

franco salzillo arriaga |

South America’s wine industry is living in a golden era. The wine’s quality is better than ever, and there’s more wine to choose from than ever before. South American wine is no longer a secret; the secret is out — the wine is good and very well priced. 

The best South American wines come from Argentina and Chile, the fifth and sixth largest wine-producing countries by volume. Still, these two countries are significant, and they’re home to many micro-climates, each suitable for distinct wine styles. 

This is our guide to the best South American wines, including the finest wine regions and the wine styles produced in each. We’ll also explore South American wine’s compatibility with food. There’s immense pleasure in every bottle of South American wine, if you know where to look. 

The South American Wine Industry 

Chile and Argentina are right in the middle of the wine belt, in the Southern Hemisphere, the latitudes with the suitable climate for growing wine grapes. 

South American countries focus on International varieties, as Vinifera grapevines are native to Europe. Winemakers in Chile make wines with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, along with their flagship varietal, Carmenere. Argentina also produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but it focuses mainly on red wines made with Malbec and white wines made with the local Torrontés.

Leading wineries in both countries focus primarily on mono-varietal wines, with several quality tiers. The most affordable wines have an excellent quality-price ratio, while the finest wines in South America are as concentrated, age-worthy and sophisticated as the best in the world. There’s no doubt South American wine can be an excellent everyday wine, but the finest labels are suitable for the most memorable occasions. 

The History of South American Wine

Wine grapes arrived in South America with the first European settlers. The first vines came from the North, from New Spain (now Mexico), and they found their way to the south and arrived in Chile and then Argentina. These first vines, mostly Muscat of Alexandria and País, didn’t produce fine wine but helped South American countries establish the foundation of their future thriving wine industries. 

French Grapes arrived in Chile and Argentina in the 19th century, significantly improving the wine’s quality. Still, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that estate-bottled, high-quality wine became prevalent in both Chile and Argentina. Foreign investment played its part as well, and soon Chilean and Argentinian wines were competing against the best with extraordinary results. 

Today, South American wine is available in almost every country, and it competes in price and quality with wines from the old continent and the new world. 

South American Wine Regions - Chile

Chile’s vineyards run north to south from the Atacama desert, the driest on earth, to the cold southern Antarctic waters. Still, viticulture only thrives in the wine regions north and south of Santiago, Chile’s capital city. 

The finest wine in Chile comes from the Valle Central or central valley, and comprises the subregions of Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Rapel, Maule and Itata. The Andes mountain range to the east and the coastal mountain range to the west protect these regions. Here, you’ll find the most delicate white and red wines in the country. 

Winemakers in Chile have found new, exciting terroirs closer to the coast and up in the Andes foothills, now premium plots of land destined to the most exclusive wines. Chile’s potential is still far from being fulfilled — the country’s wine will continue to turn heads as winemakers explore the land looking for more interesting terroirs. 

South American Wine Regions - Argentina

Argentina is a vast country; its flatlands are home to cattle ranchers, but the Andes foothills on the west are where its talented winemakers make Argentina’s now-famous wine.

Up north, around the regions of Salta, Jujuy, Tucuman and Catamarca, you’ll find some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world, some planted over 3,000 metres above sea level. This is white wine territory, and the finest wines are made with the aromatic Torrontés.

Cuyo comprises the up-and-coming winemaking regions of La Rioja and San Juan, where you can find adequately priced red and white wine. Still, the most critical viticultural area in Cuyo is Mendoza.

Mendoza is Argentina’s viticultural centre. Over eighty per cent of the country’s wine is produced in and around the area. The lowlands produce everyday Malbec, but the higher you go into the Andes, the finer the wine. The subregions of Valle de Uco (Uco Valley) and the Tupungato subzone are sources of world-class red wines. 

South American Red Wine

There’s no doubt South America is better known for its red wines, and it’s easy to see why. The French grapes that dominate Chile and Argentina’s vineyards ripen beautifully in the warm, South American countries. 

Argentina is all about its inky and robust Malbec, which can deliver both everyday wines and contemplative bottles worthy of the finest white-tablecloth dinner parties. Still, winemakers in the country also work with Cabernet Sauvignon with exciting results. 

Chile’s flagship grape, Carmenere, produces interesting red wines as structured and herbal as the finest Cabernets in Europe. Interestingly, wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon are gaining ground, and even wines made with Cabernet Franc are stealing Carmenere’s spotlight. Bordeaux blends are popular in South America as well, and they’re often high end. 

South American White Wine

White wine is well represented in South America, but winemakers must look for the right terroir to grow such delicate fruit in the otherwise warm climate.

In Argentina, winemakers produce high-quality white grapes by planting vineyards at high altitudes, where the nights are colder. Argentina’s best white wines are made with Chardonnay in Mendoza and Torrontés in the high-altitude vineyards up north.

In Chile, producers plant grapes near the coast, where the cold Pacific wind freshens the vines, allowing the grapes to keep acidity. Chile’s best white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc, although Chardonnay also feels right at home in the southern country. 

South American white wine is competitive in price and quality, although its share of the market is far smaller than red wines’. This might change soon, though, as the continent’s white wine is gaining a place in wine lovers’ hearts worldwide. 

South American Sparkling Wine

South American wine producers have also experimented with sparkling wine with impressive results. The famous Champagne house Moët & Chandon established operations in Argentina decades ago, and the global brand also produces sparkling wine in Brazil. 

In Chile, it’s up to local winemakers to make sparkling wine, which they do very well. Foreign companies have also established sparkling winemaking operations in Chile, most notably Miguel Torres, from Spain.

To make premium sparkling wine, one must source grapes from the coldest wine regions, and the coldest terroirs in South America are still under development. We might see word-class sparkling wine coming from Patagonia, in the continent’s extreme southern tip soon, and we can say the same from high-altitude vineyards on both sides of the Andes. 

There’s always room for new players in the competitive sparkling wine market, so expect to see more South American sparkling wine on the shelves in upcoming years. 

South American Wine and Food

South American countries have deep European roots, so wine is part of the countries’ everyday table. This makes South American wine increasingly compatible with food. 

In Argentina, inky Malbec is the perfect partner for the famous “Asado” grilled meat extravaganzas inspired by the Pampas cowboy way of life. Char-grilled meat shines with a glass of purple-hued Malbec.

Chilean Cabernet, Merlot and Carmenere are also compatible with red meat, hearty stews, meaty casseroles and roasts. On the other hand, the country’s refreshing Sauvignon Blanc was born to be enjoyed with seafood. 

What’s most exciting about the South American wine scene is its vast repertoire of inexpensive everyday wines to pair with weeknight dinners. The continent’s finest wines, though, are fit for the most refined, fine-dining tables. There’s a bottle of South American wine for every palate and occasion, and they’re often as good or better than their European counterparts. 

South American Wine to Try 

Although finding a nice bottle of South American wine is easy, some bottles are worthy of every wine lover’s bucket list. Here’s a selection of World Wine’s hand-picked South American wine catalogue. 

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard ‘Mundus Bacillus Terrae’ Malbec, Argentina

This extraordinary example of Argentina’s most prized variety comes from Catena Zapata’s cellar — one of the most respected producers in the country. The wine comes from a single high-altitude vineyard and offers ripe and tart black fruit on the nose and heartwarming oak spices over a structured and lengthy palate. 

Alamos Malbec, Argentina

A more approachable but equally impressive Malbec, with rich, ripe red and black fruit, hints of chocolate, violets and brown spices in the back palate. 

Almaviva, Chile

Amongst all Bordeaux blends in Chile, there’s no doubt Almaviva is on another level. The award-winning combination of Cabernet with a splash of Carmenere, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot has a bold palate supporting a persistent and complex bouquet of cassis, blackberries, tobacco leaves and spices. There’s no doubt South American wine is better than ever!