South American Wine Regions

A guide to South American wine regions: Chile and Argentina

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0


The modern Chilean wine industry dates from the 1980s, but wine has been made in this long, narrow strip of a country, on South America's southwestern coast, since the Spanish first brought the grapevine there in the 1500s. French and German grape varieties thrive in Chile's mostly dry and temperate climate. These include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, viognier, and gewürztraminer for white wines and cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, pinot noir, and above all carmenère. Though cabernet sauvignon vines are about four times more plentiful than those of this last-named variety, it is carmenère that is considered Chile's signature grape. A minor variety from Bordeaux, where it is now almost non-existent, it was long confused with (or rather interplanted with) merlot in Chile; correctly identified in the latter 20th century, it now produces dark, smooth, fruity wines that seem to go particularly well with the local cuisine. The major Chilean vineyard regions are Aconagua (which includes the Casablanca Valley), Atacama and Coquimbo (known mostly for table grapes and the base wine used for pisco brandy), Central Valley (near Santiago, and the home of the Curicó, Maipo, Maule, and Rapel valleys, whose wines are particularly well distributed internationally), and Southern Chile (which produces mostly bulk wines).


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Like its neighbor, Chile, Argentina has become known in the international marketplace for a red wine based on a minor grape variety used in Bordeaux. For Chile, that's carmenère; for Argentina, the grape is malbec, important in the southwestern French region of Cahors but peripheral to most Bordeaux blends. Malbec produces dark, smooth, intense wines characterized by ripe fruit and firm tannin. Cabernet sauvignon also does well in Argentina, as do merlot, syrah, and pinot noir. A minor cultivar from France's Savoie, called bonarda (charbono in California), is also grown, though it is losing popularity, and Spain's tempranillo has a presence. The most popular Argentinian white wine internationally is the fragrant, fruit torrontés, but there is also considerable muscat, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc, among other varieties. The most widely planted white variety is pedro giménez (not the pedro ximénez of Spain, though it may be related), but wines from the grape aren't bottled varietally for export. The best-known wine region in Argentina — which is the world's sixth largest wine-producing country (after Italy, France, Spain, the U.S., and China, in that order) — is Mendoza, near the Andes in the west-central part of the country. Red wines do particularly well here. San Juan and La Rioja, north of Mendoza, have had success with both white and red wines and San Juan produces fortified wines and brandy of some repute. The so-called Northwestern regions yield particularly rich torrontés, and good cabernet sauvignon (there are also plantings of tannat, a Southwestern French grape that has become the signature red variety of neighboring Uruguay). In far southern Argentina, in Patagonia, with its cool climate, chardonnay and pinot noir are the stars.