Signature red grapes of South America
Malbec, Tannat and Carmenère have each found a signature style in South America. Alistair Cooper MW assesses their importance and asks what the future holds for these varieties
What does the future hold for headline grabbers Carmenère, Malbec and Tannat? Alistair Cooper MW reads the runes
ONE MIgHT ExpECT South America’s rich wine culture and heritage to be firmly Hispanic. Yet it is the gallic trio of Malbec, Tannat and (arguably) Carmenère that have established themselves as the key signature grapes on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Historically each variety has played an important role in the evolution of the French wine industry, yet they have since been relegated to little more than bit-part players in their homeland. How did these grapes become so firmly ensconced in the vineyards of South America, and what does their future hold?
For several hundred years, both Chile and Argentina were dominated by variations of la uva negra (the black grape) brought here by Spanish settlers during the 1550s. There are many synonyms and mutations of the grape, which is now referred to as país in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina. This hardy, high-yielding variety is thought to have been brought from the Canary Islands, where it is known as Listán prieto.
The key period that shaped the modern vinous Latin landscape was 1850-1880. It was then that French varieties were definitively introduced, the result of a desire to improve quality and emulate the great wines of France, and specifically the Médoc. In Chile, French botanist Claude gay established the first vine nursery in Santiago in 1830. Twenty years later, Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta was the first to commercially plant French varieties at his eponymous winery in 1851. A host of other illustrious names followed, including Errázuriz, Cousiño and Concha y Toro.
It was another Frenchman, Michel pouget, who introduced French varieties (including Malbec) to Mendoza in 1852. The likely source of these cuttings was Santiago, rather than France itself. The French pass-the-parcel effect continued eastwards, when Basque-born immigrant pascal Harriague took cuttings of vines to his adopted Uruguay from Argentina in 1874. He was particularly impressed by a grape called Lorda, and planted 200ha of it. Others quickly followed suit, and the grape became known as Harriague, until 1919 when it was identified as the Tannat grape hailing from Madiran in southwest France.
Of all of South America’s signature grapes, it is undoubtedly Malbec that has proved the most successful. Once widely planted in Bordeaux, it lost ground in France in the 20th century as the rainy, humid climate and warm evenings were not suited to this sun-worshipping variety. Over in Argentina however, Malbec positively thrived in the dry, sun-kissed vineyards of Mendoza, bolstered by the unfliltered light and relatively cool evenings.
Yet despite its natural affinity for the terroirs of Mendoza, it was not until the 1990s that growers began to take Malbec seriously. ‘When I arrived in Mendoza in 1995, I was fascinated by the old-vine Malbec, but also surprised that nobody was making premium wines from it!’ explains Alberto Antonini, consultant winemaker at Mendoza’s Malbec specialist Altos Las Hormigas. ‘The Bordeaux effect had taken root there, and this had discouraged producers from focusing on
‘Of all South America’s signature grapes, it is undoubtedly Malbec that has proved the most successful’ Above: workers sort grapes during harvest in Mendoza, Argentina
Malbec as it wasn’t considered a premium grape. It was all about Cabernet and Merlot, as well as Chardonnay.’
So what have been the key factors behind Malbec’s meteoric rise to the top? Firstly, it is the inherently juicy and drinkable nature of Argentinian Malbec. There is so much to enjoy: vibrancy and softness with velvety yet structured tannins that can be easily understood and appreciated by wine lovers at all levels. It leans towards an attractive dark and blue fruit flavour profile with violets, spices and medium acidity levels, plus it’s generally approachable both with and without food. Quite simply it’s a crowd-pleaser. It also performs well in many vineyards, meaning that a good supply of extremely reliable wines became readily available for consumers.
While this allowed Malbec to gain traction in the marketplace, it was the subsequent quest for site selection and terroir that went on to provide the qualitative leap forward. Malbec is no one-trick pony, and pioneering work by the likes of Nicolás Catena has shown that it has the ability to deeply express terroir and minerality. One of the main developments has been the planting of higher altitude areas in the Uco Valley, such as Vista Flores, Altamira and Gualtallary, as well as Salta in the north.
Altitude has a major impact on Malbec for several reasons. Increased altitude means cooler days, and thus a more even ripening season. It also causes greater diurnal temperature variations, allowing acid retention as well as increased concentration. In addition, research has shown that aromatic precursors in Malbec are enhanced by sunlight, which along with UV exposure increases with altitude.
‘There is also another huge factor to consider in the case of high-altitude Malbec – and that’s the soils,’ explains Leo Erazo, winemaker at Altos Las Hormigas, who also produces his own Revolver wines in Gualtallary. ‘With increased altitude in Mendoza we see the structure of the rocks changing. This means the soils are poorer, allowing better drainage. Areas such as Altamira have rocks covered with white calcium carbonate, giving finely grained tannins and marked minerality.’
The evolution of Malbec has also played out stylistically, and while it will never be a light wine, some wineries, such as Zuccardi and the Michelini brothers, have been pushing a more mid-weight expression. Harvesting the grapes earlier or experimenting with whole-bunch fermentation to increase freshness can create this style. Malbec does have the ability to absorb and express oak within a certain framework, yet Erazo comments: ‘A huge change has been reducing toasted oak character, overripeness and over-extraction. This allows the true Malbec character and terroir to shine through.’
The Carmenère conundrum
While Malbec is unequivocally Argentina’s calling card, in Chile the picture is far less clear-cut. While Carmènere has been touted by many as Chile’s potential signature grape, the jury is still out as to whether this is a feasible proposition.
Imported with cuttings from Bordeaux, Carmenère got lost in Chile’s vineyards and became known as Chilean Merlot. It wasn’t until 1994 that French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot identified Carmenère in a vineyard owned by Viña Carmen. Subsequently a significant amount of Chile’s ‘Merlot’ was reclassified as Carmenère.
Some saw this as Chile’s moment to mimic Malbec’s success in Argentina, while others felt that the Chilean flag was being forced upon Carmenère’s broad shoulders unnecessarily quickly. ‘Carmenère cannot be Chile’s flagship grape, as it only grows well in certain areas, such as Apalta and Peumo,’ believes Marcelo Papa, technical director at Concha y Toro. ‘It is not like Malbec in Argentina or Tempranillo in Spain, which can grow well nearly anywhere. Carmenère is extremely site specific.’
Carmenère is a late-ripening variety and has a trademark green pyrazine character. The key to managing this greenness is a long ripening season and warmth – but not too much. If the growing season is too hot, the result can be soupy, overly alcoholic wines. This has led producers to seek out sites that are warm but have cooling influences, such as altitude, sea breezes, mountain breezes or proximity to water. Colchagua, as well as Peumo in Cachapoal, are strongholds for Carmenère and can produce great singlevarietal wines and blends with the grape.
‘We have to consider that we only have 24 years’ experience with Carmenère, which is nothing in wine-growing terms,’ comments Sebastian Labbé, winemaker for the premium wines at Santa Rita. ‘The vineyards are now better planted, better managed and we are getting much better results. Yet a lot more time is needed.’
Perhaps then, if time is a factor, País could be considered Chile’s flagship wine? Once widely denigrated as a second-class citizen, centenarian País vines – largely found in Itata and Maule – have made a welcome comeback in recent years. Miguel Torres Chile was one of the first wineries to revive them, and it has
Marcelo Papa (below) ‘Carmenère cannot be Chile’s flagship grape, as it only grows well in certain areas’
been experimenting with different styles, including the Estelado sparkling wine. ‘Everyone said I was crazy making this wine!’ recalls Torres winemaker Fernando Almeda. ‘Now we have seen so much experimentation with País – and some really good examples and interesting styles. Ironically, although it is the oldest grape in Chile, it is the one that the modern industry knows the least about. Until recently it was treated with such disdain and so little thought,’ he adds.
Labbé has been developing a new wine at Santa Rita, the Floresta blend. ‘This wine comes from a vineyard in Apalta planted to 80-year-old Carmenère and País vines,’ he explains. ‘It is a field blend, worked for generations by the same family in a very traditional manner. We have talked about it as “the most Chilean wine ever produced” and we’re very pleased with the results.’
Spotlight on Tannat
Tannat, the relatively obscure and notoriously tannic and tough variety from Madiran, has unexpectedly found itself thrust into the limelight in Uruguay. Such was its harshness in its homeland in southwest France that winemakers there developed the process of micro-oxygenation – the controlled bubbling of carbon dioxide into the tank – to soften it.
Fernando Almeda ‘Ironically, although País is the oldest grape in Chile, it is the one that the modern industry knows the least about’
Yet the long growing season in the humid, Atlantic-influenced vineyards of Uruguay allows Tannat to ripen without excessive alcohol levels. Today Tannat occupies over 26% of the total vineyard area in Uruguay.
‘A fundamental issue for Tannat is to have very well-drained soils,’ explains Antonini, who also consults at Uruguay’s Bodegas Garzón. ‘If the soil is too damp, the vine focuses on growing the canopy instead of ripening the tannins. With Tannat, ripeness is vital to avoid astringent rustic tannins.’
Uruguayan Tannat tends to give ripe, dark fruit flavours of blackberry and dark cherry, while the use of oak can add a chocolate or coffee edge to the wines. In Madiran, oak has often been used as a tool to soften the variety’s tannins. The use of oak has played an important role stylistically in Uruguay as well. ‘The role of new French oak is relatively new in Uruguay,’ explains winemaker Gabriel Pisano of Pisano Family Vineyards and Winery. ‘At Pisano, we only started using new French barrels in 1998. Oak is a tool for certain wines and styles – and Tannat can handle it well. Oak is not necessary to make great wines however,’ he adds. ‘I have tasted the wines my grandfather made without oak 40 years ago and they were fantastic.’
Pisano himself has an experimental side project, called Viña Progreso, under which he produces an unoaked Tannat that’s aptly named Barrel-less. We recently tasted a tank sample of the unfinshed Barrel-less 2018 (see p30), and I was supremely impressed by the light, delicate florality on the nose and soft tannin structure – this is a style of Tannat that I would love to see more of.
Is Uruguayan Tannat a tough sell, and is that a concern for producers? ‘Why would anyone in the world be interested in Uruguayan wines if there wasn’t Tannat?’ argues Pisano. ‘Tannat is a rather rare and uncommon grape, and it should be appealing
‘Why would anyone in the world be interested in Uruguayan wines if there wasn’t Tannat?’ Gabriel Pisano
to non-mainstream wine drinkers. There is not that much wine in Uruguay to be exported, so why not look for the right type of consumer who is keen to discover a new origin?’ For now it seems that Uruguayan producers are happy to pin their hopes on Tannat – and I tend to agree with them.
Looking forward, how important is it to have a flagship variety? ‘I personally don’t think it is important to find that one signature grape,’ says Santa Rita’s Labbé. ‘The emphasis needs to be on regionality and varietal expertise. I think that’s the next step for Chile.’ That sentiment is supported by Antonini, when considering Malbec. ‘It is vital that we begin to focus less on Malbec, and start selling Argentina. Grape varieties are citizens of the world; it is the places that are unique and impossible to replicate. All of the great wines in the world are wines of places not grapes.’
Could this possibly see New World regions replicating the Old World system of region over variety? ‘I am sure that in time this will happen,’ believes Antonini. ‘Geographical appellations are already starting to emerge, such as Paraje Altamira in Argentina, and Gualtallary is also on its way. Then we need rules on which grapes can be grown, and production rules – tonnes per hectare, ageing requirements and so on. It won’t be easy, as producers in the New World don’t like rules!’
This is an interesting thought, given the importance of varietal marketing in the success of New World countries over the past 30 years. There’s certainly no denying the key role these signature grapes have played in the impressive development of the Latin American wine industry. Personally however, I believe that becoming too associated with a single variety may be detrimental in the long run, given the unpredictability of wine trends.
I also believe that Cabernet Sauvignon will have an increasingly important role to play going forward for both Chile and Argentina’s top-end wines. In Chile Cabernet is well understood, yet in Argentina there is still much to be learned, and the potential for more top-end blends featuring Malbec and Cabernet is enormous. One thing is for certain; if the innovation and exploration continue at this pace, we are in for a thrilling next decade in the Southern cone.
Claude Gay Alistair Cooper MW spent several years working for wineries in Argentina and Chile. He is a DWWA judge and wine expert for BBC Radio Oxford
Above: Catena Zapata’s Adrianna vineyard sits just below the Andes in gualtallary at around 1,500m altitude
Right: ripe Carmenère grapes in Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, Chile
Right: a 100-year old País vine in vineyard of Gillmore, Maule, Chile
Right: Tannat vines that have been pruned for winter at Pisano Family Vineyards and Winery