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

Decanter - - CONTENT -

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.

Mighty Mal­bec

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.’

Re­dis­cov­er­ing País

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.

The fu­ture

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

Al­berto An­tonini

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

Se­basti‡n LabbŽ

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