September 24, 2010 11:16 pm

Grape wars: Chile v Argentina

The two South American countries have been moving determinedly – occasionally recklessly – upmarket, and can now offer wines with real personality

South America has become an invaluable source of great-value wine. But a wine lover’s view of the continent is probably completely skewed by which side of the Atlantic he or she lives on.

To the British, South American wine comes from Chile. Much of it is reliable and inexpensive but the country’s winemakers have been moving determinedly, occasionally recklessly, upmarket. Chile can now produce not just well-made Cabernet, Merlot and Carmenère (the old Bordeaux variety long confused with Merlot in Chile’s vineyards) but full-throttle Syrah, surprisingly delicate Pinot Noir, some of the most interesting old-vine Carignan in the world and a range of competent white wines.

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Jancis Robinson

But in the US, Chile means cheap and, however hard Chilean exporters try, few US wine drinkers are prepared to look to Chile for anything other than a bargain.

US wine drinkers, on the other hand, have fallen hook, line and sinker for Malbec, the emblematic red wine of Argentina and the fastest-growing varietal red in the US. Argentine Malbec offers effortless ripeness, spiciness, robust alcohol and accessibility but at a fraction of the price of a comparable California Cabernet. So in these budget-conscious times, it has been making inroads in the crucial $15-$20 (£9.50-£13) a bottle bracket. In fact, so popular has Malbec become in the US that Cahors, the once super-traditional appellation of south-west France dependent on the same grape variety, has jettisoned the local names for the grape, Cot and Auxerrois, and pinned its marketing hopes on the M-word – even erecting hoardings emblazoned with it in vineyards next to the main A20 autoroute, as I discovered this summer.

Meanwhile Argentine wine, though 100 times better than it was 15 years ago, struggles to make an impact in Europe. The US is the biggest export market for Argentina, followed by Canada and only then the UK, closely rivalled by the Netherlands – despite the fact that Wines of Argentina has invested more in the UK than anywhere else.

Last year 35 wine writers and sommeliers were invited to travel from Britain to Argentina’s sunny wine country – more than from the US. Yet such largesse does not seem to result in sales. While Chilean wine accounts for about nine per cent of UK wine sales, Argentina’s tally is only just over one per cent. (In the US, both countries represent about nine per cent of imported wine by volume but Argentina has already overtaken Chile in terms of value.) Part of the explanation is, presumably, that there are relatively few big-volume brands in Argentine wine compared with the likes of Concha y Toro, Cono Sur, Isla Negra and Los Robles – all part of the same giant Chilean producer and able to make a real impact on British supermarket shelves, with bottles retailing from £3.99 to £6.99.

But Argentina can offer wines with real personality a little bit higher up the scale and specialist UK importers such as Hispamerchants of Shepherd’s Bush in London and Las Bodegas of East Sussex provide a short cut to some toothsome examples. Argentine producers in more mainstream distribution that I have found make wine to my European taste include Catena (whose labels include Argento, Tarquino, Piropo and Alamos) and Fabre Montmayou with their new joint venture Viñalba label aimed at the mass market.

As Hervé Fabre, who moved from Bordeaux to set up Fabre Montmayou in the early 1990s, puts it, “Our philosophy in the cellar is to use Malbec as it is, showing just the fruit and the terroir. We’re not very pro what you might call the American style of wine. We’re more in favour of using French methods.”

It is possible that for many European palates, the ripest, sweetest, strongest Argentine reds are just a bit too much, whereas to palates more used to California reds, they taste fine. That said, I would like to put in a special plea for Argentina’s luscious but well-structured Cabernet Sauvignon, which is in danger of being overlooked in the current Malbec mania – a reversal of the situation in the 1980s, when the indigenous and ubiquitous Malbec was scorned in favour of the imported Cabernet that seemed so exotically French and smart. Argentine growers ripped up 80 per cent of all Malbec plantings between the 1960s and 1990 so that even today the total area of Argentine vineyard planted with Malbec is not much more than that planted with the rather less noble Bonarda.

There has been a huge improvement in white winemaking in Argentina but, at present, barring the scented Torrontés grape and some successful Chardonnay in the higher reaches of Mendoza, this is a red wine country arguably dangerously dependent on one grape variety – and one giant wine region, Mendoza.

The same cannot be said of widely diversified Chile, and perhaps the most exciting thing about the country is how rapidly its wine scene has been evolving, with an ever-wider range of successful grape varieties and newer, cooler wine regions emerging all the time.

Both Chile and Argentina put on their annual generic wine tastings in London earlier this month, when we tasters could take advantage of probably the greatest selections of wines outside the countries themselves. I concentrated on the mid-priced wines that the producers themselves chose to feature; my favourites are listed below.

More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

Tasting notes at www.jancisrobinson.com

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Trans-Andean favourites

CHILE

Chocolan, Malvilla Sauvignon Blanc 2009 Leyda Valley, £13.99

Casa Silva, Paradones Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Colchagua Valley, £13.95 (not yet on sale)

Arboleda Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Aconcagua, £14.15

Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Maipo, £9.99

MontGras, Intriga Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Maipo Alto, £12.99 (currently available in Germany, Switzerland and Canada)

Terrunyo, Puemo Carmenère 2007 Cachapoal Valley, £14.99

Santa Carolina, Cauquenes Dry Farming Carignan 2008 Maule Valley, £12.99

ARGENTINA

Cruz de Piedra, Umbral Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Mendoza, £9.60

Fabre Montmayou, Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Luján de Cuyo, £12.99

Finca Sophenia, Reserve Syrah 2009 Tupungato, £9.95

Catena Zapata, Catena Malbec 2008 Mendoza, £11.99

Viñalba Gran Reserva Malbec 2008 Luján de Cuyo, £12.99

See wine-searcher.com for stockists

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