WineLine No. 38
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Jan. 11, 2004

Reacquiring South America

Dear Friends:

For oenogeeks, wine regions are like blips on a radar screen. They catch our attention briefly, then disappear as we focus on other targets. By the time we "reacquire" them as our scope comes full circle they've changed position, sometimes coming closer to our palate's evolving (revolving?) taste, but just as often going in the wrong direction.

South America popped up on my radar again recently, and far from heading away it was coming in for a landing. But before I pilot this metaphor into the ground, I better get to the point.

I discovered Chilean wines in my Early Besotted Period. They provided an inexpensive education in the differences among the major grape varietals and plenty of good slurping to boot. This was right about the time the swarms of human rights activists were being replaced by Napan and Bordelais winemakers in search of the eternal harvest, who convinced the locals that their wines could fetch $60 if made in the "international style."

[Warning: Dave is about to take his monthly swipe at other, more widely published wine writers.]

Now, I'm all for improved winemaking techniques, hygiene and clean barrels and such, but when I read that Chile and Argentina are making great strides and producing wine in the "international style," I think "same old, same old." It's almost as though the Holy Grail for a South American winemaker should be a wine indistinguishable from any other, devoid of any character of its homeland, the country and region of origin stamped on the label merely to satisfy some anal-retentive regulator in a far-off foreign capital.

Whew. Now I feel better.

That's oversimplifying, of course. Chile and Argentina are producing some top-notch, top-price wines. But their strength still lies in the bargain range. And even here, among affordable wines made in the modern, international style, a jaded palate can begin to detect certain flavor qualities that indicate the wine's origin; leafy, earthy flavors from Argentina, or flint and matchstick from Chile.

They are perfect wines for by-the-glass selections in restaurants, and can fill out the bottom price range of the wine list with style and distinction.

There are also some distinctly un-international wines coming from Chile and Argentina. These come largely from three grape varieties that are seldom grown elsewhere, or if they are, people don't admit it. Argentina offers Torrontes, a light, refreshing white varietal that can be spicy and grassy like an Ugni Blanc from southwestern France (Santa Julia comes to mind, usually about $6) or ripe and creamy, with soft citrusy notes (such as the Alta Vista Premium Torrontes 2002, about $10). For red lovers, there's Malbec, a contender for world's greatest steak wine, and Bonarda, a juicy, fun wine with Italian heritage. Two Bonardas I've particularly enjoyed recently are the J & F Lurton 2002 and the Alamos 2002, both from the Mendoza region. At less than $10, they are great bargains that go well beyond the novelty value of the unusual grape name.

Chile built much of its modern wine reputation on the strength of its Merlot, only to discover in the mid-1990s that much of its Merlot was in fact Carmenère, an obscure variety that used to be grown in Bordeaux except that nobody thought it worth replanting after phylloxera in the late 1800s. Many wineries do bottle a varietal Carmenère, some reminiscent of Virginia Cabernet Franc, others more full-bodied and deep. They tend to feature leafy, earthy flavors over fruit, and the trick is to keep those balanced.

[Warning: Dave is hyper-ventilating again …]

Have you noticed how many writers and oenogeeks who praised Chilean Merlot five or six years ago when much of it was apparently Carmenère now turn up their noses at Chile's grape? Mustn't be "international" enough.

So on to the wines. Here are some of my recent rediscoveries from Argentina and Chile, grouped by producers. These houses offer consistent quality across a wide range of prices, though here I'm focusing on the lower price ranges.

Argentina

Catena Zapata: A no-brainer here, beginning with the value-oriented Alamos line, which typically retails for about $10, often less. Standouts are the Bonarda, mentioned above, plus Malbec and Chardonnay. The mid-range price level is occupied by Catena wines at about $20, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Chardonnay showing similar profiles as their counterparts in the Alamos line, only more so. The expensive price ranges, worth seeking out in restaurants, are occupied by the Catena Alta line, culled from the best lots of each grape, and the Nicolas Catena proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

Familia Rutini: The Rutini family has been producing wine in Mendoza for well over a century. They are best known in this country for their Trumpeter line of value wines, with blueberry-scented Malbec and a sturdier, flavor-packed 2001 Malbec-Syrah ($9). More recently, we've seen the high-quality Felipe Rutini line in the $20 range. These include a rich, lush 2001 Merlot from Tupungato in Mendoza that takes dried cherries and dusts them with dark cocoa for a long, silky finish.

Goyenechea: Extract is not king here. Another long-time winemaking family, Goyenechea has not really followed the international-style paradigm. Which is to say, if seeing the bottom of your glass through your red wine turns you off, then Goyenechea may not turn you on. But the house style here is to sneak up on you with bright cherry or berry fruit and deceptive depth for wines of light color. Best are the 2003 Merlot Rosé ($9), which blooms cherry on the finish, and the 2001 Merlot ($10), which evokes Grandpop's library with leathery, chocolate cherry and a caramel finish with just a whiff of old wood (the wine is flavored with oak staves). There's also a nice 1999 Quinta Generacion Cabernet Sauvignon ($22), which while still light in color offers cherry and raspberry fruit with an elusive herb flavoring - sage? rosemary? - and a lovely long finish.

Chile - Something old, something new …

Cousino-Macul: I fell in love with Cabernet Sauvignon over a taste of Silver Oak during a Napa visit in the 1980s; when I got home, it was Cousino-Macul's Antiguas Reservas that I started buying by the case. I haven't followed this wine vintage by vintage over the years, so I cannot say whether the 2001, sourced from new vineyards a bit farther away from Santiago's encroaching sprawl, faithfully continues the lineage. But I can say it's a darn good wine, still worth buying by the case even if the price has crept up to all of - gasp! - $13. I defy you to find a California cab at this price to match the Antiguas Reservas' flinty attack and cedar follow-through, wrapped around a core of blackcurrant and spice with a long, elegant finish. Cousino-Macul's Chardonnays are also worthy of mass purchasing, including an unoaked 2003 ($10) that may have you exclaiming, "So THAT'S what Chardonnay is supposed to taste like!" For oak lovers, the 2002 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay ($13) offers complexity and spice - cloves, nutmeg and mace - and a glassful of class.

I just hope no one hears about the 2002 Merlot. I'm keeping that $10 beauty to myself.

Dallas-Conte: Actually, I'm tempted to keep these to myself, too. These imports from the BeringerBlass multinational wine cartel are $10 eye-openers. The 2000 Merlot is a Euro-styled wine with smoky-woodsy notes, plum-cherry fruit and a graceful finish. The 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon is almost its rival: bright blackberry fruit tinged with mint. And the 2001 Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley (the reds hail from Rapel) is steely and focused, with just a hint of oak. Think Macon or Chablis. Superb values.

Two Brothers Winery: No generations of winemaking experience here, this winery is the collaboration of Alex Bartholomaus, president of Billington Imports in Springfield, Va., (specialists in South American and Spanish wines) and his brother, Erik. The 2002 Big Tattoo Red, the second release of their only wine, is a delicious blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, a combination reminiscent of Provence, if anywhere. At $9, it follows the Chilean tradition of affordable high quality. Some of the profits are donated to help breast cancer research in honor of their late mother, Liliana.

© 2004 by Dave McIntyre

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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.

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