Monday, 2 November 2009

Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil

Our debut in South America! Due to a characteristic Slotovino cock-up we failed to set foot in Chile this time but will remedy the omission hopefully next May.

From Buenos Aires, Colonia and the Montevideo airport duty free in Uruguay and Rio de Janeiro plus a side-trip to Sao Paolo in Brazil we dipped into this vast continent’s wine scene. According to Christopher Fielden’s ‘The Wines of Argentina, Chile and Latin America’ we need also to case Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Venuzuela. Nothing if not intrepid in our search for diversity, we might visit these countries too one day.


Varietal choice was more drastically limited here even than in the USA with not only Malbec but Malbec from Mendoza dominating the Argentinian lists. Of course this reflects the overwhelming position of Mendoza as Argentina’s biggest wine-producing area but can it be that consumers want to spend their entire lives comparing different wines from the same grape in one single area, however large?

In ‘Decanter’s’ supplement on Argentina 2009, admittedly a ‘Sponsored Guide’, our hopes had been raised by mention of other areas such as Salta and Patagonia with attempts to differentiate parts of Mendoza such as the Uco, Pedernel and Famatina valleys, talk of lighter unoaked Malbecs, and mention of Bonarda, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot and Torrontes and even Friulano as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the whites the reality was overwhelmingly the familiar powerful style of Malbec from Mendoza.

It was therefore interesting to read in the 2003 edition of Fielden that ‘Argentina is richly endowed with possibilities, but seems to have chosen the Malbec for red wines…’ What seemed in 2003 is in 2009 almost a hegemony.

So putting this aside we tried to seek out what else might be on offer. Bonarda was an interesting possibility especially on learning from Fielden that (at least in 2003) ‘this is the most widely planted quality grape variety in Argentina.’ He goes on to say that ‘there is surprisingly little information about it. One of the reasons for this is that many of the vines are very old and there is some confusion as to what they really are. There is no doubt that there has been some inter-mingling with the Barbera, which gives a higher class of wine.’ We read elsewhere that Bonarda in Argentina is not the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese which is actually Croatina, nor even the Bonarda Piemontese or even Novarese but Corbeau, aka Douce Noire, a southern French variety or even Charbono. Curiouser and curiouser, but all the more interesting for that. Bonarda now only the second most planted quality variety in Argentina after, you have guessed it, Malbec. It was always more frequently found in blends but now it is almost impossible to find a 100% Bonarda in Argentina and wine merchants wear a pained expression when asked for it. We found only one example by Nieto Senetiner from Mendoza and had to pay dearly for it.

We tried Cabernet Franc and Merlot in restaurants but were not impressed with the examples we got.

We then attempted to find examples of the most widely planted (presumably ‘non-quality’ grapes of all; Criolla Grande, Criolla Chica and Cereza but no one admitted ever having heard of them.

Of the other varieties mentioned by Fielden; Barbera, Nebbiolo, (‘historically planted together with the Malbec and…often sold as such’), Tintorero Italinano (Grenache), Verdot (sic), Cinsaut and Lambrusco (actually Refosco), hardly a trace. A Gamay was advertised one one restaurant’s list but was out of stock.

Only about 1/3rd of Argentinian wine is classed as ‘fine wine’. Perhaps these varieties find their way into the cheap vin ordinaire we found in supermarkets and the bulk wine Argentina seems to sell in great quantity to Japan and other markets. On the subject of this vin ordinaire, we tasted a bottle of Bianchi’s ‘Nuestro Margaux’ which we bought for under 10 Pesos (£1.50).

It was not as bad as one might have thought: almost drinkable, but with an unusual taste. Maybe this was the fabled Criolla which is thought to have been the original wine brought over by the missionaries. Known as Pais in Chile, there is an example on sale from Artisan & Vine in London, Huasa, Clos Ouvert, Maule. At £23,
presumably not ordinaire. There were other doubtful wines on the lower shelves of supermarkets including another offering from Bianchi, this time a ‘Borgogna’ and a wine proudly stating that it had been made from 12 different grapes.

In the white wines the story was similar but Argentina’s speciality Torrontes (probably a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and our old friend Criolla and nothing to do with the Torrontes of Galicia, Spain) was not at all ubiquitous and in fact we can claim our first discovery with the examples grown in Salta in the world’s highest vineyards. These were nothing whatsoever like the cheap and not very cheerful examples of Torrontes to be found on British supermarket shelves. The Torrontes of Etchart who pioneered the variety in Cafayate, Salta was a complete and delicious surprise.
The wine is complex and bursting with flavour. We bought a 2008 Torrontes called San Pedro de Yacochuya from the Valles Calchaquies, Cafayate (13.5%), reported to be the world’s very highest vineyard bar none.
We found this at a shop called ‘Grand Cru’ on the Avenida Alvear in Buenos Aires. It was rather refined - a huge contrast with the glass of Torrontes Cinco Tierras we drank at the Hotel Faena one evening.This was positively funky, but very interesting for all that.

At Buenos Aires’ Jorge Newbery airport we found a $10 bottle of Petit Verdot by Trumpeter (a range produced by Rutini) which is reported to have been drunk with pleasure by its recipient in London.
However, practically none of the other varieties said to be planted (excepting Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc of course) were to be found in purezza: Pedro Gimenez (which is not Pedro Jimenez), Ugni Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Pinot Gris Gewutztraminer although there does exist a Friulano which was not in stock at the Enoteca next to our hotel in the Avenida Saenz Pena, Buenos Aires or at ‘The Winery’ in the same street.

We chose one Malbec out of the many we sampled: Don David (13.9%) from Salta.

Not an expensive wine, it exuded class and finesse unlike so many other Malbecs. It comes from Cafayate, Salta – need one say more?


Our experience of Uruguay was much more limited but paradoxically more encouraging. We spent a day over the Rio de la Plata in the old Portuguese town of Colonia where we discovered a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc/Sauvignon Gris blend by Don Pascual,
the everyday wine range from Establacimento Juanico S.A. At Carrasco airport (Montevideo) there was a promotion for Uruguayan wines with several on tasting, supervised by a knowledgeable young woman. We tried a Tannat
and a blend called Monte Vide Eu both by Bodegas Bouza. The 100% Tannat (14.5%) was quite a revelation; infinitely better than any Uruguayan wine we had found in any UK supermarket and praised by Jancis Robinson. The blend (Tannat, Merlot and Tempranillo) was good but less interesting.
We bought a bottle of Tannat by Bodega Ariano which was slightly lower in alcohol.

From this preliminary skirmish with Uruguayan wines, we had the impression of a much more varied and interesting scene than that of Argentina or Brazil especially considering the size of the country (only half as big again as the UK) and population (3m). Their signature grape, Tannat appears to be capable of almost as great things as Malbec in Argentina and there is an interesting list of varieties grown including Folle Noire now named Vidiella in honour of Francisco Vidiella, one of the founders of the Uruguayan wine industry, who brought this excellent variety (used in Bellet, the wine of Nice) together with Gamay Blanc in the 1880s. Marsalan, Nebbiolo and Marsanne are also planted as well as all the usual suspects.

A footnote: on our Pluna flight to Rio de Janeiro, we bought a half bottle (yes, 375cl complete with a proper cork) of Uruguayan Merlot ($5) – better than the Argentinian Merlot we had had in a B.A. restaurant and possibly the best red wine we had ever been served in economy class.
It is made by Viñedos y Bodegas Filgueira and goes under the brand name Casa Filgueira.


If Argentina is rather self-obsessed about its wines, Brazil is somewhat apologetic with Uruguay somewhere in the middle. It was really difficult to find ‘Nacionale’ wines in restaurants, supermarkets or wine merchants. We had arrived with the intention of finding more Ancelotta wines (see our Blog of 1,12,08) but came away with only the same bottle as we had been sent nearly a year ago. Don Laurindo is fine but we would have liked to have found ones by Caves Marson, Identitade, Casa Valduga, Casa Perini, Dal Pizzol. Vinicola Milantino and Laurentis.

One can see that Ancelotta is a Brazilian speciality now that it is all but impossible to find in its native Italy. Perhaps Brazil should have this variety as its calling card like Malbec in Argentina or Tannat in Uruguay? Goodness knows there is nothing else which merits this function. We found an excellent bottle of Touriga Nacional by Dal Pizzol;
much better than the Virginian Touriga Nacional we found in Washington DC (qv) but the rest was only so-so.

According to an interesting site,, Brazil grows a very diverse range of grapes. We thought it of interest to name them here given our comments on the less than riveting choice of Brazilian wines. NB. Ancelotta (aka Ancelotti) is not even mentioned in Fielden:


Malvasia Bianca
Malvasia di Candia
Malvasia Prosecco
Moscato Giallo
Muscat Canelli
Riesling Italico
Sauvignon Blanc
Seyve Villard Blanc


Alicante Bouschet
Bordo (aka York-Madeira)
Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Petit Verdot
Pinot Noir
Seyve Villard noir
Tempranillo (aka Tinta Roriz)
Touriga Nacional

PS. Nowhere in our travels in S. America did we see a screw cap!


The Wine Mule said...

Another great exploration! Thank you! Thanks also for the parsing of Argentine bonarda, which has always confused me. And for ‘Nuestro Margaux', that is the funniest wine name I've heard in a good long while

Itsawinething said...

My daughters 18th birthday wine, Check! Do more of this, it's much admired. Josh Tennen

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