Let´s welcome our new collaborator from Ecuador, Food and Wine (dot) Guru Stephen Reiss, PhD, CWE is the author of CookingWithStevie.com and WineEducation.com as well as numerous books. He has consulted with wineries on five continents and cooked over 300 seven course wine dinners, without ever repeating a menu.
Visit any wine store in North America, Asia or Europe and you will find the wines of Chile and Argentina grouped together – If they have anything from Uruguay, Brazil or Bolivia, it is there too. This is a disservice to Argentina, Chile and the consumer. These regions share little else than a continent, so it is time for the world to learn the difference. Just as Bordeaux in France is different than Burgundy, so too are the wines of Chile and Argentina, who don’t even share the same country or wine traditions. A generation ago the differences were not so pronounced, as both countries were mostly making wine of little distinction. As the wine have improved so too has the need to differentiate not only the Chile and Argentina, but the myriad micro climates of each country.
It is easy to look at Europe, especially France, and see a mature and robust place name system that helps the consumer decide which wine is right for her. Not only is the system much more volatile than it may seem, it is also much younger. It was only after the first World War that a fighter pilot married into a wine making family, and aghast at the fraud he found, began a decades long crusade to bring the industry into line, bringing a greater degree of certainty to the consumer. The concept of wine being a representation of place, for which we universally use the French word “terroir” mostly dates from this time, and yet today most people expect wine to taste in some way of its origin.
Except for Chile and Argentina. For most who are purchasing these wines the expectation has much more to do with price than any specific characteristic. Perhaps they will go so far as to think of Chile for Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina for Malbec, but of course fine examples of each can be found in either country. They all too rarely think of Casablanca for Sauvignon Blanc or Salta for Torrontes. They aren’t confused by Maipú in Chile and Maipú in Argentina, because they have no idea they exist. Bio Bio and Uco are valleys they have never heard of, so they are unlikely to seek them out.
Those who produce wine in these these diverse regions can speak all day about what makes their micro climate special, but few beyond the sound of their voice have heard. That the current Somm movement that revels in distinct wines and obscure labels has not taken more to the wines of Chile and Argentina is another symptom of the problem. Chile and Argentina are the best kept secret in the wine world, and secrets don’t sell.
For the past several decades Chile has been trying to get the world to pay attention to Carmenere and Argentina to Malbec. The wines of these countries, no matter the grape, have been marketed on price, with the inevitable conclusion that it is now hard to sell the great, higher priced wines, because the expectations are no there. Tell a North American consumer to pick a favorite $100 wine and not one will be from Chile or Argentina. I recently asked a large group of Somms the same question, and again, not one wine from South America.
Education is, and always has been the key. At first it was important to teach the world that wines were made in South America, and the wines that made that point were indistinct and priced accordingly. Later Argentina and Chile began to market themselves independently, to limit success. Now, producers in both countries are making wines of world class quality that are selling for a small percentage of comparable wines in other regions of the world, making it hard to justify the expense. To win the minds and hearts of the consumers the world over, Chile and Argentina need to make sure that they are being sold for what they are today, not what they were as recently as a decade ago.
A huge weapon in this fight is Cabernet Sauvignon. Both Chile and Argentina have proved how well this king of grapes performs, albeit in very different ways. Chile, with its various maritime climates produces Cabernet that would not be out of place in Bordeaux. Argentina has a range of styles as well, but they tend to be more approachable young. Few lovers of Cabernet are turning to these countries, and fewer yet are looking at the distinct regions within each to further refine their choices. Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile and Argentina needs to be regionally labeled, and sold as Cabernet, not as South America.
Producers and trade groups need to do much more to spread the word that Chile and Argentina are distinctive, with distinctive subregions, making distinctive wines. Chile and Argentina have mostly given up on making wines without distinction, so why does the world still think they are all the same?