Chile and Argentina are similar insofar as they are both Spanish-speaking, largely Catholic countries in the Southern Cone of Latin America that have experienced dictatorship and democracy over the past few decades. Despite these similarities, the two local rivals have contrasting winemaking styles and histories. Chile, with a smaller domestic economy, has been quite outward-looking to find markets for its wine. Argentina, by contrast, is one of the world’s largest producers but a relatively weak exporter. Climatologically, Chile is influenced by the prevailing Pacific weather patterns while Argentina has high deserts on the other side of the Andes.
Both countries are becoming very international in their winemaking as many companies from France, Spain, the USA, have come to make wines or to consult in winemaking. While the $10-and-up categories from both countries are mostly strong, the wines under $10 remain patchy. Two recent tastings defied expectations: the Argentine Malbecs were overly smoky and the Chilean Sauvignons Blancs tasted too much like what the French call pipi du chat; I liked several of the whites from Argentina and some reds from Chile. While the exciting winemaking in the region makes it very much worth watching, here are a few recommendations for now…
Casa Silva, Carmenère, Classic, 2000 (Chile) $8.
Carmenère has recently resolved a case of mistaken identity. In Chile, it was previously thought to be Merlot. However, DNA testing (no, this is not just reserved for paternity lawsuits) revealed about a decade ago that the carmenère is, in fact, distinct from its fraternal twin, merlot. The long-standing confusion between the two grapes means that it is quite similar to Merlot in taste and appearance. This wine is easy on the wallet and on the palate. It is purple red in color, with a nose of dark fruits and a good finish. It certainly stacked up well against two other watery carmenères. And it would probably be even better with food (pork chops?).
Concha y Toro, Casillero del Diablo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, 2001. $8
The Devil is in the details. Legend (read: marketing department) has it that old man Don Melchor used to keep the staff out of his best wine cellar by telling them that the Devil lived there. Although this wine is good, it may have come from the wrong cellar since it is not the best wine this winery produces. But it is good value for money. The nose is closed at first but opens up into a ripe cherry and herbal aroma with similar notes on the palate. Slightly tannic and aged in some oak, this South American red will please red lovers who are accustomed with the North American style. From one of the biggest firms exporting wine to the US, it’s also easy find.
Alamos, Chardonnay, Mendoza 2001 $9.99.
Nicolas Catena is probably Argentina’s leading producer. He makes a wine that sells for $90 a bottle so he is definitely a locomotive pulling Argentina behind him. His neo-Mayan winery at the base of the Andes produces several lines of wines and the Alamos label is the most affordable. Sleek styling on the label and heavy bottles make the wine noticeable from the get-go. On the inside, this Chardonnay is pale yellow in color and hints of butterscotch on the nose. It doesn’t have that creamy buttery taste of many Chardonnays and there is a hint of citrus, but it is agreeable, easy drinking and has a pleasant finish. This solid effort makes it easy to remember Álamos.
Navarro Correas, Cabernet Sauvignon, Colección privada, Mendoza. 2000. $10
This winery has seen the benefit of foreign investment. Diageo (former owner of Burger King), the international drinks conglomerate that also owns Guinness beer as well as many other wineries and spirits brands, has lent the winery their winemaker from Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa. The results are good with this fruit-forward Cabernet made in an international style. The nose is excellent with complexity and dark fruits although not all the complexity transfers to the palate. This smooth medium-bodied wine is at its most expressive with food, from pasta to grilled meats.
Santa Julia, Torrontés, Mendoza, 2002. $7.
Move over chardonnay, here comes Torrontés? Well, maybe not anytime soon. This varietal is widely planted in Argentina (in fact, they claim it to be of domestic origin) and almost unknown elsewhere. It should be better known though. Pale in color with a floral nose, the taste is clean and crisp. This refreshing wine is definitely good to keep on ice for sunny days on the deck. Torrontés can be easily overwhelmed by food though. But hey, maybe that’s OK sometimes—the wine doesn’t always have to be trying to shout down the food.
Abadia Retuerta, Rivola, 2001. ($9.99 with discount)
This extremely well capitalized winery produces a line of excellent red wines from the Sardon de Duero region of Spain. Located just outside the Ribera del Duero, the wines are not D.O. wines and are instead classified as table wines from the Castilla and Leon region. That does not harm the wine in the bottle as mulberries, cherries and hints of vanilla and good mouthfeel make this Rivola very alluring. The distinct downside to the fact that word is getting out about this serious winery is that their prices are creeping up with every vintage. Although it may be hard to pronounce (think 12th century abbey Retuerta), it is worth remembering.
Di Majo, Norante Sangiovese (IGT Molise) 2001. $7.
From the hills of Molise on the Adriatic comes this excellent Italian (organic) red. Although the producers follow local traditions, they classify the wine “IGT” or the Italian analogue to “vin de pays” (not appellation). Sangiovese, the predominant grape of Tuscany, is generally considered a “food wine” that doesn’t often stand out on its own. This one is good with food or without. It has a ruby color with hints of black currants on the nose, black cherry on the palate, and a pleasant finish. Since I have sadly harbored skepticism about Italian red wines under $10, it is nice to be proven so wrong.
Laurel Glen Vineyards, Reds, 2000. $8
The California wine industry is fortunate to have Patrick Campbell—and so are we. Not only is he an industry leader in terms of organization but he also is an excellent winemaker with a full range of wines, including this yummy wine under $10 (a rarity in California these days). Reds is a blend of 5 red grape varietals that come from growing areas throughout the state. Sound like a hodge-podge? Perhaps in someone else’s hands. Medium-bodied with spice on the nose, Reds also has hints of blackberry and blackcurrant on the palate. If this wine were the official selection of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the party might have fared better!
Chateau Marjosse, red, AOC Bordeaux, 2000 $8
The 2000 vintage from Bordeaux has been widely touted in the press. From Pierre Lurton, also the winemaker of the esteemed Chateau Cheval Blanc, comes this very good wine from the under 10 group. A “generic” AOC Bordeaux, the wine has dark fruits on the nose, a nice weight-but not overweight-at mid-palate with hints of mineral, and a smooth finish. This selection is ready to drink now and also provides an affordable option from Bordeaux-an increasingly difficult proposition
Costas de Santar, Dão, 2000. $8.
The Dão of Pooh? No, this Dão is from the center of Portugal. A blend of three local varietals makes this light-bodied and approachable red perfect for people who don’t like big reds with heavy tannins. Light in coloring, the nose has a mixture of raspberry and lollipop that follows through on the palate. A pleasant wine, if a little fleeting.
Beyond the grade (but worth it):
Bodegas Weinert, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000 $11
Escudo Rojo, 2000 $12
Crios de Susana Balbo, Torrontés, 2002 $13 (white)
Catena, Chardonnay, 2000, $16