Thursday, March 10, 2011

Epic South American Round Up, Parte Uno

Chile and Argentina, among the largest importers of wine to the US, have been lauded in recent years as havens for terrific quality at easy to swallow prices.  Likely the combination of centuries old wine industries, geoarbitrage, and modern marketing methods, the South American sections of wine retailers has been steadily keeping pace with the accolades.

Argentina alone produces more wine than Australia and, together with Chile, these countries out-produce the US.  Given their size and accessibility in our market, we thought we'd take a plunge into the Other Down Under.  Though hardly an all-encompassing review of these diverse geographies, these wines speak volumes about their respective origins.

With too many wines to include in one single, long piece, this has been split up into Parte Uno and the forthcoming Parte Dos.  Whites, then reds. 

Some over-generalized conclusions before we get to the individual reviews:
  1. Every wine is different: The many wine regions of Argentina and Chile are as diverse as the wine regions of Italy and France.  Each valley has its own signatures, as do the varieties grown here.
  2. Every wine is the same: Commonalities emerged aplenty, especially in the reds.  As diverse as the geography is, there's a strong pyrazine component that permeates the reds, especially the Cabs and Syrahs.  This lends them a characteristic green pepper and vegetable tinge.
  3. Some of these wines really suck.  There's no escaping this point.  Some wineries are strangling Chardonnay in the Mendoza, others in Maipo are stripping Cabernet of all its fruit, and Torrontes is too often a good thing gone bad.
  4. A lot of these wines are really great.  Despite the previous point, there is a reason why South America has been lauded for its values.  There are some yummy, polished, and even elegant wines to be had for the savvy shopper.  Blends, Merlots, and some of the restrained Malbecs really surprise.
  5. These countries deserve your attention in the wine aisle.  Given the prevalence of values available, experimentation is encouraged.  For those who have less of an appetite for exploration and risk, see the reviews below from some good picks.
Easy rule of thumb for the whites: Seek out Sauvignon Blanc/Gris from Chile.  Reasonably priced, crisp, fresh, and full of personality, there's a lot of drinking enjoyment to be had here.

Full disclosure: most of these wines were received as press samples. In loose order of preference:

2009 Cousiño Macul Sauvignon Gris Maipo Valley Chile $14
The homecoming queen of white wine in Chile and and a very pleasant introduction to this varietal.  The crisp nose gives way to a welcoming, round body causing involuntary bursts of "Wow" and "Oooh, that's nice". Very well balanced. Long, lovely, and slightly creamy finish. Moderated alcohol taste. Not a mind-blower, but a standout. Most easily enjoyable Sauvignon in a long time. Over delivers in a big way. 4.5/5

2009 Alma Negra Sparkling Chardonnay Medoza Argentina $20
Dangerously friendly and surprisingly easy to drink a lot of. A good go-to bubbly for the upcoming holidays. Fast, bright fruit nose. Wow. Very easy drinking . Dry with a long finish. Falls short of luxurious, but doesn't suffer because of it. A sparkling you want many successive refills of. Full flavored without any sweetness. Just the right saturation of bubbles, too. Believe it or not, equally good on day two. 4/5

2009 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley Chile $14
Super light in color with a nose that'll remind you of Brut Champagne. The attack is subtly yeasty in a bubbly kinda way. Sharp flavors, lean body, crisp, balanced, with tang. Quenching and perfect before dinner with garlic bruschetta. 4/5

2009 Punto Final Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley Chile $9
Lovers of New Zealand’s hoppity Sauvignon Blanc style will rejoice. Holy grapefruit, Batman! Tart, like biting into an under ripe Grannysmith, but it somehow pulls it off. Crisp and super fresh, like diving into a cold pond on a chilly autumn afternoon. 3.5/5

2009 Cousiño Macul Chardonnay Maipo Valley Chile $12
Pale blond and unremarkable looking, but we didn't open this thing for a beauty contest, did we? Unquestionably Chardonnay. You don't even have to get close to the glass - the aromatics are eager to come to you. More fresh green zest than expected, but a solid core of Chard fruit scents. Very pleasant, even-keeled, and with a finish cut short by a good acidic bite that is its only drawback. 3.5/5

2009 Nieto Senitener Cardonnay Riserva Medoza Argentina $9
Better the second time around, but still tough to warm up to. The fruit is more Torrontes than Chard, though fresh and ripe.  Flavors are hidden behind mouthpuckering acids and a heavy veil of nuttiness. 2.5/5

2009 Tilia Torrontes Salta Argentina $9
Two shades lighter than tap water. Ripe green apple nose with creamy citrus aromas. But the pleasing, interesting nose takes a wrong turn on the palate. Uh, oh. Something's afoot in the mouth. Like a Bordeaux Blanc past its prime, it's got a nutty, funky quality that's tough to get past. But we've seen this in other Torrontes, so maybe that's a style they're after. May appeal to Sherry lovers. 2.5/5

2009 Urban Uco Torrontes Cafayate $9
Viscous, off-dry, and offensive. Could be the worst wine we had all year. The wine goes into the glass with the viscosity of frozen vodka. On closer inspection, the aromas make a convincing impression of botrytis, though we're pretty sure the wine was not infected with noble rot - not on purpose anyway. The off-dry and cloying sweetness of the nose follows through to the palate with sherry-like flavors which give way to an acidic bile-like bite in the back of the throat. Annoying at first, the lingering aftermath is aggressively offensive. A failure of a wine. Not sure it's safe to experiment with. 1/5 (for getting the cork in right)

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