Until the 1990s, when it came to the wines of South America, brands and winery owners ruled the roost. Then, an era of flying winemakers in Argentina and Chile made the consultant winemaker the sales teams’ marketing pin-up, soon to be overshadowed by the local star winemakers. In recent years, however, the most exciting advances have been through the turbocharged quest to best represent ‘the place’ in the glass – whether that place is a subregion, appellation, single vineyard or even a single block. And as winemakers push beyond the traditional wine regions on the balmy valley floors, single-vineyard wines are becoming thrillingly diverse – from the wind-battered depths of Patagonia, to the lofty heights of the Andes Mountains or the edge of the bracing Pacific Ocean.
Here are eight of the most remarkable examples, all made from relatively new vines and subregions that are leading the pack in South America for unique, terroir-driven wines.
Catena Zapata, Adrianna vineyard, Gualtallary, Argentina
There is no lack of excellent wines coming from Gualtallary in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. A hotspot for top-notch Malbec, the region is increasingly renowned for its Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay, too. One of the wineries that put Gualtallary on the map is Catena Zapata. As one of the greatest dynasties in Argentinian wine, the family needs little introduction, and as with most of the country’s wine families, Catena’s roots go back to eastern Mendoza, where it first set up shop in 1902. But it wasn’t until 1992 that it planted its vineyard in Gualtallary, which has blossomed from a brave experiment into a 110ha vineyard and vinous Shangri-La, now producing all the family’s top wines.
For me, the cuvées that have really given this vineyard cult status are the two Chardonnays, White Bones and White Stones. So named for the soil composure of each block, White Bones has calcareous deposits and limestone from fossilized bones, while White Stones has oval stones covered with a thin white layer of calcium.
‘The character of the wines is due to three fundamental variables,’ explains winemaker Alejandro Vigil. ‘The region is very cold; the calcareous soils have a better hydric relationship and give a mineral character; and lastly, our greater understanding of the place.’ The duo, first released with the 2009 vintage, are undoubtedly world class. Pure, elegant and chiselled, they reflect the thrilling direction in which Gualtallary is leading Argentina.
Where to try it: Catena Zapata, Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay 2018, £78.68 Grand Vin Wine Merchants
With the cold temperature, high luminosity, ferocious wind and poor soil, this is an extreme terroir
Otronia vineyard, Chubut, Argentina
Argentinian billionaire and oil magnate Alejandro Bulgheroni isn’t a man who does anything by halves. It took him barely three years to transform virgin terroir in Uruguay into his outstanding, award-winning 240ha wine estate Garzón. When he set his sights on planting the southernmost vineyard in the world, on the shores of Lake Musters at 45.33°S, his consultants Alberto Antonini and Pedro Parra told him in no uncertain terms that he was mad. Not only was this an unexplored vinous latitude (Central Otago reaches 45.25°S) with an enormous frost risk, but Patagonia is also notorious for its winds, which can reach more than 60mph. Needless to say, they planted 50ha of vines that year.
‘With the cold temperature, the high luminosity, the ferocious wind and the poor soil, this is an extreme terroir,’ explains winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia. ‘And the wines reflect extreme Patagonia.’ Extreme is certainly the word. But despite an average temperature of only 11.5°C, the sunshine hours at this latitude give an incredible intensity and ripeness to the wines, which easily reach 14% alcohol, while retaining laser-sharp acidity. The single-block Chardonnay has already garnered cult status for its muscular style with a feminine flair of white blossom and peaches. And having just tasted the new duo of traditional-method sparkling wines, due for release in the autumn, I’m sure they’ll also hurtle along at top speed.
Uspallata vineyard, Mendoza, Argentina
The newest cult vineyard to emerge in South America – and a truly landmark one at that – is Estancia Uspallata. Although creeping further up into the foothills of the Andes and planting on its alluvial soils is common in Mendoza, few have ventured beyond and into the mountains. Between Mendoza and Santiago lies more than 100km of the largely impenetrable Andes mountain range, in which Mount Aconcagua, the world’s highest peak beyond the Himalayas, stands proud at 6,959m. The mountain pass is filled with rugged beauty: striking natural murals of multicoloured minerals on bare mountain sides, treacherously steep ravines and snow peaks towering in the distance.
There are only a few mountain villages en route, including the Argentinian settlement of Uspallata. Here, in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, lies one of the most exciting new vineyards in Mendoza: 4ha of mainly Malbec and Pinot Noir, surrounded by mountains (see also previous spread).
‘The vineyard has this unique mix of colluvial soils,’ explains winemaker Alejandro Sejanovich. ‘It’s also a really dry place with lots of wind and has a totally different climate from Mendoza.’ All this combines to create a completely unique profile of Malbec, which is the highlight of the Uspallata portfolio for me: herbal, floral and filled with spice. The wines are fragrant, fresh and really rather breathtaking – just like the vineyard itself.
Estancia Uspallata, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2018, N/A UK
Cerro del Guazuvirá vineyard, Lavalleja, Uruguay
In Uruguay, where the climate is rather uniform and rarely extreme (it shares similarities with Galicia or Bordeaux, depending on the vintage), winemakers have been focusing on the range of soils for their new ventures. Uruguay, barely the size of Washington State, has 99 classified soil types. Among those is a volcanic outcrop in Lavalleja, where one of Uruguay’s most promising young winemakers, Santiago Deicas, planted a vineyard in 2015.
Part of the explosion of new vineyards on Uruguay’s eastern coast, it benefits from strong ocean breezes and stands at 400m above sea level – the highest in Uruguay, but small beer compared to Argentina. Nevertheless, this is one of the few vineyards in Uruguay that requires irrigation. The bedrock is so hard it had to be broken up by dynamite before planting. Fireworks and irrigation weren’t the only initial cost or setback: the first two vintages were gobbled up entirely by a herd of Guazuvirá deer and a singular of wild boars. An electric fence and a couple of vintages later, though, and Cerro del Guazuvirá has proved it was worth fighting for.
Familia Deicas’s Extreme Vineyards blend of Merlot, Tannat, Petit Verdot and Viognier is one of Uruguay’s most sought-after wines, with a remarkable graphite-like tension and freshness, plus trademark malted barley, flower and bramble aromas. Like the tireless effort behind it, it embodies just how riveting Uruguay’s modern terroir Tannat wines can be.
Alcohuaz vineyard, Elqui, Chile
Nestled in a steep valley at 1,650–2,206m above sea level, Viñedos de Alcohuaz is Chile’s highest commercial vineyard and makes some of Chile’s raciest Mediterranean blends. The site, at the heights of Elqui, is, perhaps, more Chile’s equivalent of Priorat that the vineyard Torres sought out with the same intention (see overleaf). Elqui has some of the clearest skies in the world, making it a major stargazing destination, and sun-loving varieties suit the intense conditions at this altitude, where luminosity is high, conditions are arid, and summer temperatures can drop from 23°C to 5°C overnight. With poor, granite soils and steep slopes (up to 30%), this extreme terrain has similarities to the Douro as well as Priorat, and the wines are just as age-worthy.
Behind this incredibly exciting project is one of Chile’s top winemakers, Marcelo Retamal, and since the first vintage (2011), the wines have steadily gained a cult status. Rhu is the apex of Alcohuaz’s portfolio: a Syrah, Grenache and Petite Sirah blend crushed by foot in stone lagares and left to ferment with native yeast before being aged in wooden foudres for three years. Time has harnessed the natural power of the wine, which exudes deep notes of blackcurrants, black olives, spice and graphite, with electric acidity and a textural, tongue-tingling finish. Although the vines thrive in a good year in Alcohuaz, the location isn’t without its drama. In 2016, more than 80% of the crop was lost to a springtime snow. ‘Great wines come from marginal climates,’ says Retamal. ‘And if you want to make great wines, you have to take great risks.’
Miguel Torres, Escaleras de Empedrado vineyard, Maule, Chile
It was some inner soil-searching that led Miguel Torres to plant its epic Escaleras de Empedrado vineyard in Maule. The Spanish wine family are no strangers to schist, found in their famous vineyards in Priorat, but locating schist in Chile wasn’t an easy feat. After six years of looking, in 2002 the family acquired a 369ha forest in Empedrado, within which they planted a handful of mainly Mediterranean varieties on steep slate terraces running from 250 to 500m above sea level. They had hoped this would be the ideal combination for making Chile’s equivalent of Priorat. But at this southerly latitude, and just 21km from the coast, it proved too cool for Garnacha and Carignan to ripen, and instead the dark horse of the trial, Pinot Noir, was planted on the steep terraces.
‘It isn’t only the very cool climate that is the challenge here, but also the fact that it’s a small vineyard oasis right in the middle of a forest,’ explains winemaker Eduardo Jordán. The first three years of grapes were consumed by the forest residents – birds and rabbits. Each vine is now netted, adding to the considerable cost of the project, which is already one of Chile’s largest vineyard investments of recent years. But Escaleras de Empedrado has been worth the chase, and within just a few vintages the region achieved its own DO status, built a cult following and inspired other slate-vineyard wines in Chile. ‘Making Pinot Noir from vines on slate soils is really interesting,’ adds Jordán. ‘It gives you a mineral sensation, high acidity and structure, which makes wines with great ageing potential. ‘All extreme projects have additional challenges, but that’s what makes it interesting and pushes you to understand the place better.’
Miguel Torres, Escaleras de Empedrado Pinot Noir, Chile 2015, N/A UK
Casa Silva, Lago Ranco vineyard, Osorno, Chile
Over on the Chilean side of Patagonia, a handful of vineyards has also emerged in the past two decades. None has yet reached the status of Casa Silva’s Lago Ranco. Nestled between the dormant volcanoes and sky-blue lakes of Chile’s Los Ríos region, the Silva family’s estate had been a breeding ground for their prized polo horses. Then, in 2007, the famed wine family from Colchagua decided to plant a few vines and see how they fared in this cool, virgin terrain. After a couple of years, they became convinced that the lake, just 600m away, offered enough protection from the bitter frosts, and the vineyard became 14ha, planted on slopes facing Ranco Lake on deep volcanic soils.
The wines – a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Riesling – have quickly earned a name as some of the most distinctive in Chile. The Lago Ranco Riesling is my pick of the bunch, with tangy minerality, heady notes of kaffir lime and pea shoots, and a searing acidity that leaves you dribbling. It also ages like a dream. The greatest challenge here, in fact, has not been the climate but the isolated location – 800km from their winery in Colchagua and surrounded by forests and lakes but very few people. ‘Training a viticultural team in a cattle-breeding region isn’t easy’ admits viticulturist René Vásquez. ‘Making wine in Osorno is a challenge, but these wines fill us with adrenaline.’
Viña Tabalí, Talinay vineyard, Limarí, Chile
Limestone is many a winemaker’s holy grail, anchoring the vines of Champagne, Burgundy, St-Emilion, Barolo… and Limarí, which boasts the highest concentration of limestone of any Chilean wine region. Within Limarí, however, one vineyard in particular stands out: Viña Tabalí’s Talinay. Why? Most of the vineyards in this cool coastal region are planted 20–30km inland on soils with calcium carbonate deposits brought down from the mountains by rivers (not dissimilar to those of Gualtallary and other regions in Argentina’s Uco Valley), with a metre of clay topsoil. But Talinay’s soils – just 12km from the sea – are pure marine limestone that starts right at the surface and runs incredibly deep. Add to this the region’s bracingly cool camanchaca sea fog and the sunny, breezy afternoons, and you get a recipe for rather remarkable wines.
‘Talinay has totally unique conditions,’ explains winemaker Felipe Müller. ‘It’s a cold and dry climate, which isn’t common, and the soil is an ancient sea bed. Talinay produces very distinctive wines with a marine sensation but also elegance.’ Sauvignon Blanc is, of course, Chile’s coastal star, but I’m most excited about Talinay’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. With racy acidity, chalky minerality and a precise, mouthwatering finish, these are complex yet refined wines that are changing the shape and texture of Chile’s wine scene and blazing a trail for others to follow.