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Rising stars of South America

There is much that is new and exciting happening in South American wine right now. Amanda Barnes presents a primer on the producers you need to know about

Words by Amanda Barnes

Lucas Niven
The Collection
Lucas Niven (far right) walks along the edge of a vineyard with family

A new generation of winemakers is pushing the boundaries in South American wine. These people are pioneering new – and ever more extreme – viticultural regions, delving into unusual grape varieties and diving deep into a kaleidoscope of orange, pink and sparkling wines.

There has never been a more innovative time in South American wine, and neither have the wines ever been so refined. This  generation of winemakers isn’t only looking onwards and upwards to create new wines; they are also taking an introspective look and reviving the heritage wines and varieties of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

While many commercial wineries are seeding great change in the wine scene, there has also been a blossoming of smaller, family-run projects that put quality and authenticity at the core of their mantra. It is also here, in the family-sized projects, where we are seeing more women come to the fore – both in the cellar and managing the nuts and bolts of the business.

This feature focuses on 10 projects that might not be on your radar yet but certainly should be. They are at the forefront of the thrilling wine scene in South America – driving change with energy and conviction, not afraid to dare to do something new but equally at ease with redefining the classics.

South American winemakers: the ones to watch

From championing Criolla grapes to putting wine from Jujuy on the map, Niven is a force to be reckoned with

Lucas Niven

Bodega Niven, Argentina

Lucas Niven could have taken an easy way out. Early on, he was working for one of Argentina’s most famous wineries, steadily building his reputation. In a bold move, he decided to kick the traditional career path and move back home to the underdog region of eastern Mendoza, dedicating his career to the most underdog of grapes, the Criolla varieties.

The hardy and productive old vines of Criolla in the east have largely been ignored by the wine industry since the 1990s. But Lucas made it his mission to revive their fortunes – and those of the local growers cultivating them. An inspiring figure, Lucas has carved out an exciting niche and opportunity for these varieties, making juicy, fresh and vibrant wines (white, pink, orange and red) under his Bodega Niven, Criolla Argentina and Corazón Valiente labels.

He is also making his mark in the extreme north of Argentina, at 2,200m altitude in Jujuy. The orange wine from that location is quite unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. Lucas doesn’t take the easy road, but he certainly knows how to make great wines while enjoying the ride.

Santiago Deicas at his family winery in Uruguay

Santiago Deicas

Familia Deicas, Uruguay

If there’s one winemaker that knows Uruguay’s wine regions best, it’s Santiago Deicas. Although he is only 36 years old, Deicas has been making wines within his family winery since his early 20s, under the guidance of his family, team and consultant winemakers. Today, though, Santiago is very much blazing his path in Familia Deicas and is undeniably one of the most innovative winemakers in South America.

Santiago’s curiosity has led him to become a forerunner in Uruguay’s natural- and orange-wine scenes, driving him to start a craft brewery and enabling him to push the boundaries with experimental viticulture techniques. But it is his work with more classic wines in less obvious, off-beat regions that is the most exciting. In the schist outcrop of Sierra de Mahoma, Santiago’s Mar de Piedras red blend is powerful yet elegant; while in the volcanic highlands, a particularly remote vineyard in Lavalleja, the Cerro del Guazuvirá red blend is a reflection of the surrounding biodiversity, filled with notes of wildflowers and forest fruits.

It is the latest white wine release, though, the bracingly mineral Cru d’Exception Albariño from the granitic hills of Garzón, that will undoubtedly set a new benchmark for Uruguayan wines.

Roy Urvieta is proving his Pinot Noir prowess

Roy Urvieta

Domaine Nico, Argentina

It’s fair to say that Roy Urvieta has been flying under the radar for some time, often buried deep in investigation at the Catena Institute of Wine, where he is one of the leads in oenology. But as Roy’s latest vintages at Laura Catena’s Domaine Nico project come to light, that is set to change.

Roy has found his forte making a series of single-parcel Pinot Noir wines in Gualtallary and Villa Bastías in the Uco Valley. He has been steadily guiding the series of wines towards more precision and sinewy restraint while reducing the level of oak ageing and fine-tuning the individual terroir expressions. Meticulous in his approach to identifying what makes each parcel unique – from the  particularities of microorganisms in the soil, to the interaction of the selected Pinot Noir clones – Roy is now seeing his hard work pay off.

Gerardo Michelini, Andrea Mufatto and Manuel Michelini are raising the profile of Argentinian white wine
Gerardo Michelini, Andrea Mufatto and Manuel Michelini are raising the profile of Argentinian white wine

Manuel Michelini, Andrea Mufatto and Gerardo Michelini

Michelini i Mufatto, Argentina

Manu Michelini was a child prodigy of wine in Argentina. Making his first – and remarkably good – wines before he could even drive, Manu has been crushing grapes since his teens. Skip a few years ahead, and today he is co-winemaker with his parents, the equally talented winemaker Andrea Mufatto and vigneron Gerardo Michelini, at Michelini i Mufatto. This is an impressive  transcontinental family project that is making wines in the Uco Valley in Argentina, Maldonado in Uruguay, and Bierzo in Spain.

Although the family make excellent reds, they are also raising the possibility of ‘cult’ white wines. The debut vintages of racy, saline Albariño from coastal Uruguay are thrilling, but it is the white trio from Uco that is most highly recommended. Andrea has turned her hand to the incredible heights of Gualtallary, where her Convicciones Chardonnay reflects the extremely calcareous soils and cool, marginal climate at some 1,500m above sea level. Gerardo’s focus, meanwhile, has been waxy, textured Chenin Blanc, making Propósitos from 50-year-old vines in the often-overlooked region of Villa Seca.

The third and final expression in this exciting line-up is one of the most sophisticated white wines in Argentina today. The Certezas Semillon is very much the brainchild of Manu. Stellar concentration from 120-year-old vines in El Peral is artfully managed with a two-year maturation in large foudres, and the result is prodigal indeed.

Federico Gambetta produces wines for the cellar at Altos Las Hormigas

Federico Gambetta

Altos Las Hormigas, Argentina

Working closely with founding winemakers Alberto Antonini and Attilio Pagli, Altos Las Hormigas’s young winemaker Federico Gambetta’s first vintages are starting to shine. Within the classic range, the reds are effortlessly floral, while the mineral and bracing white blend of Semillon, Pedro Giménez and Chenin Blanc gives a new spin to traditional field blends in Mendoza.

Although there’s a wealth of appealing wines within the Altos Las Hormigas and Colonia Las Liebres offerings, it is the top Appellation range that shows the DNA of the project. The single-vineyard Malbec wines made with focus and finesse are some of the greatest terroir-driven Malbecs in Argentina, and they offer incredible value at under £50 each. These are definitely wines that should be in your cellar.

But save some space for Federico’s newest release, set to come out later this year: the long-awaited cru wines from their landmark Paraje Altamira vineyard. After tasting barrel samples, I can safely say these will raise the bar yet again.

Martina Galeano takes a scientific approach in Luján de Cuyo
Martina Galeano takes a scientific approach in Luján de Cuyo

Martina Galeano

Casarena, Argentina

Luján de Cuyo used to be considered the epicentre of Argentinian wine – until the Uco Valley began to steal its thunder. While the region is still home to many of Argentina’s best-known wineries, many of them have shifted their focus to Uco for their top wines. Casarena has taken a stand by fixing its attention exclusively on Luján, digging deep to unearth the ultimate terroir expressions of their different subregions.

Martina Galeano, fresh from her climate change thesis at UC Davis, has brought a new energy and a studious perspective to the project and wines. The wines from their four vineyards – Jamilla in Perdriel, and Lauren, Owen and Naoki in Agrelo – each offer a very different expression, reflecting Martina’s work homing in on the different soils, altitudes and microclimates with consultant geophysicist Guillermo Corona.

If there is one wine that truly shows the unfettered potential of Luján, it is Casarena’s debut vintage of the micro-plot wine from the ‘elephant cemetery’ within Naoki. This Malbec exudes the aromas of the wildflowers and native shrubs that intermingle with the beautifully untamed vines; it has the stony grip and fresh acidity offered by the altitude, mountain breeze and poor, rugged soils on the steep vineyard slopes. Casarena is undoubtedly the breath of fresh air that Luján richly deserves.

A Los Viñateros Bravos sees Leo Erazo and wife Zjos Vlaminck getting to grips with old vines in Itata

Leo Erazo and Zjos Vlaminck

A Los Viñateros Bravos, Chile

Leo Erazo came to prominence as one of the top winemakers in Argentina during almost a decade at Altos Las Hormigas. Although he proved he is worth his salt on the other side of the Andes, it is in his native Chile where he is making waves today with his family project A Los Viñateros Bravos, alongside his wife Zjos Vlaminck.

Focused on making fine wines from incredibly old vines, the pair have been mapping out the top crus of the ancient granite coastal hills in Itata. These tiny productions from  remarkable vineyards of País, Cinsault and Carignan offer an elegant vision for this underrated region. The ethos is low-intervention, and you’ll frequently find Zjos and a team of harvest interns knee- deep in grapes, stomping in refurbished centenarian tinajas.

The wine for your cellar is Las Curvas Cinsault, from vines planted in 1940. It ripples with tension yet has an ethereal elegance that can only be achieved with the concentration of old vines and sensitivity of an intuitive winemaker.

Almaule, a project that is reviving the region’s País wines, is being driven by Christian Sepúlveda and others

Christian Sepúlveda

Bouchon Family Wines and Longaví, Chile

No other winery has done as much to change the image of Maule in southern Chile as Bouchon. The move from making traditional, rather heavy wines from the region, to focusing on making wines of freshness, purity and vibrancy has turned the portfolio full circle and encouraged many other Maule producers to do the same.

Today, winemaker Christian Sepúlveda makes some of the juiciest reds in Chile under both the Bouchon Family Wines and Longaví labels. He is embracing Mediterranean varieties in particular, with excellent Cinsault and Carignan, as well as lively Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. His work with País has not only resulted in deliciously fragrant and fine wines for his portfolios, but he has had a profound effect working with local growers and producers, notably steering the communal Almaule project.

Where Christian’s mastery shines through, though, is in his textural and mouthwatering white wines. Longaví Cementerio Chenin Blanc and Bouchon Granito Semillon are undoubtedly two of Chile’s best white wines today and will be for some time to come.

Husband-and-wife duo Germán and Aye’s Escala Humana showcases Malbec and Semillon from the Uco Valley
Husband-and-wife duo Germán and Aye’s Escala Humana showcases Malbec and Semillon from the Uco Valley

Germán Masera and Aye Bonetto

Escala Humana, Argentina

Germán Masera spent many years working under the wings of renowned winemakers Hans Vinding-Diers and Matias Michelini. But in the past few years, he and his wife Aye Bonetto have gone solo with their family brand and winery Escala Humana.

The project began with a focus on slightly wilder wines from abandoned old vines in the Uco Valley, rare Bequignol and grippy orange Malvasia among them. They are fun and fragrant wines, but in 2018 Germán took Escala Humana to a new level with his first vintage of Credo.

Age-worthy and distinctive old-vine Semillon is one part of the Credo duo, and the other is an elegantly detailed and floral Malbec. Both are very sophisticated pours and perhaps the greatest proof that Germán Masera is well and truly flying to new heights with Escala Humana.

The newest releases – a pair of amphora-aged wines named Anfor – show why Nakkal is one to watch
The newest releases – a pair of amphora-aged wines named Anfor – show why Nakkal is one to watch

Nicolás Monforte and Santiago Degasperi

Proyecto Nakkal, Uruguay

Uruguay’s mild Atlantic climate sets it apart from the other wine regions of South America, and the new generation of winemakers is more focused than ever on showing a unique identity within the New World. One of the handful of emerging independent projects from young winemakers embracing this distinctively Uruguayan style is Proyecto Nakkal.

Nicolás Monforte and Santiago Degasperi started their natural- and organic-wine project (along with Bruno Bresesti, who has since left the project) to focus on the diverse range of older vines in Canelones, naturally low alcohol levels and the brilliant freshness that Uruguay can do so well. The wines range from pink pet-nat to juicy reds, with plenty of skin-contact white wines in the middle.

The newest releases – a pair of amphora-aged wines named Anfor – demonstrate perfectly why Nakkal is one to watch. With a juicy and floral Tannat blend that clocks in at 11.5% abv, and a sophisticated, perfumed and delicately orange Moscatel Ottonel at 9.5% abv. Nicolás and Santiago are proving that low-alcohol wines certainly don’t need to compromise on character or taste.