Send your palate on a tasty South American holiday journey

The Wine Doctor: Edward Finstein

Signature grape varieties make headway here

South America produces some wonderful wines. Most noteworthy are those from Chile and Argentina, and to a lesser degree, Uruguay. Chile and Argentina’s products are really hot right now. Uruguay is up and coming.

There are certain grape varieties that have put these countries on the map, or with which the countries have become synonymous. Let’s examine them.

There’s no doubt that Chilean wines are popular today. More than a decade ago, the country’s vintners started the ball rolling with decent quality, varietally labeled wines under cork for very reasonable prices. Of course, the prices have risen since, but the wines still represent good value for the dollar.

Although Chile produces many traditional European varietals, carmenere has to be the claim to fame. This Bordeaux varietal (rarely seen in Bordeaux anymore) with its dark-fruited, tobacco, tarry, leathery, herbaceous, chocolaty, medium-bodied character has become a shining star. It’s great as a single varietal wine and fabulous when blended with cabernet sauvignon.

Interestingly enough, carmenere looks a lot like merlot in the vineyard. It wasn’t until a French oenologist went to Chile and told them that the wine they were often bottling as merlot was indeed carmenere that the variety really took off.

The rest is history. It’s great with grilled or roasted red meats, hearty stews and casseroles, vegetarian cuisine, seasoned cheese, and empanadas.

Red and white from Argentina

Compared to Chile, Argentina is a wine giant, often in the top five volume producers in the world. Again, reasonably priced, quality wine was the country’s calling card and, like Chile, prices for wines from Argentina have risen. Also like Chile, many traditional European varieties are planted there. What makes Argentina unique are the red malbec and white torrontes.

Malbec is traditionally from Bordeaux and used as a blending grape. It’s simply too cool in Bordeaux to ripen it enough to warrant it as a single varietal wine. However, in Argentina, warmer temperatures allow the grape to hang on the vine much longer, solving this problem, and wonderful, single varietal samples are produced.

An inky black wine full of blackberry, cherry, plum, and chocolate, a malbec normally does not age long, but in Argentina, there are many that will stand the test of some time. Check malbec out with grilled beef, rich stews, savory spicy dishes, and older cheese. Empanadas love it, too.

Torrontes is an interesting grape. It’s extremely aromatic, like Gewurztraminer or muscat. Peach, flowers, spice, lychee, good acidity, and an overall delicate disposition are what it’s all about. Unlike malbec, it is only produced in Argentina, making it a true Argentinean variety. Not as well known as it red partner, it is gaining notoriety very quickly. Try it with exotic cuisine such as Thai, Indian, Mexican, Hakka Chinese, and smoked fare.

That brings us to Uruguay, a small country on the Atlantic Ocean bordering Brazil and Argentina. It has a very prolific wine industry, but has yet to make the scene here in a big way. Although it too produces numerous European varieties, the one that stands out is tannat. This red varietal, used a lot in France’s Madiran region, has found quite the home here in Uruguay and has become its signature wine grape. Generally, it is thick-skinned, producing chewy, tannic reds with dark red fruit, raspberry, and blueberry notes.

Having judged wine competitions in Uruguay several times years ago and tasting hundreds, I found really

approachable ones hard to come by. However, today, longer hang time on the vines and cold maceration of the fruit is rendering a tannat that is much more vibrant and fruity. It’s still a firm little number, but much easier to drink and divine with grilled or roasted red meats and hard, seasoned cheeses.

With the holidays upon us, do yourself a favor. Include some of these South American signature grape varietal wines in your festivities and send your palate south for a vacation.

© Edward Finstein, “The Wine Doctor” 2014. “The Wine Doctor” is Edward Finstein, award-winning author, TV/radio host, renowned wine journalist, international wine judge, professor of wine, and consultant. Contact him at: website,; Twitter,; blogspot,; “Doc’s Grapevine,”; Facebook,

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