20 Great Buys: South American Red Blends
Decanter|October 2020
20 Great Buys: South American Red Blends
As research and vineyard development continue apace, winemakers in Chile, Argentina andUruguay are producing a diverse range of accomplished red blends. Marina Gayan MW offers a snapshot of their work and picks her top wines from a tasting of more than 200
Marina Gayan MW

Argentinian Malbec, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Uruguayan Tannat – if you think that’s all there is to South American wine, read on. At first sight, most of the blends here are centred on these varieties, but closer inspection reveals a more complex and exciting picture. The quality of red blends is undeniable, particularly in Argentina and Chile, where respectively 81% and 75% of the wines I tasted rated Highly Recommended or better. I don’t consider myself a generous scorer, so that sets an impressive standard. Of the small sample of Uruguayan wines, 40% scored at least Highly Recommended.

The top four wines are outstanding Bordeaux blends from leading producers in Argentina and Chile. Far from being mere imitations of their French counterparts, however, they all reflect in different ways the unique character of their origins.

In each country, at least one other variety has emerged as a successful partner to the classic blends. Cabernet Franc features in most of my preferred Argentinian blends; it reins in the roundness of Malbec and adds precision and definition to its structure. In Chile, Syrah shows up in three of the chosen wines, combining successfully not only with deep-rooted Cabernet Sauvignon but perhaps more interestingly with Carmenère, where it adds fruit and volume to the blend. In Uruguay, Merlot made the winning combinations, bringing flesh and mid-palate fruit to the more savoury Tannat.

Traditional varieties such as Bonarda in Argentina and Cinsault in Chile from revived old vineyards deliver fantastic value; expect to see more of these styles emerging. I found adventurous Uruguayan blends of Tannat with Portuguese Sousão or Spanish Tempranillo. And there are signs that Rhône varieties have started to succeed in Argentina: watch this space (see p95, Syrah panel tasting).

When it comes to origins, Chilean blends show great geographical diversity, here represented in six different valleys from the far-north Limarí to Itata in the south; and Uruguay reveals the promise of emerging regions beyond traditional Canelones and Montevideo. In Argentina, on the other hand, mirroring the country’s vineyard distribution, the chosen wines concentrate around Mendoza, in particular the premium regions of Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo.

All of the progress of the last two decades – the pioneers, the drive towards quality, the search for cooler regions and a more hands-off approach in the winery with fresher fruit and less oak – has led to this moment. These 20 wines show the quality, style and diversity that South America can offer, and often at excellent value for money. It’s an exciting time to look again at South American red blends.

Marina Gayan MW is Argentina’s first and only Master of Wine. Now based in Buenos Aires, she works as a wine trade consultant, private client advisor and educator

Almaviva, Puente Alto, Maipo Valley, Chile 2017 97

£95.83 (ib)-£172 Corkr, Cru, Fine & Rare, Farr Vintners, Frazier’s,Hedonism, Jeroboams , MIllésima, Richard Kihl, Wine Invest

A Bordeaux blend, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (65%) and Carmenère (25%). Power and concentration, elegance and balance. Exuberant aromas of cassis, damson plums and peppers. The palate is complex with cigar box, dark fruit and herbal notes framed by dense and polished tannins, finely integrated oak and finishing on a remarkable lifted length. A wine that will benefit from decanting or laying down. Drink 2024-2034 Alcohol 14.5%

Catena, Nicolás Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo/La Consulta/Gualtallary, Uco Valley & Mendoza, Argentina 2016 97

£65 (ib)-£84.80 Decorum Vintners, Exel, Fine & Rare, Hedonism,Lay & Wheeler

The 2016 vintage is a classic example, a superb blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with 31% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Franc that’s still in its infancy. Subdued aromas of cassis, black cherries and nuanced herbaceous and tobacco notes. A lovely fluid entrance builds on concentration and complexity. Malbec’s seductive juiciness joins a vertical Cabernet structure, tannins and integrated oak, with a long, lingering finish. A wine to wait for. Drink 2022-2036 Alc 13.5%

Seña, Aconcagua Valley, Chile 2017 97

£79 (ib)-£130 Albany Vintners, Averys, Christopher Keiller,Crump Richmond Shaw, Farr Vintners, JF Tobias, Laithwaite’s, Millésima,Morgan Classic, Nickolls & Perks, Wineye, Wine Invest

Francisco Baettig harvested this Bordeaux blend 20 days early to deliver this elegant, bright, somehow subdued wine. Complex herbs, cassis and cedar layered with figs and plums. Stylish palate, juicy concentration and a grainy, textured structure, framed by a vibrant acidity. Fluid and elegant. Drink 2021-2033 Alc 13.5%

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October 2020