|Here I'm looking into labor conditions at Alma Negra in Argentina|
Earlier this year I had the privilege of spending 5 days sampling wine in each country, which of course makes me an expert. I hadn't been before, so these observations were all surprising to me.
* In wine, Argentina is New World; Chile is Old World.
I knew that already from tasting the products in this country, so seeing it in action wasn't a surprise. The Argentinians are all about new winemaking methods, marketing as a region (i.e., everyone getting behind Malbec), extraction and power. Chileans talk about balance and elegance and old vines. So if you're an Old World fan, you might think you'd prefer Chile. So did I. Read on.
* For a similar contrast, think Spain vs. Portugal.
I love the wines from both Spain and Portugal, but they're very different in ways that remind me of Argentina and Chile. Spain is rushing to modernize, sometimes too fast, but usually with good effect. Wines that used to be mellow with the taste of old oak are now potent with the taste of big fruit. Portugal is busy unearthing its traditions and trying to find ways to explain them to the world. They may be neighbors but culturally -- music, cinema, architecture -- they have little in common. That statement applies to both Spain/Portugal and Chile/Argentina.
* Both countries suffer from a house palate.
Argentine wineries think their Malbecs taste complex when they don't. Chilean wineries think their older Cabs are drinking well when they're not. Both countries have had currency problems. Imported wines are rare, and winemakers can't travel as much, so they're not tasting their wines in comparison to others. This is really a problem for Argentine sparkling wines, which are nearly all awful. It isn't as big a deal for Argentine Malbec, which is mainly in a push for higher concentration. In Chile, some winemakers had a sense for how good or not their wines are, but I was mystified to meet some who didn't.
|It's foggy and cool at harvest at this vineyard in Chile's Casablanca Valley|
Mendoza, Argentina, is a desert, so there isn't much produce beyond wine grapes, and the cuisine is mostly beef. I'm a seafood lover, so I was far more excited about going to Chile, to Santiago's Central Market for fresh fish. And I figured that with all the fruit and vegetables Chile exports here, the stuff they keep home must be pretty great. In fact, I was surprised to learn that Chilean cuisine is pretty lackadaisacal. Yes, I know, 5 days isn't a lot of visits. But Chilean chefs will tell you that there's not much of a national cuisine. Argentina's famed grass-fed beef is often grilled to the point of toughness, but the other critters on the grill -- baby goats and the like -- are often pretty tasty. I guess Argentina's cuisine was about what I expected while Chile's was a disappointment.
* The best wine in both countries is not what they're famous for.
Argentina is now known for Malbec, but I liked the Torrontes better at many wineries, and Cabernet Sauvignon as well at several. Chile is probably most famous for Cabernet, but Sauvignon Blanc was the most consistent wine -- consistently excellent, balanced and refreshing -- and affordable Chilean Pinot Noir that really tastes like Pinot was a revelation.
|Catena winery, Argentina|
I've been a fan of Argentine cinema for a while ("Nine Queens," "The Secret in Their Eyes," "The Man Next Door"), and one of the best things about the films is how stylish and interesting they look. Chile's movies, even when good, are more likely to be old-school, melodramatic. You see this difference in winery architecture, and I wonder if that thinking shows up in the wines.
* Both countries have a grape picker shortage, but for different reasons.
Argentina, with strong labor protections, has developed a class of laborers who aren't particularly interested in working hard to pick fruit, and because of the currency problem, wages are so low there that they can't pay Bolivians enough to
make it worth their while. Chilean laborers are considered, by winemakers in both countries, to be harder workers, but because of last year's earthquake, there's plenty of good-paying work to be had in construction. Both countries are using more mechanical harvesting than ever, and that's never a good thing for the wines.
* Argentina has a domestic wine market; Chile doesn't.
|Paid by the basket, some Argentines stop picking when they've earned enough|
* Argentina is sunny; Chile is cloudy.
That may sound like a stupid statement written by an obnoxious know-it-all who spent just five days in each country. I'll stipulate to all of it but "stupid;" take a look at the Argentine flag. Mendoza, Argentina's main wine region, is landlocked and has some of the most intense sunlight in the world. Chile's best wine regions are coastal and reminded me of far western Sonoma County, with chilly fog in the afternoon.
* Argentina is throwing all its eggs in one basket (Malbec). Chile isn't.
At every Argentine winery I visited, I asked how they're going to be different from Australia's experience with Shiraz, in which first it was a marketing advantage to be tied to one grape, and now it's a burden because people think that grape should be cheap. All of them had the same answer -- that they need to teach people the difference in regions. Good luck with that; how many Americans could explain the very large difference between Victoria Shiraz and Barossa Valley Shiraz? Chile and its wineries have put something of a push toward Carmenere, hoping to duplicate Argentina's success with making Malbec a household world. But Chilean wineries are much more diversified, and while many of them are making Carmenere, it's not the flagship wine for most.