Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Argentina and Chile: Close in land, far apart in wine

Here I'm looking into labor conditions at Alma Negra in Argentina
Argentina and Chile are neighbors, and share a language, but that's about all they have in common.

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
* Chile has better raw ingredients, but Argentina has better cooking skills.

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
* Argentina is more design-focused, culturally.

 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
If I had the privilege of spending 100 days instead of 10, I might decide that this is the root difference in wine culture between the two countries. Argentines buy about 2/3 of the wine made in the country, whereas the percentage of Chilean wine sold in Chile is surprisingly low. That's a huge problem for Chile, which must satisfy the very different palates of northern Europe and the US; in the case of savvy wineries, that means creating different brands for different markets, which is something Heinz does with catsup. Problem is, wine doesn't behave as nicely year to year as a standardizable product like catsup. Argentinian wineries can survive on the local market and thus shoot for the high end, and high profits, abroad without as much risk of selling nothing at all.

* 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.


Joe Becerra said...

We visited several wineries in Argentina that are growing and producing varietals other than Malbec. I tasted some very good S.B. and Char. I also tasted some delicious Rosé Malbec and some terrific Bonarda. I don't see Bonarda here in the Bay Area much. I wish they would import more. I agree that many Malbec wines are one dimensional but then again I tasted several that are sensational. Example Luca Malbec.

Peter O'Connor said...

Good read.
Chile’s Humboldt Current “upwelling” system is way more intense than California’s, and summers in coastal areas like Casablanca, Leyda and San Antonio can be windy, foggy and chilly. But as one moves to the east, average daily highs rise substantially (though not as much as in California). By then, one starts to experience the Andes Mountains influence: a huge daily temperature variation, sometimes larger than 22°C (40°F); and the Andes shadow, which subtracts one to two hours of sunshine per day from vineyards situated near the mountains.
These factors, added to the low latitudes (32°-35°S), manage to somewhat decrease the amount of solar radiation available, especially for the Maipo and Cachapoal Valleys.
Curiously, Argentina’s solar radiation levels are not too high either.
Although most of its wine regions are indeed deserts (with peaks of very intense solar radiation and low relative humidity), the monsoon precipitation regime that prevails in some areas (Mendoza, Salta & San Juan) concentrates most of the rain and cloud cover in January and February and, together with the shadow of the “cordillera”, contributes to diminish the overall solar radiation impact.
One last major difference between the two countries is that in Chile the large majority of the winemaking and wine-growing capacity for premium wines is in the hands of big corporations, while the opposite is true for Argentina; where the wine industry is mostly controlled by small-to-medium family businesses.

Anonymous said...

Andy here... great post and echos most of my thoughts from my 18 day visit to both places a few years ago. I prefered Argentina for the riper style of wines and the steaks. Please note that grass fed beef can be tough to American palates but at least it is not semi toxic like corn fed beef . Did not like the offal though....

Alana Gentry said...

Hey Buddy,is that my photo with you and the Llamas?

Did you see my article on the aged Bonarda tasting?

Hope to travel with you again soon.

W. Blake Gray said...

Alana: I believe so! Thanks for the photo. Did see your Bonarda post: a highlight of a great trip. I want a proper Pisco Sour!

Mike Beltran said...

Very well written article. When we visited both countries a few years ago I found both food and wine to be excellent. They are both growing by leaps and bounds. Large amounts of foreign $$ are building state of the art wine facilities in both countries. SB from Leyda is just fantastic. Cabernet from the central part of Chile is every bit as good as Calif. Central Chile reminds of what Napa was in the 1960's and earlier. For your wine dollar the wines of Chile and Argentina bargains.
Recently a winery poured me a $35 Malbec which could not hold a candle to any mid level Malbec from Argentina. If Argentine wineries can water with drip they will use less water and manage their crops to the optimum. There is much over cropping but a huge market for their wines.
Grape pickers in Argentina earn about .75 American for each lug of 20 kilos of grapes. Picking all day in 80 degree weather is not easy work !!
I love both countries and their culture. One is not better than the other, but aspects of each make them special. Wonderful people, wines, food, culture and customs.
Thanks so much for such a well written piece.

Katherine Cole said...

Muy interesante, Blake. I agree with Joe Becerra re: bonarda, the barbera of Argentina. Also: Did you get a chance to taste sparkling pais? It is an attempt by the Chilean government to raise prices for this ubiquitous grape which does not need irrigation. I found early attempts to be clean and floral. Can't wait for them to hit broader U.S. market...

Argento Wine said...

Thanks for the really interesting thoughts and insight. It's fascinating how two wine-producing countries located so near to each other can have such differences between them. Some of these differences you discuss factor into the growing influence of Chilean winemakers investing in Argentinian vineyards, a topic recently explored by Andrew Catchpole here:

Ariel Rodríguez said...

Hi Blake, greetings from an argentinian blogger! Is very interesting to read the view from abroad about the situation of winery in my country. Further, a review from someone that know what he says.
A point that you don't touch is the advice from european consultants and their influence. I think that each country want to get their own identity.
Sorry for my bad english
kind regards,

gerardo said...

Well I respect Blake opinion,but in grape quality,he has to considers that Argentina's Andean region,has more temperature gradient,than CHile,or California,or Europe's.Argentine grapes have a distinctive characters,and although I'm not a super wine expert,some imported European Wines,including French,I do not think they are superior to Argentine wines.TAble wines are better in Argentina than in France.But,that is my personal taste.Thanks for your opinion.

gerardo said...

BTW,blake,every time I tasted California wine or Sparkling wines,I have to drop it.They give me too much acidity and stomach upset..I found Argentine Sparkling wines,better than many Europeans sparkling wines.