South American wine is hot. In 2010, Chile imported the third largest amount of wine to the United States, while imports from Argentina ranked fifth, according to Cheers’ parent company The Beverage Information Group (BIG). Many of these wines round out lists at both chain and independent restaurants and can offer particularly good values by the glass. That same data shows that Argentina’s and Chile’s annual compound growth rate for wine imported to the United States from 2005 to 2010 were 25.8 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively.
Crowd pleasing, easy-drinking Malbec from Argentina’s Mendoza region, is joined in the market by wines from lesser-known varietals and emerging sub-regions in both countries. And while guests often perceive enough value to order an entire bottle, the fact that these wines are lesser-known gives them an exotic appeal that makes them great by-the-glass choices for customers who are willing to sample something new. Operators with a sharp eye towards maintaining a well-rounded wine program pepper their lists with these South American stars.
“Malbec from Argentina, particularly Mendoza, still leads the pack,” declares Kevin Born, certified sommelier for Soby’s New South Cuisine. The 200-seat restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina infuses contemporary cuisine with traditional Southern ingredients; it is the flagship restaurant of Table 301’s six concepts in Greenville. Born offers the 2010 Portillo Malbec from Valle de Uco, a sub-region of Mendoza, for $8 a glass. He also likes to feature offerings from emerging regions in Argentina, such as Patagonia in the south, which he says tends to produce a darker, bolder and more rustic style of Malbec that renders it a perfect partner for steak.
Born admits, though, that the vast majority of South American bottles—including Malbec—currently end up on grocery store shelves, not on restaurant wine lists and are replacing similarly priced Australian wines; therefore, he is selective about what he stocks at Soby’s. “If a particular wine were to be commonly displayed in stacks at the local discount grocery store for $4.99 per bottle, I chance alienating the consumer by offering it in my restaurant, no matter how good the wine is.”
At Soby’s, Born always carries a Malbec by the glass, but notices that bottles are great sellers too. “Our guests and servers generally perceive these South American wines as great values per dollar spent, and are willing to spring for a bottle.” Soby’s features six Mendoza Malbecs by the bottle priced $25 to $65, as well as the 2007 Don Rodolfo Tannat from Argentina’s Cafayate Valley for $25 a bottle.
Wine drinkers who typically order big reds find an affinity for Argentina’s signature red grape. “Structurally, these wines are American Cab[ernet Sauvignon] lovers’ dream: bright fruit and great tannins. So having a Malbec by the glass is a great option to engage the guest with something different,” notes Derick Rossmiller, wine director for the 3,960-room Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which operates fourteen restaurants and six standalone bars. And though the overwhelming majority of Malbec is found in Argentina, Chile produces some as well. Born has had success with the 2009 Montes Classic Series Malbec from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, sold for $8 a glass.
While mabec may be the star of the pack, other single-varietal and blended wines are also picking up traction. Born also cites the 2009 Bodega Renacer “Enamore” from Mendoza as the region’s biggest success since single varietal Malbec. “The wine is extremely exciting, because it is made in the Amarone style, which creates this concentrated wine that is beautifully balanced.” He goes on to point that operators can offer the wine (typically a blend of malbec, bonarda and syrah) at a fraction of the price of similarly intense Old World wines. Soby’s sells it by the glass for $15, and by the bottle for $45.
Argentina is also having success with bonarda, a red varietal that had been used solely in blends. Rossmiller and Born are both big fans of the single-varietal bottles they are seeing today, which are capable of producing bold wines with lots of structure.
Rossmiller has seen a shift since South American wines have become widely available in the market. A few years back, he says it was easier to find quality wines to offer to the guest for $9 or $10 a glass. “Now with the collapse of the Australian wine market, we see Argentina and Chile making an effort not to let themselves be known for being a value-driven market.” The result, he believes, is a fewer number of value by-the-glass options and a greater amount of higher end bottles hitting the $100 to $150 price range, including a trend in high quality single vineyard Malbec. Still, he predicts that as quality increases and the profit margin for the general consumer decreases, it will continue to carry over to the restaurants.
Jill Zimorski is also optimistic about wallet-friendly South American opportunities for operators and diners. The sommelier and wine director for VOLT, a 38-seat locally focused modern American restaurant in Frederick, Maryland, believes there is a still value to be had for operators. “Both Chile and Argentina had a lot of value priced wines and some premium priced wines, but now there are also a lot more wines to fill in the gaps, which makes them very restaurant friendly. And even the most expensive can be considered bargains when you consider the quality of the fruit material, winemaking skill and ultimate product.” VOLT carries ten South American wines priced $37 to $214 a bottle.
Questions and Limitations
Not every operator welcomes a wide range of South American offerings on the list. Zimorski believes it’s a matter of seeing beyond a region’s winemaking history—or lack thereof. “Chile and Argentina have been producing great wine for a couple of generations,” she says, “but that pales in comparison to the length of time that some producers in Europe have been operating—we’re talking hundreds of years.” She believes that unless a wine program is themed a certain way, some will just include a few obligatory South American bottles to round out the list. (She herself admits to not stocking enough options to give a good representation of South America’s wine potential—a fault she is working to correct as she makes new discoveries). But in time, as consumers and owners get a grasp on regions—not to mention sub-regions—she predicts South American wines will be embraced worldwide. “We [sommeliers] have to just keep on fighting the good fight—we just need more people to preach the gospel,” she muses.
During a recent trip to Chile’s wine regions, Zimorski was impressed with wines coming out of the Elqui Valley and Limari, especially those made with cabernet franc, old-vine carignan and carménère. She admits that the latter, which had been long though to be merlot until DNA tests proved otherwise, has its share of “haters” due to the presence of some inferior, indistinguishable bottles churned out by lower-end wineries. But she believes noted improvements in grape growing and winemaking techniques have led to higher quality carménère, a varietal that is referred to by some as Chile’s signature grape. VOLT carries the 2008 De Martino Carménère “Alto de Piedras” from Chile’s Maipo Valley, for $89 a bottle. At Soby’s, the 2010 Puerto Viejo Carménère from Chile’s Curico Valley at $9 a glass is a great introduction to what many view as an alternative grape.
Another off-the-beaten-path grape for many wine drinkers is Argentinean Torrontés. Rossmiller describes it as “extremely floral, and has the crisp acidity, weight and mouth feel of a chardonnay.” Specifically, Argentina’s northern Cafayate and Salta regions are becoming widely known for Torrontès, producing a wine that appeals not only to fans of chardonnay, but that can also be a stand-in for riesling and sauvignon Blanc. Soby’s sells the 2010 Trivento Torrontés at a well-priced $25 a bottle.
South American wines have an affinity for food, but are any varietals good candidates for an aperitif before a meal? Born finds Argentinean Malbec and Torrontès “too meaty” to enjoy without food, but does see how the lighter body and good acidity of a glass of Chilean Malbec or Sauvignon Blanc make them a nice way to kick off an evening. Rossmiller agrees their in general, their structure renders them geared toward sipping alongside cuisine, but submits that “when you have quality wine it does not matter if you have food or not—it is still going to be amazing.”
As South American winemakers continue to experiment with what works best in the various sub regions, Zimorksi predicts a shift in varietals planted. She points to cool climate varietals growing in the southern part of Argentina and thinks there will also be a rise in riesling and pinot noir production. But even with the current inventory available, she gets a kick out of helping diners make new discoveries. “The real pleasure lies in introducing someone to these wines when they might have completely overlooked that section.”