Thanks to its vast terrain of varied microclimates and an adventurous spirit that inspires experimentation with both local and well-known grapes, South America is producing some exceptional wines. And the wines are a terrific value, though many oenophiles now focus on the high quality.
Roger Dagorn, master sommelier/beverage director of the New York-based One Five Hospitality, which owns and operates five concepts in Manhattan, cites several reasons why South American wines are crowd pleasers. One is the propensity of the continent’s countries to gravitate toward signature grapes, with easy-to-pronounce names and regions.
Then there’s the quality-to-value ratio, food friendliness and accessibility at all price points that all help make these wines never-fail options, Dagorn says. The wine list for One Five Hospitality’s latest concept, the 100-seat Brazilian restaurant Botequim, sources 75% of its offerings from South America.
THE NEW MERLOT
Mention South American wines, and thoughts are sure to quickly turn to malbec, Argentina’s signature red varietal. One of the six permitted red grapes allowed in red Bordeaux, and made into rustic wines in Cahors in southwest France, malbec produced in Mendoza and other Argentinian regions has seen its sales surge in the past five or so years.
“Malbec has replaced merlot as the go-to choice for a red wine that offers great density and concentration without excessive tannin or dryness,” says Jeffrey Gregory, general manager/wine director for FT33, a 74-seat, seasonal-inspired modern cuisine restaurant in Dallas. FT33 offers two malbecs on its 165-bottle wine list, including the 2010 Gouguenheim Reserva malbec from Mendoza, which sells for $10 a glass and $38 a bottle.
Morgan Fausett, wine director for the 174-seat upscale South American grill Del Campo in Washington, D.C., notes that malbecs can vary drastically in style. Her favorite is the 2010 Luigi Bosca Lujan de Cuyo Malbec ($60 a bottle), which she calls a cabernet sauvignon-drinker’s malbec because of its tannic structure and minerality.
Fausett also likes the more fruit-forward 2012 Achaval-Ferrer malbec ($72 a bottle) from Mendoza for its hints of raspberry and cassis. About half of Del Campo’s 165-bottle wine list hails from South America, she says.
Not surprisingly, malbec is one of the best-selling wines at the 19 U.S. locations (with eight on the way) of the Dallas-based Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão Churrascaria. “It pairs perfectly with our style of cuisine,” says Eric Brown, corporate beverage director for beverage operations.
Each location offers 20 to 30 malbecs on a list that spans about 250 bottles—a third of which are from South America. The 2010 Familia Zuccardi “Zuccardi Q” malbec ($59 a bottle) and 2010 Trapiche “Broquel” malbec ($44 a bottle) are top sellers; most popular is the proprietary 2010 Fogo de Chão “Gran Reserve” malbec ($13 a glass, $47 a bottle), Brown says. All pair well with Fogo de Chão’s signature steak Picanha.
“Most wine drinkers still view South America as a value wine region, producing primarily red wines,” says Gregory. “However, many serious wine drinkers are seeing that there are exceptional, high-quality wines being produced.” He is impressed with pinot noir from Patagonia, a cool region at the continent’s southern tip that produces balanced bottles, such as the densely aromatic 2011 Bodegas Chacra Barda pinot noir ($49 a bottle).
Gregory has seen an increasing awareness of other varietals, including Chilean syrah- and grenache-based offerings, and Argentinian wines made from cabernet franc as a single varietal or in blends. Del Campo, for example, offers the 2006 Benegas Lynch “Meritage” Libertad Vineyard Cab Franc blend ($98 a bottle) and the 2009 Viña Falernia Syrah Reserva from Chile’s Elqui Valley ($48 a bottle).
Kevin Faerkin, general manager of New York’s 420-seat Grand Central Oyster bar, has also observed a paradigm shift with South American wines among wine drinkers. “Guests understand that wines from South America can be of very high quality and they recognize it,” he says. “This perception was not always the case.”
Faerkin has tried Chilean syrah from producers like Matetic Vineyards that rivals any Côte Rotie he’s tasted, though a very different style. And the Errazuriz “Max Reserva” pinot noir ($38 a bottle) from Chile has been a hit with guests, who “are pleasantly surprised of the quality coming out of Chile.”
The cabernet sauvignon and merlot now coming from South America are worthy counterparts to those from California or Australia in terms of body and style, Gregory says. “It’s a matter of knowing which wine drinkers are candidates for turning the conversation toward South American alternatives to the usual California suspects they may be considering.”
Merlot lovers may find carmenère to be a fitting stand-in for their favorite grape. After all, until DNA tests proved otherwise, much of the carmenère produced in Chile had been labeled as merlot. FT33 carries the 2008 Neyen de Apalta carmenère ($80 a bottle), which hails from a highly regarded vineyard in the Colchagua Valley.
Brown sees carmenère “holding its own” at Fogo de Chão. One carmenère the chain currently offers is the 2010 Montes Purple Angel carmenère, priced at $125 a bottle.
Fausett cites three lesser-known varietals as being the reds to watch from the region: “I think bonarda, tannat and petit verdot are the most up-and-coming grapes from the region, because each is establishing an independent identity in the region apart from its Old World counterparts.”
She likes to pair the 2010 Nieto Senetiner Bonarda Reserva from Mendoza ($5 a taste, $10 a glass, $40 a bottle) with Wagyu Skirt Steak Empanadas ($16) as a meal starter. Del Campo also offers three tannats, including the 2010 Michel Torino “Don David” Tannat Reserve from Salta ($44 a bottle). “These wines are fresh and focused, and bring something new and exciting to the conversation of international varietals,” Fausett says.
Earthy and rustic, tannat is becoming Uruguay’s signature varietal, though it is also produced elsewhere. Faerkin likes to serve the 2005 Vinedo de los Vientos “Angel’s Cuvée” Ripasso de Tannat from Uruguay ($85 a bottle) with a medium rare tuna steak ($30).
Of course, South America’s wine industry is not just about big reds to pair with meat and weighty fish dishes. White wines—especially from cooler high-altitude and coastal regions—also shine. Chile’s coastal Casablanca Valley, as well as Salta in northern Argentina and Patagonia in the south, are yielding expressive, elegant whites from classic international varietals such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
When it comes to chardonnay, Faerkin notices that some producers strive for a more elegant, mineral-driven Burgundian style, while others seek a riper, bigger California style. “The most successful ones, in my experience, have captured their own unique character from the terroir and simultaneously found pleasurable harmony in the glass,” he notes.
OUTSTANDING QUALITY, SUPERIOR VALUE
Legal Sea Foods’ wine lists span around 180 bottles, with about 7% coming from South America. Sandy Block, master of wine and vice president of beverage for the 33 locations of the Boston-based seafood chain, has had success on his menus with the 2011 Vina Errazuriz Wild Ferment chardonnay ($10.50 a glass, $35 a bottle).
The wine, from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, boasts native yeasts used during fermentation that add complexity and an interesting aromatic component. Block praises its “outstanding structure and value that is superior to what we could find at the same price from California.” He has seen Chile making great strides with sauvignon blanc, not only from the Casablanca Valley, but from San Antonio and Limari as well.
Legal Sea Foods recently featured a month-long focus on the wines of Chile called Tapestry of Terroir, including a wine list insert with information about Chile’s wine regions and industry, tasting notes and a flight. The flight of three 2-oz. pours, priced at $9.75, included the Emiliana “Novas” Gran Reserva pinot noir, Santa Rita Reserva carmenere and Emiliana “Novas” Gran Reserva cabernet sauvignon.
Gregory singles out Chile’s Leyda Valley as producing the most “stylistically distinctive” examples. “They show great freshness and a really vibrant lime zest note on the nose.” He notes that these sauvignon blancs are not as herbaceous as their French counterparts, and they display a slightly different citrus character than those from Napa Valley or New Zealand.
And although its wines are currently not as much on the map as other South American countries, don’t discount Brazil, says Brown. He believes that with the World Cup right around the corner, and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, we will see more Brazilian wines, especially chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons and moscatos.
Fogo de Chão already carries several Brazilian wines, including the NV Salton Brut from Serra Gaucha ($38 a bottle) and the 2010 Salton “Volpi” pinot noir, also from Serra Gaucha ($46 a bottle). Del Campo also serves the 2011 Salton pinot noir ($44 a bottle), as well as the 2007 Casa Valduga merlot from Vale dos Vinhedos ($48 a bottle).
Expect more surprises from South America, predicts Faerkin, like riesling and dry muscat from Chile’s Leyda Valley. As the “value-driven” perception shifts to “quality-driven” he says, the market for and availability of great wines—and new and surprising varietals—will wow sommeliers and guests alike. ·
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine and spirits writer and educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter @kmagyarics
Time for Torrontés
Torrontés is typically a white varietal with which guests are unfamiliar—though that is changing. Eric Brown, corporate beverage director for beverage operations for Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão Churrascaria, says that the white Argentinian varietal tends to be one of the most surprising wines for diners.
“If a guest is searching for something light and refreshing but with good body, silky texture and smooth mouth feel, this is our go-to grape,” Brown says. Two of Fogo de Chao’s most popular torrentés are the 2012 Santa Julia torrontés from Mendoza ($33 a bottle) and 2012 Trivento “Amado Sur” torrontés from Mendoza ($11 a glass).
At the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, guests who have not tried torrontés before tend to be impressed with how well it pairs with oysters and seafood, says general manager Kevin Faerkin. For instance, he cites the Doña Paula torrontés ($40 a bottle) paired with the Oyster Bar’s lobster salad ($30) or Island Creek Oysters ($3.25 each).
And Del Campo, an upscale South American grill Del Campo in Washington, D.C., carries two styles of torrontés, says wine director Morgan Fausett: the floral 2012 Finca La Linda torrontés for $36 a bottle as well as the crisp and citrusy 2011 Finca Eugenio Bustos torrontés for $40 a bottle. —KAM