A South American Odyssey

When I started writing about wine, I knew there'd be a learning curve--that if I stuck with it, these first few efforts would embarrass some future, more well-versed self. Fine. Bring it. Don't become a writer if you mind looking like an idiot in public, or if you mind having your stupidities memorialized on the Internet forever. Deal me in.

But I also figured that most of what I'd be learning would be facts. Or at least nouns: People, geography, history, agriculture, taste, trend, liquid in bottles. I had no idea about the secret handshakes, different layers of private and public conventional wisdom. The ellipses. And then I started tasting Chilean and Argentinean wines. Oh, those Chilean and Argentinean wines, they beat me up and left me bleeding. But smarter.

Here's what happened: Starting out, I read pretty expansively about South American wines. I learned that Argentinean merlot is the most underrated of all merlots; that when most of the vineyards of Europe and North America succumbed to the vine-root bug phylloxera in the 1800s, the vines of South America didn't, and thus are perhaps home to the most authentic (to Napoleon's experience) grapes in the world; that South American wine improves with every passing minute; and that above all (and don't you ever forget it), South America is the great cheap hope.

Then I tasted a dozen of the best-rated bottles recommended by the wine press and local wine-biz types. The results were, shall we say, underwhelming. I returned to my sources. Another dozen bottles. By then I was in a position to draw my own conclusions. And you know what? The previous paragraph is half truth, half a load of sod. To put it bluntly: Three out of four cheap South American wines smell like an unkempt barn. Stinky. So bad you stagger around screaming. That bad. And they taste awful--sour and cough-mediciney. Suddenly you're scratching your head trying to identify that peculiar flavor: rancid caponata? But somehow, miraculously, one out of eight is really, really good. A jewel.

Odd. I went back to those in-the-know folks and asked them whether I was just unlucky. Whereupon perfectly helpful wine merchants went from recommending Chilean wines to assuring me sympathetically to give up hope. They had, it seemed, simply assumed I already knew all of the above when I commenced my quest. Complaining about South American wine stink is akin to dragging your bottle of Coca-Cola back to the supermarket outraged that the stuff is full of caffeine. You were expecting Sprite, maybe?

So caveat emptor: South America does not equal good and cheap. South America only equals good and cheap if you buy the exact bottles listed below. Which, for some reason, all ended up being made from cabernet sauvignon--that most prized of big and pricey red-grape varietals. Argentinean merlots? Didn't find a single good one under $20. Ditto for another much-touted variety, malbec. And brother, I tried. I even tried a bunch of over-$20 wines, but the following are the best under-$25s I found in this market.


Calina 1999 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Valle Central, Chile ($10) Plenty of American and European wineries have their hands in the South American pie; Calina is owned by California powerhouse Kendall-Jackson. But if American vintners know one thing, they know what Americans want. This is a most quaffable cab, with a mushroomy aroma over concentrated, nicely focused fruit, presented on a body of considerable balance and weight. Better at the price (we paid $8) than any Australian or American counterparts, and oh-so-easy to find. (www.calina.com)

Terra Rosa 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina ($10) Another American, this by Sonoma County's Laurel Glen, made out of grape juice shipped from Argentina. Weird method, nice result: Terra Rosa smells wonderful--red fruit, a little cherry, a little strawberry; a balancing weight of mushroom and tobacco that floats over a nice earthy saturation of balance and solid fruit. Which makes for solid breadth of flavor and nice weight in the mouth, along with balanced acids--perfect for steaks or saturated flavors like meat stews. Not profound, but everything you'd want in a broad-shouldered, accessible food wine, with none of the gaps you'll encounter in American cabs anywhere near this price. (www.laurelglen.com/terra-rosa.html

Concha y Toro Xplorador 1999 Cabernet Sauvi-gnon, Maipo Valley, Chile ($10) Xplorador could come with one of those McDonald's billions-and-billions-served tags, because it's available in every pizza and pasta joint around. And why not? It's a fruit-forward, lightweight cab with a bit of plum, some mint, and a little herbal character--perfect for all the tomato-sauced or ketchupped comforts we pillow our nights with. (www.conchaytorousa.com)

Navarro Correas 1999 Limited Release Caber-net Sauvignon, Maipú, Mendoza, Argentina ($12) The big complaint about wine nowadays is that it all tastes the same: an international style of fruit and oak styled on California success. But this Navarro Correas is a gorgeous example of why different isn't just good, it's mysterious and seductive: This is an Argen-tinean cab with distinct regional character. A whiff of eucalyptus tells you where it's from, which leads into the unmistakable fragrance of roast meat. And it keeps going--spend more time and you'll find aromas of fig and herb. The flavor is supple, with just enough oak to provide a rock-solid structure. (www.ncorreas.com)

Chateau La Joya Bisquertt 1998 Cabernet Sau-vignon, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($12) I brought most of the rest of this bottle to a party and five people wrote down the name. Why? It's a really nice-drinking wine, as solid as a butter crock. Ripe but not jammy fruit that offers aromas of leather and blackberries, standing solidly on a tannic but not oaky base, all culminating in a very big, muscular finish. There's a distinct vin de pays sort of country roughness to the stuff, but in an appealing way. I only wish there wasn't snow on the barbecue, because it cries out for slightly charred meat.

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