It takes two (grapes) to tango

Chile, isn't it? Anthony Rose, Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year, dances attendance on the emerging wine-producers of Latin America
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Of the many strange by-products of religious fervour, few can have had such lasting benefit as wine. The tide of South American wine now surging our way across the Atlantic is a case in point. Should we be kneeling in thanks to Hernán Cortés and the missionary zeal of his band of Jesuits? No need to genuflect, but we could at least acknowledge, perhaps with a glass of something South American, that the conquest of the Incan empire did bring with it a number of positive side effects.

Of the many strange by-products of religious fervour, few can have had such lasting benefit as wine. The tide of South American wine now surging our way across the Atlantic is a case in point. Should we be kneeling in thanks to Hernán Cortés and the missionary zeal of his band of Jesuits? No need to genuflect, but we could at least acknowledge, perhaps with a glass of something South American, that the conquest of the Incan empire did bring with it a number of positive side effects.

Mexico was the conquistadores' first port of call in the 1520s and so became the first New World wine-producing country. The domino effect spread wine culture via Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. Soon these countries were exporting wine to Europe, a trade not appreciated by Spain, which did its utmost to nip the flourishing Latin American export trade in the bud. It failed then just as Europe today can no longer stem the flow of wines from South America.

Having overcome problems of declining consumption and political oppression, Chile and Argentina are now turning their once-floundering wine industries into successful exporting enterprises. First Chile was hailed as the new Australia. More recently, Argentina, the biggest of all southern hemisphere wine producers, has been doing the running. Now, with the UK launch this month of Wines of Uruguay, South America has another new recruit to the burgeoning ranks of its exporting wine producers.

Uruguay has a respectable domestic wine industry roughly the size of New Zealand's. The reason we haven't seen much of it here is because its population of three million drinks most of it themselves, and most of it is pretty indifferent plonk anyway. Only three per cent of Uruguay's wines are considered fine enough to export.

Its major selling point is that Uruguay has virtually cornered the market in the tannat grape. Introduced from Madiran, south-west France, a century ago, tannat, occasionally blended with Bordeaux varieties, is produced in a variety of wine styles - from a traditional deep-hued rosé reminiscent of Tavel to modern, cask-aged reds.

Pisano is one of the top names in the country. But from a tasting at the Uruguayan ambassador's residence, a handful of other producers stood out. Their reds, made in a an attractively succulent style, often proved to be riper, fruitier and softer than the equivalent from France's south-west.

Because of its size and traditions, it is hard to see Uruguay's wines having wide appeal, but nevertheless they offer an attractive alternative to the ubiquitous Bordeaux blend. Argentina also scores by coming up with reds capable of challenging the world-wide obsession with Bordeaux styles. But then Argentina is a giant with more vineyards planted to the malbec grape alone than the entire Uruguayan industry has vineyards. This is a grape which takes on a more perfumed, brambly and berry-like fruit quality in Argentina's sunshine-filled Andean vineyards than its harsher counterparts in Cahors in south-west France.

Nor is it just malbec that gives Argentina kudos, setting it apart from Chile and the rest of the New World. Argentina has uncovered a rich cultural legacy of Spanish and Italian grapes in its own backyard. Until recently tempranillo, the Rioja grape, and the Italian varieties sangiovese, barbera and bonarda, were merely component parts of amorphous red blends known as vino tinto fino. Now they are being invoked in the fight back against cabernet sauvignon domination.

Like a prisoner released from jail, Argentina has had little time to adjust to the limelight, and the unwieldy size and old-fashioned structure of its wine industry still need an overhaul. And it has quite a way to go before catching up with Chile, its rival across the Andes. Sensible producers like Norton, La Agricola, Jacques Lurton and Catena have set the right example by concentrating on quality and good value.

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