Argentina + Chile: Wines a World Apart
Argentina and Chile are geographical neighbors and share a language, but that's about all they have in common. When enjoying the wines of Chile and Argentina, you begin to realize the stark difference in style, flavors and scent. Let's explore these differences together.
Wines a World Apart
In terms of the wine industry, Argentina is considered "New World." Chile, on the other hand, is considered "Old World." I was already aware of that from tasting the wines from these countries, so seeing it in action when I visited was not a surprise. The Argentinians are all about new winemaking methods, marketing as a region (for example, everyone fully promoting 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 would prefer Chile. Argentine wineries think their Malbecs taste complex by the use of modern technology. It was the introduction of these ideas and methods by “Flying Winemaker” Michel Roland of Bordeaux that began to influence the style of Malbec in Argentina. Chilean wineries think their older Cabernets 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 are not tasting their wines in comparison to others. This is really a problem for
Argentine sparkling wines, which are extremely different. It is not as big of 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. Many are changing to real oak barrels and abandoning the ancient beechwood that was common in earlier years. This change has made a positive impact on the taste and quality of Chilean wines.
Argentina is sunny. Chile is cloudy. That may sound like a silly statement, but 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.
These differing climates certainly contribute to the vast differences in their wines.
Labor Shortages in Both Countries
Both countries have a grape picker shortage, but for different reasons. Argentina has a thriving domestic wine market, while Chile does not. Argentina, with strong labor protections, has developed a class of laborers who aren't particularly interested in working hard to pick fruit. Because of the currency problem, wages are so low that they cannot pay Bolivians enough to make it worth their while. Chilean laborers are considered, by winemakers in both countries, to be harder workers. However, because of last year's earthquake, there's plenty of good-paying work to be had in construction.
Because of this labor shortage, both countries are using more mechanical harvesting than ever, and that's never a good thing for the wines. Paid by the basket, some Argentines stop picking when they have earned enough.
Argentines buy about two thirds of the wine made in their country, whereas the percentage of Chilean wine sold in Chile is surprisingly low. That is a huge problem for Chile, who must adapt to satisfy the very different palates of northern Europe and the United States. In the case of savvy wineries, that means creating different brands for different markets.
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.
Chile has better raw ingredients, but Argentina has better cooking skills.
Mendoza, Argentina, the winemaking mecca of this reason, is a desert. There are very few crops that survive beyond wine grapes, and the cuisine is mostly beef. Personally, I am a seafood lover, so I was far more excited about going to Chile, specifically to Santiago's Central Market, for fresh fish. I figured that with all the fruit and vegetables Chile exports, the produce they keep home must be excellent. Yet, Chilean chefs will tell you that they do not have 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 - young goats, for example - are pretty tasty. When we visited Argentina, the cuisine was superb and most enjoyable; while we were not all that impressed with Chilean fare.
Chilean vs. Argentine Wines
Argentina tends to throw all its eggs in one basket, and that basket is Malbec. Chile boasts a wider variety of wines.
At every Argentine winery we visited, we asked, "How will you tell people about your Malbec?" All of the wineries had the same answer: they need to teach people the difference in regions.
Argentina is now known for Malbec, but I preferred the Torrontes at many wineries that I visited. Their Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda were impressive as well. We recently had the opportunity to try 2014 Petit Verdot from a winery we visited called Ruca Malen and it is delicious! With vibrant fruit, aromas of violets and dried fruits.
Chile is probably most famous for Carmenere and Pinot Noir, but I found Sauvignon Blanc was the most consistent wine. Tasting a consistently excellent, balanced, refreshing, and affordable Chilean Pinot Noir that really tastes like Pinot was a revelation.
Chile and its wineries have put something of a push toward Carmenere, hoping to duplicate Argentina's success with making Malbec a household wine. But Chilean wineries are much more diversified, and while many of them are making Carmenere, it is not the flagship wine for most. Today we find more Malbec in the United States than ever before and they are getting better every year, all thanks to Argentina!
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