They are the two solitudes of South American wine. Chile and Argentina, united by language but separated by the majestic Andes, varying soils and cultural norms, share less in common than the average North American might appreciate at first blush. Think fish versus beef and you get a metaphorical sense of the dichotomy (as well as a literal sense of what's cooking in the kitchens). But Aurelio Montes Jr., a Chilean winemaker who's lived and worked on both sides of the mountains, believes South America's two wine powerhouses should promote themselves as one, precisely because they're poles apart.
"They don't compete, they have such different varieties," Montes tells me during a recent visit to Toronto. He's the technical director at Vina Montes, a prominent Chilean winery founded in 1988 by his father and three business partners, and also of Kaiken, Montes' Argentine winery in the vast Mendoza region, where he worked on-site for five years before returning to his native Chile in February.
"I've visited every single corner of Mendoza," he says. "When you talk about Argentina, I know everything: the culture, people, terroir, wines, varieties – everything."
With cheerful candour, he is only too willing to riff on that cultural dichotomy. "We are completely different people," he says, likening Chile to Switzerland and Argentina to Italy. "In Chile, everything works. Beautiful highways. And when you say 'eight o'clock meeting,' it's an eight o'clock meeting. You go to Argentina, the roads are horrible, and when you say eight, it means 10 o'clock. But it's a fun country."
Argentina's greatest grape advantage, malbec, the velvety, juicy red that has become a national signature, is also its biggest drawback, Montes says, because it can get dull being a virtual one-hit wonder. In the warm, arid environment of Mendoza, which produces the vast majority of Argentine wine, tannins are naturally rendered soft and elegant, which has made malbec a relatively easy variety to grow. "You need to be a horrible winemaker to produce a bad malbec," he says.
Chile, by contrast, is subject to a range of coastal and mountain influences and varying soils. That's helped spawn greater grape diversity. Cabernet sauvignon may be "king," he says, but Chile has banked its formidable export business on so much more, including zesty sauvignon blanc, voluptuous chardonnay and sturdy carmenere, a greatly improved red that has shed much of its herbaceous character thanks to better site selection.
Though Montes is a champion of premium carmenere and makes one of Chile's best in the form of Purple Angel, the winery's $50-plus flagship, he cites syrah as one of the country's two exciting grapes to watch. The other is merlot.
As for Argentina, Montes says there's much-deserved buzz surrounding cabernet franc, the crisper relative of rich cabernet sauvignon. There's just one problem: quantity. There are only 600 hectares planted in the entire country, versus 31,000 for malbec. And, he says, "only 200 planted in a good place."
Famiglia Bianchi Malbec 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
Remarkably well-structured for malbec at this price. Flavour-wise, imagine a dark chocolate bar with dried blueberries plus dark-roast coffee. There's even a hint of Bordeaux-like graphite in this red. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Tapiz Alta Collection Malbec 2013 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Full and rounded, with dark, jammy blackberry, fig and whispers of raisin and coffee grounds. This exemplary, relatively firm effort is structured around lightly powdery tannins and savoury spice. A malbec for fans of red Bordeaux. Available in Ontario.
Concha y Toro Terrunyo Peumo Vineyard Block 27 Carmenère 2012 (Chile)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
This is modern carmenère grown on high slopes in the Cachapoal Valley, where the climate tends to weed out greener characters associated with valley-floor fruit. Full and supple, with a rounded, polished texture, it creates a fine canvas for the syrupy fruit, which is enhanced by notes of spice and coffee. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, $34.99 in Manitoba, $34.99 in Nova Scotia.
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Chile)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Classic Chilean cabernet that fuses sunny ripeness with sturdy structure. Pure cassis and strawberry flavours are joined by hints of mint, tobacco and savoury oak, set on a tight structure, with well-integrated tannins and fine-tuned acidity. Available at the above price in Ontario, $23.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $22.99 in Manitoba, $30.79 in New Brunswick.
Miguel Torres Las Mulas Merlot Reserva 2015 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
Bargain alert. Medium-full-bodied, here's an organic red that sports a polished texture, delivering supple blackberry and plum notes along with luscious chocolate, toasty oak and tangy spice. Available in Ontario.
Graffigna Centenario Malbec Reserve 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
Smooth, with soft tannins and notes of sweet blueberry jam, black pepper, toasty oak and a hint of vanilla. Easy-drinking and well crafted. Available at the above price in Ontario, $12.79 in British Columbia (and discounted to $11.79 till July 30), various prices in Alberta, $15.98 in Saskatchewan, $13.99 in Manitoba, $14.55 in Quebec, $16.29 in New Brunswick, $16.93 in Newfoundland (currently on sale for $15.78).
Undurraga Sibaris Gran Reserva Syrah 2013 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Full, slightly sweet and smooth, this walks the stylistic fence between New World, jammy shiraz and firm French syrah. Friendly dark-fruit richness mingles with peppery spice, licorice, juicy acidity and subtle smoke. Available in Ontario.
Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenère 2013 (Chile)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.05
Full, velvety and succulent, this excellent offering from a large producer combines ripe fruit suggesting blueberry, blackberry and plum along with luscious dark chocolate and mocha as well as lively overtones of herbs and black pepper (the latter perhaps owing to 7-per-cent syrah in the mix). Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, $23.97 in Saskatchewan, $22.99 in Nova Scotia.
Alamos Seleccion Malbec 2013 (Argentina)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
Weighty and ripe, this is classic Big Gulp malbec in the compelling style that conquered the world. Blackberry jam, cedar and spice are carried on a smooth texture. Attractive for the money. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta, $19.05 in Quebec.
Kaiken Terroir Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Yes, they produce more than just malbec in Argentina, but this sturdy cabernet is in fact a blend that benefits from 12-per-cent smooth malbec and 8-per-cent petit verdot. Full-bodied and balanced, it displays hints of mint, black olive and vanilla along with the succulent fruit. Available at the above price in Ontario, $16.99 in Manitoba.
Santa Alicia Carmenère Reserva 2014 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.15
Juicy red berries and tangy plum are kicked up by lively spice, toasted coconut and herbs, with a faintly smoky finish. Attractively priced. Available in Ontario.
Santa Julia Reserva Malbec 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.05
More serious than many malbecs that sell for more, this red brings savoury depth to a bargain category dominated by youthful, grapy fruitiness. Medium-full-bodied, it's dry and attractively chalky in texture, with a savoury essence of spice, smoke, vanilla and grilled meat. $14.99 in British Columbia, $16.99 in Saskatchewan, $14.99 in Manitoba.