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Up-and-Coming South American Wine
When the conversation turns to South American wine, it sometimes sounds as if there were only two countries on the continent: Argentina and Chile.
South American Wine A wine cellar below a bodega in Mendoza, Argentina.
While these countries have attracted attention for good reason, their neighbors to the north are worth talking about too. Brazil, Uruguay and Peru are producing fine and exciting wine from grape varieties long forgotten in other countries. Although their wine industry is still in its infancy and the wines are not mass-marketed, the regions are worth getting to know now, before the inevitable explosion of interest.

The Portuguese began growing grapes in Brazil in the 1600s. Viticulture was of little importance, however, until Italian immigrant farmers settled there toward the end of the 19th century. Migrating to the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, they planted native Italian grapes alongside other crops. Commercial vineyards in Brazil grew slowly owing to sparse local consumption and a lack of government interest, but in the last 25 years descendants of the original settlers have begun to create commercial wineries. Increasing interest in quality, technological improvements, and a strong export market have made Brazil South America’s third-largest wine producer in a very short time. While many of Brazil’s wines are made with familiar varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, winegrowers are successfully experimenting with lesser-known grapes like Teroldego, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Tannat and Viognier. One vineyard is honoring Brazil’s Portuguese roots by making wine from the Portuguese varieties of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz.

Uruguay is the fourth-largest wine producer in South America. Immigrants came here mainly from Italy, Spain, France and the Basque region. As in Brazil, Uruguay’s wine industry went through sweeping changes in the 1980s, ushering in the modern, quality-driven trade seen today. The Tannat grape has become the center of Uruguay’s viticulture. Native to the southwest of France and brought here by the French Basques, Tannat thrives in Uruguay’s soil. Although it’s a naturally tannic and astringent grape, the warmer climate of this region softens the hard edges, creating a dark, balanced, full-bodied wine bursting with flavor.

Peru’s viticulture predates Brazil’s and Uruguay’s. As immigrants were just beginning to plant Vinifera grapes in neighboring countries, the phylloxera louse was devastating Peru’s 300-year-old vines. Today, most of Peru’s grape acreage lies in the province of Ica and supports the production of pisco, an aromatic brandy made from Muscat. There is now renewed interest in fine wine, however, and many bodegas are getting serious about it. Tannat does well here, as does Petit Verdot, another underutilized French variety.

Though most of the wines are not yet readily available, the importance of these countries is sure to increase exponentially in the years to come. It is easy to forget that Argentina’s Malbec and Chile’s Carménère were obscure wines just a short time ago. Tannat is poised to become South America’s newest discovery as an international audience is beginning to take notice and talk.

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