Wines from Chile and Argentina offer only limited quality
South America thirsts to get a true presence in the American market if you don't mind my play on words. So far, only Chile and Argentina have made any progress and that has been very limited.
Our local wine stores have been very kind to wine makers from both countries. They carry inventories that seem to me to be in excess of customer demand, particularly in view of the many inexpensive California wines that sell so well, not to mention the Gallo wine family which has a commanding presence in this market while being competitively priced.
Yet there are South American wines which blend a degree of quality with very reasonable prices. Not many, perhaps, but a few.
There is a vast difference between the two primary wine producing countries in that area. Chile, easily No. 1, concentrates on quality. Argentina is known more for quantity. No one else in that part of the world is a real factor. Other countries such as Uruguay and Brazil are trying to get in the game, but so far with very little success.
Chile has made progress in the field of red wines. They have some very lovely cabernets. Their whites leave much to be desired. But their progress is recent years can be measured by the fact the Mississippi State warehouse inventories 26 Chilean wines. Sixteen are red, six cabernets and 10 merlots. Of the balance, local retailers can stock six chardonnays from that country and four sauvignon blancs.
Most Chilean wines sell for under $10. We found only one that commands a higher price. It is the Casa LaPostolle, which should retail for $10 to $12.
The pick of their merlots appears to be the La Playa Merlot Reserve. I have not tasted it, but "Wine &Spirits" magazine rated it with 90 points on a 100 point scale. That is very high. It sells for about $12, give or take.
As for the chardonnays, they offer a wine named Caliterra Chardonnay Reserve, which is priced in the $13 range. If price relates to quality, this is their best of a normally sorry lot.
One sauvignon blanc from Chile is in the $9 class. But if I wanted a sauvignon blanc, I'd buy a Benzinger or Murphy-Goode from California for about the same price and have confidence it was a better bottle.
Chile's best producer is probably Concha y Toro. They offer cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. While the quality can vary from one label to another, we recommend their Don Melchor Cabernet. It is a fine wine, reasonably priced.
As for wines from the Argentine, I can't pretend great knowledge of them. I do have a case of them in my wine cellar, bargains that I bought on sale. They didn't cost much when they were full price and even less on sale. The wine is made from the Malbec grape, one I suspect that is more or less a complete stranger to most wine drinkers in this country. Malbec wine has nice color, a reasonably good flavor but no richness or depth. Every collector needs wines in his possession that he can open when he has guests who know little or nothing about wine. You don't open really good wines for people who don't know whether they are drinking a first growth or a ripple. The Malbec wine is my wine for non wine drinkers.
You will remember we said that Argentina specializes in quantity rather than quality. Proof of point is Argentina is the fifth largest wine country in the world. Its problem is the wineries refuse to cut production. They would rather make a gallon of so-so wine than a distinguished bottle of the grape only half that size. The country argues that it has reduced production in recent years, but the truth is it has torn out many of its vineyards while still increasing the yield by a third.
There are two producers of quality wine in the entire country. One is Weinert and the other Catena. If you are drawn to buying wine produced in that country, look for the two names mentioned. It is the only assurance you have that what you have purchased is worth the investment. If the country's producers overall ever realize that today's consumers can find all the ordinary wine they wish and that it is premium quality wine that is in demand, their attitude toward limiting production might change.
Make no mistake. You can make your wine dollar go a long way with South American wines. But at this time there are better wines on the market for not a great deal more money. If your wine buying goal is price, then buy. If, however, you prefer quality, avoid. It's as simple as that.
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.