Malbec from Argentina has been all the rage in recent years, I dare say that it has become the “new Merlot,” if you can remember back to when that grape was the most popular of its time. It’s helpful to realize that the tradition of red wines in South America involves several other grape varieties worth trying. Although the Spanish colonization of the continent is responsible for the beginnings of viticulture, it’s the importation of French grape varieties in the 19th century, most notably from Bordeaux, that forms the basis for the wines we see today.
Chile is a leader in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, generally in a ripe, fruity style that still retains some of the savory and herbaceous nonfruit flavors typical to traditional wines from this varietal. I think of them as somewhere in between the fuller, jammier California wines and the earthy, medium bodied reds from Bordeaux. These wines can offer more complexity and interest than Malbec and can be great values. Carmenère is another grape to look to and has a unique story, as it was discovered that most of these plants today were previously believed to be Merlot. At any rate, this relatively unknown varietal offers full-bodied, dark plummy fruit and an appealingly soft mouth feel.
Argentina, the main producer of Malbec, has another grape worth seeking out. It’s Bonarda, the second most planted red wine grape in the country. Medium-bodied, spicy red fruits and bright acidity are its calling cards, and it’s a great choice with casual foods like pizza, eggplant parmigiana, or beef tacos and burritos. If you’ve ever seen Charbono from California, it’s the same grape.
A country that’s less well known by consumers and well worth discovering is Uruguay and the red wine production there is dominated by the Tannat grape.
Another import, it’s originally from the southwest of France where it’s known to make dark and structured wines. In Uruguay, a combination of climate and wine-making style is able to tame the hard tannins of the grape, resulting in inky wines with full red and black fruits that are more easily approachable. Burgers and grilled red meats are a good match at the table.
The good news from all these countries is that there are many well-made wines available and prices are excellent, so finding good values isn’t too difficult. If you’d like step into a few higher quality bottles, look to spend over $20 and you’ll find that the quality compares very favorably to California and Bordeaux, so don’t hesitate to explore.
Michael Amendola is wine director at The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. Learn more about wines at www.villagewinemerchant.com.