Article

South American Grapes

 And you thought there was only one time each year to make wine from fresh grapes; in the autumn season. But, surprise, there is another whole world south of the Equator. As it turns out, the four seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are shifted six months compared to the Northern Hemisphere. The peak heat of their summer is experienced in January, compared to July in the Northern Hemisphere. That means that grapes ripen and are harvested during our spring, (their autumn) in the February to May timeframe. The grapes are shipped and become available to us in North America starting towards the end of April. This in turn suggests that whites can be ready for bottling (assuming six months aging) in the September or October timeframe of the same year, and for reds in one year, the following April.

Winegrowing in the Southern Hemisphere

To make it even more interesting, there are some outstanding Southern Hemisphere grape growing regions; Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, to name a few. The number of grape importers in North America bringing in fresh grapes from the Southern Hemisphere is currently limited, but will likely grow as demand for them increases. In particular, on the East Coast of North America, fresh grapes from Chile and Argentina are making a significant impact. And with good reason; the quality and prices are very competitive. More importantly, the wines produced from them stand up very well against domestically grown fruit. And for those of us who live for the excitement of the winemaking experience, we can now do that twice a year!

For purposes of this article, I will concentrate on Argentina and Chile, with Chile currently being the largest exporter of fresh grapes for table consumption and home winemakers in North America. This, despite the recently experienced massive earthquakes. In time, and with continued growth of springtime winemaking, we most likely will have additional choices of South African, Australian and New Zealand grapes.

South American Grapes

South American grape growing conditions, although unique to each area, compare favorably to the great grape growing regions in the Northern Hemisphere. In South America, most grape growing regions fall in a band between 15 and 40 degrees south latitude, with vineyards in warmer climes generally planted at some elevation. It is that combination of variables that allows the fruit from these regions to stand out so favorably.

In Argentina, the majority of grapes grow in the west, along the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains, identified as the Mendoza Province region. Grape plantings concentrate on Malbec with lesser acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Vineyards in Mendoza are at altitudes ranging from 2,800 to 5,000 feet (853 to 1,524 m). Areas of smaller production include San Juan and La Rioja in the north (warmer area) and produce Syrah and Torrontes; and Rio Negro and La Pampa to the south with cooler varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Malbec

Malbec has become the signature grape and wine of Argentina. Originally one of the six permitted grapes in the Bordeaux region of France, where it has grown in small acreages for centuries, it was used as a blending component for traditional Bordeaux. It had never achieved full variety status, i.e., as a stand-alone wine in Bordeaux. (More recently it has been successfully produced in the south of France as a varietal). It was first introduced to Argentina in the 1860s, where it produced a softer, less tannic wine. It was in the terroir of the Andes slopes and foothills that the vine flourished into its current status as a stand-alone variety wine. Mendoza Province has been the go-to region for Argentinian grape cultivation since its founding in the 1500s, but did not emerge as a world class producer and exporter of high quality grapes and wines until the completion of railroads, connecting the vineyards to Buenos Aires and the rest of the world markets. More recently, the infusion of skilled winemaking immigrants from Europe has benefitted the Argentinian wine industry.

Chile

In Chile, grapes are grown along an 800-mile (1,300-km) strip on the coast from the Atacama Desert Region in the north, to the Bio-Bio Region in the south. The entire country is located between the western slopes of the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Grape growing regions are located on the high Andes foothills and valleys created by the major rivers of Maipo, Rapel, Curico, Colchagua and Maule. All of the regions are impacted by the Pacific Humboldt Current and thus are blessed with a very beneficial wide diurnal temperature variation (day to night variation). The Valle Central area grows exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and Torrentes.

In the southern Bio-Bio region, organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are available.

Carménère

Carménère has become the signature grape of Chile; most likely originally introduced into Chile from Bordeaux in the mid 1800s, misidentified as a Merlot. It thrived in the Chilean terroir but tasted distinctly different from traditional Merlot. After considerable testing and DNA analysis, it was determined that their “Merlot” was really a long lost Bordeaux variety, one of the six permitted in Bordeaux, thought to be extinct after the European phylloxera epidemic.

As in our familiar West Coast growing regions, a number of south American growers are showing a real dedication to growing superior fruit and building a strong reputation even among commercial wineries that use their fruit. Your local grape purveyors will be happy to assist you in selecting such vineyards for your consideration.

The wine grape export industry in Chile, for example, is at the forefront and in its infancy. Growers are currently establishing themselves through select importers in the US. As is the case for premium grape growers from our West Coast, personal relationships with grape purveyors/importers are being established. These relationships will yield honest quality, value, availability, and pricing of fruit; covering juice through super premium grapes destined for great wines.

Packing and Shipping

Except for a few notable differences as follows, the actual process of harvesting, field packing, chilling and consolidation in holding warehouses is similar to the process used here in the US (see my article on Buying Fresh Grapes, WineMaker , August-September 2011).

In North America, there are typically two levels of packaging for harvested grapes. The first level picks and packs for the table (eating) grape fruit market, with considerable individual care, in order to present fruit to the consumer in the best possible condition. The second level picks and packs grapes for the wine industry; bulk bins for the commercial wineries, and 36-lb. (16-kg) boxes for the small winery/home winemaking market. There is a significant visual difference, which caters to the discerning eye of the retail consumer. In Chile, there is only one level of packaging, which is based on many years of very successful table fruit exporting history.

All grapes shipped north are in table grape condition. Grapes are typically harvested into pick bins and subsequently moved to packing houses where they are pre-cooled and ultimately packed into 18-pound (8.2-kg) plastic shipping crates (as compared to the more standard North American box of 36 pounds/16 kg). The cold chain is maintained, just as for domestic grapes from our West Coast, at 34 °F (1.1 °C), until delivered to the customer. The packaging in the 18-pound (8.2-kg) box is unusual, designed specifically for the journey north. The fresh grapes are all packaged in a plastic bag containing, on the bottom, a slow release sulfite infused moisture absorbent paper cushion. Next the grapes are carefully placed and covered with a second quick release sulfite infused paper blanket. The entire contents of the bag are then covered with shipping tissue before being sealed. Any moisture from seeping grapes is absorbed at the bottom thereby maintained a clean, dry environment for the grapes. After several years of consistent experience with shipping these fruits, grapes arriving on the East Coast from Chile appear to be in just-harvested condition. Customer reaction upon opening the bagged grapes has been overwhelmingly a pleasant surprise.

Shipping to the north from Chile (about 21 to 28 days) takes a bit longer than domestic grapes traveling from the US West Coast to the East (four to ten days). South American Grapes must travel over 5,000 miles (~8,000 km) to get to their East Coast destination, compared with roughly 2,800 miles (4,500 km) for grapes shipped from California. Grapes from Chile are ocean shipped through the Panama Canal, up to the port of Philadelphia for USDA and Customs inspection, fumigation and subsequent rail and truck distribution to grape dealers. Temperatures are maintained at 34 °F (1.1 °C) throughout the trip, in refrigerated “sea” containers, limited to 20 pallets each. Grapes from Argentina may also be shipped through Chile or by rail to the Atlantic Coast and ocean shipped directly north to the US.

Harvest Conditions

In general, growers tend to harvest grapes destined for shipping to the north, earlier in the ripening cycle (22–25 °Brix), to compensate for the longer shipping time. Also in general, grapes grown on the high slopes of the Andes tend to be lower in sugar, but still well balanced with acidity as compared to many sugar bombs of our warmer West Coast vineyards. As a result, making adjustments to sugar and acidity is minimal when dealing with grapes from the south.

Making Wine in North America’s “Off Season”

Although the fermenting process of grapes and juices in our spring is the same as in the autumn, there are some differences the winemaker should take notice of. In particular the outside temperature will be warmer and the day light hours will be longer. Getting the fermentation going will be easier with the warmer ambient temperature, even shortening time to completion, and perhaps allowing the primary fermentation to be completed outside for some varieties. Varieties that prefer warmer fermentation will do well. However if a cooler fermentation is sought, provisions need to be made to manage the temperature. Likewise, completion of malolactic fermentation will most likely not be interrupted or slowed by cool cellar temperatures; indeed, completion ought to be brisk and short. For those of us who can take advantage of mid-winter cold outside temperatures to achieve cold stabilization, working with South American wines will delay the process well into post fermentation aging. If a cooler is available, cold stabilization can be achieved at any point just as in autumn fermentation.

Working outdoors has some distinct advantages from a clean-up standpoint. Hosing down equipment and driveways is a lot easier than mopping up a cellar floor. For many of us in the northern regions of the US and Canada, winemaking in natural sunlight into the late evenings is a unique and distinctly more pleasant experience than working under  cellar lights.

From a sensory taste standpoint, if one were to compare the same wine produced from grapes grown in other regions, you will taste some differences, just as you would, comparing for example, a Pinot Noir from California versus Oregon. South American red wines may exhibit some tartness which will mellow with age. Malbec and Carménère wines will show their true attributes as compared to North American or European sourced grapes of the same variety.

Pricing of South American sourced grapes is just slightly higher than West Coast premium grapes, reflecting the additional shipping costs. Worldwide demand for wine grapes is on the rise, indeed demand currently out strips availability. Prices for North American wine grapes in general will be up across the board for this year’s 2012 vintage. Based on current industry projections, this trend is now expected to continue for the next five plus years or until production catches up to demand.

Making wine during our springtime offers the winemaker some different conditions as compared to the usual autumn challenges. It is another opportunity to hone your craft. If you are not sure yet, purchase some Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza and some Chilean Carmenere from the Central Valley for a taste. I suspect you will be impressed. With your skill, you can emulate those fine wines very easily. Don’t be afraid to try these grapes in your winery; take the South American plunge!