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Spring into South American Grapes

As spring approaches, most winemakers start to get the winemaking itch. Enter the Chilean and Argentinean wine harvests.

We are lucky to live in a winemaking world where we can receive fresh winemaking products from these countries. Many of your favorite winemaking retailers bring in grapes, juices, must, and wine kits from Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. Get to know these wine regions and the grapes they are known for as we prepare for the spring Southern Hemisphere harvest.

Chile

Chile’s winemaking began much like California’s with the Spanish missionaries and conquistadors bringing Spanish grapevines and planting vineyards as far back as the mid-1500s. By the 1800s, Chilean wine producers began planting vines from France. When phylloxera destroyed many of the world’s vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chile stood alone as the only major wine-producing country where vines did not experience the outbreak. However, vineyards in some parts of the country did undergo changes at this time as growers began to focus on planting vines based on the climate, elevation, and soil. Previously, Bordeaux varieties were planted because of popularity, not necessarily because they grew well in those soils. Many producers have now transitioned to planting grapes that flourish in the region and these wines are distributed and sold in over 90 countries. Chile also exports fresh grapes in addition to finished wines. Fresh fruit sales to other countries, which includes wine grapes, account for about 8.4% of the country’s total exports. Chile is constantly becoming more innovative, experimental, and meticulous about their grape growing and winemaking.

Regions

The longest country on the planet, Chile cultivates a longitude of over 600 miles (965 km) of grapes, some of which are grown at elevations as high as 7,000 feet (2,130 m) above sea level. Their western coastal influence coupled with the eastern elevation makes for an incredibly complex grouping of microclimates and interesting terroir. Some of the top growing regions in Chile that winemakers in North America will have the easiest time sourcing grapes from are Colchagua and Curico Valley, located in Chile’s highly regarded Central Valley. Let’s get to know more about these regions, and a couple of the other top wine-producing regions Chile has to offer.

Colchagua Valley

The Colchagua Valley is known for hearty red wines, such as Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Located 100 miles (160 km) south of Santiago, it is an ideal growing region for bold grapes. The Mediterranean climate along the southern end of the Rapel Valley runs from the Andes Mountains in the east to the coastal ranges in the west. Creating a climate that receives around 23.3 inches (59 cm) of rainfall per year, the soils are composed of sand, decomposed granite, and clay. Little to no rainfall during their summer months helps keep the grapes safe close to harvest and, along with the easy-draining soil type, ensures that the grapes are fighting for water. Vines that are stressed for water tend to produce more intense fruit. Decomposed granite helps to minimize the level of acidity in grapes, which is why vineyards in this region, and other regions with decomposed granite, often plant grapes such as Petit Verdot. Decomposed granite soils also retain heat and keep the roots warm and searching for water, thus creating intense flavors in the grapes. Clay-based soils have good water retention and are cooler than decomposed granite. This type of soil is similar to that of the Right Bank of Bordeaux, which is why a lot of Merlot and Cabernet Franc are planted in these soil areas.

Curico Valley

Located 124 miles (200 km) south of Santiago, the Curico Valley, known as the “Heart of the Chilean wine industry,” has been a wine grape growing region since the 1800s. Curico has very fertile soil and is best known for its microclimates and the ability to grow over 30 different wine grape varieties. The terroir is made up of sand, clay, decomposed granite, and volcanic-alluvial. Microclimates are important because certain grapes flourish in certain areas. The temperature swings, amount of precipitation, and water involvement directly affect how intense a fruit the vine will produce.

Situated along the Guaiquillo River and nestled between mountains on its east and west sides, Curico’s Mediterranean climate and unique topographical features helps to create some of the finest wine grapes in South America. The climate in the valley is characterized by morning fog and wide day-night temperature fluctuations. Climatic conditions in some parts of the valley favor white wines with higher acidity, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Pinot Gris. High quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Carménère grapes are sourced from warmer areas of the valley, such as Lontué, particularly when produced from older vines.

Other influences such as family history have had a big effect on the Curico Valley and the varieties that were planted. The vineyards are generally made up of old vines, planted in 1991, with very low production and high quality. The goal was to try to manage the vineyard in a reasonable way to avoid the excessive use of chemicals in an attempt to protect the environment. Some of the vines my colleagues and I saw in Curico on a recent trip were over 30 years old and some growers don’t even know what type of grapes they are. For example, Carménère was originally brought from Bordeaux in 1851 and was mistaken as Merlot until 1994.

A lot of history, culture, and high-quality wine growing and making practices can be seen in the Curico Valley and all over Chile. Miguel Torres put wines from Curico on the map. He invested not only in the farming and soil, but in the winery he invested in stainless steel tanks and other innovative technology for winemaking in the 1970s. The winery is now in its 5th generation of family ownership controlling about 1,000 acres (400 he) of vineyards through six different properties, within multiple microclimates. The next generation of the Torres family is continuing with innovation as they look to take their growing practices to a whole new level, focusing on organic viticulture and Fair Trade certification. I am sure we will see the entire Chilean wine industry start to focus on being more sustainable in the coming years, as the Torres family continues to help drive innovation in the Chilean wine industry.

Maipo Valley

Maipo Valley cultivates some of Chile’s top wines. It is made up of three different sub regions – Alto Maipo, Central Maipo, and Pacific Maipo. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Syrah flourish in this wine growing region. Located south of Santiago, it is one of Chile’s oldest growing regions and is considered the most “French” in style for vineyard cultivation. Maipo has warm days and cool nights, which help the grapes reach maturity. The soil is rocky with good drainage, which helps the growers stress the vines to produce small berries with concentrated flavor.

Casablanca

Casablanca is on the western coast of Chile and boasts some amazing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines out of this region flourish in the colder Mediterranean growing climate. Because it is close to the Pacific Ocean, the coastal breezes help to mitigate any risk of frost. The grapes in Casablanca were planted in the 1980s, and since then it has been one of Chile’s fastest growing wine regions. With over 10,000 acres (4,000 he) of quality vineyards, they produce wines with crisp acidic structure and fruit aromas.

Winemaking

When making wine from Chilean grapes there are a few things to consider.

1. Are you ready for something new and different?
Chilean wines give off some interesting profiles. Vineyard managers have initiated better cultivation practices and the grapes are starting to mature and give off interesting and complex flavor profiles. What was once considered a green pepper-forward wine, is now putting out characteristics of blackberry, black currant, and other black fruits coupled with earthy notes. These are great grapes to try out as they are starting to hit their stride.

2. Yeast choice is important.
Even though Chilean grapes are starting to showcase their fruit rather than so much earth and green pepper, there are still possibilities of green pepper and other herbaceous characteristics. Make sure to choose yeast that will help the grapes flourish and allow the best characteristics to truly shine through. One of the top yeasts used with Chilean grapes is the CSM yeast. According to Scott Labs, “Wines fermented with CSM have shown intense aromatic profiles of berries, spice, and licorice. It has been known to reduce vegetal aromas. CSM adds complexity with a balanced, round mouthfeel and promotes malolactic fermentation.” The CSM yeast is a helpful strain that combats herbaceous and vegetal characteristics in wine.

3. Make sure to check your SO2 levels
Other reasons your wine might smell of intense green pepper can be due to mercaptans in your wine, which is directly linked to SO2 management issues. Your grapes have traveled over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) to get to you, and with that comes some SO2 requirements needed to preserve their quality. There is an SO2 pad on the top and bottom of each case of grapes. This SO2 pad releases SO2 only when needed during travel. Therefore, when you crush your grapes and they have homogenized, it is best to take an SO2 reading. This is because you don’t want to over sulfite the wine and either kill the fermentation up front or introduce possible sulfur issues to your wines.

Once you know the ppm of your must you can move forward with fermentation. Depending on the grapes you might not need to add SO2 or you might still need to add it. It all depends and is best to double check before you move forward. The sulfite level you want to shoot for at the start of fermentation is 45– 50 ppm.

4. Have fun with blending
One of the big reasons that winemakers love Chile is the ability to blend these wines to create something spectacular and interesting. Chile’s Mediterranean climate offers a variety of grapes that can stand alone as varietal wines or be blended into an artistic beverage. Winemakers can dabble in Bordeaux-style blends, Rhône-style blends, and big, bold red blends to wow palates. Here are my favorite blend suggestions from Chilean grapes:

• 80% Cabernet, 17% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot
• 60% Cabernet, 20% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot
• 80% Cabernet, 20% Merlot
• 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet
• 70% Pinot Noir, 20% Syrah, 10% Merlot
• 70% Carménère, 21% Cabernet, 7% Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot
• 88% Merlot and 12% Carménère
• 90% Carménère, 10% Cabernet
• 52% Pinot Grigio, 48% Viognier
• 40% Muscat, 30% Viognier, 30% Pinot Grigio

Grape Varieties

Carménère: A true Chilean Carménère can produce flavors of dark, ripe fruits, with soft and velvety tannins. Like Merlot — which for many years it was mistaken for — it makes a great table wine, but if you want to try making a spring rosé, consider Carménère for this too. Think flavors of tart red fruit, raspberry, floral notes, and bright citrus on the palate. If making a rosé, press grapes right away, as Carménère is a dark-colored wine and if left on the skins will darken up your wine almost instantly.

• Yeast Pairings: Carménère is very similar to Merlot and because of this you can use different yeasts to complement its characteristics. I would suggest CSM, BDX, and BRL97.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernets from Chile are usually on the spicy side. Notes of pepper, bay leaf, and other herbs, coupled with fruits such as blackcurrant, blackberry, and boysenberry. Finishing off the palate with soft
supple tannins.

• Yeast Pairings: For Cabernet Sauvignon I would suggest using the CSM yeast. CSM yeast helps minimize herbaceous and green pepper notes, allowing more fruit to shine through. Using this yeast leads to more balanced flavors in your Cabernet.

Merlot: Many Chilean Merlots are aged in American oak in order to give them a creamier texture. These are full-bodied wines with notes of black fruit and other spices such as fennel and black pepper.

• Yeast Pairings: I would suggest D80 for Chilean Merlot. It helps bring out more tannins and rounds out the mouthfeel of the wine, creating a full-bodied and hearty Merlot.

Pinot Noir: Chilean Pinot Noir is full of bright fruits such as cherry and cranberry flavors accompanied by brown spices. It makes a great wine to be enjoyed on its own or with food. These Pinot Noirs tend to have silky tannins and pack quite a flavor punch.

• Yeast Pairings: I suggest using RC 212. It helps with color stability in Pinot Noir, which can be tricky, without sacrificing the flavor profile.

Sauvignon Blanc: Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is up and coming. Many of the next generation of winemakers are using influence from New Zealand and France to create incredibly aromatic Sauvignon Blancs. These wines exhibit notes of passionfruit, guava, and mango with a crisp, bright finish.

• Yeast Pairings: I suggest using QA23 to promote notes of passion fruit and bring out other vibrant flavors.

Chardonnay: This is one of my favorite Chardonnays. Flavors of white peach, poached pears, and ripe persimmons. The bright tree fruit flavors dance on your taste buds. I would suggest adding just a slight amount oak, as the fruit flavors are so delicious, why would you want to cover them up?

• Yeast Pairings: D47 is a great yeast for Chilean Chardonnay. It heightens the fruit flavors and helps round out the body and mouthfeel of the wine.

You can purchase all of the above varieties in grape and juice format in North America. Other varieties in grape and juice format are Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Pinot Grigio, and Viognier.

2018 Chilean Harvest

I just got back from Chile and while my colleagues and I were out in the vineyards we spoke with some of the growers regarding the 2018 harvest. One grower said, “I see a very healthy year, which is good for quality, but a little behind — we estimate about 10 days in relation to the historical average, due to a very fresh spring, which delayed sprouting and flowering. It is expected (to be) a very hot summer, which could impact the maturity of the grape, delaying it a little more (at very high temperatures the plant goes into stress and slows its maturation). At this time we are managing the foliage in order to maintain an important foliar surface to increase the foliar radiation, which influences the growth and maturation of the bunches. It is also important to keep the cluster aerated to avoid decay (botrytis).”

With a later harvest there is more time for us winemakers to prep our cellars and get ready to receive these grapes and juices!

Argentina

Argentina’s winemaking history goes as far back as 400 years. In 1551, the first vines were planted and Argentina’s wine industry has been slowly growing ever since. The 1960s was a transformative decade for the Argentina wine industry. They started to introduce bottling lines, larger tanks, and other equipment advances to allow for better production and the creation of higher quality wines. By the 1980s Argentina had begun to establish wine companies that could compete on the world stage.

Now, 10% of their commercial wine production is exported, with that number growing each year. Argentina is best known for its Malbec wines, and Malbecs from the renowned region of Mendoza make up the majority of the country’s wine exports. Malbec cuttings were brought from France in the 19th century. Today there are nearly 100,000 acres (40,000 he) of Malbec planted in Argentina, 86% of which is located in Mendoza.

Mendoza

Mendoza is the most well-known region in Argentina and boasts the most prestigious wines in the country. Located next to the Andes Mountains, Mendoza has great weather conditions for grape growing. Temperatures reach up to 107 °F (42 °C) with as little as 10 inches (25 cm) of rain per year, and 300 days of sunshine — weather that results in a high-quality growing region.

Mendoza is made up of five regions. The Central, Northern, Eastern, Southern, and Uco Valleys. The Central Region is considered “The land of Malbec,” and is home to some of the world’s top Malbec producers. The vineyards in the Central Region are planted on about 2,000–6,000 feet (600–1,800 m) elevations. With such high elevations, great sunlight, and soil, many other Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon are also grown there. The Northern Region is known mostly for its white wines because of its proximity to the Mendoza River. You will find varieties such as Chardonnay, Torrontés, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Eastern Region produces fresh and fruity wines, most of them with little oak influence. Varieties such as Torrontés, Viognier, and Tempranillo are widely planted here. The Southern Region is known for its high elevations and is a premier growing region for Chenin Blanc. Malbec and Pinot Noir are the top varieties grown in the Uco Valley, which has the highest elevations in Mendoza, reaching about 6,000 feet (1,800 m).

Winemaking

When making wine from Argentina Malbec there are a few things to consider.

1. Weather
Unfortunately, due to hang times needed for the grapes, many distributors run into weather issues. In years past, hail storms, late rains, and other natural occurrences have made it difficult to ship these grapes to other countries.

2. Other Winemaking Options
If the fresh grapes do not arrive, there are some distributors who carry frozen must from Argentina and/or wine kits from Argentina. Frozen must is a great alternative as you can make wine all year round and your wine gets an extra “cold soak.” The wine kits are great for year-round winemaking and require little mess when creating delicious wines from grapes that would otherwise be out  of reach.

3. Let the Fruit Shine Through
Many Malbec producers focus on allowing the fruit to shine through in the wine. They use minimal oak additions as to not cover up the opulence of the fruit. When using oak with Malbec, I suggest taste testing your wine through the aging process to ensure it is not over oaked. Also, try using French or Hungarian oak for a more elegant introduction of oak into your Malbec.

Grape Varieties

Malbec: Malbec wines from Argentina are usually inky in color. Aromas of plum, black cherry, currants, and other black fruits jump out of the glass. These wines usually finish with more black fruits, black pepper, strong structure, and soft tannins.

• Yeast Pairing: I suggest D254 for these Malbecs. This yeast brings out bright fruit flavors and complexity such as berry, plum, and mild spice.

Torrontés: Similar to a Pinot Grigio, Torrontés are full of aromatic notes of peach, nectarine, and orange marmalade. It makes a refreshing and well-balanced white wine.

• Yeast Pairing: I suggest 71B as it promotes aromatics in white wine and softens acidic characteristics.

Argentina has a plethora of wines being created. They grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Syrah, Tempranillo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Fresia, Lambrusco, Nebbiolo, Raboso, Sangiovese, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sémillon, Ugni Blanc, and Viognier just to name a few. Unfortunately we have not been able to import these varieties for home winemakers to utilize, but they are great wines to sip on and enjoy if you come across commercial examples.

There are currently so many options for the Southern Hemisphere harvest, more than we as home winemakers have ever had in the past. Take advantage of the second round of winemaking and create new and interesting wine of noteworthy character this spring.

South Africa

In keeping with the Southern Hemisphere theme of this article, the other option winemakers have to make vino from fresh grapes and juices in the spring is from those imported from South Africa. These grapes and juices arrive to North America in late March and are from a number of sub-regions of South Africa. Distributors have Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage grapes available, and the juice options are even greater, including Shiraz, Merlot, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. Another reason to love spring winemaking season!

Stellenbosch

Location: Western Cape, 31 miles (50 km) east of Cape Town

Grapes Being Sourced: Cabernet Sauvignon

Cederberg Mountains

Location: 186 miles (300 km) North of Capetown. The Cederberg Mountains contain a nature
reserve. The mountain range is named after the endangered Clanwilliam cedar, which is a tree endemic to the area.

Grapes Being Sourced: Pinotage