Survivor Grapes of South America

Several grape varietals have become so closely associated with South America that they’re considered signature grapes of those regions. Their ability to thrive in the New World, however, has overshadowed the fact that all these grapes originated in the Old World but for one reason or another never truly found their place there. Having made the odyssey to South America and achieving viticultural dominance there, the “survivor grape” nickname is aptly deserved.

Chances are your introduction to Malbec was from Mendoza, Argentina, and not from the southwest region of France where it was first grown and used as a Bordeaux blending grape. Known as the “Black Wine of Cahors” from the specific region in which it originated, Malbec is a thick-skinned, red grape with poor resistance to weather and pests. Because of these characteristics, it never surfaced as a top French variety, but instead flourished in Argentina where a French botanist was ordered by the mayor of Mendoza to plant it in 1868.

Mendoza’s warm, dry climate and high elevation are ideal conditions for this varietal and today Argentina leads production of the grape with over 75% of all acres of Malbec in the world. Through its success in the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina is credited with reinvigorating Malbec as one of the top noble varieties while simultaneously gaining new-found attention and respect as a wine-producing nation.

For a typical expression of Mendozan Malbec try Belhara Estate’s 2015 Single Vineyard Malbec Gualtallary Valle de Uco ($14.99, Morganelli’s Party Shop). This inky wine has slightly smoky aromas, with blueberries and sweet spices on the palate. Medium-bodied with easygoing acidity and tannins, this Malbec showcases Argentina’s strengths in producing this varietal.

Like Argentina, Chile is credited with resurrecting a grape that had its origins in Bordeaux. Carmenere was used as a blending grape and its own single varietal wine, but like Malbec, the grape was finicky in the French climate and often had a difficult time growing. In fact, there would be many vintages where almost no Carmenere was harvested at all. Following the phylloxera plague of 1857 that wiped out a majority of Europe’s grapes, the varietal was considered extinct.

However, just before phylloxera hit Europe, a few cuttings of Carmenere vines were unknowingly imported to Chile veiled amongst over varietals. These vines were planted around the valleys of Santiago and almost immediately began to flourish in the new warm, dry climate. Until 1994, Carmenere was believed to be its cousin Merlot, but after extensive testing researchers discovered these vines were of the “lost grape of Bordeaux.” Carmenere is now considered the official grape of Chile with 90% of the world’s production occurring there.

For an elegant expression of Chilean Carmenere, sample Casa Silva’s 2013 Cuvee Colchagua Carmenere ($14.99, Morganelli’s Party Store). Bright and intense ruby red in color, you will notice aromas of black cherries and plums with hints of spices. The wine is bold with sweet soft tannins, balanced acidity, and a persistent finish.

Although alive and well in its traditional place of origin of Madiran, France, the Tannat grape has been ambitiously adopted by Uruguay as the country’s national grape. Hoping to emulate the success of Malbec in Argentina and Carmenere in Chile, producers in Uruguay are capitalizing on its cool climate to become the world’s leader in production of Tannat. As the only country in South America with a cooling influence from the Atlantic Ocean, the country is already growing 30% of the world’s total production of grapes in its relatively small wine-making industry.

Originally brought to Uruguay by Basque settlers from the France-Spain border in the 1870’s, Tannat is a thick-skinned grape named for its high tannin content. With 3 to 4 times higher antioxidant levels of other varietals, it is also considered one of the healthiest wines. Try Artesana Canelones Tannat ($16.99, Morganelli’s Party Store) for a true Uruguayan representation of this varietal. Full-bodied and fruit forward, you will detect blackberry aromas and blueberry, plum, and herbs on the palate.

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