A review of several recent releases from South America.
By Louis Marmon
Gazette Newspapers September 22, 2010
The valleys east and west of the Andes Mountains are a treasure trove for lovers of high-quality, value-priced wines. While both areas have produced wines for centuries, investment and extensive modernization have led to vastly improved quality during the past several decades.
To the west are Chile’s wine growing valleys, where the climate varies from hot and dry in the north to wetter and cooler in the south. Many of the valleys open toward the ocean, which allows the cooling ocean breezes to moderate the local temperatures. East of the Andes is Argentina’s Mendoza region, one of the world’s highest wine-producing areas where vines are planted several thousand feet above sea level. Mendoza is semi-arid and mostly dependent on irrigation from the melting mountain glaciers.
Nicolas Catena is widely credited for bringing quality to the forefront of Argentina’s wines. As a visiting professor of economics at Berkeley in the 1980s, he and his wife spent many weekends in Napa learning that wines in the “New World” could rival those of Europe. Returning to his family vineyards, he focused on improving quality by finding the best sites and techniques to grow specific varietals. In the ensuing years, his wines have received numerous accolades and he was named 2009’s “Man of the Year” by the prestigious Decanter Magazine in recognition of his groundbreaking work that raised the quality of Argentinean wines.
Catena’s large portfolio includes the value-priced Alamos wines. Wine Education Director Jimena Turner explains that “the grapes are all from high-altitude vineyards, which gives the wines their characteristic flavors.” All the grapes are hand sorted and blended to maintain the house style of “rich and flavorful wines.”
The Alamos Torrontes 2009 ($13) has a floral, almost Viognier-like aroma with apples, peaches and hints of lemon flavors reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc but softer and balanced without the sharp acidity. Also soft in style is the Alamos Chardonnay 2009 ($13) that exhibits a slight oakiness over apples, pears and a bit of butter in the medium finish. Argentina is known for its Malbec and the Alamos Malbec 2009 ($13) doesn’t disappoint. Dark fruit aromas lead into blackberry, vanilla, plum and a characteristic spiciness extending into the long finish. The Alamos Seleccion Malbec 2008 ($20) has even more pronounced spiciness within a leather and earthy frame that is almost Syrah-like. Deeply dark with berry and licorice scents, cassis, blueberry and black plum flavors along with a lingering finish, it is a delicious interpretation of this varietal.
The thorny, flowering “tall trees” of Chile’s Maule Valley are the namesake of the Palo Alto Winery and also adorn the label. Established in 2006, Palo Alto sources grapes from three vineyards to create the Palo Alto Reserve Red 2008 ($13), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere and Syrah. Its blueberry aromas evolve further into currants, cassis, tobacco and spicy dark fruits. Delightfully complex and a real bargain it is perfect with grilled foods.
In contrast to most vines that are grafted onto different rootstalks, the sustainably-farmed grapes used to create Root:1 Carmenere 2008 ($10) are from ungrafted vines planted in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Perhaps the native roots give the wine a smoky aroma along with anise and plums. This medium-bodied silky bargain has the characteristic Chilean minerality and a pleasant mild greenness that is characteristic of Carmenere. It also has loads of red cherries and berries that lead into raspberries and spice at the end.