Pushing the boundaries of South America

Richard Bampfield MW shares his takeaways and thoughts on the CWW seminar on ‘Pushing the boundaries of South America’, led by Amanda Barnes and held at London Wine Fair on May 23rd. 

Having left Argentina hugely enthused after the MW visit there in February, I was extremely happy to have my memories refreshed by Amanda Barnes’s Masterclass at the London Wine Fair. As it turned out, this was very much an exercise in learning rather than refreshment because Amanda managed to feature a highly diverse array of wine regions in South America, most of which were new to me.

Amanda started off with a reminder of the origins of grape growing in South America (1530’s in case you were wondering, in Peru) and then outlined the reasons for more recent drivers of change in the vineyards. She cited in particular climate change, population movements, improved technology/knowledge and, as elsewhere in the new world, the restless search for unique terroirs and wine character. But it was clear that her own interest lay as much in the continent’s historic vineyards as in the more modern plantings.

Her presentation, and therefore tasting order, was neatly organised under 3 headings

  • Patagonian frontier
  • Coastal frontier
  • Altitude frontier

The Patagonian frontier includes reasonably well-known regions such as Itata and Bio Bio in Chile, and Rio Negro and Neuquen in Argentina. However, newer and more southerly vineyard outposts include those in Chile’s Osorno (home to an impossibly beautiful, snow-capped volcano, which also happens to be my screensaver!) and Chubut and San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina (the latter better known, I suspect, for its skiing). As yet, wines from these areas would fall into the experimental rather than commercial category. So as to demonstrate the delicacy produced in this sort of climate, we tasted a Casa Silva Lago Ranco Riesling 2016 from the Chilean Lakes region – refined and dry, yet with sufficient juiciness to give it real flavour and appeal.

The Coastal frontier includes relatively recent, well-known areas such as Limari and San Antonio but it is clearly not Amanda’s style (she candidly casts herself as “a bit footloose”) to dwell on the usual suspects. So she presented a Pan de Azucar Riesling 2016 from Bodega Bouza in Maldonado in Uruguay. From rocky soils just 6 miles from the coast, this was mineral in a petrolly way and unashamedly dry on the finish. We then moved onto a Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from Costa y Pampa, Trapiche’s pioneering project in Chapadmalal on the Atlantic Coast south of Buenos Aires – a lean, dry, elegant style from still very young vines. The final white was Viña Ventisquero Tara Chardonnay 2015 from Huasco in Chile’s northerly Atacama region. Foot-crushed, made with native yeast and unfined and unfiltered, this would tick the “natural” box: with good intensity and salinity, it was extremely promising from a vineyard planted only in 2007.

The next wine was made from a co-ferment of white grapes, Quebranta and Torrontes, grown in sandy, coastal vineyards in the Valle de Ica, Peru – the sandy soils mean that the vines can be planted “pie franco”, on their own roots. Called Mimo (the clue is in the surnames), this wine is made by Matias Michelini and Pepe Moquillaza and spends 60 days on the skins, 33% whole bunch. Cloudy, pale brown and with aromas that have more in common with Argentina’s favourite drink, Fernet Branca, it is wild, pithy, dry and distinctly tannic; a wine which I cannot help thinking might be more fun to drink than to taste.

Excitedly, breathlessly (sorry) we moved on to the Altitude frontier (although in Argentina we were encouraged to use the word elevation rather than altitude)……and those of us who were expecting a fresh Argentinian Malbec from Cafayate were, predictably, to be disappointed. Peripatetically, Amanda took us to Brazil and the Verrone Syrah Speciale 2016 from Serra de Mantiqueira, one of the country’s highest mountain ranges. Not too far from Sao Paolo, the vines here are planted at 840 metres, pruned in summer then managed to produce a winter harvest, thus allowing a longer growing season. At this point, I was desperate to ask some questions on the basis that there should be enough material at the very least for a new chapter at WSET Level 3, but my attention was grabbed by the wine – leathery, gamey, cool, very much Syrah rather than Shiraz and really rather good.

The final wine was the De Martino Alto de Toro Syrah 2011 from Alcohuaz in Chile’s Elqui Valley – the first vintage from vines planted between 1700 and 2200 metres elevation (told you…) in 2005. It seems to me that Marcelo Retamal must spend all of his time travelling up and down Chile because he makes wine throughout the country – and with remarkable results. This is a wonderful wine, showing the tobacco-scented fragrance that one expects from developing Syrah, yet boasting a mineral, stoney finish that is unique.

Amanda’s love of South America came through loud and clear.  As did her apparently insatiable desire to travel, explore and find wines at the edge, geographically, technically and stylistically. A highly enjoyable and informative way to end the fair.

By Richard Bampfield MW


If you missed the seminar, you can watch it (although you’ll have to imagine the taste of the wines from the notes above) online: