Sipping the South: A brief history of South American Wine.

malbec wine by ricardo martins

By Robert Horvat

Recently a good friend of mine presented me with a bottle of Malbec wine imported from Argentina. I looked at him curiously for a moment, like a wine snob from France might look at a New World wine from Australia. I really didn’t have a good reason to be arrogant. There was nothing wrong with this wine. In fact, this variety of grape grown in Argentina is quite palatable and unique in favour. To best describe its flavour, I shared my Malbec with my friends, whom all said it had a hint of blackberry, plum and black cherry. (Not everyone picked out two or more flavours!) Later I discovered that this variety of grape was originally from France. It is still grown there, but it apparently never became one of the top French varieties because of France’s climate and poor resistance to pests. So instead it found a new home in north central Argentina, where it has been uniquely identified with the region since the nineteenth century, when it was first shipped from France to Argentina by a French botanist. 

My pleasant experience with my first Argentinian wine stirred my imagination and thirst (no pun intended) for wanting to know more about the history of wine in South America. It is important to note that South America is a vast continent, so my brief history of wine in this region will focus primarily on its biggest cultivators. (In the future we may talk about some of the smaller wine-producing countries like Uruguay, which I am told has a wonder Tannat wine.) 

cortes pd

Hernan Cortes: wine pioneer? Surprisingly, yes.

A variety of common grape-vine called the Vinifera was brought from Spain to the Americas via Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors, under Cortes, as early as 1522. Two years later in 1524, Cortes issued an edict that ordered all new Spanish settlers to plant vines on lands that had been granted to them. From Mexico, the spread of viticulture followed the Spanish conquests to South America, where the geographical region we know as Peru, became the first country to have inspired organized viticulture. It was there, under the famous conquistador Francesco Pizarro, that the first vineyards were planted in about 1547. With the first vineyards sown in Peru, winemaking spread quickly south to Chile and Argentina. The speed at which the conquistadors had planted new vines to Chile and Argentina, was due to the important need of a ready supply of wine for the Eucharist. (Missionaries played an important role in establishing vineyards throughout the Americas.) 

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Peru led the charge in winemaking, and in fact, was producing such an abundance of wine, that it was able to export its own wines back to Spain! However, by the end of the 16th century, King Philip II of Spain eventually placed restrictions on wine produced in the Americas, obviously designed to protect all wine producers and merchants from Spain. The banning of new vineyards in the Americas was unfortunately met with little successs. In Chile, for instance, it was argued that a lift on the ban on new vineyards should be lifted to encourage economic activity and farming. Interestingly, by the 18th century, Chile became known ‘for the quality and cheapness’ of its wines, much to the disgust of many Spanish winemakers. Chile would later fine-tune its culture around winemaking, upon gaining its independence from Spain, as rich Chileans began to travel and discover Old World secrets and traditions. 

chilean vineyards by arturus oceanicus

Chilean vineyards, like these nestled in the foothills of the Andes, have been producing wine off and on since the Spanish conquest. Chile is now one of the world’s most important wine-producing nations.

Argentina’s love affair with viticulture began with the first established vineyards at Santiago del Estero in 1557. However, it was due to the endeavours of Jesuit missionaries, who managed to find the best conditions for vine growing, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains (next door to Chile). The provinces of Mendoza and San Juan, La Rioja and Catamarca are worthy of being mentioned as important wine hubs. The ban on wine production in Argentina by Spain’s king was also largely overlooked. Thanks to the monks and monasteries of Argentina, wine production actually managed to grow steadily at that time. Importantly, monks and early settlers in Argentina, developed upon new innovations and used their skills, for example, to channel irrigation water to vineyards. In the centuries that followed, Argentina’s success in winemaking was continued with new settlers with foreign expertise, notably Italian and German immigrants. I cannot in good conscience not mention, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was instrumental in having the first Malbec vines brought from France to Argentina. If Sarmiento had not instructed the French botanist Poujet to bring back these vines, might our famous association of Malbec with Argentina have never happened? 

We cannot seriously go any further with this brief history of South American wine without mentioning Brazil. Today, it is the third most important wine producer behind Argentina and Chile. The vine was first introduced to Brazil, by the Portuguese, as early as 1532, in San Paulo. Unfortunately, its viticulture was later abandoned after Jesuit missionaries, who controlled vineyards in the south of the country were destroyed. In the 18th century, new emigrates from Azores and Madeira arrived to Brazil and tried to resurrect a floundering industry, but also failed because of hot and humid conditions near the equator. It wasn’t until vineyards were moved to the south coast of Rio Grande do Sul in the 1840’s that viticulture made progress. Its most notable variety is the American vine Isabella, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that wines with important claims to good quality were developed. With the help of corporations like Moet & Chandon, who established wine companies and invested in modernizing winemaking in Brazil, that its reputation grew. Interestingly, for such a big country, it only produces less than a quarter of what its neighbour Argentina does! 

malbec grapes by lapastoure didier

Wine drinkers almost universally associate malbec grapes with Argentina, but they originally came from Europe. Here are malbec grapes growing in a vineyard in France.

Wine people have often said that by sampling a variety of great bottles from South America or even better visiting the countless wine regions across the continent, you will only then come to appreciate the best of South America has to offer! Whether it is one of Chile’s famous Cabernet Sauvignons, a nice red like Touriga Nacional from Brazil or a Pisco from the warm altitudes of Peru, you will fall in love with South American wine. For me, at the moment, it is all about one wine – the Malbec. They don’t call it Argentina’s lifeblood for no reason! My ‘Malbec’ was very reasonable in price and definitely one of the more pleasant experiences that I’ve had. I am told that as South America continues to put itself on the world wine radar with their quality wines, interest around them will also continue to grow. I will definitely venture out of my comfort zone and invest in more vino from South America. I suppose, as Argentina and Chile fight it out for wine-producing supremacy, I just might instead find something nice from Brazil or Uruguay, as my next experience!

The header image is by Flickr user Ricardo Martins, the image of Chilean vineyards is by Flickr user Alturus Oceanicus, and the image of malbec grapes is by Flickr user Lapastoure Didier. All three are used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The image of Cortes is public domain.
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