The vineyards of Chile and Argentina run like a green ribbon all along the white, snow-capped Andean mountains.
Grapes hang in blue-black clusters beside Uruguay's great Rio de la Plata estuary and flourish in Brazil's Rio Grande do Sul province. Green bunches of Sauvignon Blanc grow in Peru's Tacama valley. South America is the land of the vine, putting down deep roots wherever the Conquistadors planted it.
But it’s to Chile and Argentina that we look for our wines, for in the past twenty years they have been transformed from rustic and oxidised to vibrant and fruit-filled. Names like Concha y Toro and Valdivieso in Chile and Catena in Argentina have spearheaded a revolution to give us the Merlot and Malbec that we love today. These same families reach back into the 19th century when European immigrants brought bundles of canes and simply stuck them into the fertile soil and watched them grow. Now these old estates have grown as rapidly as the vines and you can visit their traditional haciendas and bodegas to taste the very essence of Latin America.
The great estate of Errazuriz which spreads all along Chile's Aconcagua valley and Nicolas Catena's famed Zapata winery that rises from Argentina's fertile Mendoza province are neighbours, divided by the soaring 20,000-foot mass of the Andes. These same mountains irrigate the vines in both Mendoza and Aconcagua. The snow water runs along channels cut deep into the mountain centuries ago by the Incas in Chile and the Huarpes in Argentina.
Caught between the coastal range of mountains that fringe the Pacific and the great spine of the Andes, Chile's vineyards stretch like green fingers as they follow the rivers that cross the country's great Central Valley. The rivers give their names to the vineyards that cluster around them from the Rio Maipó below Santiago to the Rio Maule in the south. The Chilean capital of Santiago is itself fringed with vineyards that form a thick, green necklace around the city. Here you will find the Vinã Cousiño Macul, founded in 1856. You can spend an afternoon touring the estate and then watch the sun set beyond the winery's great lagoon, as you sip a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon that glints like liquid garnets in the last rays of the sun.
Travel south along the Pan American highway to the great vineyards of Concha y Toro at the head of the Maipó valley. You can visit the elegant 19th-century hacienda which sits in the town of Pirque and take a tour of its catacomb-like cellars. Try, if you can, a glass of Almaviva, that has all the subtle qualities of a great Bordeaux. It is hardly surprising since the wine is the result of a joint venture between the Concha y Toro family and Philippe de Rothschild.
Argentina's vineyards lie in the rain shadow of the Andes stretching from the heartland of Mendoza to Patagonia in the south and the farflung north-western province of Salta. In Mendoza you will find Norton's gracious old bodega sitting alongside a modern winery and tasting room. Try the Privada Estate Reserve for its intense and lingering flavours of black fruit as you look out at the frieze of white peaks beyond the vines.
The Catena Zapata winery is half an hour and a world away from the turn of the century charm of Norton. It is built in the shape of a Mayan pyramid as Nicolas Catena's homage to the country he loves (Mexico), and the wines that you will taste here such as his dense, spicy Malbecs are amongst the finest in the country.
Go, if you can, to the wild valleys that lie to the north of the pretty, provincial capital of Salta where the Gauchos ride through forests of candelabra cacti. Drive through canyons of rose-red rock to the wide and beautiful valley of Cafayate, where the rambling, whitewashed bodega of San Michelle lies before you surrounded by vines. Try to stay the night, for the old, Spanish style house is very beautiful and San Michelle's wines are renowned. Here you will find white wine made from the Torrontes grape whose subtle rose perfume pervades the air.
On the mountain slopes overlooking San Michelle is the vineyard of Yakuchoya. Here, 100 year old vines, twisted and gnarled by time produce some of the country's most concentrated wines under the label of Don Pedro. Come here, to Yakuchoya itself, to try them for these lesser known wines are some of the very best in all of South America.
By Carolle Doyle, Freelance Journalist.