The South American Wine Industry

According to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s seminal World Atlas of Wine, South America is, after Europe, “the world’s most important wine producing continent.” European vines were cultivated in Peru as early as 1531 – long before those vines reached any part of the New World except Mexico. South America’s viticultural landscape has been influenced by immigrants from a range of countries. As a result, it boasts a diverse array of grapes and viticultural influences, ranging from those of the Spanish, Portugese, French, Italian, and Germans.

Argentina leads South America in terms of both quantity and perceived quality of wine produced. The country has found success in branding two varieties – Malbec (a red grape) and Torrontes (a white one) that are not currently grown with prominence anywhere else. Grape vines probably arrived in Argentina from four different routes – direct, from Spain, two expeditions to Peru, and most importantly, vine importation from Chile, in the year 1556. Then, the main red grape was likely Criolla Chica (one of the parents of the very aromatic white grape, Torrontes). Early settlers quickly created a complex system of dams and irrigation channels at the foot of the Andes Mountains. These channels still exist and have been crucial to Argentina’s wine industry even today.

For the next 300 years, the Criolla Chica grape (known as “Pais” in Chile and “The Mission Grape” in the USA) reigned supreme. Then, in the 19th century, two waves of European settlers migrated to Argentina, bringing with them vines from their native countries – France, Italy, and Spain. Vine growers quickly adopted the new, sophisticated skills of the new immigrants and Argentina began to make a diverse array of wines. Also, unlike North America and the rest of the viticultural world, almost all of the Malbec vines are ungrafted, or planted on their original rootstock (over 90% of Argentinean vines are ungrafted). It is believed that ungrafted vines produce grapes of more complexity, diversity, and intensity that those planted on homogeneous rootstock. Phylloxera, the root louse responsible for devastating vineyards across the globe, cannot survive in most of Argentina because of the dry climate and sandy soils. This climactic barrier is one of Argentina’s greatest assets.

Chile is the continent’s second-largest wine producer, and it is South America’s largest exporter. Brazil, unknown to most of the rest of the world, is the continent’s third-largest wine producer, even though it exports very little wine. In fact, Moët & Chandon – established a sparkling wine house for Brazil’s domestic market back in 1973! Uruguay also produces wine. Its viticultural history dates primarily to the 1870’s, when immigrants from the Basque country settled there and planted vines native to southwest France. Their major grape is the French variety Tannat, known in Uruguay as Harriague.