Wines from South America have become familiar sights in UK supermarkets but are almost always from that region’s 2 major players: Argentina and Chile. Yet, virtually every country in South America makes some wine – I’ve tasted some attractive bottles from Brazil, for example – and I recently opened a delicious rosé from Uruguay, South America’s 4th largest producer.
Atlantico Sur’s Tannat Rosé (Wine Society, £12.50) is delightfully fresh and clean with tangy cranberry and raspberry fruit, a slight smokiness and a lovely crisp, dry finish. The Tannat grape may not be widely known but it’s Uruguay’s most planted variety, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s vineyards. Originally brought over by settlers from the French and Spanish Basque regions in the late 19th century, it is more usually used, both in Uruguay and in its European heartlands, for deep, robust reds which, as the name implies, are often pretty tannic in their youth. Those who have tasted Madiran from south-west France will know what I mean.
But the variety grows well in Uruguay’s climate. Most of the country’s vineyards are close to the capital, Montevideo, which means they benefit from an important Atlantic influence – vital in moderating the temperatures in this relatively warm latitude (around 35˚S). Unfortunately, this also results in high levels of rainfall and humidity, so planting on well-drained soils and training the vines high to ensure good air circulation are key if undesirable rot is to be avoided.
The size of Uruguay’s vineyard and the keenness of its inhabitants on drinking their own wine means that Uruguay is unlikely to become a major player on the world wine stage but, based on this and a few other examples I have tasted, if you see a bottle on the shelf of your local wine merchant, it may be worth giving it a try.
Part of the beauty of enjoying wines is the memories it can trigger. A bottle a good friend of ours, who is currently working in Switzerland, brought back for us on one of her brief visits did just that. You very rarely find Swiss wine in the UK; production is small and almost none of it is exported – figures showing that more than 95% is consumed locally, so her gift was especially welcome.
Cave St-Pierre’s Pinot Noir comes from the Valais region, home to some of the highest vineyards in Europe. Here, the steep, south-facing slopes overlook the infant River Rhône before it empties into Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to the locals) and provide ideal sites for vineyards, offering the vines excellent exposure to the sun and good drainage – both essential to full ripening of the fussy Pinot Noir grape.
And the result is delicious: a quite light-bodied red – more reminiscent of an Alsace Pinot Noir than one from Burgundy – but smooth and with lovely raspberry fruit, good balanced acidity and a long, dry, elegant finish.
In recent times, as tastes have moved in favour of red wines, Pinot Noir has taken over from the white variety Chasselas as the most widely planted in Switzerland, although Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Silvaner and Pinots Gris and Blanc are still widely planted. Among red varieties, Gamay, Merlot (strangely also made into a white wine in the Italian-speaking Ticino region) and Syrah (Shiraz) are well represented but it’s almost certain that you’ll need to travel to the country itself to enjoy any of these.
And the memory I hinted at earlier? I’m fairly sure that the first time I ever tasted a Swiss wine was over a meal at the long-closed Swiss Centre in London many years ago. I have a particular reason to remember the occasion because my dining companion at the time, Hilary, soon became my wife – and now, more than 40 years later, we were able to celebrate with this bottle given by our friend, who had no idea of its significance!
A few brief words on the back label of a bottle I opened recently caught my attention: “…vineyard with ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock.” But the wine wasn’t from Bordeaux, it was from Chile – Los Vascos’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £9.99) – and the phylloxera bug hit Bordeaux in the 1870s. So, what’s the link between Bordeaux and Chile, was the vineyard really planted almost 150 years ago before phylloxera and what does it mean that the rootstocks are ungrafted?
To start answering those questions, we need to turn the clock back to around 1850 when a number of wealthy Chileans began to travel to Europe. Not only did they enjoy the sights, they also experienced some of its fine wines, which were very different from those available in Chile at the time.
One visitor was so impressed, he imported a selection of vine varieties from Bordeaux and hired a French winemaker to make his wine for him. This, of course, was some 20 years before France’s phylloxera infestation, and so no-one had even thought about the need to graft vines to combat the disease.
What is grafting? It involves planting a vine root in the ground that is resistant to phylloxera (or whatever pest you’re trying to protect against) and then connecting your chosen non-resistant vine (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or almost any of the other varieties we know and love) to it. It is now universally accepted as the best method of protecting against phylloxera, for which there is no known cure.
Chile has been lucky – today it’s one of the few wine producing countries that remains free of this particular pest and so most of its vines are ungrafted.
But, back to the wine – the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife, Hilary’s first comment was that wine tasted ‘more Old World than New’ and I know what she meant. This was a wine made in quite a restrained, elegant style without lots of the overt fruit flavours found in many New World wines. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the estate is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Château Lafite fame; the lean Bordeaux influence certainly shows through and maintains a link to that region now dating back almost 170 years.