Overview of South American Wine Regions

Photo Credit: southamericawineguide.com

South America has been making wine since the 1500s and has been producing wines of exceptional quality for the past few decades.  A big factor in the success of South American wine especially in Argentina and Chile is the climatic conditions created by the Andes Mountain range, the longest and second-highest mountain range in the world, its spine creates a natural border with Chile to the west, and Argentina to the east creating long sunshine-filled days and slow ripening of the grapes especially in the foothills and coastal regions resulting in wines that are full of flavor. The five main wine-producing countries - Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru are home to many grape varieties, both indigenous and those brought by early European settlers that thrive in the vast array of different microclimates. 


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Argentina is the largest producer of wine in South America and is ranked fifth in the world.  While Malbec has rightfully earned its place as the country's flagship grape variety, Argentina's diverse terroirs nurture a myriad of grape varietals, each offering a distinct expression of the land and has allowed the Argentinians to express their winemaking skills with many other grape varietals. 

The collapse of the state-owned wineries at the beginning of the 1990s led to the emergence of privately owned and run boutique wineries and the emphasis shifted from quantity to quality.  The more than 1300 wineries produce almost 13 million hectolitres annually 80%  is red wine and 20% is white wine from the over 210,000 ha of vineyards.  The average estate size is around 160 ha, which is large compared to European wineries.

Wine production is divided into four major wine regions: Northern, Oceanic, Lujan De Cuyo, and Patagonia. These are further subdivided into twelve wine regions Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca, Tucumán, La Rioja, San Juan, Mendoza, La Pampa, Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut, and Buenos Aires.  

The Lujan de Cuyo region with its vineyards that range from 243 to 1828 meters in altitude offers a diverse range of soil conditions and microclimates producing 95% of all Argentinian wine with Mendoza which is now famous internationally accounting for 70% of the region's production.

Though there are more than 160 different grape varieties planted in Argentina, only a few grape varietals are used for most of the production. 58 percent of vineyards are planted with red grape varietals, 18%  in white, and another 24% dedicated to “pink” grapes such as “Criola” with pink tinted skin. Malbec is the predominant varietal accounting for 38% of all red varietals, or approximately 43,000 hectares.  Bonarda is the second most planted red grape varietal 15%, Cabernet Sauvignon 12%, Syrah 10%, Merlot 4%, and Pinot Noir 1%.  The predominant white grape varietals are Pedro Gimenez 27%, Torrontés 22%, Chardonnay 16%, Muscat of Alexandra 6%, and Sauvignon Blanc 5% are the predominant white grapes. Though limited, there is an emerging production of “Espumante” excellent sparkling wines.


Photo courtesy: thewinesociety.com

Chile is the second-largest producer of wine in South America and is ranked seventh in the world producing 12 million hectolitres of wine annually - 74% of production is red wine and 26% is white. The winemaking tradition dates back to the Spanish conquistadors who brought vines to the country in the 16th century.  

With an estimated 62,500 ha of vines, most of them have been replanted and are less than fifteen years old.  The Chilean winemaking industry has undergone a renaissance and in the past twenty years, the vineyards have undergone soil mapping and the vines have been planted at a higher density as well as the installation of drip irrigation in some vineyards.  This extensive work has improved the quality of Chilean wine, a trend that will continue.  Chile is one of the few countries in the world that escaped the phylloxera pandemic, all of the vines are ungrafted creating wines that express the purest expression of the terroir that they grow in.

The wine regions run north from the Atacama desert to Patagonia in the south bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east and the country is only 160 km in width.  There are six main wine regions Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley, South Region, and Austral Region which are then divided into twenty distinct subregions: Copiapo Valley, Huasco Valley, Elqui Valley, Limari Valley, Choapa Valley, Aconcagua Valley, Casablanca Valley, Leyda Valley, San Antonio Valley, Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, Cachapoal Valley, Colchagua Valley, Curico Valley, Maule Valley, Itata Valley, Bio-Bio Valley, Malleco Valley, Cautin Valley and Osorno Valley.  

The climate variation in the wine-growing regions flows east to west rather than north to south.  The Antarctic Humboldt current cools the coastal vineyards with a fog that brings much-needed moisture to the Limari and Casablanca valleys, making it the perfect area to grow cooler climate varieties such as Riesling, the coastal mountain range in areas such as the Central Valley with its warm and dry weather is conducive to the production of wines that thrive in a warmer climate. Wines that grow in the mountains express bolder characteristics than other Chilean wines.  

Carmenère arrived from Bordeaux in the late 19th century and is Chile’s signature grape, thriving in the unique terroir, particularly in regions like the Colchagua Valley and Maipo Valley, where it benefits from warm days and cool nights. Cabernet Sauvignon was first planted in 1997, is the most planted red grape, and accounts for 32% of red grape varietals planted. One of Chile's most intriguing grape varieties is País, also known as Criolla Chica in Argentina. This was the first grape brought to Chile by Spanish Conquistadors and is part of the history of Chilean viticulture. While primarily used for simple red wines, País is a testament to Chile's winemaking heritage and colonial past. Other important red varieties include Merlot, Carménère, and Syrah. Riesling is a notable white variety thriving in cooler regions such as the Casablanca and Leyda valleys. With its vibrant acidity and enticing aromatics, Chilean Riesling offers a refreshing alternative to the more ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc. Other important white varietals include Chardonnay, Gewûrztraminer, Moscatel, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Torontel, and Viognier.


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Brazil, though relatively unknown in the wine world is the third largest wine producer in South America with around 1,100 wineries and 90,000 ha of vineyards are mostly concentrated in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Campania and have a terroir of clay, granite, and limestone in a humid, sub-tropical climate. The first wines were made when the Portuguese brought vines to the country in 1532.  There are no native grape varietals in Brazil, its winemaking success is attributed to grape varieties such as Isabel vines which account for 80% of all vines planted along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.  Red wine is the dominant production but Brazil has also earned the reputation of producing exceptional “Espumante” sparkling wines. In addition to European grape varieties, Brazil's viticultural landscape is enriched by indigenous American grapes and hybrids, which have played a crucial role in the country's wine history. Red varieties like Isabel, Bordô, and Concord have contributed to Brazil's winemaking tradition since the 19th century and continue to shape the country's evolving wine scene.


Photo credit: Wine Enthusiast

Uruguay is the 4th largest wine producer in South America. has approximately 180 wineries and 6,000 hectares of vineyards over five different regions with a terroir composed of Quaternary sediments, clay, limestone, and granite.  The maritime climate is dominated by the winds, tides, and storms that blow in from the Atlantic Ocean creating mild temperatures ideal for grape production.  Often overlooked as a wine-producing country, exceptional wines have been made there for centuries.  Tannat the flagship grape varietal is called Harriague in tribute to Pascal Harriague, a French winemaker from the Basque country in Southwest France who in 1870 brought Tannat to the country.  It accounts for 36% of red wine production and is the second-largest production in the world after France. In 2016, the National Wine Institute of Uruguay established April 14th as Tannat Day, and the entire week that follows has been proclaimed Tannat Week, to honor Harriague's legacy. While Tannat takes the spotlight, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc are popular red varieties. White grape varietals, notably Albariño from Galicia Spain, with its crisp acidity and vibrant flavors, make it a favorite due to its quality and distinct characteristics.  Other white varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier. 


Photo Credit: The Economist

Peru has 15,000 ha of vineyards and is the fifth largest producer of wine in South America with a long rich history dating back to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century, Peru's viticultural landscape boasts a diverse array of grape varieties, each offering a unique expression of the land. Indigenous grapes like Quebranta and Negra Criolla have adapted perfectly to Peru's terroir, contributing to the diversity and quality of Peruvian wines. Historically Peruvian wine has been overshadowed by its success in exporting table grapes and producing Pisco, a type of grape brandy that holds significant cultural and historical importance in the country. However, Peru's wine industry is gaining traction as winemakers increasingly focus on quality over quantity, experimenting with different grape varieties and winemaking techniques to produce wines that rival those from more established world wine regions.

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