Rating South American icons

This was a fascinating panel tasting for Decanter back in January 2019 (published in the June 2019 edition).

The focus was ‘icon’ bordeaux-style blends from South America. In other words, some of the continent’s most expensive and highly vaunted wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec etc.

It’s always intriguing to taste wines of this kind blind and in a competitive set.

How did it go? Well, it was rewarding on many levels. The results were positive, with much to get excited about – even if there were, as usual, caveats.

Give all the wines were £30+, we judges were justifiably expecting something special from each and every wine. Did we get that? No, but the strike rate was impressive enough that, on this evidence, those looking to buy these expensive bordeaux blends from South America can have confidence.

Complexity is an absolute must from a bordeaux blend. There was plenty on display here, along with a fair amount of structure and power. 

The challenge with South American wine is to ensure that this complexity and structure doesn’t go too far. Or, to put it another way, to ensure that these wines are elegant and refreshing as well as complex and well structured.

What’s the point in a wine that’s barely drinkable because it’s so alcoholic, dense, tannic and woody? None – though it seems may South American winemakers in the past have forgotten this.

So we tasters were looking for nuance and subtlety as well as complexity. And I found it perhaps more than I had expected – which is a reason to be positive.

It seems South American winemakers are finally getting the message that freshness and restraint are key in fine wine. Such balance also ensures the wines are age worthy – big soupy alcoholic reds rarely age well, even if they are made from Cabernet. And we saw plenty of evidence of wines ageing and developing well here, particularly those from Chile. 

One thing that can be improved on is scent. Bordeaux blends should have evocative, lifted perfume, not just blocky ripe fruit – many wines didn’t accomplish this. The best did. Sometimes age helps this process. But it’s good to have it in youth too. South American winemakers shouldn’t be afraid of a bit of green (herbal/leafy notes) in their Bordeaux blends: it’s in the DNA of these grapes, after all. And it softens over time.

We also expected (demanded, even) excitement in these wines, as they should deliver at these price points. And, by and large, we got it – even though I think we will get more of this as the wines, winemakers and vineyards are fine tuned over time. Time, after all, is the one essential ingredient to fine wine.

Argentina performed well, with some impressive Cab Franc-based wines, and the Malbec-Cab Sav blends also notable. The evidence in this tasting was that Argentina is more prepared to take risks, push boundaries in these wines than Chile, which can be more samey. The wines were more rewarding as a result.

It’s important to note that some big names, especially those from Chile, weren’t present in this tasting, which is a shame. So it’s not the whole panorama. Would also have been nice to see some more wines from Uruguay…and some from Brazil…

In short, an impressive tasting. But one that leaves you wanting more.

This is a category that perhaps hasn’t been the most ‘exciting’ in South America to date, despite providing some of its highest priced wines. But a renewed focus on Cab Sav is starting to pave the way for some truly world class wines. I fully expect this tasting in 10 years time to be stellar.

[South American premium red blends appeared in Decanter magazine’s June 2019 edition]


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