I was at the Vines of Mendoza last night when someone asked Bodega Enrique Foster's winemaker Mauricio Lorca what he thought the difference was between Argentine and Chilean wine. Naturally he struggled to find a simple answer to such a broad and nearly impossible question. Eventually his circuitous effort focussed in on climatic factors - and in my opinion, that leads to the only single-word answer that could be given to the original question: consistency.
Chile is on the 'wet', oceanic side of the Andes. The vineyards are generally at considerably lower altitude. While there isn't a lot of ambient moisture during summer, there is cloud cover for at least part of most days, reducing sunlight hours. Rainfall is considerably higher during the year, so despite the long dry summers there is a lot of ground water. This means that many vines don't need any irrigation whatsoever - sucking all the water they need (and more) from the subterranean water tables.
That means Chilean vines, and thus wines, are much more susceptible to climate effects from year to year. Vine management in Argentina is much more straightforward - you give them as much water as you want to. You can water stress them to force the roots deeper, to extract more minerals. You can starve them to keep the fruit small and concentrated. In Chile, vines with deep roots may find the water to bloat their grapes regardless of what you do. This has implications for the target yield and how much fruit to drop during the green harvest. The best growers in Chile know this, of course, and are now planting on hillsides where they are much better able to control the water uptake, albeit for the cost of more physically difficult management.
So, there are unquestionable some excellent wines coming out of Chile but from year to year and harvest to harvest, winemakers in Argentina working closely with their agronomists are better able to ensure consistency in their product. Hailstorms notwithstanding, of course.
Last week I managed to get across to a couple of Chilean vineyards down in the Colchagua valley, a couple of hours south of Santiago. It's roughly the same latitude as San Rafael, in Mendoza terms. This is where Montes has their home base, and they're doing some great work (the Feb-March edition of the Grapevine
magazine has an excellent feature on Montes penned by local expert Charles Pestridge, although you need to pick up the print version to read it just for the moment). One of the first to plant to a hillside, their "Folly" Syrah really highlighted the quality gains that could be made through the additional investment of labour in clearing and planting on a slope. It's floral, spicy, crisp, with all the varietal hallmarks of pepper, smoke and chocolate. But the rest of their range is impressive too, and well priced. The Alpha Chardonnay is fresh and subtle with good citric notes to balance the tropical characters. The Alpha Syrah is a beautiful deep ruby red with a rich and intense smokey nose with biscuity oak.
Before you accuse me of getting too far off topic, Montes also make wine in Argentina under the Kaiken label. And the Kaiken Ultra Malbec, in particular, is a real cracker - packed with plums, cherries, and dried currants, smoke, caramel and floral notes as well as that spicy biscuit edge that the Alpha range displays.
Oh - one last bit of trivia. If the ink-blotted caricatures on the Montes labels look oddly familiar, that's because they're drawn by Ralph Steadman, well known for his cover illustrations of Hunter S Thompson's books including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
. Enough reason in itself to collect the set.