Chile and Argentina are both defined by their shared border of the Andes Cordillera, that jagged mountain chain that runs down the spine of southern South America and affects the two countries in climate, history, politics and attitude.
On the Chilean side, the mountains are omnipresent. The country is so long and so narrow that the Andes seem to both protect and isolate the Chileans.
On my recent jaunt to witness Harvest 2012, South American style (discussed in part in my last column here), I got the sense that Chile has emerged from dominance by Spain, Peru, military juntas, aristocratic cabals and dictators to become a peaceful, prosperous, democratic nation. A week visiting Santiago and the surrounding countryside gave me the snapshot impression of Chile as a laid-back, cheerful, generous place with many stray dogs.
Flying over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza was worth the whole trip. Though the flight lasts barely half an hour, the view of the cordillera from above brought a lifetime’s worth of vivid images. From the moment I exited the plane, I felt a different ambience in Argentina. The Andes are just as dominant as they are in Chile, excepting that between the mountains and the sea, Argentina’s lands are vast.
Although her history is in many ways similar to Chile’s (both honor the illegitimate son of the Irishman who represented Spain in Peru, Bernardo O’Higgins, as a hero), Argentina feels far more touched by European influence. Argentines are serious about business.
In Buenos Aires, after their independence from Spain in 1816, the citizens replaced most traces of their Hispanic heritage with grand Parisian-style buildings, Italian parks and English railroads. Still speaking Spanish, they became fully international.
Argentina’s wine industry has also been distinctly influenced by European winemakers, especially in recent years as some notable French vintners have taken advantage of Argentina’s recent financial crisis. My own interest in Bordeaux wines, and my curiosity about the globalization of wine, prompted my visit to a DiamAndes and Atamisque—both owned by French producers and about an hour from Mendoza in the Uco Valley, where Argentina’s best vineyards are located.
DiamAndes, owned by the Bonnie family (who also own the Grand Cru Classé Chateau Lamartic-Lagravière and Chateau Gazin Rocquencourt in Bordeaux), is part of a new 2,000-acre vineyard development called “Clos de los Siete,” which translates to “enclosure of the seven.” World-renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland convinced seven of his Bordeaux clients to invest here, with him, creating separate wineries plus one joint winery that makes a keystone brand, Clos de los Siete.
Each winery is a stunning architectural statement, making the whole Clos an eerie mixture of ultra-modern glass, steel and concrete, set against a backdrop of the soaring Andes. The land is brilliant green wherever irrigation feeds the vines and landscaping, but quasi-desert on the periphery. Every winery in the Clos makes use of the most contemporary innovations, including micro-oxydation, sorting tables, large oak fermenters to augment stainless steel, and inert gas presses.
Atamisque is similar, but also has its own nut and fruit trees, plus trout ponds, to make the farm sustainable.
Like the Maipo, Colchagua and Casablanca valleys of Chile, the Uco valley in March is a balmy paradise. Huge birch and eucalyptus trees form allées along dusty roads that pass vast orchards and vineyards, often marked by roses, sunflowers, hibiscus and other brilliant flowers.
Although these new wineries are intended as tourist magnets, they are gated and require appointments. Most people come with tour groups, a good idea since road or route signs are scarce, as I found, driving around in a tiny Chevy. But getting there is half the fun, and once at the wineries, the welcome is extraordinary.
I enjoyed spectacular five-course lunches at DiamAndes, Atamisque and Mendoza’s fine restaurant, Azafran, where I learned that “rare” beef is cooked medium-well in Argentina, and that Argentines are brownie-obsessed.
As for the wines, they were more California- than Bordeaux-style. Even with the guidance of Mr. Rolland, Argentina’s winemakers must adapt French techniques to fruit ripened under a brilliant, blazing sun.
Altitude and cool nights preserve acidity here, but some of the nuances of Bordeaux are absent. They succeed well with aromatic viognier and voluptuous cabernet, syrah, and malbec.
French oak dominates their wines, but that may change as new Argentine laws preventing foreign imports (like French barrels) and taxing exports at 35 percent affect how her wines are made and marketed. It’s a new worry for Argentine businesses.