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South America has catapulted into the “value” wine industry conversation over the last 20 years, and it’s showing no signs of stopping that trend.
Before we go further, we should acknowledge that the volume of these wines is bountiful. There are hundreds of South American wines available in Michigan that are worth their price tag of $20 or less. And their profiles are diverse.
Chile and Argentina have, by their own volition, built their vinicultural foundations through co-opting grape varieties originally from Bordeaux, France, and expressing character of these wines and grapes at a price that lands well in export markets. Uruguay and Brazil have burgeoning wine scenes, but the infrastructure isn’t there yet.
The most important grapes on the European continent generally have origins in Bordeaux and southern France. Carménère, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Tannat all provide a healthy stuffing to anyone jamming on wines that aren’t too pricy.
Casa Lapostolle’s 2014 “Cuvée Alexandre” carménère has been the best affordable representation of what the grape is made of in the southern hemisphere. Expect to pay about $20 retail.
The Bordeaux family of grapes is notorious for having methoxypyrazines as a driving force.
What’s that mean? Well, if you’re sniffing a wine and catch a whiff of green peppers, fresh leafy herbs and peppercorn, chances are the grape could originally be from Bordeaux.
If that sounds like it’s not in your wheelhouse, the 2017 Crios Rosé of Malbec is a vivid and fresh rosé, floral and fruity. Dry in style, about $17, it is on the softer side of rosé generally, co-mingling flavors like watermelon, fresh cherries and strawberries. While the Michigan wine grape harvest tends to be in September and October, grapes in Mendoza, Argentina, are picked near the month of February — you know, different hemisphere and all.
One non-Bordelaise white variety that South America can claim to highlight is torrontés. It is technically three grape varieties, with the torrontés riojano variety as the most planted.
Bodega Colomé’s 2016 Torrontes ($20) is arguably the most consistent example of this fragrant wine. Often enough, it smells like a combination of perfume and fruity pebbles. Donald Hess revitalized this Salta, Argentina, winery. The bottling is a fair representation of coaxing all of those lovely floral notes alongside reasonably contained tropical and stone fruit flavors.
Astonishingly, the Bodega Colomé is found about 24.5 degrees south of the equator, which one would think is too hot for a moderate climate suitable for wine grape growing. For comparison, Dubai, notoriously a hot desert climate, is at 25.5 degrees north of the equator.
Wines can be well made in Salta, largely due to the elevation. The city itself is at 3,000 feet, but many of the vineyards are located between 6,000 to 10,000 feet elevation. The vineyard sites are much cooler at night, helping the grapes not to ripen so quickly.
Back down south in Mendoza, Argentina, the 2015 Padrillos Malbec ($15) is a right-up-the-middle wine that drinks like an everyday wine should. Rich red fruit, just enough tannin to go with most beef dishes, with a playful balance that never veers into flabby or too high in alcohol.
This Malbec is just screaming to go alongside a burger you aim to devour at your Spartan football tailgate.
If you cannot find these wines, there are many comparable options out there on shelves of your favorite local, independent retailer. But don’t wait until game day to find out.
Justin King is a certified sommelier and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt, and was named one of Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Best New Sommeliers in 2017.