Sparkling wine – South America

South America
As a sweeping statement – most home produced sparkling wine is consumed domestically, mostly with a fruit forward style, using the charmat method. Crucial acidity is maintained by virtue of altitude, latitude, or climate moderation through proximity to cool ocean currents.

Argentina is the largest wine producer in South America, with 1.4bn litres from 220k ha of vineyard (2011), from 25k individual vineyards. Mendoza is the main production region. Population 40m, wine consumption 30 litres a head.

Terroir and viticulture – Mendoza
The Mendoza region in the  west in the foothills of the Andes, dominates production, with 150k ha of vineyard.  The vineyard is at high altitude, 500-1700m, with a semi-desert continental climate – so dry summers, with warm sunny days and cool nights preserving acidity, with a large diurnal temperature range.  There is little precipitation, 15-40cm, relying in the main on Andean meltwater for irrigation, and so humidity and disease pressure are low, and organic viticulture relatively unproblematic.

Soils have a low nutrient level – mostly alluvial sand over clay, emphasising the riverine dependence.  More than half the vineyard is planted with premium varieties, all are on rootstocks given that the land is not phylloxera free. Historically training was by pergola, nowadays it is cordon trained on wires, spur pruned VSP.

The remainder of the vineyard is occupied by the traditional high yielding, light-skinned red varieties of criolla chica (see also Chile entry for pais), criolla grande and cereza.

Viticultural risks include spring frosts, sunburn, the Zonda – a hot dry wind that blows at flowering time, and hail – which is a climactic feature and predictable, so many net against it and farm in a number of zones to mitigate loss.

Terroir and viticulture – Neuquen and Rio Grande
There is also mention on the Internet of Neuquen and Rio Negro provinces, to the south of and adjoining Mendoza.  The higher latitude allows cool-climate varieties like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir to do well, malbec too.  Soils are sandy alluvial again, but with gravel content.  High quality sparkling wines, often made in association with Champagne houses, show promise.

Sparkling wine production
Argentina is also the largest producer of sparkling wine (vino espumantes) in South America, and Mendoza Province is the focal point – everyone is there; varieties used include: chardonnay, chenin blanc and semillon; malbec (in rose blends) and pinot noir.

The charmat method dominates.  In 2011 there were over 100 sparkling producers, making 35m litres of wine, of which 31m went to the domestic market and 4m to export. Export markets from the top – Brazil, Venezuala, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, US and Japan. The government, through tax breaks, is supporting small producers and promoting increased sparkling wine production.  Domestic consumption of all wine is about 30 litres a head (2012) – the result, it is said, of Italian and Spanish forbears, and about 1 litre of sparkling a head.

Some French Champagne houses have set up in Argentina, using the traditional method with a few months lees ageing.  Houses include Bodegas Chandon (LVMH) in Mendoza, est. 1959 – the largest sparkling wine producer in Argentina, with at least some wines being traditional method; and Mumm (Pernod-Ricard), making charmat and traditional methods wines from chardonnay and pinot noir.  These wines retail from $US2-13, so they are very competitive domestically.

Domestic premium producers include:

  • Cave Extreme.
  • Navarro Correas.
  • Lopez – de-stems, charmat method with up to 6 months lees ageing in tank.
  • Bianchi.
  • Trapiche – charmat method.
  • Paul Caraguel.

Brazil is the 3rd largest wine producer in South America, at about 300m litres, viticulture is concentrated in the far south, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, with 90k ha of vineyard, of which 10k ha are vitis vinifera plantings (2009). Population 200m, wine consumption 2 litres a head.

Terroir and viticulture – Serra Gaucha
90% of fine wine (vitis vinifera based) is produced in the far south of Brazil, in the damp and chilly Serra Gaucha (cowboy hills),  in Rio Grande do Sul state (produces 95% of all Brazilian wine), a couple of hundred kilometres from the Uruguayan border further to the south.  Rainfall is high – 1800mm, half falls in the growing season, summers are moist and warm – there is no dry season, so it’s humid, with a serious fungal risk. Cloudy/rainy conditions also affect ripening and dilute grape sugars – so chaptalisation is permitted. Altitude from 400-700m, with thin acid water retentive clay soils.

There are about 40k ha of vineyard, the hilly terrain makes it difficult to mechanise, hence the 16k growers on small holdings, training high on pergolas to avoid fungal disease.  High yielding US and hybrid vines dominate since they are well suited to the humid climate e.g. Isabella, together with moscato.   Vitis vinifera were introduced in the 1970s – chardonnay, semillon, gewutrztraminer, merlot and many others, now amounting to about 30% of plantings; there has been a move to lower yields with these. Harvest is often early, so malic acid is high, and not all undergo MLF, so wines can be tart.  There are 49 wineries producing 6m litres of wine in 2009.

The first Brazilian GI is in Rio Grande do Sul – Vale dos Vinhedos, established in 2001.

Terroir and viticulture – Fronteira (was Campanha Gaucha)
This region, under development, is also in Rio Grande do Sul, but further south, running along the border with Uruguay.  Growing conditions are better all round relative to Serra Gaucha, there is less rain – 1400mm, more sun, easier ripening and more fruit character.  It’s flatter, with less fertile sandy soils and good drainage; 100-300m altitude.  1300ha of vitis vinfera were planted there by 2005, more since, to make quality wine, from chardonnay, gewürztraminer, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and many reds.

Domestic all wine type consumption is 2 litres per capita, and just 0.4 litres per capita of vitis vinifera wine. 12.5m litres of sparkling wine were exported in 2010, to, from the top: Paraguay, Russia, then much much smaller to UK, US and Japan  The dominant production is Italian sweet Asti Spumante, and sweet frizzante Moscato.  They are good value for money and compete strongly in the domestic market against imports from other regions – there is a slowly growing uptake from the middle classes, but must also compete with Cachaca (from sugar cane spirit), which is very low-cost and beer.

Product is commonly labelled with terms such as champagna, asti and prosecco, this of course cannot be exported to the EU, and then there is the question of quality – varieties used and high yield.  Just 40 out of 700 producers regularly export, and few of those to UK.

In the 1970s European houses started arriving, attracted by the size of the domestic market.  In 1973 LVMH as Moet et Chandon, Chandon do Brasil, with 40ha vineyard for 20% needs, the rest from contract growers; traditional method chardonnay and pinot noir blends, with 6 months on lees. In 1974 Bacardi Martini and Rossi started tank method productions, and Georges Aubert [from Die] also using the tank method with contract growers.  More recently Perrier-Jouet (Pernod Ricard) is investing in Brazil, where it hopes sales will make up for the slumping domestic champagne market where there is heavy discounting; reported in Just Drinks 21/6/13.

Co-ops and other major/interesting producers

  • Co-op Aurora – largest wine producer with 1100 growers on 3300ha producing 40m litres of wine of, including 4 sparkling styles – brut pinot noir, brut chardonnay (use of French oak barriques), prosecco and muscatel. Production method not given.  Export to 8 countries.
  • Co-op Approvale – based in Vale dos Vinhedos represents 30 wineries together with associated businesses.
  • Miolo – the largest family owned winery and producer of quality wines in Brazil, with 1200ha, 450 in Vale dos Vinhedos, also in Campanha Gaucha; produces 12m litres of wine. Sparkling production started in 1990. They had one wine in Waitrose, Traditional Brut Rose, 12.5%, a chardonnay-pinot noir and merlot blend, about £10. Miolo uses the consultant Michel Rolland, and now uses wire trellis and vertical training, instead of the traditional pergola.
  • Peterlongo – produces a range of sparkling wines, using terms such as champagne, champenoise and prosecco.
  • Salton – charmat method producer of esoteric blends – chardonnay and riesling; gewurztramminer, glera, malvasia and muscat giallo; and a moscato.

Styles, 3 official ones

  • Champagna – 2nd fermentation in bottle or tank, 10-13%, >3atm.
  • Vino Moscatel Spumante – made from moscato, single fermentation in bottle or tank, 7-10%, >3atm.
  • Gasified – CO2 by any method, 10-13%, >2<3atm.

The 2nd largest wine producer in South America, producing 1.3bn litres (2013) and exporting 765m litres from 126k ha of vineyard. Population 17m, wine consumption 17 litres a head.

There are 25-30 sparkling producers, and doing some adding up, they make about 10m litres of sparkling,  mostly charmat method for the domestic market using mainly chardonnay and semillon, with chenin blanc and riesling; and some traditional method, from chardonnay and pinot noir.

Sparkling wine exports are >4m (2013), so this is a, relatively, embryonic trade.  Conosur, MiguelTorres, Undurraga and Valdevieso have a UK market presence, with NV Brut offerings and roses, sub or around the £10 mark.  Unconstrained by European style regulation, there are straight chardonnays and chardonnay-pinot noirs, and blends of chardonnay-semillon, chardonnay-chenin blanc and chardonnay-pinot noir-riesling.

Terroir and viticulture
Chile extends 1200kms north to south, and so has a wide climactic variation that can suit almost all varieties.

There is little rainfall in the growing season through to harvest, so disease pressure is low, and the land is phylloxera free. In general there is a broad diurnal temperature range, slowing ripening and allowing  flavour precursors to develop and acidity to be preserved. In more detail then, in the main areas where sparkling wine is produced, from north to south:

  • Limari Valley – 300 miles north of Santiago at about 30S, with a semi-arid Mediterranean climate, with cooling fogs off the cold Humboldt current entering the valley each morning; mostly dry for 9-10 months, with only 150mm rain, this means drip irrigation.  Soils are clay, silt and chalk. Varieties – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and syrah.
  • Aconcagua – is an east-west valley 40 miles north of Santiago, having a Mediterranean climate, so hot summers and mild winters; mostly dry for 9-10 months, with 200mm rain; altitude 400-1200m.  Soils are clay and sand to the east and clay and granite in the west. Varieties – cabernet sauvignon is dominant.
  • Casablanca – 20-40kms from the coast, at the same latitude as Santiago.  A cool Mediterranean climate, with a marked maritime influence – proximity to the ocean gives early-morning fog, that burns off by midday, keeping temperatures low and adding moisture in an otherwise dry terrain, with just 500mm rain; altitude 400-500m.  Soils are clay and sandy. Varieties – chardonnay, pinot noir and  sauvignon blanc.
  • Maule – Chile’s largest wine region.  In the coastal area it’s a cool Mediterranean climate, cool and wet, with 750mm rain; altitude about 400m. Soils are alluvial, clay and sand. Varieties – chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; pais and pinot noir.  Inland it is much drier, as with BioBio, where pais thrives.
  • Bio Bio –  here wine makers are pushing the geographical limits for grape growing.  Inland the climate is very dry and unirrigated, whilst in the coastal area there is a moderate Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights giving a long ripening season – similar to Northern France, and retaining fresh acidity.  High rainfall – 1300mm, risk of frost and suffers from strong winds. Soils are alluvial, clay and sand. Varieties – chardonnay, muscat of alexandria, riesling and sauvignon blanc; pais (inland) and pinot noir.

A note on pais – a hitherto undervalued pale skinned red variety, the mission grape of California and criolla chica in Argentina, but originally from Spain. Pais is planted mostly in the Maule and BioBio Valleys, totalling 15k ha with 8000 growers (2008); it’s the 2nd most planted variety after cabernet sauvignon. It does well in up-country in  drought-like situations where it is bush trained to protect against sun burn, giving 3t/ha, but even better in the irrigated plains of the more coastal areas, with yields up to 30t/ha.  Pais is mainly used for cheap domestic rose, with low alcohol and fresh acidity – ideal as sparkling base wine material, and tart red fruit flavours.  The economy in these 2 areas is traditionally poor – there is a Government initiative since 2007 to improve this, and  the livelihood of the farmers, and do something more rewarding with pais – see how Miguel Torres is helping, below.

Main export markets outside South America, top down – US, UK, China, Japan and Spain. And some major producers:

Conosur – vineyards in BioBio, produce 2 sparkling wines – a rose from pinot noir, and a brut, with varieties not given.  Charmat method. Varieties grown – chardonnay, gewürztraminner, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc.

Errazuriz, a major still wine producer is moving into the sparkling market, with a first release in 2014/15, traditional method, chardonnay and pinot noir, from Aconcagua and Casablanca (Decanter, 27/09/12).

Miguel Torres, the major Spain based producer, with a substantial still wine business in Chile, has 2 sparkling wines, a traditional method pinot noir brut, and a traditional method pais rose.  Pais’ high acidity and low alcohol make it a suitable candidate for sparkling wine – Torres developed the traditional method rose with the University of Talc, under the Government funded initiative, above.   The idea was to develop a truly Chilean traditional method sparkling wine, as a niche wine, alongside Cava and Champagne.  The establishment of a specific D.O. has been proposed; and I think there is an idea to call it ‘Estelado’. The rose retails at £14 here, and US$12 in the local market.

Undurraga, owns 1800ha in the best regions; produces 5 sparkling wines, all charmat method, either varietal or blends of chardonnay and pinot noir, in nature, brut and demi-sec styles.

Valdivieso is the oldest and largest producer in the domestic market, with 400k c/s, holding 75% of that market, together with major volumes to Brazil and Venezuala.   The main product is a blend of chardonnay and semillon by the charmat method; with some bottle fermented blend of chardonnay and pinot noir.

Tasting notes

The 4th largest wine producer in South America, producing 90m litres and exporting 10m litres – the top quality, from 10k ha of vineyard.  Production is centred on the Montivideo area, with 90% of the total vineyard, on gently undulating coastal land with loamy soils. It has a maritime climate, so it’s sunny and wet, cooled at night by southerly breezes off the cold Antarctic currents that sweep by the coast – so ripening is slowed, flavour precursors develop and acidity is preserved.  Further up the Plate Estuary soils are more fertile alluvial – vigour is controlled using the lyre training system, to carry more fruit and ripen it; cover crops are also used to control vigour.  The more humid climate increases disease pressure.  There is a recent move by quality producers to use wire training and VSP. Population 3.4m, domestic consumption is second to Argentina, at 23 litres a head.

Most are small producers (250 in total), and most have a sparkling wine, only 10% of these export, with little seen in the UK – 2 traditional method artisanal volume wines appear available – a sparkling tannat locally known as harriague (Pisano) and a white extra brut (Juanico).  Freixenet has a presence here.  In July 2013 Uruguayan sparkling remains below the UK radar, with not a mention of it in an article on the best from Uruguay, in Harpers Wine and Spirits Trades Review.

Varieties chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier; cabernet sauvignon, merlot, some pinot noir, syrah and tannat (harriague).

Main export markets – Russia, Brazil and US.

Tasting notes

References (all South America)

Updated 06/11/18

About citbp

I am interested in everything about wine, from site selection to tasting.
This entry was posted in SOUTH AMERICA, SPARKLING WORLDWIDE. Bookmark the permalink.

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