South America’s (Wine) MVPs

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My first wine tour of South America begins today. In every region, everywhere in the world, there are always a critical few people who lead the shift from bulk to quality wines, and show the pathway into global markets.

Absent major political and economic deterrents, it’s true that winegrapes can grow reasonably well without much human intervention. Many would argue that less is more. But personal touches matter, especially today because we know so much about terroir, agriculture, chemistry and other key process factors. Selecting a good site, planting grapes well suited to that site, nurturing the vineyard through Mother Nature’s life cycles, healthy practices in the vineyard and during winemaking operations, and knowing when to pick in good conditions and bad. These are all human decisions that make a difference in the quality of finished wine.

Every New World country was propelled onto the global stage by a late 20th  century catalyst. The infamous 1976 “judgment of Paris” was a dramatic turning point for wine development in the U.S. In 1994, the end of South African apartheid unleashed 25 years of private entrepreneurship for white and black owners. New Zealand found its international magic in ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc. Australia overcame a poor reputation owing mostly to a glut of sweet and fortified wines, first by grubbing up vines and later by investing in production technology and enforcing quality standards. At various points during a twenty-year period (1970s-90s), key individuals in South America made the dramatic moves that reset the game board for quality winegrowing in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. (This same story can be told about some European countries, notably Spain, which took great advantage of advances in equipment, technology and labeling regulations to restore eminence to an historic wine producing reputation.)

Without further ado, introducing South America’s “Most Valuable Pioneers” (MVPs), a small collection of the most influential people who helped to propel the “big four” countries into the modern era of the global wine trade!

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Only one in ten winemakers in South America is female. The grand dame is most certainly Susana Balbo who has dominated the wine scene in Argentina for more than 35 years. In 1981, she was the first woman to graduate from the school of oenology in Mendoza. She has served three times as elected president of the trade group Wines of Argentina. Launching her own winery in 1999 in the Luján de Cuyo region, and recently joined by her two children, Balbo makes three ranges: “nosotros” single vineyard 100% Malbec, signature reserve, and crios (“children”).

The undisputed patriarch of fine wine in Argentina is third generation winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata, widely credited with reviving Argentina’s industry in the 1990s. Among his revolutionary moves was to hire renowned international consultants, including Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland, to share their deep knowledge with winemakers in and around Mendoza. For example, they pioneered extended maceration and use of new oak barrels in Argentina. Catena was named “Man of the Year” in 2009 by Decanter Magazine. His daughter Laura joined the family enterprise in 2001 to manage R&D, and the next year created Luca Wines named for her oldest son – a 5th generation on the way?

Antonio and Rinaldo dal Pizzol are considered to be leaders of the boutique wine movement in Brazil since 1974, focusing on direct sales to customers (consumer and trade) rather than large-scale production. Even today, the Dal Pizzol winery sells more than half its wine independently without distributors.

Reinaldo de Lucca is the current generation of an Italian immigrant family that began making wine in Uruguay in the 1940s. He was one of the leaders of the so-called “reconstruction” of the wine industry at de Lucca winery 20 years ago. With multiple wine-related and business degrees from prestigious higher education institutions around the world, he is one of the most highly trained winemakers, certainly in Uruguay, and perhaps in South America. Enjoy Alder Yarrow’s recent Vinography post sharing his October visit to de Lucca winery.

Although his influence was felt a full century before the modernists in this blogpost, no story about MVPs would be complete without Don Pascual Harriague. He is credited with bringing the Tannat grape to Uruguay in 1870 from the Basque region near the Pyrénées, specifically Madiran. Today, Tannat is the signature grape of Uruguay, occupying nearly 50% of all vineyard area.

Adriano Miolo is Brazil’s largest grower and producer of fine wine. According to Evan Goldstein in “Wines of South America,” Miolo is the Catena of Brazil in his “visionary outlook and focus on quality” and is known for pioneering new winegrowing areas such as Campanha Gaúcha. Miolo Wine Group, formed in 2006, has assembled more than 100 products from national and international partnerships, including 8 wine projects in Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Spain (in addition to Brazil).

Aurelio Montes is a pioneer and the modern patriarch of quality wine in Chile. With three other partners, in 1988 Montes founded the winery originally called Discover Wine. Soon their Cabernet Sauvignon wines, rebranded as Montes Alpha, were being sold in 100 countries worldwide. Other growing regions, vineyards and varietal wines soon followed, and are widely considered benchmarks for quality Chilean wines. Iconic wines include Montes Alpha M, Montes Folly and Purple Angel. Son Aurelio Montes, Jr., runs Kaiken, a premium winery established in Argentina in 2002.

Continuing the Spanish tradition of exploring the new world and building on three centuries of family winemaking in the Penedès region of Spain, Miguel Torres “discovered” Chile in 1979. He declared it a viticultural paradise. Looking back 35+ years, Torres considers that initial foray to be stage one of a decade-long journey that helped to catapult Chile’s international reputation starting in the mid-1990s. The hallmarks of a second stage of development included identifying new growing areas, planting additional vines, and taking advantage of viticultural technology. Today the Torres empire includes nearly a dozen brands in Chile.

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzo brothers; de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Morio

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzol brothers; Reinaldo de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Adriano Miolo

Andes photo courtesy of tripwow.tripadvisor.com.

Balbo, Catena, Montes and Torres photos courtesy of vineconnections.com; catenawines.com, wine-searcher.com, wsj.com.

dal Pizzol, de Lucca, Miolo and Don Pascual wine bottle photos courtesy of dalpizzol.com.br, vino-pasion.blogspot.com, pautasdeguarda.com, bonde.com.br.

 

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