I’m off to a much-anticipated wine tour of Chile and Argentina with BK Wine Tours. Always wanting to know as much as possible about the history and culture of place, I have synthesized the early history of winemaking in those two countries plus Brazil and Uruguay. Check back in a few days for a pre-visit nod to some of South America’s most influential people, and follow my journey (including a drive across the curvaceous Andes Mountains)!
Reliable documentation of the history of wine in South America is spotty at best. There is a large gap of information about events occurring between the earliest days of European conquistadores and colonialists (1500-1700) and pivotal events occurring in the mid- to late-1800s, then another leap to modern stories unfolding over the past 30-40 years. Dynamic economic and political influences, including vast waves of European immigration, are central to the stories and the gaps. But even without a consistent story line, it is clear that the “big four” countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have prevailed through more than five centuries. Why? Location, location, location!
It’s perhaps no surprise that outsiders were attracted to the many riches of South America, especially in the regions that have become major suppliers of fine wine. The long tail of latitude stretching across the Southern Hemisphere, which slices through the most important New World wine regions, is a thin band from 33° to 35°. Three of South America’s “big four” wine regions’ central cities — Santiago (Chile), Mendoza (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay) — align perfectly in this sweet spot. (Following the thread eastward around the globe, we can see that Cape Town, South Africa, as well as Margaret River, Adelaide and Sydney/Hunter Valley areas in Australia, complete a premier line-up of fine winegrowing regions. But that’s another story…)
The long, thin countries of Chile and Argentina offer many diverse wine regions — 750 and 1,000 linear miles of vines respectively — hugging both sides of the Andes Mountains. Uruguay’s best wine regions encircle the capital city of Montevideo, benefiting from coastal influences. Brazil is a unique giant of a country spanning about the same distance as traveling from New York to San Francisco. Its most important quality wine vineyards are situated in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sol, which at 30° is theoretically at the top of the Southern Hemisphere growing band. In defiance of that rule, however, Brazil also grows viño commún (common) wine grapes mostly for domestic consumption in cool high-altitude locations near the equator.
Although this short blogpost can’t fully illuminate the complexities of South American history, it is important to note that the “big four” countries share common bonds. Linking back to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of South America in 1498, early Spanish and Portuguese immigrants colonized much of the continent, setting the roots of winegrowing in South America during the 1500-1700s. Because there were no indigenous varieties, the early settlers planted grapes from seed, a category today known as criollas that includes the widely grown País grape used to make pisco, arguably one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in South America.
Again, it is important to underscore the gap in what is known about winegrowing in South America during the subsequent two centuries as French and Italian immigrants began to arrive. Picking up the public record in the 1800s, we know that each country experienced a major change (albeit quite varied) that sparked growth of their respective domestic wine industries:
- Argentina benefited immensely from new rail service that in 1885 connected Mendoza to the burgeoning markets of Buenos Aires, reducing the time to transport goods from weeks to just three days. (For an excellent analysis of Argentina’s modern wine economy, here’s a link to The Wine Economist.)
- Attempts in the mid-1500s to plant grapes in Brazil were not successful, primarily due to site selection. It wasn’t until a second wave of Spanish and Portuguese immigration occurred in the 1730s that winemaking began to take root. Diverse European immigration during 1860-1925 set the course for modern industry in southern Brazil (bordering Uruguay).
- Chile was transformed by the arrival of French immigrants seeking to capitalize on the economic boom from mining and other natural resources who brought with them vitis vinifera vine cuttings. The glory days of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay got started in 1851.
- Like Brazil, Uruguay was a popular destination for Italian immigrants in the 1800s, but Italian grapes did not fare well in the Uruguayan climate. By most accounts, it wasn’t until 1870 that a local industry got rolling when the Tannat grape was introduced and a new region created (Salto) by a Basque immigrant.
Next: South America’s “MVPs,” eight influencers who changed the trajectory of modern winegrowing.
Sources: Evan Goldstein, Wines of South America: The Essential Guide; Elin McCoy, Bloomberg Business; Alder Yarrow, Vinography; Wines of Argentina; Wines of Brazil; Wines of Chile; Wine Source Chile; Wines of Uruguay;