4 Countries Where South American Sparkling Wine Shines
In South America, bubbles are bursting with grace. Winemakers are creating an array of styles through Charmat and traditional methods using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties.
Across the continent, but particularly in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, grapes are sourced from high-altitude or coastal vineyards. Some are influenced by the cool climate of the Andes Mountains, while others are shaped by the fresh breezes off the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans.
In 1959, Moët et Chandon’s first winery outside France was established in Argentina. Since then, other Champagne houses and global winemakers have turned their eyes to South America, working alongside local experts to craft world-class, affordably priced sparklers on diverse soils.
While it isn’t always easy for South American operations to compete with the long histories of Old World wine regions, some of these producers have made sparkling wines for several years. The bigger challenge, producers say, is getting their well-crafted bubbles into global glasses.
“We have identified exceptional terroirs, especially in the highest part of the Tupungato region, to produce extraordinary sparkling wines,” says Patrick D’Aulan, founder of Alta Vista winery in Mendoza, Argentina. Born in France, D’Aulan’s family previously owned Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck.
Known for its single-vineyard Malbecs, Alta Vista also produces sparkling wines using traditional and Charmat methods. D’Aulan believes the climatic conditions in the Uco Valley are ideal for bubbles.
“With stony poor soils on the slope of the Andes Mountain range, these unique terroirs enjoy hot and sunny days but cool nights due to high altitude,” he says.
The retail price for one of its bottles, Alta Vista Brut Nature, is about $13, showing the competitive prices of South American sparkling.
Other Argentine producers exporting sparkling wines to the United States include Alpamanta, which makes a pét-nat from Criolla grapes, and Bodega Tapiz, which produces extra brut sparkling wine from Torrontés.
In Mendoza and Patagonia, producers like Salentein and Bodegas del Fin del Mundo have introduced sparkling wines to diversify their portfolios. Bodega Cruzat, Reginato and Alma 4 are among those who produce only sparkling wine.
Sparkling wine is not new to Chile. The country’s first winery devoted to sparkling wine, Valdivieso, was founded in 1879. However, as producers in Chile expand winemaking into new regions, they find an array of terroirs suitable to sparkling wines. After production started in the Central Valley, it expanded to the coast in Casablanca, and is now popular in southern areas like Malleco Valley.
“Producers are looking for places with lower temperatures that will allow them to obtain base wine with higher acidity,” says Jose Manuel Peralta, head winemaker at Viña Aquitania. The winery planted Malleco’s first Chardonnay vines in 1993. One of the owners is Ghislain de Montgolfier, who used to run his family’s Champagne house, Bollinger.
When asked if sparkling wines from Chile could be an alternative to those from Europe, Peralta says he is sure that the wines are of excellent quality, “but there is more work that needs to be done on the commercial side to present these wines as an alternative” to European bubbles.
Tuscan-born wine consultant Alberto Antonini says that “geology doesn’t know about new-world or old-world terroir. Geology is the same everywhere.”
Antonini is the consultant winemaker at Bodega Garzon in Maldonado, Uruguay, only 11 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The vines are influenced by the humid maritime climate and grow in granite soils that provide excellent drainage.
“Granite is a type of rock that gives intensity and nerve to the wines,” Antonini says. He notes that this is where he grows grapes for the winery’s traditional method sparkling wines.
When it comes to achieving wines with good natural acidity, “making wines with this level of humidity and sunlight is an advantage,” he says, comparing the region’s climate to Champagne, where clouds filter the direct radiation from the sun.
As in Argentina and Chile, Uruguay’s wine industry focuses on red wines—Tannat is generally considered Uruguayan flagship grape. Not many sparkling wines from Uruguay are exported to the United States, but many sparklers are being made in the small country at family-run wineries such as Varela Zarranz and Familia Deicas in Canelones.
In many South American countries, producers make sparkling wines to diversify their portfolios of still red and white wines. However, in Brazil, sparkling wine is often the star.
“When, in the ’90s, more imported wines were introduced to the Brazilian market, the Brazilian sparkling wines were the only local wines able to compete with them,” says Mario Geisse, founder of Familia Geisse. Born in Chile, Geisse has dedicated most of his life to sparkling wine production in Brazil, even before Chandon hired him in 1976.
Familia Geisse is one of several wineries located in Pinto Bandeira in Brazil’s Serra Gaucha, a cool-climate subregion with abundant rainfall. Vineyards are located on volcanic soils at 2,200 feet above sea level, and cloudy skies during the ripening period allow the grapes to slowly mature while preserving their acidity.
Convinced of the great characteristics of the Pinto Bandeira terroir, Geisse has worked with other producers to create a Denomination of Origin (DO) for their traditional method sparkling. Currently awaiting governmental approval, D.O Altos de Pinto Bandeira will be the first of its kind in South America. It regulates aspects of the grape growing and winemaking process, such as which grapes can be used—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and only up to 10% of Italic Riesling—and a minimum aging time of 12 months.
Brazil has a wide diversity of styles, and Italic Riesling and Moscato are two of the most popular grapes used to produce dry and sweet sparkling wine, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Other producers that export their wines to the United States include Casa Vadulga and Miolo.
Currently, South American sparkling production is small compared to the amount of still wine made in this region. However, producers offer a diverse range of styles such as Brut Nature, Brut, Extra Brut and demi-sec wines. This is a result of the work carried out over many years—in some cases for over a century—to meet the demand of thirsty local consumers. In the last 50 years, winemakers have refined their bubbles and now offer a great alternative to other traditional sparklers such as Prosecco, Cava and Champagne.