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Long Read: Pushing quality South America

Published:  17 June, 2021

Condor Wines marked its 10th anniversary this June with its South American Discovery Sessions, looking at how far the wines had come in a decade and what the next 10 years might hold for Latin America’s collective vinous offering.

What emerged from the various panel debates was very much a picture of a ‘work in progress’ with regard to both the UK market’s engagement and the viticultural evolution still underway in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Emerging grape varieties, a continued mission to focus more on premium wines, plus the need to better educate as to the variety of climates and styles from across this vast and diverse collective territory – folding in Pacific, Andean and Atlantic-influenced vineyards, along with countless micro-terroirs in between – were all highlighted. As was the continued growth of sustainable vine-growing and production.

During the final Discovery Session, What to Expect from the Next 10 Years, an audience question posed to Condor’s MD and host Lee Evans cut to the heart of the challenge for producers across South America’s trio of leading producing nations.

“Does the panel think that quality South American wines are still under-represented in the UK, do we see that changing?”

Oxford Wine Company MD John Chapman had made the point that customers have shifted in the way they engage with and buy wine quite dramatically over the past decade, becoming far more knowledgeable and considered.

This, he said, has driven a move from simply plucking a ‘product’ that they might half recognise off the shelf to buying “the detail on the wine”, with more informed choices also plugging into the “much bigger realm to choose from” as the variety on offer had grown from around the world.

From the perspective of South American producers, this could play out well, as Uruguay, Chile and Argentina continue to trial and experiment with a variety of cultivars in differing sites, with the eye on premium wines and individual, terroir-expressive styles. Wines, in short, with stories to tell.

Sarah Benson, South American buyer at Co-op, concurred with Chapman, before making the interesting point that Malbec, in a sense, is a flagship not just for Argentina but for quality South American wines as a whole, being by far the most visible style from the region.

And, as such, it informs consumer expectations of what lies beyond, presenting an accessible but rarely bottom dollar entry point, with more premium, individual and site-specific examples also continuing to gain ground.

As a portal, Malbec in many ways resembles New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc, driving increasing sales at an enviable average price point, though with a similar drawback that consumers need a push to get them to move beyond to the wealth of other wines on offer.

“Malbec is the fastest growing variety, it’s even up from Sauvignon Blanc, and I know we don’t want to all just hang our hats on Malbec, absolutely not,” said Benson.

“There’s plenty more to offer, South America for me is one of the most exciting countries in terms of growth and development, of indigenous varieties, and all these initiatives that we are seeing from producers, like dry farming and lots of environmental work going on as well.”

However, for Chapman, returning more fully to the question on quality, he stressed the need for more ‘icon’ wines – recognisable beacons of the very top quality – to emerge, to enhance the overall perception of South America’s worthiness at the mid-to-higher end.

“The problem is that the industry in South America is not that old, in certain areas certain producers have been going for years, but to get icon wines, and icon wines that stand out around the world, it takes a bit of history, a number of integers, some consistency,” he said.

“You do have the likes of [Chile’s] Sena, who trailblaze with top cuvees, but for others it’s just going to take time, it’s going to take another 10 years.”

Carla Bertellotti, MD of specialist Uruguay importer Vinos Latinos, countered that interest from UK consumers for more premium wines is growing, driving higher end South American sales.

“I can see more interest in this past 10 year from when I started and what people are asking for now. Definitely consumers are asking for more diversity, more variety, more premium wines and they’re willing to pay, although there’s still a long way to go [to equal] what people are willing to pay for a French or Italian wine,” said Bertellotti.

She added that this was because South America “doesn’t quite have that prestige yet”, but also stressed the fact that it is “producing more interesting wines now”, which is pushing more premium demand.

“In the next 10 years there’s definitely going to be an increase in the demand for fine wines [from South America],” concluded Bertellotti.

The discussion returned to Malbec and its role, with Hills Prospect’s wine director Collette Whittington-Bowers again highlighting how demand for the variety had shifted from one entry level example on lists to more calls for mid- and higher-level examples.

“It’s a journey that has only really just started,” she said.

The panel agreed that Argentina, Chile and Uruguay need to increase the breadth of their listings on supermarket, indie and restaurant portfolios, to achieve more of a critical mass as diverse categories in their own right.

“The more diversity, the more interest there is from one continent, the more it will drive a lot more people to focus on the shelves in the supermarket, or a lot more inches on a wine list in a restaurant, where you can have a whole section devoted to South America, and not just an Argie Malbec,” said Chapman.

And, say its champions, South America is clearly on its way, with the reveal of increasing diversity creating a virtuous circle. Consumers are seeking out more individual wines, and these are consumers that are also increasingly prepared to pay good money if they like the story they find in – and around – the bottle.