Holding the goblet up, the sunlight reveals the merlot’s deep crimson color. The torrentés wine in that same light has a pale golden tone. This, the pallet of the austral autumn sun upon the changing leaves of the South American vineyards.
It was the Spaniards who first brought vineyards to South America. The Jesuit priests cultivated them for wine to serve at their masses: the crimson-blood of Christ presented in gold chalices. These vinos were also partaken by the conquistadores and their descendants, the ruling class of this continent, those men (and women) who lusted for gold and whose hands were soiled by the blood of millions.
The only part of South America where the vineyards survived from those years of the Spanish conquest is in the Southern Cone – Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. The Mediterranean climate allowed the vines to grow sweet, flavorful fruits.
After South America’s independence from Spain in the 19th century, new immigrants from Italy, Portugal and France came from across that broad Atlantic sea. They revitalized the vineyards, bringing a taste of their homelands to this New World. The wines of these nations have become famous around the globe.
For a long time, Chile and Argentina were the only hope for us budget travelers to be able to partake of wine. Production is so great that you can get a fine bottle for a few dollars.
In the other South American nations, imported wine has always been the norm – and an expensive option due to both import taxes and the difficulties in maintaining the stock in good condition. If not properly stored (with the cork down, to keep it moist and thus prevent humidity – especially salt-laden air – from entering the bottle), you could end up buying a very expensive bottle of (=shudder=) vinegar.
Second, the humid, tropical climate doesn’t allow for the cultivation of ordinary wine grapes: The vines do not have time to rest, to repose in a cool climate; thus they do not produce sweet, flavorful grapes perfect for making great wine. Because of the year-round warm temperatures, the fruit is “spent,” and the resulting wine has either a turpentine essence to it (like in Guatemala) or else a sickeningly sweet taste from so much sugar being added to allow good fermentation (as Ecuadorian wines are wont to be).
That is definitely not what this poor woman traveler can afford!
However, in recent years special tropical and high-altitude grapes have been introduced. With the assistance of viticulture technicians from Chile, France and other wine-producing countries, many South American countries are now making their own marks in the world of enology. You can travel from Venezuela to the Patagonia, stopping at bodegas all along the way to sample their fruits of the vine!
Get our map and let's go touring South American vineyards. Most are accessible by bus, if not directly, to a town close by. Some wineries are very low cost (or even free!), and others a bit more expensive. Many require advance reservation. Take the opportunity, though, to learn about winemaking and taste the delightful fruits of South America’s vines.
To get the map, just go grab it from our online store to download.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored 10 guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; 18 anthologies and 12 chapbooks – including the new collection of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For several decades, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.
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