Epic South American Round Up, Parte Dos

Watch out Napa, Chile & Argentina are breathing down your $60-a-bottle neck with better wines at $20 and under. 

For the second installment of South American wines, we look at reds.  Hang on to your hats, folks, there are a lot. 

Bottom line here is that there are some exceptional wines to be found in the $15-20 range that can hold their own against California wines double and triple the cost.  There is also a Chilean sweet spot in the $12-15 range, with Merlots and Carmeneres making a strong showing.  However, there are huge swings between vintages as the Montes Alpha Syrah reviews demonstrate.

Pyrazines?  WTF are pyrazines?  Check out the comments section below.

Easy rule of thumb for the reds: Seek out the blends from Tikal.  Other names to look for are Susana Balbo and her husband Ben Marco (especially the Cab), also from Mendoza.  Santa Ema's Merlot from Chile, too.  Carmenere is very underrated - some fun bargain drinking to be had in this grape.  But beware of the often astringent 100% Malbecs.

Full disclosure: most of these wines were received as press samples. Apologies to Winebow and Tilia - the Bonarda was accidentally blended with another wine while decanting before we could review it. Embarrassing!

In loose order of preference:

2008 Tikal Patriota Bonarda/Malbec Medoza Argentina $20
This 60/40 blend of Bonarda and Malbec brings out the best of both varietals while smoothing out the rough edges that often characterize each on its own. It's good - damn good - and it has been a long time since I've had a wine of this caliber for under $50. This blend has the elegant aromatics of a sophisticated, hearty Pinot Noir, but the character and depth of a meaty Syrah. Medium bodied and giving, it develops well over time and surprises. A terrific value given the high quality. Extraordinary with steak and compelling enough to seek out repeatedly. 4.5/5

2008 Bodegas Senetiner Malbec Don Nicanor $20
An elegant, high caliber, age-worthy wine. Straightforward Malbec with body, bulk, big time fruit and a cocoa handshake. Blue-green fruit nose. Absent from the picture is cheap-assed jamminess that accompanies many wines with this much fruit density. Simple profile, pleasing, well-rounded, and interesting enough to keep your attention. Handsome package missing the the astringency of many Malbecs (thank God). Supple texture and surprisingly accessible. On day two all that's good persists. Exalted notes of fruit, spice, and acidity on the nose. Generous fruit continues and the subdued mellowing is welcome. Would love to see what 10 years would do for this. 4/5

2009 Leyda Pinot Noir Classic Leyda Valley Chile $12
Very light crimson with a soft brick tone. Complex aromas make you impatient to taste it. Silky smooth texture, spice, toasty oak, and a lovely light-medium bodied fruit. Elegant with or without food. Tasted blind and guessed to be more expensive. Surprising bargain. 4.5/5

2007 Montes Alpha Syrah Colchagua Chile $18
Polished, full bodied and dense, it manages to be open and accessible from the cork pull. It's almost Australian in its structure and fruit, but without the massive, flabby saddlebags that many southern hemisphere wines at this price point have. It's got some sophistication, to be sure, but doesn't ask to be analyzed.  Easy to love at first sip, decanted or not. Tannins are in check, but tell you that this one can go some distance in the bottle - 5 plus years, probably. If red meat is on your menu, fire it up with this bad girl. 4/5 Also tasted the 2008 - see review below.

2008 Kaiken Malbec Reserva Mendoza Argentina $14
A lovely wine in all respects. The barely translucent deep ruby color is refined looking. Expensive? Intriguing, racy, heady aromatics that probably induce swooning given enough time decanted. Supple, medium-bodied delivery of true fruit unburdened by heavy tannins typical of many Malbecs (also has 10% Cabernet). Not an overly extracted blockbuster, but balanced, elegant, and, well, lovely. Tastes expensive, but - is this a typo? - $14. Fantastic. 4.5/5

2007 Cousiño Macul Cabernet Antiguas Reservas Maipo Valley Chile $11
A lovely wine that almost gets there, but an outstanding value for fans of the classic Chilean Cabernet profile. Oooooh.... Sultry-looking with a luxurious nose. Heady, spicy aromatics that have depth and intrigue. Lovely texture. Medium-full bodied with full, smoky fruit. Sort of hits a ceiling midway through the palate, but ought to loosen up given some time to relax and deliver. Lovers of South America's green pepper, anise, and studded treads qualities will really enjoy this wine. Originally thought to be a $16, it is instead a solid value at $11. 4.5/5

2008 Montes Alpha Carmenere Colchagua Chile $18
Inky darkness in the glass.  Luxurious, almost majestically rich nose of dark berry fruit balanced by soft, toasty oak.  By contrast the palate is a tight core of tannic fruit with pretty floral secondaries.  Needs air and time and possibly also a steak to delivery its good.  But this is a very respectable wine with real grace ahead of it.  Remained dense on day two. 4/5

2008 Terra Noble Carmenere Gran Reserva Maule Valley Chile $17
Dark, tight, tannic, and serious. Seamless texture and expensive feel. Terrific balance. Interesting savory, leathery aromatics. Needs time to relax and deliver its dimensions of flavor. All the good and none of the South American green pepper, vegetal sting. 4/5

2007 Punto Final Malbec Reserve Casablanca Valley Chile $15
How is it that Malbec is such a darling while Petite Sirah is such an ugly duckling?  A dead ringer for California Petite Sirah, this Malbec is dense purple in the glass with rich, frothy bubbles. The nose doesn't reveal much, but the tightly wound, dense, tannic, and punchy mouthfeel stand up say, "Hello, my name is Petite Sirah". Except this ain't Petite Sirah. Better with food. Done well if lacking differentiation. 4/5

2005 Miguel Torres Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vines Chile $35
Compared to Harlan Estate by the WSJ, but one twentieth the price. Extremely tightly wound and densely packed, it was refined and elegant on opening, but too tight to be approachable. Decanted twice, left overnight and tasted again. No change. Tasted again after 24 hours, and again after 36. Seamlessly still longing to unwind, but showing an integrated package and silky texture.  Enjoyable, but not mind blowing.  3.5/5

2008 Kaiken Corte (Malbec-based Blend) Mendoza Argentina $15
Rich color and froth in the glass.  Pretty, flowery aromatics suggestive of something more interesting than what the palate delivers.  Terrific acidic balance, but the lean body ;lacks the fruit that would make this a complete package.  80% Malbec with the balance Bonarda and Petit Verdot. 3.5/5

2008 Novus Ordo Malbec Mendoza Argentina $19
Easy to peg as South American, though guessed to be a $12-ish bottle. Dark, nearly opaque, and slippery in the glass, it's got a fast slicing bite of alcohol on the nose with closed black fruit aromatics. Dense, but lithe - and not chewy - Strong, bracing tannins are packaged in a medium-bodied wrapper. Needs time to unwind as the fruit is hidden and tight, but will it loosen up? The black fruit character is good, but leaner than most Malbec and with that singular South American Cabernet green vegetable tinge. Well made, if a little indistinct. 3/5

2008 Montes Alpha Syrah Colchagua Chile $18
Not nearly the wine the 07 was, but not a complete loss.  Big, bracing, tannic, full, and begging for a ribeye, this wine has potent pyrazines that will be off-putting to many.  Still, in the Chilean character, the acids in this serious wine are right at home.  Overall a well executed wine for those with a taste for the green vegetal pyrazines. 3.5/5

2009 Gascon Malbec Mendoza Argentina $9
Voted as best red wine value last year by QRW, but not sure why.  Something root vegetable like on the nose that gives it a weird first impression. Good frontal fruit, though simple tasting and one dimensional. Would make a good winter's lunch wine with shepard's pie. No tannins or texture to speak of. Despite its shortcomings, it's entirely drinkable, if undeserving of such an accolade.  3/5

2007 Montes Alpha Cabernet Colchagua Chile $23
Dark and serious looking in the glass, it's light on the nose with some muted Cab notes. The flavors are tough to get to through the taut tannins that haven't yet begun to smooth out. Then the green hits you - pepper, celery, and even eucalyptus. Gave it hours to breathe and it was still hard to get to know this wine. Improved with food, but not to the point of noteworthiness. 2.5/5