WINE ADVISER - Chile, Argentina line up strong varietal winners

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When you link the word "value'' to the phrase "New World wines,'' all roads lead south. Argentina and Chile, in particular, have carved out strong reputations for such wines. Your supermarket or big-box outlet will be full of them, selling for $6 or $8 or $12, and they often feature brands with a full lineup of varietals, all similarly priced.

From Argentina, of course, there are malbecs, a signature grape that is also grown with considerable success here in Washington. From Chile there are varietal wines from all the major Bordeaux grapes, as well as carmen?´re -- not quite deserving of "signature'' status just yet, but with more than a few admirers. Chile also does quite well with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

In a recent series of tastings, I looked at wines from both countries that are widely available, line-priced (all the same), and imported by such industry biggies as Gallo and Banfi.

I also tasted through a selection of new releases fromElemental Importers, a small, Seattle-based startup specializing in boutique South American brands.

Some really nice discoveries turned up.

From Argentina, a white-wine grape called torront?®s -- a distant relative of malvasia -- produces a floral, fragrant, spicy wine. Its flavors fall somewhere in the vicinity of some less-ripe Washington viogniers, perhaps with a splash of muscat in them. Lemon, peach and apricot flavors abound, sometimes becoming semitropical. Torront?às is an excellent option for warm-weather sipping, especially suitable to accompany light picnic fare, and can be chilled down without losing all of its varietal character. Trapiche ($8) and Alamos ($10) are both good choices.

The Argentine malbecs, as expected, delivered the best flavors among all the red wines from that country. The 2009 Colores Del Sol ($10) was a standout, with structure, depth and polish. From Elemental came the next best, the Mi Terru??o Reserve ($15), smooth and fruit-driven. Here again the Alamos ($10) -- a widely available Gallo import -- came through with supple and fruity flavors. A $7 malbec from Concha y Toro's Xplorador lineup was their only Argentine offering, but the Chilean Xplorador wines (all $7), especially the merlot and chardonnay, are also worth a try.

The Chilean wines from Copa Del Rey are imported by Hahn Family, whose portfolio includes the well-made Cycles Gladiator wines from California. Copa Del Rey's $12 lineup includes a soft, buttery chardonnay; a vanilla-laced merlot; and a berry-laden cabernet. If you like that vanilla and tobacco flavor in your merlot, this is a good one to know.

For me, the most interesting wines came from Banfi Vintners, marketed under their Emiliana 'Natura' label. These are estate-grown, organically grown varietal wines, all priced at $10. According to the importer (I have not independently confirmed these claims), three-quarters of Emiliana's vineyards (more than 2,000 acres in all) are certified organic and biodynamic; the remaining quarter are being converted over the next few years.

To be clear: There is a difference between organically grown grapes and organic wines. These wines do contain sulfites. I found them exceptionally well-made, brightly fruity, well-defined and clearly varietal. The sauvignon blanc is emphatically grassy, but not vegetal; the chardonnay spicy and tart; the merlot and cabernet sauvignon solid, steak-friendly reds. I am not a fan of carmen?´re in general, but Natura offers one that will please those who are.

Conclusions: Both big and small importers have some gems; Argentina takes the prize for its malbec; Chile offers more diversity.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

Pick of the week

Colores Del Sol 2009 Malbec ($10)

From vineyards up to 3,500 feet in elevation, this generous malbec, whose name translates as ``colors of the sun,'' has unusual intensity and pure fruit flavor for its modest price. Balanced and deep, with underlying streaks of coffee, licorice and smoke. (Young's-Columbia distributes)

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