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Behind the Bottle with South American Sommeliers

It’s no secret that South America’s food and drink scene is diverse and delicious. But what might surprise wine lovers is that top establishments, those where one might expect to see a menu populated by Burgundy grand crus and vintage Champagne, instead choose to source bottlings from their home turf.

Given that Argentina and Chile are the world’s fifth- and sixth-largest wine producers, respectively, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), it’s a no-brainer that Malbec and Carmenère are well represented. But South America’s sommeliers are working hard to include great white wines, biodynamic wines and bottlings from smaller, family producers.

South America is also home to Bolivia and Peru, fledgling wine producing countries keen to create their own identities using European varieties like Tannat and Muscat of Alexandria, but also native grapes like Quebranta. Local winemakers have begun to refrain from simply imitating Mendoza Malbec or Old World styles and now seek to understand their own terroir.

We talked to sommeliers based in five South American metropolises—Lima, Santiago, La Paz, Buenos Aires and Bogotá—about their philosophies, and how they rise to the challenge of putting South America’s best wines on the table.

 Florencia Rey, head sommelier, Maido
Florencia Rey, head sommelier, Maido

Maido | Lima, Peru

When Florencia Rey, head sommelier at Maido, moved to Lima in 2010, pisco was synonymous with Peru. Powerful red wines from Spain dominated restaurant menus. But as the country’s food scene evolved, so has Peruvian wine. The flourishing interest in regional producers allows homegrown labels to make the cut at Maido, ranked the top eatery in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards.

“Prior to 2012, Peru’s main producers were commercial wineries Tacama, Tabarnero and Intikalpa,” says Rey. “Then in 2014, distiller José ‘Pepe’ Moquillaza made Quebrada de Ihuanco, the first wine produced from pisco grape Quebranta. These were key years for Lima’s food scene, which grew very fast, and wine culture has grown with it.”

“As wine culture is so new, local diners undervalue Peruvian vintages and order anything but. Whereas foreigners say ‘Wow, Peru makes wine. Let’s try some!’ ” –Florencia Rey, head sommelier, Maido

Mitsuharu Tsumura’s 16-course “200 Millas” tasting menu blends Japanese and Peruvian flavors. Currently, its 11 wine pairings include Mistela Rosa Victoria from Bodega Moquillaza-Robatty in Peru’s Ica Valley. As for the rest of the wine list’s 250 options, New and Old World white wines hold their own, given Maido’s emphasis on seafood. It features six Peruvian whites that include Tabernero Vittoria Sauvignon Blanc, and four reds from the country, like Roca Rey Plenilunium de Luna Negra Reserva. It’s a sight Rey considered unthinkable in 2010, though there’s still a long road to create local acceptance of Peruvian wine.

“As wine culture is so new, local diners undervalue Peruvian vintages and order anything but,” says Rey. “Whereas foreigners say ‘Wow, Peru makes wine. Let’s try some!’ ”

Luis Franceschi, sommelier, Boragó
Luis Franceschi, sommelier, Boragó

Boragó | Santiago, Chile

As the world’s sixth-largest wine producer, Chile is renowned for intense reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenère made by large wineries, but countless smaller projects are making their voices heard, says Luis Franceschi, sommelier at Boragó. At his restaurant, there’s room at the table for all.

“When it comes to mass-produced wine, Chile is a monster with five or six powerful viñas dominating the industry,” says Franceschi. “Despite this, there are modest and small family projects all over, some still working 400-year-old vines planted by the Spanish.”

Chef-patron Rodolfo Guzmán works directly with these smaller producers and foragers located across an approximately 2,653-mile-long Chile. He showcases the restaurant’s extensive pantry across up to 18 preparations on his Endémica menu, and wine pairings mirror that array.

“[There] are modest and small family projects all over, some still working 400-year-old vines planted by the Spanish.” –Luis Franceschi, sommelier, Boragó

“Just 12 vintages [are featured], with eight for Endémica,” says Franceschi. “Rodolfo talks about the territory’s flavors, and that’s reflected in our wine. The communion between chefs and sommeliers means we look for the best juice to match each dish. Some are biodynamic, others are iconic. The wine has to be great, and we need to be responsible.”

Franceschi also features bottles that show what certain European techniques can do for local wineries.

“Take Sierras de Bellavista Veranada Riesling 2014 from Colchagua Valley,” he says. “Just 280 bottles were made in the Jura style, and it’s a great example to talk about origin. Icons includes cool-climate Seña 2012, a Cabernet Sauvignon-led blend from Aconcagua Valley.”

Bertil Levin Tøttenborg, manager and head sommelier at Gustu, La Paz, Bolivia
Bertil Levin Tøttenborg, manager and head sommelier, Gustu / Photo by Christian Gutierrez

Gustu | La Paz, Bolivia

At this Claus Meyer-founded restaurant located 11,800 feet above sea level, Gustu only sources Bolivian ingredients, and that strategy also applies to its wine list.

“Bolivia’s most planted variety is white Muscat of Alexandria, used to distill singani [a local spirit],” says manager and head sommelier Bertil Levin Tøttenborg. “And while wineries in the Tarija region have focused on bulk production for generations, that attitude is changing. When I moved to La Paz in 2015, I mostly saw robust, high-alcohol reds, which Bolivians love. Little thought had been given to whites. I saw a disconnect between what Bolivia’s 65 or so wineries were producing and their potential.”

Levin Tøttenborg has taken Gustu’s local approach a step further. “I help small, talented producers to finesse their wines, encouraging them to stop using oak chips and use more natural methods,” he says. “One example is Cochabamba’s Bodega Marquéz de la Viña. I tried [its] Muscat of Alexandria first fermentation and suggested [the winery] make a sparkling wine. We worked together and produced 50 bottles of [a] Champenoise [style].”

As for the list, Levin Tøttenborg, who represented Bolivia in Le Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition in 2016, likes to break ground. “Whites now comprise around 40% of the 60-label list,” he says. “Most tourists have never tried Bolivian wine before eating here, so I like them to sample products from less-familiar areas such as Cinti Valley and Cochabamba.”

Laura Hernández Espinosa, sommelier, LEO
Laura Hernández Espinosa, sommelier, LEO

LEO | Bogotá, Colombia

Colombia isn’t known to produce notable wine, so as LEO’s sommelier, Laura Hernández Espinosa challenges herself by sourcing alternative fermented beverages from indigenous communities. These she then pairs with chef Leonor Espinosa’s menu, which is based around local ingredients.

“While some people make tropical crus, they will never reach top quality, which is why I explore the diversity surrounding other drinks,” says Hernández Espinosa. Via the FUNLeo foundation, which uses gastronomy as a tool for social and economic development, she explores Colombia, unearthing fermented drinks made from native fruits like guava or borojó (Alibertia patinoi). Fermented coca leaf liquor created by the Inga indigenous community in southwest Colombia, for example, is matched with kapeshuna, native red beans.

“Wine forms part of LEO’s Cycle-Biome tasting menu, but only when appropriate,” she says. “Realizing that some dishes are hard to match with wine, if I can make a local pairing work, I’ll go for it.”

“I don’t include a wine because it’s trendy, but because it has a purpose.” –Laura Hernández Espinosa, sommelier, LEO

Given that Colombians have shown fondness for aguardiente, beer and rum, it’s relatively easy to introduce something different, says Hernández Espinosa.

“[Colombians] mainly consume Chilean and Argentine wine, which helped open the market, and are competitive on price,” she says. “Malbec was trendy, Carmenère was in fashion four years ago but today, Spanish wine is popular.

“I try to create a diverse list of 80 wines that shows off the best of the New and Old Worlds—although availability can be limited due to high duty on imports—and the varying styles that work best with our dishes. Onche (wild capybara meat) is paired with A Lisa Malbec from Bodega Noemía. I don’t include a wine because it’s trendy, but because it has a purpose.”

Pablo Rivero (right), owner/sommelier, Don Julio
Pablo Rivero (right), owner/sommelier, Don Julio

Parrilla Don Julio | Buenos Aires, Argentina

While big Malbecs have long been synonymous with Mendoza, and wine, by law, has been Argentina’s national drink since 2014, the playing field continues to shift. The South American powerhouse has shown an affinity for a variety of styles, which include bright white wines with a concentrated focus on terroir, says Pablo Rivero, owner/sommelier of Don Julio, an innovative steakhouse in Buenos Aires.

“Wine has formed part of Argentines’ table since before Argentina existed,” says Rivero. “I consider it to be the second national product, after beef. Reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec have taken us through the past 30 years, but we’re discovering new horizons, for example, high-quality whites from different regions such as La Consulta, El Cepillo and San Pablo in Uco Valley.”

Establishing a sense of place is very important, says Rivero, when Argentina’s vast territory and terroirs is taken into account.

“Wine has formed part of Argentines’ table since before Argentina existed. I consider it to be the second national product, after beef.” –Pablo Rivero, owner/sommelier, Don Julio

“It’s a multi-style world that speaks about vineyard expression,” he says. “Mendoza, Río Negro, Salta, San Juan, and Córdoba all display different expressions, so a sense of place becomes more recurrent, and, as there are so many differences, the possibilities are infinite.”

Each of the 900 wines at Don Julio is Argentine, though only around 200 are Malbec. So how are they selected?

“We conduct an annual blind tasting of 1,600 labels over two months,” says Rivero. “Many vintages on our list are no longer in production so we don’t taste those. They remain part of the cellar’s heritage.”