Friday, May 16, 2008

Viniculture is helping lift Latin America out of poverty

South America is not one continent, but two. There is the continent of polo-playing, culture-loving exiles, whose life is a rehearsal for an imagined Europe. And there is the continent of the impoverished shanty towns and half-tamed jungle, where Maoist guerrillas and ruthless drug barons compete for control.

Wine is produced in one of those continents, but not in the other. When did you last have a glass of Venezuelan Chardonnay or Colombian Pinot Noir? But turn to Chile or Argentina, and you encounter wine made to European standards by people who are often themselves recent imports from the Old Continent.

This does not mean, however, that the wines from these countries are all produced by well-heeled consultants on vast estates in enviable surroundings. There is poverty enough in Chile and Argentina. And as the best wine is often produced on poor soil in harsh conditions, it is quite likely that, by buying it, you are doing the best that you can for a family of struggling peasants.

This is the case with the wines of the Riojana winery in the remote town of Chilecito in northern Argentina, a place of high altitude, impoverished soil and sparse rainfall where a few farmers have subsisted for generations on small parcels of thankless land. The winery hopes to lift these farmers out of poverty, and has earned the right to export their product under the Fairtrade label.

The wine - named after Saint Florentina, sister to the great bishop Isidore of Seville - is a bargain for you, as much as for the farmers. Of the two well-made examples on offer from Corney & Barrow, our preference went to the Chardonnay - unoaked, but with strong mineral structure beneath the garlands of flower and fruit. Not that the Pinot Gris is without appeal - though very much the standard appeal of that city tipple, and the way for well-heeled girls about town to do their bit for the Andean farmers.

The two wines from Chile come from the historic Maipo Valley, where cool breezes from the Pacific, circling around the baked slopes of the foothills, produce a microclimate perfectly adapted to the production of strong, dark wines from the Bordeaux varietals. Of the two on offer, we marginally preferred the Cabernet Sauvignon: a heady wine with a full backing of tannin, and a tobacco-leaf aroma that reminded me of the days before political correctness when that aroma could be encountered in bars, restaurants and offices across the country, and when solitary comfort was available to anyone anywhere, at the striking of a match.

In those days, however, wine was expensive, Chilean wine had not been discovered, and there was no doorway off our city streets through which you could duck your way to a quick glass of it. Losing one comfort, we have gained another. Cheers.

Roger Scruton