South American Wine Sales, Trends and Challenges Today

South American wines can happily and proudly claim palpable success in the United States. A mere curiosity some 35 years ago, wines from the continent can today boast being the #3 (Argentina) and #5 (Chile) wine imports into America. It only takes a stroll down a grocery store aisle or a glance at most wine lists to see this phenomenon played out. Beyond that, interest is emerging in the sommelier community for exciting bottles out of Brazil (especially in Rio Grande do Sul’s Serra Gaúcha) and Uruguay (principally in Canelones). We also shouldn’t rule out quality efforts emanating from Peru and Bolivia—the latter whose altitude, around 8,900 feet, can make Argentina’s Salta seem pedestrian.

South America embodies a number of geographic and climatic extremes, including the world’s highest waterfall (Angel Falls in Venezuela), the largest river by volume (the Amazon), the longest mountain range (the Andes) and the driest place on earth (Chile’s Atacama Desert). And while we tend to assume (as we do with most New World regions) that grape growing and winemaking is one-size-fits-all, this diverse continent is home to an amazing range and breadth of quality wines—not to mention commercial plantings of 165 different grapes in Argentina, 117 in Brazil, 65 in Uruguay and over 60 in Chile.

The contemporary excitement in these countries is grounded in the velocity of change and evolution. In the spirit of “Have you driven a Ford lately?” I would put forth that both Argentina and Chile are moving unmistakably into their respective 3.0 versions: Improved understanding of site specificity is resulting in more honed and focused bottlings, while at the same time there is a rally cry to explore new terroirs—including pushing the extremes of Chile’s Patagonia (hello, Malleco, and points further south in the Cautin and Osorno valleys) and exploring Argentinean provinces once thought of as non-starters for quality wine (Chubut and La Pampa).

But—and this is a big “but”—as sommeliers, we face a great challenge, which is the easy-to-fall-into relegation of South American wines as simply “cheap and cheerful.” I would put forward that this is both a disappointing and inaccurate stance. Never before has the value/quality equation favored South America more heavily; couple that with the increasingly clear appellation and terroir differences being shown off in these wines, and we have far overshadowed that naïve assumption that “they all taste the same.” Yes, the onus is on our industry—as well as on the winemakers/wineries themselves—to prove and communicate this diversity to our consumers, but in my mind, there has never been a more exciting time to discover, explore, and enjoy the new wines of the “other America.” Salud! – Evan Goldstein MS, author of Wines of South America: The Essential Guide

The intention of this feature is to observe, discuss and creatively address the current state of South American wine sales in our industry. What is the perception of these wines among consumers? How can we, as an entire community or as an individual salesperson, change or enhance that perception (if desired)? What are the challenges we face in selling these products, and how can we more effectively or creatively overcome them? What are our hopes and goals for these products and their sales, and how can we achieve them?

To begin the conversation, we interviewed a range of sommeliers from unique markets: Jill Zimorski (Sommelier/Beverage Director at Casa Tua Aspen, Aspen, CO), Gordana Josovich (Wine Director at Epic Roasthouse in San Francisco, CA), Ryan Arnold (Divisional Wine Director of Lettuce Entertain You Ent. in Chicago, IL), Julie Dalton (Lead Sommelier at Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina, at the Four Seasons Baltimore, MD), and Kelly Wooldridge (Wine Director for Bonanno Concepts restaurants in Denver, CO).

In addition, to supplement the interviews below, we surveyed our membership on South American wine sales and patterns in an attempt to gauge nationwide averages and help sommeliers assess where strengths or areas for improvement may lie in their South American programs.

  • Average percentage of total sales from South American wine: 9%
  • Average selling price of South American wine on a restaurant list (MODE, or most commonly sold): $49
  • Average by-the-glass selling price of South American wine on a restaurant list: $9
  • Average selling price of a bottle of South American wine in a retail shop (MODE, or most commonly sold): $14.50
  • Most common reason salespeople notice for guests ordering/purchasing South American wine:
    • 56% - cost/affordability
    • 30% - preference for a specific South American region or variety
    • 6% - specific salesperson recommendation
    • 2% - to pair with a specific dish

87% of those surveyed said that Malbec was their top-selling South American wine (23% of all respondents specified Malbec from Argentina, and another 26% further specified Malbec from Medoza). A single respondent noted that Chilean Cabernet was the most popular category of South American wine sold; another noted Chilean Chardonnay, and one other noted that Chilean Carmenère was the most popular category of South American wine sold. 14% of respondents polled also reported selling Uruguayan Tannat, and 5% of respondents reported selling wine from Brazil.

50% of respondents said they sold “little to no” South American wine. Of those, 10% felt the lag was due to lack of South American wine options available in their market. 11% admitted it was due to lack of sommelier or salesperson interest in or knowledge about South American wines. 26% felt there was lack of guest interest contributing to their low sales, and 18% said that South American wine did not fit their menu or cuisine.

Of note: Respondents in Texas and the Midwest seemed to report greater ease and frequency of South American wine sales than elsewhere in the United States, with one person in Texas noting that it was an easy transition from the big California reds many of his or her guests were used to; others reiterated that price-point seemed to drive Argentinian wine sales in particular but that there was little interest in noting regional/appellation differences across bottles. Canadian respondents reported considerable South American wine sales and guest interest, while European respondents noted very little interest in South American wine, which they felt was due to lack of quality options available in their markets.

What's the most popular brand/category/style of South American wine on your list?

Jill: It should surprise no one that one of the most popular South American wines remains Argentinean Malbec, though I’ve also had success with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc—and, increasingly, Pinot Noir from Patagonia.

Kelly: Red blends, mostly from Argentina.

Ryan: Pinot Noir.

Gordana: The most popular category is Malbec from Argentina. In particular on our list, Altos Las Hormigas Malbec from Mendoza (poured by the glass) and Viña Cobos Bramare Malbec from Luján de Cuyo are most popular.

Julie: Montes Classic Series Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc for our happy hour (Chile) and Bodega Elvira Calle “Ca’ de Calle” Malbec blend from Mendoza in Argentina.

What's your favorite bottle of South American wine on your list, and why?

Kelly: Right now it's Capataz Malbec. It has the clout of the Darioush name (which, in the minds of guests, is indelibly connected with exclusivity, quality and relative value), so it's easy to sell and holds to the guests' perception of not only what Malbec “should be,” but what a wine at that price point should live up to.

Julie: Montes Outer Limits CGM (Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre)—it’s just a gorgeous, delicious wine: not too heavy, with beautiful floral notes and bright acidity that makes it a lovely match for all kinds of dishes. It’s pricey, and I had to beg to get it into Maryland, but it’s so worth it.

Gordana: De Martino El León Carignan from Maule Valley in Chile, made by the incredible Marcelo Retamal. I love introducing customers to its rustic and—at the same time—elegant and floral style. I especially like blind-tasting my friends from the industry on this wine, which has personality for days and keeps you involved and intrigued.

Ryan: Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir. It's so fun to talk about at the table. I love Italian wine, and Chacra was a passion project of Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia. Plus, Patagonia is a very special place. I had the pleasure of spending time down there in 2008… It's not easy to access, and anyone who is not local but commutes and farms down there gets big ups from me. The wine itself is very atypical, emphasizing bright red fruit with high acidity.

Jill: Disclaimer: I work in a northern Italian restaurant, and the bulk of the wine we sell is Italian (or French or domestic). We don’t currently carry much South American wine; however, I’ve carried a large selection of them on other lists I’ve managed. On those, I was partial to Mendel Malbec from Argentina, De Martino from Chile (multiple varietals, but excellent all around), Lagar de Bezana and Tamaya for Chilean Syrah, and Bodega Chacra Pinot Noirs from Patagonia.

What's your favorite specific South American wine pairing on your current menu/list?

Kelly: I write the wine programs directly or indirectly for eight restaurants, and my favorite South American wine pairing right now is at our Asian noodle bar, Bones. That would be Colomé Torrontés with our lobster ramen. The team at Colomé is definitely taking advantage of their elevation and diurnal shift to make some really pretty Torrontés with brisk acidity and a very clean expression of the at-times "soapy" fruit set of the grape. The fruitiness of the wine and its acidity go well with the inherent sweetness of lobster and the overall richness of the buttery miso broth.

Ryan: Casa Silva Carmenère 2012 with steak frites at Summer House Santa Monica in Lincoln Park, Chicago. The steak is wood-fired and served with charred tomato, torpedo onion, fig vincotto and Point Reyes blue cheese. At its best, Carmenère has a deep, round core with subtle spice and an appealing herbaceous aromatic note that kills it with this dish.

Julie: I would be very happy to pour the Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Las Kuras Vineyard Syrah with our wood-roasted Virginia chicken. It’s served over a bed of grilled asparagus with a side of truffle bread pudding.

Jill: Have to go with a former pairing on this one, but from (the now-closed) Café Atlántico in Washington, DC, we had a tuna ceviche dish with jicama, coconut milk, avocado and corn nuts that paired quite well with Susana Balbo Torrontés.

Gordana: Côte de Boeuf with 2009 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto, Chile. It’s a match of equals: complex, full-bodied but classy, with great structure and an Old World sensibility.

Average selling price of South American wine on your list (include both wholesale and what you price it at)?

Gordana: High-end Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile represent the biggest section of South American wines on our list, at about $90 list-price ($32 wholesale).

Jill: I’m currently offering Bodega Chacra "Cincuenta y Cinco" Pinot Noir at $120/bottle ($45 wholesale).

Julie: That’s difficult to gauge based on volume, as our happy hour wines from Chile average $8 wholesale a bottle, which we sell for $5/glass. Listed wines range from $60-126 ($20 to $42 wholesale).

Kelly: Overall, wines sold for $70 or so (purchased at about $25) seem to do quite well.

How does your team approach selling South American wine?

Ryan: We try to liken it to other New World wines they may know, as it has a similar concentration and burst of fruit.

Jill: Honestly, there's still a lot of consumer confusion about regions other than, say, Mendoza. A lot of guests aren't sure why they should spring for the $50, the $75 or the $150 Malbec. Therefore, discussing methods of viticulture, style of producer and altitude (Argentina) or location with respect to the ocean/Andes (Chile) helps to make the sale.

Gordana: Seminars and tastings led by experts or guests from South America help our team understand the wines and their potential. Our enthusiasm always makes the guests feel at least open to trying these wines, so a little “motivating education,” makes it easier for us to break the ice. Interesting and personal descriptors of the specific wine also help seal the deal with guests.

Kelly: It's all about value for many guests. Since real estate is still comparatively inexpensive in South America, and thanks to precision viticulture, great vineyards there are less rarefied—fantastic fruit can be had at better prices than elsewhere in the world. With that in mind, it's easier to explain to guests that the $100 bottle of South American wine is likely to have more of what they may be want in a New World wine (high extract levels, oak, tannin, fruit intensity) than a wine at the same price from elsewhere in the New World.

Julie: How do we sell South American wine? Like any other wine—we gauge the guests’ interests, determine whether they’re choosing wine for their food or food for their wine, how much they’d like to spend, and we go from there. We also have two Argentinian Malbec blends that many guests go straight toward, without even consulting our sommeliers, because it’s trendy right now.

What's challenging for you personally in understanding and/or selling South American wine?

Gordana: The most challenging for me is opening guests’ minds to try non-Californian wines in a Californian steakhouse. Once I find out what style of wine they enjoy, it’s easier to lead them towards a specific wine from South America. The wide range of styles available there these days can accommodate almost any type of wine lover.

I do wish there were more detailed books and materials out there covering South America. I can’t wait to read Evan Goldstein’s latest book, which I hope will fill this void. I also feel that having more small-production and natural South American wines available in the US market would help us get a better sense of what’s happening down there.

Ryan: Customers often mistakenly think that South American wines are much more homogenous than they actually are. South America is a huge growing area with diverse climates and traditions and tastes, but many Americans seem to expect that all South American wines will taste like Mendoza Malbec.

Jill: As I mentioned before, there's still a lot of confusion about regions. Without traveling to them, it's hard to visualize the distinctions. Argentina in particular has been so successful in bonding their entire wine reputation to an individual grape, it takes significant effort to see beyond or deeper than that.

Kelly: Right now it is deciphering and putting to practical use all of the states, districts, regions and sub-regions now allowed throughout South America, especially given that we SEE very few of them used on labels that arrive in the US. Additionally, massive commercial concerns often dominate South American wine… and thus, we have a lack of what I would call "Artisan Pedigree" that similar wines from elsewhere easily show. Production levels are often enormous, chemical intervention in the vineyards can be outlandish, and a heavy reliance on critical reviews (points) and retail volume can make it hard to place even the finest wines on your lists when you know that the big-box liquor store up the street is likely to have the same wine at a small fraction of your wine list price.

Julie: Hardest for me is trying to convince people that a high quality South American wine on my list is worth the $100 price point and can play in the same sandbox as wines from California or other noteworthy appellations that also command the same prices. People associate South American wines with “value,” and if they see a bottle on the list at $100 they have sticker shock—whereas they wouldn’t blink an eye at that price for a big Napa Cab.

What do you think has helped or hindered sales of South American wine recently? Are there any bigger trends in the industry that you think have contributed to the current sales trends you experience?

Julie: Sales of South American wine have certainly increased due to a reputation for providing decent juice at a value-driven price. I think many people started paying attention to these wines after the economic crisis and have especially been riding the Malbec bandwagon since. It’s the new Merlot! It’s easy to pronounce, it’s big and bold yet soft… but mostly affordable. Personally, I’d like to see more South American wines at the $25 wholesale price point in order to elevate the perception of South American wines as “cheap.” The problem is, most distributors only carry the either very low end or the very high end.

Gordana: Sales of South American wines have been very steady at our restaurant, and guests are ordering wines anywhere from $40 Argentinian Malbec to $200 world-class Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. The increased promotion of white, sparkling and lighter style South American wines—as well as artisanal, organic and biodynamic wines—have sparked an interest and following for many people.

Ryan: I feel like the freedom to list varietal and freedom to make creative labels is a big advantage to South America.

Jill: I think the surge in popularity of Malbec in the 2000s mirrors the popularity of Merlot in the 90s. And that's a blessing and a curse—it's great when everyone is drinking you, but once you're declared passé, there are far fewer buyers who are willing to seek out the best and still support it. I think the best thing for the South American wine industry right now is to move from focusing on a single grape or their brand to honing in on terroir/viticultural distinctions. If you consider how much attention we pay to that in Old World regions, shouldn't the same hold true for New World regions?

It's easy to hate on South American wines (and I've witnessed it first-hand from more than a handful of very talented sommeliers, dismissing the wines outright or commenting, "Oh, you can tell it's Chilean… it tastes like bug spray."). But I can assure you, all it takes to change your mind is a visit to the regions and meetings with the producers. Just ask anyone who's been to Chile and met Marcelo Retamel!

Viticulture shouldn't be a trend, but it can be. In light of current trends, I'd love to see IPOB South American Version—there are LOTS of balanced, restrained, nuanced, expressive examples.

Kelly: The hindrance for me, at least in terms of restaurant sales, is the glut of varietal wines at the lowest prices. How do we sell Argentinian Malbec for $100 when guests are used to seeing it for $9.99 at their corner liquor store? And with so many large South American brands pushing hard for constant line extensions and innovation in their products, the finest marques in their lines are often lost.

Do you align with any bigger social media campaigns, industry events or local/national occasions in pushing South American wine sales?

Julie: Wines of Chile has been very successful in getting their message across to the trade about the diversity of Chilean wines. I like to attend as many of their events as possible because, again—in my experience, distributors aren’t spreading this message.

Jill: Wines of Chile has been making big strides in the past 5-10 years to promote distinction and terroir. Some may feel the country has a long way to go in to catch up with the familiarity and popularity of Argentina’s wines, but I think Chile is going about it in a savvy way—the recent success of Wines of Chile’s "Wine Bar War" is a good example of that.

Gordana: We featured a special promotion of wines during International Malbec Day, and quite a few of our staff members have been participating in Wines of Argentina, Wines of Brazil and Wines of Chile seminars and tastings.

Kelly: We’ve tried in the past but haven’t had success, so we rely on our own marketing, PR and social media to drive sales separately.

Ryan: I tend to focus on individual wineries and interact with them via Twitter or Instagram directly. I like the conversations this can start, and I feel the information I get from these direct interactions is more accurate than broader, sweeping marketing campaigns.

Have you traveled to any wine regions in South America?

Ryan: Yes, Colchagua Valley and Patagonia in 2008.

Jill: I've been fortunate enough to travel through both Chile and Argentina on some pretty exceptional trips.

Gordana: I’ve traveled to Patagonia and Mendoza in Argentina and to Maipo, Casablanca, San Antonio, Cachapoal and Colchagua in Chile.

Kelly: Argentina.

Julie: I’ve been to Chile!

What resources would help you better sell South American wine?

Ryan: I could use a better understanding of subzones within each country.

Kelly: Better maps and soil profiles for the major wine producing countries. Fortunately, Evan Goldstein’s new book is a help in this, but perhaps more macro-to-micro mapping, especially for Argentina.

Gordana: A local wine magazine from any of the South American countries, more books translated from the native languages, and more seminars and focused tastings led by local winemakers and educators.

Julie: I just want more options available through distribution at that mid-tier price point.

Jill: Information is power. If GuildSomm wants to continue their video series on wine regions, I would recommend that Maipo, Elqui, Mendoza, Patagonia get in the queue. The more buyers and educators who can speak with authority and sell beyond what's on grocery store shelves, the better.

Any other fun thoughts/comments you really want to share about South American wine?

Julie: Honestly, Argentina seems to be getting all the love these days. Chile needs more attention. The diversity of terroir there is truly amazing and results in a huge variety of wines.

Kelly: South American wine can be great. And while I make it sound like I only buy wine from small-production wineries, the fact is that BIG doesn't always mean BAD. Just because South America is dominated by large commercial concerns doesn't mean they aren't still good wines… if anything, their bank rolls allow them to be prepared for challenging conditions and to make consistent, quality-oriented wines year in and year out. There are also plenty of fantastic South American wines made by small, artisanal-oriented wineries, you just have to look for them.

Gordana: This is what I tell my guests when they ask, “Why should I choose a wine from South America?”

1) The wines are delicious!
2) You can pronounce most of their names.
3) Your adventurous spirit will be awoken.
4) Instead of one original bottle you had in mind, you can likely end up having two or more for the same price!
5) You will discover something new and exciting.
6) At the end of the night, you will have a story to tell, a memory to keep.

Patagonia, Argentina (photo courtesy of Gordana Josovich)

  • As mentioned in the article, one should not rule out Bolivian winemaking! Bolivia is a small producer, with only about 3000 hectares planted, with much of it going to the production of Singani, a high altitude distilled Muscat of Alexandria brandy. However, as winemakers gain recognition for their wines abroad, exports are becoming more and more a reality. Already Bolivian wine has made it into the European Union, China and the United States. For the time being, production size will be one of the biggest challenges, but with the potential to diversify and focus on the unique high altitude terroir in the Northernmost wine producing regions of South America, I know that plantings, production and exports will grow.

    More information Intro to Bolivian Wine - Strong Somm

  • Awesome read. Ryan, Kellie, Gordana, Julie and Jill, thank you for the interviews! I agree with Jill that the more training aides, like the videos, the better. We have an interest by our restaurant's guests based mostly on value, but since we have gained a beverage director from Argentina, our list has grown and I look forward to more diversification and learning for our staff and guests.

  • Jill, your comments: "I think the best thing for the South American wine industry right now is to move from focusing on a single grape or their brand to honing in on terroir/viticultural distinctions. If you consider how much attention we pay to that in Old World regions, shouldn't the same hold true for New World regions?"

    What a breath of fresh air. I work for a group of predominantly Central-South American Restaurants and have been fighting this good fight as best I can. We write our menus geographically (very confiusing for our staff when it changed!), and we started writing in the subzones, alongside the Mendoza distinction in many cases. I'm not sure if it's had the overall clout that I had hoped for, but, it's a step in the direction that I would like to see more Wine Directors take.  2 cents. Great read.