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95-point South American icons/red blends - June 19

The pre-amble

The June 2019 edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com) makes its usual, detailed, panel-based, blind-tasted analysis, this time of South American premium/icon red blends.

For those immediately fearing that this is a category beyond their wallet/purse/credit card, it's worth noting that plenty of the high-scorers are in the £20-30 bracket, and, as the panel point out, "many of these wines can be considered bargains, especially when compared to super-premium red blends from Bordeaux, California and Tuscany."

We offer two of the four Outstanding (95-point +) wines that head that review, plus a good swathe of others on 92 and 93 points.

Scroll down if you'd prefer to get straight to the wines. This is the pre-amble, after all.

For news of the other wines in Decanter this month, click this link.


South American premium red blends - generally

These have become something of an institution and offer some truly exciting red wine opportunities at surprisingly acceptable prices.

The whole thing started quite recently (in wine terms). The superb potential of (especially) Chile and Argentina for very high quality wines was really only seized upon with gusto in the 1990s, most notably by Nicolás Catena in Argentina and Errazuriz's Eduardo Chadwick in Chile. Just as with Californian wines some decades earlier, the challenge was laid down to the primacy of Old World wines, and some South American icons - including some in this review - are now regarded among the world's greats. Indeed, the top wines of Catena - more below - are some of the finest wines we sell and among the hardest to source.

Here's a few key points:

  • It's not, as you might imagine, quite all about Chile and Argentina. That would be to ignore Uruguay, and especially Garzon.
  • There's a myriad of grape varieties involved here. It's most certainly not 'just' Bordeaux blends (Cab Sauv/Merlot/Cab Franc/Petit Verdot - although these are common). Obviously, Malbec is in the mix in Argentina, and Carmènere features in a number of Chilean icons (both, technically, are historic Bordeaux components, of course). Both blend wonderfully well - Malbec often needs a little structure (tannin, acidity) to balance its fruit, and Carmenère often needs a little smoothing from such softer varieties as Syrah. Yes, Syrah features in a number of key blends, as so some unusuals such as Tannat and Marselan (see the Garzon Balasto).
  • Time was when these blends were all about sheer power, concentration and, well ... (sorry) guts. Elegance and restraint were not watchwords for many blends that followed in the footsteps of the pioneers. Too much over-ripe fruit, new oak and super-heavy bottles were the hallmark of the Latino Premium Blend. Fortunately, the dial has now seen set somewhere below 11 and finesse is more to the fore - this emerges in the revieew/tasting. That said, fans of sheer intensity certainly need not fear that this has All Gone a Bit Beaujolais.


The review

95 wines were tasted/tested. 

These were specified as latest releases, super-premium red blends with availability in the UK. <We're far from sure that the brief was adhered to, but let's overlook that for now.>

Four were rated as Outstanding (95 points and above), with another 46 ranked as Highly Recommended (90 and above). 

The poll-topper - 96 points - is not UK-available <warning: the pure Malbec version is out there - do not confuse for the blend on test here>.

The four Outstandings were 3 Argentines and a Chilean. Across the 50 Outstandings and Highly Recommendeds, honours were evenly shared betwen Argentina (25), Chile (24) ... + 1 Uruguay. Fair to say, though, that the average Argentine score was higher than the Chilean.


The poll-toppers

We offer two of the 95-point Outstandings, of which, more details below (click the review boxes for more details and to buy):

a Catena 2013 Mendoza classic (~75% Cab Sauvignon, ~25% Malbec) at £66.50 (actually a daftly good price for this wine); and

an Uco Valley 100% Cabernet Franc (yes, we know) at a more attractive £26.25. There's limited immediate availability on this one, so do move quickly...  although further stock is coming just for us.

In turn:



The 2013 Nicolás is already revered as a world great, both generally, but especially this vintage. It's been rated many times by Decanter before and the Nicolás (in general) has featured on the Decanter Legends final page. With the possible exception of some of Catena's own top-flight 100% Malbecs, this is, in our view, as 'fine' a red wine as comes from South of Panama.

It draws on grapes from the three top Catena vineyards around Mendoza: La Piramide, Nicasia and the high-level, awesome Adrianna blocks (map and starry night-time photo above). These three vineyards are at varying height, allowing a blend to be drawn of greater immediate ripeness in the lower plots (used for the harder-to-ripen Cab Sauv) to higher acidity/tannin in the higher plots (used for the less strucutral Malbec). This allows for an optimum blend of great precision and structure to be put togther.

It's barrel-fermented in 100% new French oak and then oak-aged for 24 months (not the 18 specified by Decanter) in French oak - see the Catena data sheet.

What emerges from what we've tasted - and in the Decanter review - is a wine of restraint, finesse and elegance (the high Cab Sauv component, you see). As Decanter say, "real freshness and lift", "medium-bodied and elegant", "brilliant stuff: a lighter mezzoforte style. Love it!".

Certainly, we love it, but being mere wine merchants, cannot afford much of it. This is a wine for the connoisseur, we know. It matches for quality the true Bordeaux greats at many times its price. Forgive us, but if the Masterchef team were telling you ... "Wines don't get much better than this". 



It's a phrase we use a fair bit: expensive wine is "not for everybody". Honestly, we'll not sell a whole bundle of the Nicolás. We might point out the more affordable members of the Catena fleet, however.

And, in this review, there is hope for the more-budget-conscious. It comes in the form of Kaiken's Obertura at £26.25.

Quite how a £26, 100% Cabernet Franc makes the premium + blend cut here (especially when Kaiken have more premium wines), we cannot figure.

But that doesn't diminish what is a brilliant wine. This blog writer admits to not "getting" Cabernet Franc until recently, and that came solely by dint of South America. Loire Cab Franc is not for me - sorry, I find it just too light and insubstantial. Bourgeuil and Chinon fans will pity my attitude, but I need just a little more octane in my reds. South American Cab Franc does just that, in much the same way that NZ Pinot Noir delivers something a little more 'substantial' than most Burgundy.

Kaiken are a favourite of ours - brilliant Malbecs at great prices and a super trad method fizz that goes close to most Champagne. Kaiken originated as a tran-Andes project by Chile's Montes, and are now firmly established as a Mendoza institution.

The Obertura, taken from Vistaflores area of the Uco Valley, and oak-aged in third-use French oak barriques, is a BIG wine, all the more so when you realise it stems from a grape not famed for its fullness. Decanter were quite unequivocal:

  • "ripe nose with aromas of dark fruits, blueberries and blackberries";
  • "this wins on the ever-present fruit";
  • "powerful with fine tannins and grip";
  • "high octane-style";
  • "flirts with being OTT";
  • "round with juicy fruit, dark chocolate and savoury complexity"; and
  • "powerful, showing well".

This is an impressive wine, and, like the Cab Francs we take from Valdivieso and Catena, a thoroughly brilliant glass at a sensible price.

However: there is precious little Obertura 15 in the UK at the moment; this is a very newly-released vintage. Indeed, we believe we have the lion's share of stock available for retail. We are needing to limit this to 4 bottles per customer from the current UK stock. More stock - specially for us - has already been secured and ordered from Kaiken, but will not reach us from Mendoza until mid-July. We are running a waiting list - please see instructions on the product page <essentially, email us what you want on communications@exelwines.co.uk, you'll join a list and we'll contact you for payment as it arrives with us> if you either wish to take more than 4 bottles or come to buy after the available stock has been depleted. The wine will reach you, that is for sure.


The other high-scorers

Beyond the two outstandings, there are 5 other excellent South American icons on good scores at attractive prices:

  • Andeluna's Pasionado Cabernet Franc 2015 from Gualtallary (Uco Valley) - another 100% Cab Franc - 93 points and £31.50 - a really good balance of power and finesse from one of Argentina's most award-winning wineries;
  • Perhaps the most intriguing of the whole bunch of 95 wines - the Caballo Loco #17 - 92 points - note the lack of vintage, for good reason. There's so much to reveal and say about this wine that we've done so in a separate tastings/features article here. As Decanter say of it in this review, "a real exuberance of fruit here... a crowd-pleaser".


  • From Uruguay and one of our most popular producers, the 90-point Garzon Balasto. The 2016 was on review, and we offer that. We also offer the 2015, which we rather prefer. It's a costlier option than some, the Balasto, but its Tannat-centric-ness creates a truly beguiling and profound wine.
  • Finally, from Argentina and on 90 pointsSalentein's Numina Gran Corte - a Malbec-focused Bordeaux blend (if you will) - delicious and just £21.50 a bottle. Again, the 2016 is not due to arrive into the UK for some time, so we offer the 2015.
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Catena Zapata Nicolas 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded 94 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) at their February 2019 Catena tasting (see blue link below).

Catena Zapata Nicolas 2015 - Feb 2019 Decanter review

The inaugural 1997 vintage of this Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec blend set a new standard of quality for wines from South America when it won a series of blind tastings against first growths and other prestigious cuvées from around the world. Indeed, it featured as one of Decanter's Wine Legends in Octover 2018 (see blue link below).

Catena Zapata Nicolas 1997 - Decanter Wine Legend October 2018

“The 2015 Nicolás has the highest ever percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, with 17% Malbec for company and is a stunning blend that’s right up there with some of the best vintages of the wine. Floral, minty and refined, it has subtle, spicy oak, notes of green herbs and red fruits, tangy acidity and remarkable palate length. One for the cellar.” Tim Atkin MW, 96 points, 5th Jan 2018.

In 1902, Nicola Catena, an Italian immigrant, planted his first vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina. The winery has remained under family control — now in its fourth generation — and is one of the few family-owned wine companies in Argentina that remains in Argentine hands. Owned today by Nicolás Catena and his daughter Laura, Bodega Catena Zapata is known as the pioneer of fine wine from Argentina, and Nicolás is recognized as the vintner who revolutionized wine quality in Argentina. A trained economist, Nicolás began this revolution in the early 1980s and continues to challenge himself and his team to make wines that can be counted among the best in the world. His measured approach to viticulture has taken its place in wine history as the pioneer of Malbec and high-altitude viticulture.

Catena wines, first launched in 1992, set a new standard for quality in South America. The wines immediately proved the quality potential of Argentina and garnered the first outstanding reviews for Argentine wines from worldwide media. After more than 20 years, the wines of Catena continue to lead the way in Argentine viticulture and winemaking. The family and the winery’s employees take great pride in carrying on the tradition that began over a century ago.

Nicolás Catena Zapata has an intense, deep purple color with bluish-black tones. On the nose, aromas of black fruits – blackberries, black cherries, black plums – predominate with subtle notes of vanilla and dark chocolate intermingled with savory hints of green olive and a stony minerality. On the palate, the wine is tremendously complex, unfolding layer upon layer of red currant, eucalyptus, and black pepper flavours. Black cherries and blackberries give way to cassis followed by a hint of saline minerality. The wine is remarkably concentrated with a firm tannic structure providing the backbone for the lush fruit. The finish is long, giving some idea of the very long aging potential of this Argentine masterpiece.

This wine is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Malbec.

See/click the link below for more data from the winemakers themselves.

Catena Zapata Nicolas 2015 - fiche technique

ABV = 14.0%.


Kaiken Obertura Uco Valley Cabernet Franc 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded 95 points and Outstanding status by Decanter in their June 2019 panel tasting of South American Icon Wines (see blue link below).

Kaiken Obertura Uco Valley Cabernet Franc 2015 - June 2019 Decanter review

Kaikenes are wild geese, native to Patagonia, that fly across the Andes between Chile and Argentina. Montes, the Chilean winery, crossed the Andes in the same way to set up in Mendoza. Their vineyards are situated in the heart of Mendoza and further to the south in Valle de Uco, where many of the premium producers are now sourcing their fruit. The focus is primarily on Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that has been somewhat forgotten as Malbec has surfed one wave of success after another in the past decade. Kaiken's own vineyards supply 70% of their production requirements and 30% is from vineyards that they control.

The grapes are sourced from Valle de Uco, one of Mendoza’s most prestigious sub-regions. Kaiken’s vineyard, located in Vista Flores, sits at 1,350 metres above sea level. Here, sunny days are followed by cool nights – this slows the growing season and allows Kaiken to obtain excellent grapes with wonderful freshness. The soils are mostly alluvial and are largely made up of pebbles and rocks.

To see an excellent information sheet and tasting note about this wine that has been written by the team at Kaiken, please click on the blue link below.

Kaiken Obertura 2015 - fiche technique

This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc.

This Cabernet Franc is deep ruby red in colour with elegant purple shades. The nose is complex, with ripe redcurrants, fresh plums and red pepper combined with spicy notes of black pepper. On the palate, it has beautiful fruit concentration balanced by fresh acidity and minerality, reflecting the high-altitude location of Vista Flores. The long, elegant finish displays red fruit and spicy aromas.

ABV = 14.5%.


Andeluna Pasionado Cabernet Franc 2016 (1x75cl)

Awarded a Gold medal and 96 points at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards (click link for details).

For other 2019 DWWA winners, click here.

The 2015 vintage was awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter in their June 2019 panel tasting of South American Icon Wines (see blue link below).

Andeluna Pasionado Cabernet Franc 2015 - June 2019 Decanter review

Founded in 2003, Andeluna is a small boutique winery specialising in premium Bordeaux varietals of world class recognition. The vineyard covers 70 hectares in the beautiful Uco Valley near Tupungato, one of the best subregions of Mendoza. By night you can often see the moon illuminating the magnificent Andes Mountains nearby and the winery has been named after this stunning scene. Situated at an altitude of 1,300 metres, the vineyard produces some of the best fruit in Argentina. Winemaker, Manuel Gonzalez (previously Head Winemaker at Pulenta Estate and Chief Oenologist at Trivento) works alongside Andeluna's wine consultant Hans Vinding Diers to make outstanding wines which have propelled this producer into the global spotlight in a very short space of time. Their Pasionado range is only made in exceptional vintages and rivals some of the great wines of the world.

The grapes come from vineyards located in Gualtallary in Tupungato at an altitude of 1,300 metres above sea level. The vines are irrigated by a drip-water system that regulates and supplies the exact amount of water that the plant needs. The vineyard soils are alluvial, sandy and permeable.

The grapes were hand-picked in the cool of dawn in April, when they had reached full polyphenolic maturity. The berries were manually selected and the best berries underwent cold pre- fermentation maceration. Fermentation took place with natural yeasts in stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures of 26°C. The wine was aged in used French oak barrels (60% second passage, 40% third passage) for a period of 12 months and then cellared in bottles for a minimum of eight months prior to its release. 

This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc.

Intense aromas fill the glass, with deep red fruits and a remarkable presence of red bell pepper, fennel, mint, anise, eucalyptus and basil. A structured, full bodied wine, with rounded tannins which result in a pleasant and persistent finish. 

Serve with full bodied meats as steak or lamb. Decant and serve at 16°C.

ABV = 13.5%.


Trapiche Iscay Malbec Cabernet Franc 2012 (1x75cl)

The yet-to-arrive-in-the-UK 2013 vintage was awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter in their June 2019 panel tasting of South American Icon Wines (see blue link below).

Trapiche Iscay Malbec Cabernet Franc 2013 - June 2019 Decanter review

The history of Trapiche begins in 1883, in a small vineyard called El Trapiche, in the district of Godoy Cruz, Mendoza, where the grapes for the first fine wines were grown. With more than 130 years of experience, Trapiche has now earned its place as a pioneering brand in the introduction of French vines, the production of varietal wines, the import of French oak barrels and the use of stainless steel tanks. True to its origins, today Trapiche is in a continuous quest for the latest best practices. Led by Daniel Pi, Director of Winemaking, Trapiche's winemaking team permanently strives to improve winemaking practices by exchanging experience and knowledge with winemakers from other wine producing countries such as France, the US, Australia and New Zealand. 

Iscay originates from Trapiche's own vineyards which are situated in Russell, Maipú and Los Arboles, Uco Valley, Mendoza.

This wine is 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Franc.

The Malbec delivers its deep purple-red colour, with aromas of violets, ripe red fruits, a slight touch of spice and generous tannins. The Cabernet Franc contributes black fruit, a balsamic hint and tannins that structure the middle of the mouth. A perfect combination that results in a flavorful wine with great concentration, elegance, complexity and a pure finish. Serve with roasted lamb, game or stews. Also combines beautifully with mushroom dishes and hard cheeses.


Caballo Loco 17 NV (1x75cl)

Awarded 92 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter in their June 2019 panel tasting of South American Icon Wines (see blue link below).

Caballo Loco 17 NV - June 2019 Decanter review

The winemaker's own technical sheets appear below (click blue links) - the Spanish inclusion may seem a little leftfield, but includes regional and other info that have yet to be put onto the English version

Caballo Loco 17 - fiche technique - English

Caballo Loco 17 - fiche technique - Spanish

For our article on 'the' (this) Caballo Loco, the appellation/Grand Cru Caballo Locos and the better wines of the Valdivieso fleet, click this link.

Valdivieso's top wine and stable star, the Caballo Loco is known around the world and each year changes merely its edition and, technically, not its vintage. It brings together every Cabollo Loco made since 1992 (the year of version 1), in what is, effectively, a solera system (as used for sherry and brandy de Jerez).

The idea for Caballo Loco was inspired by the legendary Ribera de Duero, Vega Sicilia Único Gran Reserva, which is produced using the solera method. This is the winemaking technique used for sherry and brandy de Jerez production, in which barrel-aged wines from different years are progressively and fractionally blended for reasons of both complexity and consistency.

The first Caballo Loco was produced in 1994 (Caballo Loco 1) and made from a blend of 50% of that year’s vintage with an aged blend from 1992. 

The resulting wine is bottle-aged for at least 18 months before release onto the market, and being a blend of wines from different years, there is, of course, no vintage on the label.

The grapes for the premium Caballo Loco come from four different vineyards in central Chile. The blend of the new wine varies each time it is made. Number 1 for example was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir, whilst later editions have contained varieties as diverse as Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère. Only Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are ever-present, these being blended with the best grapes from the other varieties that were most successful in the particular year (and best suited to create the intended balance of the Caballo Loco).

Each bottle of this version 17 therefore comprises:

- 50% version 16 and

- 50% of grapes from harvests from 2012 and 2013. New for version 17 was Carignan from Melozal (a sub-region of Maule) and Syrah from Limarí. This variety brings to the Caballo Loco another dimension of complexity, with balanced freshness and acidity.

The result is a wine of great concentration, quite unlike any other on the market. There is intense mature berry fruit on the nose and richness on the palate with velvety tannins, and so many layers of flavours that the wine is almost impossible to describe in detail. The secret blend of grapes from different vintages create intense aromas of dark cherry, coffee, and rich fruitcake. Full bodied on the palate with a beautiful lingering structure. 

It is a unique - some say crazy - wine, which is quite incomparable. It has great aromatic complexity and in the mouth, and an ageing potential of at least 10 years.

ABV = 14.5%.


Bodega Garzon Balasto 2016 (1x75cl)

Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter in their June 2019 panel tasting of South American Icon Wines (see blue link below).

Bodega Garzon Balasto 2016 - June 2019 Decanter review

When Alejandro Bulgheroni and his wife Bettina discovered Garzón, they had a family dream came true: to have the most emblematic winery of modern viticulture in Uruguay and premium wines with an intense personality and a deep sense of belonging to the land. With the advice of international enologist Alberto Antonini, they apply their philosophy which is focused on producing wines that are a true expression of their origins.

Located 11 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the estate has more than 1,000 small vineyard blocks covering hillside slopes, which benefit from varying microclimates, different levels of humidity and an intense canopy management. Well-draining granitic soils and cooling Atlantic breezes allow the grapes to ripen steadily. The vineyards are surrounded by lush forests, palm trees, rocky soils and granite boulders. Grapes for Balasto are grown on soils made up of decomposed granite rock, which provides excellent drainage and minerality. This is the key to giving this iconic Uruguayan wine its complexity, energy and vibrancy.

Balasto is one of the most sought-after wines from South America and is made only in the best years. Winter was rainy, meaning underground water reserves were replenished throughout the season, ahead of spring and summer. Spring then saw a cold start, which delayed bud burst and flowering by 10 days. The summer months were dry, but thanks to the water reserves and some occasional rains towards late December, veraison began normally. The dry conditions also reduced disease pressure in the vineyard. The dry weather continued into March until the second half of harvest, and therefore drip irrigation was necessary to obtain sufficient colour and maturity. 2016 yielded perfectly mature grapes without excessive levels of sugar. The resulting wines have excellent acidity and demonstrate freshness and elegance.

The hand-harvested grapes were macerated for five days before fermentation in 80 hectolitre cement tanks, at 26-28ºC for one week with twice daily pump overs. The wine was then transferred to a mix of 25 and 50 hectolitre untoasted French oak barrels (fourth use) for 20 months ageing before being bottled unfiltered.

45% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 12% Marselan.

See blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers at Garzon and click here for a video on this icon wine.

Bodega Garzon Balasto 2016 - fiche technique

On the nose, this wine is rich with complex aromas of fresh red and black fruits, liquorice, spice and a hint of tobacco. Textural, full bodied and very elegant, the fruit is framed by juicy, vibrant tannins resulting in a wine of real vitality and expression.

ABV = 14.5%.

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