The vineyard-strewn countryside of Brazil’s Vale dos Vinhedos
Silvia Tonon

You may think you know South American Wine. But we’re here to tell you there’s more to this continent’s wine regions than meets the eye — or taste buds.

South america is one of the New World’s oldest wine regions, dating back to the mid-1500s, when Jesuit missionaries arrived with a vast knowledge of winemaking. Traditionally, Chile has produced the most famous wines worldwide; however, Argentine offerings can be equally exquisite — and Uruguay, Peru and Brazil are also playing catch-up with a significant amount of real estate being dedicated to vineyards. Given this, it’s no surprise that South America is a magnet for oenophiles. The continent’s most famous wine regions — Chile’s Maipo Valley and Mendoza in Argentina — hog the majority of wine tourism, with a long-standing infrastructure of tasting rooms and vineyard lodging, as well as an indisputable production of outstanding, ­award-winning wines. But there is also something to be said for a more boutique wine experience — one that allows you to meander quietly along, making discovery after discovery, rather than following in the footsteps of everyone else on the continent. The ensuing three up-and-coming wine regions have begun to draw the attention of the wine world, yet have managed to remain blissfully off the proverbial beaten path, making a visit to any one of them an expedition in self-discovery chased by all manner of taste-bud-­invigorating boutique wines.

Maule Valley, Chile

Just a half-day’s drive south of Santiago, the land of Maule Valley is a largely undeveloped wilderness area that is home to 100-year-old vines that were chiefly destined for boxed wine for the better part of the last century. Over the last 10 years, though, a small group of independent-minded boutique winemakers decided to scale things back to the basics — dry farming, handling grapes by hand — and are now emerging as viticultural repo men armed with renaissance varieties like carignane, a red varietal of Mediterranean origins, that are challenging Chile’s industrial vineyard giants and moving Maule toward becoming the country’s first appellation. 

Wine tasting in the Maule is unlike anything a wine lover could imagine in Napa or Bordeaux. There are no fancy tasting rooms, no branded corkscrews for sale, no pressure to join the wine club, no gimmicks whatsoever to lure visitors in — just a group of family-run wineries absolutely committed to removing the bells and whistles from the winemaking process in order to organically produce wines with a story to tell.

Take Rafael Tirado, for example, one of a gaggle of renegade winemakers who are transforming the Maule into one of the New World’s most exciting and eccentric wine regions: He purposely planted his vineyards at Laberinto in myriad disorientating ways — i.e., non-conformist compass directions in relation to shade and sun, in circles instead of rows, in a maze modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. The Maule is just kind of like that.

Tirado also welcomes guests into his own home, where he does all the cooking, pouring and cleaning on his own. The fruits of his labor speak for themselves. His 2011 Cenizas de Barlovento Sauvignon Blanc, all crisp, tangy and invigorating, pops on the palate like no white wine anyone in my group, a self-confessed horde of red devotees, had ever experienced. We practically fell over one another, begging him to sell us some, which he did right after he ran downslope to the cellar and hand-labeled the bottles himself. 

Derek Mossman Knapp, another of Maule’s bold, organic winemakers, is a Canadian running a one-family show at Garage Wine Co., and he puts his wine where his mouth is: He drives the trucks, horse-plows the vineyards and hand-­harvests the grapes until he can no longer wash off the purple stains from his fingertips. Selling his vintages via WhatsApp, his purpose lies in restoring Chile’s identity with old-style techniques and varietals.

“We are Chile’s minutemen, but we fight a silent revolution that has interest being placed on roots, history, authenticity and character,” he says.

Santiago Adventures runs excellent bespoke tours to the Maule Valley.

Stay: The most charming spot to stay is Mingre Wine Lodge, an 1892 homestead at J. Bouchon Winery. The meticulously restored casona is rife with courtyard-strewn lemon and orange trees, and offers homestyle meals and plenty of fire-warmed hospitality.

Eat: If reserved in advance, J. Bouchon, Gillmore Winery and Vineyards and Laberinto all offer meals with their tastings, usually with (or prepared by) the winemakers themselves.

Taste: Laberinto’s unorthodox planting methods easily make for the most interesting tasting experience in the region. This tiny boutique winery’s sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend are all outstanding. J. Bouchon, Gillmore, Garage Wine Co. and Erasmo are also requisite stops.

La Toscana restaurant in Neuquén, Argentina
Patagonia, Argentina

Here in argentine patagonia, wine tasting is understandably not the first activity that comes to mind. Even dinosaur bones are more famous. In this coveted land of dramatic snowcapped Andes peaks, colossal chunks of ice the size of cities and glacial lakes of otherworldly hues of jade, it’s more about trekking, climbing and boating through some of the world’s most remote wilderness — not fine wine. But some 220 miles east of the action, at the doorstep to Patagonia, where bone-dry, windswept Steppe landscapes dominate and extraordinary carnivorous dinosaur fossils seize the biggest headlines, one of the New World’s newest wine regions has emerged.

This is because in the late 1990s, in the vineyards around San Patricio del Chañar, 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Neuquén, untouched soil was sowed with grape vines. You see, it had dawned on winemakers and investors that the extreme climate here — unlike Argentina’s more famous Andes-hugging regions in Mendoza and Salta — lent itself to winemaking without the need of super technology. The dry and windy climate prevented disease on its own.

“This was the last region to be settled in Argentina — it’s the frontier,” explains Julio Viola Jr., Director at Bodega NQN Viñedos de la Patagonia, a modern boutique winery that rises from the desertscape like a designer bunker. “And because of the climate, we don’t need to use fancy techniques in the winemaking process. What we do here in Patagonia translates naturally from the vineyards to the wine. It’s actually organic by nature. We use the phrase ‘naturally healthy.’ ”

Pinot noir, along with merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon, are emerging as signature varieties for the seven new wineries here (along with five in the neighboring Rio Negro province). It hasn’t taken long for them to stand up against wines from Salta — traditionally thought of as Argentina’s other wine region after Mendoza ­— all the while distinguishing themselves from domestic competition with gorgeous wines showing minerally, French-leaning characteristics on the palate; dark, deeply concentrated reds and purples in the glass; and an impressive glass-to-mouth sensory assault.

At Bodega Patritti, architect Ruben Sidoni designed the modern, wavy-roofed space to help buffer the wind and mimic the slope of the surrounding landscape. With the winery having concentrated its efforts on producing several impressive vintages before focusing on the tourist experience, the wine-tasting reception area is only just now receiving its finishing touches, all of which should be in place by the end of the year (and it’ll be well-worth the wait, trust us). Their best offering, an as-yet-unnamed super-premium blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot, is a showstopper, if winemaker Nicolás Navío doesn’t say so himself: “The wines are living up to the name Patagonia.”

Harvest time at Bodega Familia Schroeder
Courtesy NQN winery
X4 Rumbos plans tailor-made trips to Patagonian wine regions, incorporating trekking, bird-watching and other nature activities.

Stay: Bodega NQN Viñedos de la Patagonia has a three-room posada (sleeps five) on the premises. It affords dramatic vineyard views and a pleasant soundtrack provided by gaggles of beautiful burrowing parrots.

Eat: In Neuquén proper, La Toscana cooks everything — including a gargantuan 4.5-pound T-bone that feeds two — in a massive clay igloo-style oven warmed by apple- and pear-tree wood to a toasty 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t miss the local artisan cheese plate. In wine country, Bodega Familia Schroeder is the region’s best, finessing European cuisine with local seasonal organic ingredients to memorable effect, notably with the Patagonian lamb stuffed with candied plums and a decadent dulce de leche trio dessert. Malma RestoBar, at Bodega NQN, is also doing innovative wine-focused cuisine and offers stupendous vineyard views to boot.

Taste: The modern and boutique Bodega NQN and more traditional Bodega Familia Schroeder are doing the most exciting things in the region. At the former, the focus is on the Universo line of malbecs and cab-malbec blends; at the latter, it’s on sparkling, chardonnay (in consultancy with cult California winemaker Paul Hobbs) and a pinot-malbec blend. Bodega Patritti is also a definitive stop.

Local wines
Vale dos Vinhedos, Brazil

Meandering along the slow-paced, cobblestoned Via Trento through Brazil’s Vale dos Vinhedos is a revelation. Surrounded by the curves of a swelling countryside strewn with stunning manicured vines unraveling in all directions, this rural route is roughly 75 miles north of Porto Alegre in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Offering some 36 wineries and pousadas, it eschews conventional stereotypes of Brazil and instead beckons a collective gasp from oenophiles who weren’t previously in the know. Forget about the bronzed and beautiful lounging on the sun-toasted sands of Rio de Janeiro or Crayola-green jungles hosting swarms of toucans in the Amazon: Blink twice and you’d swear this is Tuscany.

Though Italian–descended winemakers have been producing wines here in the Serra Gaúcha region of Brazil since 1875, it’s only in very recent years that winemakers like Almaúnica, Pizzato, Lidio Carraro and Vallontano have begun gaining a cult following for their (very) fabulous boutique wines. Historically, high taxes and bad infrastructure made many of these wines expensive and difficult to find domestically, but ­increasing e-commerce and a rising economy, as well as a recent wave of new wine bars in São Paulo, with Brazilian sommeliers like Daniela Bravin (from São Paulo’s Bravin restaurant) championing domestic wines, have started to shift some of the spotlight to Brazilian wine. In fact, Vale dos Vinhedos was named one of 2013’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations by Wine Enthusiast magazine. From a room at Hotel & Spa do Vinho Caudalie, perched atop a rolling hillside overlooking vines in all directions, it’s not hard to see why: Vineyards always make for a pretty picture, but pepper those grapes with the occasional Araucaria tree, one of South America’s most picturesque, and Brazil’s most surprising postcard comes into focus.

Unlike the dryer climates of Argentina and Chile, here in the Serra Gaúcha, winemakers produce lighter, less-­concentrated reds that pair well with food and fresher, more vibrant chardonnays like the Lidio Carraro Dádivas. At the special Almaúnica, though, you’ll often find vineyard owner Magda Brandelli pouring her exquisite Reserva Syrah 2011, a rich, intense red that does a spicy dance among black pepper, raspberry, raisin and tobacco notes. Without a beach or jungle in sight, it might not be the Brazil of tropical dreams the world over, but the grapes don’t lie. This is Brazil beyond.

Outdoor dining at Mamma Gema
For more information on visiting the Vale dos Vinhedos, see www.valedos

Stay: For a full-service hotel and an excellent spa, Hotel & Spa do Vinho Caudalie is the top choice in the region. For something more intimate, Pousada Borghetto Sant’Anna is a gorgeous cluster of romantic stone houses.

Eat: Valle Rustico’s rising chef, Rodrigo Bellora, plucks goods from the restaurant’s own organic gardens for his contemporary three-course menus served in the atmospheric basement of a local house. Mamma Gema does quality rustic Italian and has an attached wine shop that has the best concentration of local wines in
the region.

Taste: You can sip the award-winning Quatro Castas blend — and some of Brazil’s best reds (syrah, cabernet sauvignon, malbec) — at Almaúnica. And Pizzato has turned wine-world heads with its merlots.

Kevin Raub is a São Paulo-based travel and entertainment journalist. His work has appeared in Travel+Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Robb Report, The New York Times’ T Magazine and Lonely Planet, among other publications.