For decades the attraction of South American wines was that they were dirt-cheap. The problem was, they tasted cheap and dirty. Some still do.
Chile and Argentina, the continent's two important vine-growing nations, have long been notorious producers of wines that were as nasty as the juntas that ran the countries.
But democracy has come to these two countries, and the armies are back in their barracks. With freedom has come a gradual improvement in winemaking that is just now showing up in the bottle.
Judging by a recent tasting of 25 Chilean and Argentine red wines, both countries have a long way to go before consumers can rely on them as consistent providers of high-quality wines. Many apparently had been mishandled in the winery, and others seemed to have been cooked during their trip across the Equator.
Still there were some notable successes that demonstrated the enormous potential of the best South American growing regions.
Neither Chile nor Argentina is a Juanito-come-lately to the vineyard business. Both countries have been producing wine for more than a century, each taking advantage of the spring runoff from the high Andes to irrigate their vineyards.
International wine authorities have recognized for generations the possibility of making great red wines in such areas as Argentina's Mendoza province and Chile's Maipo Valley. Both countries produce whites as well as reds, but the reds are generally superior.
Until the last decade, Chileans and Argentines have been largely content to produce rough and rustic wines for a small, relatively undemanding local market.
It wasn't until the 1980s that both countries became serious about exporting their wines to the United States. But the product was only a little more sophisticated than the wines kept for the domestic market. With price as its only selling point, South American wine competed with Bulgarian and Romanian imports rather than California wines.
Now it appears it's time for California to start taking these guys seriously. If anybody in the wine industry there is feeling complacent, they will find no quicker cure than the 1990 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile's Colchaugua region.
In 1988 the Rothschild family of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild bought an interest in the Los Vascos winery and began revamping the winemaking operations. The 1990 shows just how successful they were.
At about $7.49 a bottle, the Los Vascos displays more depth, structure and intensity than most $25 California cabernets. Its silky texture and concentrated flavors of blackberry, spice and black currant make it one of the most amazing values in the world of wine today.
No other Chilean wine in the tasting came close to the Los Vascos, but there were several others that showed impressive potential.
Santa Carolina, one of Chile's oldest and largest wineries, showed a sure hand with merlot. Its 1989 "Reserva" from the Santa Rosa Vineyard ($9) was a delicious, rustic wine with loads of burly charm, but the 1990 regular bottling from the same vineyard was every bit as good for only $6. Both rate a slight edge over Santa Carolina's well-made 1985 cabernet sauvignon.
But for every clear success Chile offered, there also seemed to be an abject failure. The 1991 Errazuriz Merlot from the Maule Valley ($7.39), for instance, was a vegetal, dried-out little nonentity that is typical of Chilean wine at its weedy worst. The 1991 merlot from Carta Vieja wasn't much better, but at $5 a bottle it had a better excuse.
More typically, Chilean wines are neither as good as the Santa Carolinas nor as miserable as the Errazuriz. They tend to occupy a middle ground made up of wines that are neither offensive nor particularly appealing.
A good example is the 1989 Cousino Macul Merlot from the Maipo Valley ($11.49) -- full-bodied and well-endowed with fruit but slightly vegetal, coarse and blunt, as if it had been filtered half to death.
Argentine red wines are every bit as erratic as Chilean reds, but in a different way. Where bad Chilean wine is typically weedy and coarse, bad Argentine wine is often hollow and short on the finish, suggesting that growers are extracting excessive yields from their vineyards.
Another problem with Argentine wines is that many reds are aged for many years before their release, and by the time they reach the American consumer they are frequently past their peak.
Certainly there is no excuse for inflicting a wine such as the 1984 Bianchi Particular Cabernet Sauvignon ($9) on anyone. This oxidized wine with stewed vegetable flavors was utterly undrinkable.
The mystery is whether this wine was awful from the get-go or was boiled to death in an unrefrigerated container. Poor handling in transit is a problem with many imported wines, but South American wines are especially vulnerable because there is no way they can avoid passing through the tropics on their way to the United States.
It's a shame because there is some Argentine wine that clearly deserves kid-gloves treatment. The 1990 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) provides convincing evidence that the Mendoza region can yield world-class cabernet sauvignon, while the 1983 Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) proves that Argentine red wine can reach a dignified maturity with the complexity of a fine Bordeaux.
Fundamentally, however, South America's greatest wine distinction is that it is one of the world's last remaining sources of good wine for under $5.
This is no small distinction. Wine consumers are thirsty for fruity, uncomplicated wines they can drink routinely with hamburger or pasta. They can find them in such wines as the 1989 Flichman Argenta ($5) from Argentina or the 1990 Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot ($4.59) and 1990 Saint Morillon Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile ($5).
Because of the transport problems, the best strategy would be to ask your retailer to sell you one bottle out of a newly opened case and put the other 11 aside for you. If the one bottle's good, you can go back.
In spite of the continuing problems afflicting South American wines, the results of my tasting were encouraging. I have long been a skeptic, but for the first time I can see concrete progress.
In spite of its elitist image, wine thrives in a democracy. Ideas flow more freely, and the climate is more hospitable to foreign investment. Besides, the consumer can feel better about buying the wine.
So now, with the dead hand of military dictatorship off the necks of the Chilean and Argentine people, South American winemakers can look forward to an era of steadily improving quality. Just keep the generals away from the vats.
1992 Boordy Seyval Blanc, Sur Lie Reserve ($7.69), and 1991 Woodhall Seyval Blanc ($8). Seyval blanc is not a fashionable white wine variety, but these Maryland wineries do a wonderful job with it. The Boordy is a very fresh, fruity wine with a light hint of oak, refreshing acidity, and flavors of peach, apple, oranges and spice. Similar to a good Washington state semillon, it's perfect for summertime drinking. The toasty, yeasty Woodhall is a dead ringer for a fine $12-$15 chardonnay. Try serving it blind to a visiting Californian.