Liquids: Valentine's Day Wines

My first crush, the one that did some real damage, was on Diane Valdez in the ninth grade. She was a Latina—Cuban, to be exact—and she made my heart race every time she rolled her Rs. Soon after our first kiss, I caught her smooching my best friend at her locker one afternoon, and all she could muster up was, “I’m so sorrrry! Rrrreally!” That was the end of my first Latin love affair. Why am I rehashing this? Because it’s February, of course. Time to think about romance: the good ones that got away, the bad ones that should have, and the ones that drove us to drink. Isn’t that the whole point of Valentine’s Day?

My affinity for all things Latin naturally extends to wines—especially reds, because they’re so exotic. Perhaps a shrink would say I’m projecting my unrequited affections for Diane onto my vino, but I think that’s loco. For me, it’s about dark, brooding color, spice-perfumed aromas, and silky, velvety textures. Okay, so that kind of sounds like Diane, but really, it’s the wine I’m talking about. Have you ever tasted an earthy, raspberry-scented malbec from Argentina? Or a fruity, currant-flavored carménère from Chile? If not, consider yourself warned: You, too, will develop a crush on these beguiling Latin reds. And I promise you won’t end up feeling cheated.

What makes Latin American wine so attractive? To begin with, price. Both Argentina and Chile are powerhouse winemakers with relatively new export connections to the United States. That means American marketing schmoes haven’t had much of a chance to hype up prices—at least, not yet. Just ask Carlos Hidalgo, an owner at Bomboa, who says of these wines: “They’re really incredible, and you get the best value for your money.”

Glenn Tanner, wine director at the Olive Group, which operates the Latin steakhouse, Bonfire, agrees. “They’re so good and so ridiculously affordable,” he says. They are also, for the most part, highly approachable when they’re young, which makes them instant crowd-pleasers, and great with food. All you need to know now is which country produces what, and where to find them.

First, there’s Chile, which is on the frontier of making world-class wines, especially now that wineries and winemakers from France, Spain, and the United States have purchased vineyards there. France’s Domaines Barons de Rothschild, producers of the esteemed Château Lafite Rothschild wines, makes Chilean wine under the Los Vascos label (including cabernet sauvignon). The French Baron Philippe de Rothschild has also ventured into Chile. (Look for the fabulous Escudo Rojo.) California’s Robert Mondavi has teamed up with Caliterra (another very good cabernet) while Spain’s Miguel Torres makes Chilean wine. (Seek out its fantastic Manso de Velasco Cabernet.)

Chile, like the rest of the New World, labels its wine according to grape names, and while some of them are familiar—particularly cabernet sauvignon and merlot—you should also look for the aforementioned carménère grape, which was brought to Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century. Unfortunately, it looks just like merlot, and most growers thought it was. Today, a good amount of it is still bottled as, or blended with, merlot, though producers such as Canepa, Arboleda, Concha y Toro, and Undurraga are now using the correct name. You can find Arboleda, Concha y Toro, and Undurraga on the list at Bonfire. Expect them to taste smooth and chocolaty, with mild tannins and a lovely cinnamon spiciness. Other hot Chilean producers to seek out are Casa Lapostolle (especially its Merlot Cuvée Alexandre), La Palma, Montes, Terra Noble, Carmen, and Cousino Macul.

Then there’s Argentina, which also uses familiar grape names, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and pinot noir. The most important Argentinean grape to know, however, is malbec, another Bordeaux variety credited with making Argentina’s best reds. At Macondo in Somerville, chef and owner Paul Sussman loves malbec. “My mom is Chilean, so I grew up drinking those wines,” he says. Sussman likes to pair his grilled skirt steak over chimichurri with the Alamos Malbec on his list ($22). “I like big, generous wines,” he says, “and malbecs are so big and juicy, they go great with Latin fare.”

Other hot Argentinean producers include Trapiche, Santa Ana, Weinert, Nicolás Catena, Navarro Correas, Valentín Bianchi, Michel Torino, La Rural (producers of the Trumpeter and Felipe Rutini labels), Terrazas de los Andes, and Don Miguel Gascon. While Chilean wine prices are generally considered low by U.S. standards, Argentinean wines are priced even lower.

As another Valentine’s Day approaches and I find myself remembering old flames, I sure hope Diane Valdez found Mr. Rrrright.