This was our buyers' day. In the Chilean corner Vicki Stephens-Clarkson; wearing the Argentine colours Thomas Woolrych. Any hints? If it's white it's from Chile. There was advice I could clearly follow. Chile makes a pretty good show of Sauvignon Blanc, ripe but not so in your face as New Zealand. I liked the Alta Tierra 2007 from the Elqui Valley in the north and the Casas del Bosque from Casablanca; the former almost thick with melony flavour and a touch of grapefruit, the latter more delicately constructed.
Among the reds, though, could I pick them off as right-of-the-Andes or left-of-the-Andes without looking at the labels? For certain mainstream Chileans, yes. Chile gives Cabernet Sauvignon an instantly likeable, fluidly fruity character with an intriguing earthy note. From cooler regions it has a herbal and peppery smell and taste, from the warmest ones a baked berry ripeness; from the best producers a touch of both balancing and lingering deliciously. The national speciality, the Carmenère, follows the same lines with particularly bright and colourful effect. We have a lovely example, the 2007 from Gran Tarapacá, arriving in April.
Chile's other big excitement is Syrah - the fashion grape of the noughties, it seems, with the Rhône Valley madly modish and New Zealand doing beautifully with what Australia thought it pretty much had to itself. As so often the examples I pick are the less ambitious. Heavy bottles, inky wines and prodigious levels of alcohol are available - at a price. For half the price you can have, for example, the Tabali Reserva '05 from Limari or the Polkura Syrah '06 from Colchagua.
Argentina holds quite a different card: its Malbec. I remember 15 years ago tasting lines of Cabernet and choosing a Malbec (that was for British Airways, wanting a truly juicy red for all-comers). Malbec has grown up, been perfected, been blended with Cabernet and Merlot, and generally joined the top table. Schroeder Estate (Mr Schroeder had come all the way) makes a good example, intense, smooth, balanced, hugely appealing. Fabre Montmayou is fruitier, less intense, with a nice tannic touch.
Most impressive of all was Malbec blended with Cabernet Sauvignon by a master, the Catena/Rothschild Reserve that combines the names as Caro. Caro 2004 at £25 was far from the most expensive Argentine present, but to me the most exciting, with the cool-in-the-mouth harmony and fresh, juicy, palate-coating length of a job well done.
There were three vertical tastings on show to represent the dimension of time: what happens to these wines over three, five, ten years in bottle? The first was a long-established Chilean classic, Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon from Concha y Toro. The 1987 opened the batting. Back then the wines were lighter; a mere 12.5% alcohol. They were elegant, though, and drink sweetly at 20 years. Don Melchor is one of those consistent players, firm in youth, never greatly complex but like a sweet drive down the middle of the fairway, satisfying and lingering in the mind.
Its stable mate is a joint effort with Mouton-Rothschild, Almaviva, a blend of Cabernet and Carmenère. The early vintages are growing a little gamey, but the 2003 has the fruity brilliance of Carmenère and the depth of Cabernet Sauvignon in lovely proportions.
The Argentine entry in what you might call the Superandean class was Cheval des Andes, Moët-Hennessy's prestige creation in cahoots with Cheval Blanc; Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in partnership. So far, I would say, so splendid. It's hard to mistake the French touch, whichever side of the Andes.
By teatime I was wondering why the two countries don't team up and call the whole delicious thing Patagonia.