Orange County has its share of restaurants with book-length wine lists, but South America is usually underrepresented even at the best of them. If you were hankering for a great Chilean Carménère or a Malbec from Argentina’s Mendoza, your only choice was to buy one from a well-stocked wine store.
No more. Fogo de Chão, a popular chain of Brazilian churrascarias, or steakhouses, has finally come to Orange County. A handsome 250-seat restaurant opened earlier this month in the Irvine Spectrum Center.
Along with its tempting panoply of meats served tableside, you’ll find a decent array of South American wine.
The place definitely puts you in the mood for a big slab of meat and a hearty red. It’s decorated in a style that could be called South American “Urban Cowboy:” tan-colored banquettes, monochromatic prints of saddles, stirrups and other horsey gear.
Presiding over the room is a bas-relief version of artist Antonio Carigni’s famous Estatua do Laçador, a statue of a South American gaucho that occupies a beloved place in Porto Alegre — the heart of Brazil’s southern cowboy country.
South American wine is still a bit of a hard sell in Orange County, according to the restaurant’s manager, Andrio Villa, a native of Brazil who started with Fogo de Chão in São Paulo back in 2007.
“At this location we sell about half and half: 50% California wine and 50% South American,” he said.
But in general the feedback has been positive.
“As the customers here get more familiar, they start to appreciate the style of the wine and realize that it offers very good quality for the price,” Villa said. “And the higher-priced wines compare very well with even more expensive wines from other parts of the world.”
Villa has worked at other Fogo de Chão locations in the U.S., and he has become well versed in the attributes of American wine. He says a steady increase in quality over the last generation has transformed the wine industry in Chile and Argentina.
(Certainly it didn’t hurt that such iconic names as Paul Hobbs and Peter Michael took an interest in South America. Hobbs helped revolutionize and modernize the industry in Argentina when he became involved in winemaking there about 30 years ago.)
Villa thinks the best South American reds can stand side by side with Napa’s more illustrious labels. And he loves them for their aging potential.
“South American reds age very well,” he said. “I’ve found that some Malbecs and Bordeaux blends can keep for 15, 20 years or more.”
Fogo de Chão’s wine list contains a healthy selection of South American reds, whites and rosés by the bottle. There are 13 Mendoza Malbecs, and we tried several. The house label, Fogo de Chão Gran Reserva 2015, was unctuous but nicely balanced, with some interesting spiciness on the finish.
If you want to delve more deeply into the inventory, there are some illustrious names to be found. Norwegian-born Alexander Vik’s well-respected Chilean wines are represented: the Eulalia Red Blend 2017 ($76) is popular, and if you’re feeling flush you can go for his excellent 2013 Millahue ($166). Both have lots of depth and finesse.
The top-end taste of the visit was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend from Bodega Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s most venerable wineries, founded in 1902 by Italian immigrant Nicola Catena and passed on to his descendants through several generations. Containing 83% Cabernet and 17% Malbec, it is rich and sumptuous, like a big-boned Napa red. At $194 per bottle, it’s one of the highlights of the wine list.
If you don’t have that kind of money, the happy hour is an excellent way to try some South American wines by the glass for only $6. It’s Monday to Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. On Wine Wednesdays, many wines by the bottle are offered at half price.
IF YOU GO
What: Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse
Where: Irvine Spectrum, 623 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine
Information: (949) 398-1500; fogodechao.com/location/irvine