March 02, 2012

Chilean wines - so much to say...............

The dilemma
Last month we were in Chile - a beautiful, vibrant, long, thin country nestled between the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains. Since then, I've been trying to write a crisp, concise article about Chilean wines for the website. But there is so much to say!

Even without the wine, Chile is a fascinating country, with passionate people, amazing produce, awesome scenery and many contrasts. Savvy wild dogs roam the streets of Santiago and Vina del Mar, co-existing quite happily with locals and tourists alike; tumble down shacks and expensive modern mansions can be found virtually side by side. A 200km bus ride in an air-conditioned coach can set you back a whopping $4, but a winery tasting can cost $30 for nothing too special.
Humble accommodation

Modern Mansion
Highway driving is exciting. On some roads, limits are 120km an hour, which is great until you  have to enact an emergency stop because someone crosses the highway to buy tomatoes from a  stall on the other side; or a cyclist on a  rickety old bike appears going the wrong way, or an upset horse on the highway rears its (not so) ugly head - all of which happened, I might add.
Santiago graffiti art
Hazy Santiago
Making roadside empanadas
 The coast is beautiful, the beaches are fabulous, though the Pacific is frigid. The seafood, avocados, pisco sours and empanadas are delicious (apart from the one that wasn't!). Santiago is big (close to 7M), vibrant, not short on graffiti, and surrounded by beautiful mountains which, sadly, are cloaked in smog most of the time.
Johnny Depp?

 But I ramble, so on to the wine, of which there is much.

The icons
According to my recently acquired Mapa Regiones del Vino Chileno 2011, (which is also doubling as part of my Spanish language learning kit, along with a Spanish translation of a J.K. Rowling book), the total plantings cover 111,525 hectares, of which Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape (40%). Contrary to popular belief, Carmenere plantings are less than 10%.

From crisp, delicious Sauvignon Blanc to big, bold, boozy blends, Chile has a dizzying array of good value wines to offer. The UK and USA drink most of it. Canada is the third largest importer of Chilean wines.
I'm a  big fan of the $20 and under Chilean wines, but when I set off for Chile, I was also interested in tasting higher end wines since we don't see many in Ontario. A quick survey of the LCBO online system on a given day in February showed 278 different Chilean wines. 86% of them were $20 or less. Compare this to the Australian collection, with 53% under $20; or New Zealand, 65% under $20; Spain 65%; France 35%. Granted, France is a little different - there's an established market for more expensive wines, whether for outstanding taste, cellaring or prestige. Of the French collection (close to 2000 wines) 45% of them were over $40. But there's definitely a market for $20+ wines from everywhere - so why so few from Chile?

What's the problem?
Are there no decent higher end Chilean wines?
Are they priced too high to bring into Ontario?
Is the market not interested in anything from Chile over $20?
Does over $20 equate with aging, and Chilean wines don't age?
All good questions that I was interested in exploring.

Many pesos
Throughout the trip I tasted some great wines and visited some beautiful wineries. I chatted with some excellent wine folks and witnessed first hand a high level of passion, dedication and knowledge. As I was not travelling as part of a trade group, it wasn't always easy to entice wineries to open their icon wines, and many simply did not open them for Joe Public, or even a small wine fish like me. Some who did offer up the icons charged astronomical amounts for a tasting and on several occasions the bottles had been open too long and didn't show well. Presumably this was due to the small number of people willing to part with extravagant amounts of pesos for the icons.

Aside from wine-tasting prices, the icon wines are often way more expensive than everything else on offer, and not in a linear price/quality kind of way. I was told by several winery folks that prices of icon wines are often inflated (in Chile) to appeal to high end buyers. The same wines may cost less in other countries, even accounting for taxes and duties. So between a reluctance to open them, the tasting cost, and the bottle prices in Chile, this seems like a bit of a disincentive to potential international consumers to check out the icons.

I'm sure somebody down there is figuring all this out as Chile continues to play an increasingly prominent role on the world wine stage. If it were me though, I'd be opening more of these delicious top of the line wines and sorting out the pricing. However I did manage to taste a few. Read on.................  

Maipo Valley
Vina Haras de Pirque in the Maipo Valley has an imposing and elegant winery, shaped like a banked horseshoe and  overlooking the vineyards. The architecture allows for  the use of a gravity system for handling delicate grapes, one of many well designed features that contribute to the quest for excellence. Like several other wineries I came across in Chile, the owners also breed champion horses, a fact reflected in the wine labeling and names - Equus, Haras, Albis, the latter being the icon wine and a joint venture with the Italian Antinori family.

Maria Cristina Cifuentes, Commercial Manager for the Americas, showed me around the production facilities and opened some stellar wines for tasting. An elegant woman, with a passion for her business and products, she deftly and meticulously rinsed each of the wine glasses in the wine to be tasted to be sure that no errant soap residue would detract from the wines.
The Equus (entry level) Sauvignon Blanc was  good, chilled to perfection, crisp, tasty with citrus and tree fruits and beautifully balanced. The Haras Character 2007 - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Cabernet Franc and Syrah was excellent - beautifully balanced, nice fruit but not "in your face", lovely to drink now. As Haras de Pirque is not a huge winery, I was thrilled to find some of this on local shelves - $21 at the SAQ and $19 at the LCBO. Hopefully it will sell out fast and we'll see more of the Haras collection.
There was much build up to the heavily anticipated tasting of the icon Albis wine, a  Cab Sauv/Carmenere blend, beautifully made and aged in the finest oak. The 2005 that we tasted was indeed very elegant, and drinking beautifully now, and probably for another few years. The SAQ, although not the LCBO,  has a few bottles at around $50. My notes indicate that the winery price was around $60. For my part, I'm going to be picking up some of the Haras Character - just can't seem to get away from the "good value" quest.

At Concha Y Toro, I tasted two vintages (2008 and 1990) of their flagship icon wine - Don Melchor -  a fabulous wine, with 22 vintages to its name, and predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Cabernet Franc. I tasted the DM 2008, which just this month obtained the highest score of any Chilean icon wine in the 2012 Mujer y Vino wine guide, one of Chile's leading wine publications. In Chile, this wine is around $120 and in the US and UK it's around $80. I'm still scratching my head at this pricing strategy. In any event, the 2008 was fabulous and, by various accounts the 2006 was even better. The good news is that the LCBO has 3 bottles of the 2006 (only) still in stock ($79.95) in - you guessed it- Orillia. 


Having established that there are at least a couple of very nice pricier icon wines in Chile, the question of aging is interesting. One of the reasons that wine enthusiasts will pay more for certain wines is because of the hope that they will taste legendary if kept for a while and cellared carefully. So if you pop down to Orillia and buy one of those 2006 Don Meclhors, what will it taste like and when should you drink it? Well, suffice to say it's a big, high alcohol wine but with great and complex aromas and tastes, super balance, and should delight most folks. On the subject of cellaring, Jay Miller at thinks you might be able to drink it through 2036, Wine Spectator thinks 2009 to 2018 would be good, Wine Enthusiast thinks 2010 to 2015. Wow - big differences! When I tasted the 2008, I thought it was a great wine, drinking nicely last month (2012) and probably good for another 5 to 7 years. It's always a bit of a guessing game but a wine needs to display ample amounts of tannins, fruit, acidity and alcohol to give it a fighting chance of  maturing in a way that's delightful. No lack of the latter three in  most Chilean wines but somehow, I really haven't come across too many chewy, tongue coating tannic wines that scream out for lengthy cellaring. I'd be happy to join Jay Miller in 2036 to share a bottle of the 2006, although I might be on weak tea by then.

The winery was a little naughty in offering  a taste of the 1990 Don Melchor. It was years past its best, highly oxidised, and with no fruit flavours or any flavours left whatsoever. The winery website shows tasting notes from 2001 for the 1990 vintage saying "drink now", so perhaps the 1990 bottle should have been carefully vetted before being sold to the public 11 years after the suggested drinking date. However, I had a great conversation with the knowledgeable young man who was serving me, even if he did say that some  folks like their older wines to be oxidised. Really!? Not at my table. The winery staff, he said, had been involved in some recent aging potential tastings. We ended up agreeing that, in general, the icon wines in Chile seemed to be good for around 10 years, with everything else being highly drinkable within 5 years of bottling.

Casablanca Valley
(Sadly I forgot my camera, so will inject random Chilean wine photos for visual relief).
The cool climate Casablanca Valley produces some excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir. At the beautiful and serene William Cole winery I tasted the very excellent "Bill" 2009, a small production Pinot Noir currently only sold at the winery, where the intent is to produce the best Pinot in Chile - a wonderful goal. As I look at my notes on "Bill", I prattled on about it for 3 pages. That's how good it was! At the recent Annual Wines of Chile Awards, nine international judges awarded 11 of 17 medals to cool climate wines. Let's hope we see more of these on local shelves. At the same William Cole winery, I tasted a delicious 2011 Sauv Blanc, with gorgeous aromas and flavours of citrus, pineapple and melon, wonderfully crisp, yet luscious, fruity and with great minerality. I also tasted a (hopefully) experimental Sauv Blanc, which had spent 6 months in French oak barrels. It was very odd, with a nice, but Chardonnay like, nose, a bitterness on the palate and not much fruitiness. They didn't have a chilled bottle, so perhaps that was a factor but, more likely, Sauvignon Blanc prefers stainless steel to oak. There was no icon wine, per se, and that was just fine with me. The Pinot, at around $26, was iconic enough and one of the best New World Pinots I've tasted.
Emiliana winery maintains organic and/or biodynamic practises across a wide range of wines with varying nomencaltures including Adobe, Novas, Signos de origen, Coyam and their icon wine Ge (Syrah, Carmenere and Cab Sauv), which sells at about $120 at the winery. The company has plantings in 5 different valleys. My superb sommelier/guide for the day in Casablanca Valley - Michael Ayandokun of Wine Tours Valparaiso - had some difficulty finding anyone to conduct a tasting for me, as the winery was busy, so he just muscled in and organized it himself, grabbing bottles that he thought I should taste and orchestrating the tasting. What a star! Look this guy up if you need a guide.
With plantings in five different valleys, the winery grows a wide range of grape varieties, including Rhone whites like Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne, which produced some really  lovely wines. On the red side, the 2009 Coyam, a favourite of Michael's, is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Carmenere, Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot. This was a big wine, with good structure and some aging potential. I am a huge fan of good acidity, which is really important in wines. It's what makes them refreshing and enjoyable  rather than tasting like liquid jam. Chile generally manages to produce wines with great acidity, even in big fruity wines. To my taste, the Coyam was a tiny bit short on acidity, but definitely worth tasting again. In other opinions, Wine Spectator awarded the 2009 Coyam 90 points. Also very tasty was the Adobe Reserva Gewurtztraminer 2011 (with 10% Sauvignon Blanc). This had a beautifully perfumed nose of roses and lychees; you could almost taste rose petals (I know that sounds weird) on the palate; it was wonderfully refreshing; and the price tag was $7. No one was interested in opening a  bottle of Ge for me to try, so I can't comment on that icon, although many worthies have. This is a nice winery, though,  making good and interesting wines at all levels - worth seeking out.

Lunch at Casa Botha was fantastic. (Still without camera, the photo is of another lunch!). This restaurant is owned by a  really interesting South African man, David Botha, who is passionate about food, local wines and art. I tasted at least 6 more excellent local wines at lunch, met a famous Hollywood cinematographer, basked in January sunshine in the middle of a gorgeous wine valley and enjoyed the best fish I tasted in Chile. This was definitely "died and gone to heaven" time.
Other wineries visted after lunch included Loma Larga and Casas del Bosque, where I know I tasted some very nice wines, but my notes were largely incomprehensible - not enough spitting I suspect!
Colchagua Valley
Further south, in the Colchagua Valley, I visited Casa Silva, Viu Manent and Montes. At Casa Silva I couldn't talk my way into trying the ultra premium 2005 Altura, a predominantly Carmenere based wine with some Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot, therefore I have nothing to say about it other than it was $180 at the winery and I found some online in Germany at $90. There it is again - that strange pricing phenomenon, coupled with the reluctance to open the icon. I did however taste the 2007 Microterroir 100% Carmenere ($73 at the winery).

I was treated to a nice explanation of the infinite care taken to create this wine - grapes hand picked from the best field, aged for 13 months in hand selected new French oak small barrels, etc. I wanted to like this wine a lot, but I discovered, while in Chile, that 100% Carmenere doesn't always work for me. Carmenere is often blended with other grapes, such as Cab Sauv or Petit Verdot, to balance out the personality and I think this is a good thing. The 2007 Microterroir had a lot going for it -a meaty, floral, black berry fruit nose, a rich, full, peppery taste; gravelly and earthy, but with a bit of an excess of fruit tannins, that didn't work for me. And given that Carmenere doesn't age well, I didn't feel that this wine was going to become more superb and elegant in a  few years time. It was definitely a wine worth drinking, but not necessarily in the "good value" category.

I tasted two 2009 Gran Reservas, the Los Lingues Cab Sauv and the Lolol Syrah. The former was big and fruity, and the latter displayed an elegant nose, even reminiscent of a Northern Rhone red. Like many wines of that region, it contained some Viognier (3%). 14.5% alcohol seemed a tad too high for this coastal Syrah, although high alcohol is the name of the game in many Chilean wines. Nevertheless this was a good buy at $18.

At Viu Manent, we met Edguardo,  a former car salesman in California, with a great personality and a passion about wines. He led us through a tasting, which included some great entry level wines under the La Secreta label, a couple of lovely single vineyard small production wines - a Syrah and  Cab Sauv, and ended with the icon Viu 1 at $90+ (winery price).

It was a little thin and unremarkable. The Vibo I tasted - a semi iconic wine at $40 - was unfortunately oxidised. My favourite here was the 2009 Syrah, 15 months in French oak, only 17,000 bottles produced, elegant, velvety with a spicy aftertaste, $24. My feeling is that given the way the pricing works, it would be possible to buy this in Ontario (if it was available, which it's not) for around $30 and that would be a good value purchase.
I bought a bottle of the Syrah for our wonderful hosts - Will and Carolina - at Tumunan Lodge. If your travels take you near San Fernando (and even if they don't), stay here for a couple of days. At the lodge we tasted some wines produced by Tremonte Vineyard, most notably the Monte Rekewa Gran Reserva 2010 - a blend of Cab Sauv, Carmenere and Syrah. This is the winery to go to if you want some meteorite in your wine! Check out the website for details.

The bottom line on high end wines

Most wineries seem compelled to offer an icon wine and, by and large, the global wine worthies have good things to say about them. Most of the icons I tasted were very good. Were they excellent? Will they be sublime in 10 years time? Did they warrant the price, whatever that might end up being in Canada? I think I need to say that I was generally underwhelmed in the $30+ (winery pricing) category. In addition, I didn't get a warm feeling about cellaring beyond 8 to 10 years. But that's just my opinion based on minimal samplings.
However, I really enjoyed some fabulous wines which would probably sell in the $20 to $35 range in Ontario and I'll do my bit to encourage bringing some of these mid range wines into the Northern Hemisphere. Check out this website for a list of winners from the recent Wines of Chile competition. Let's hope we see some of these appearing on local shelves.
For my part, I will have to return to Chile wearing a more official hat in order to entice more wineries to open fresh bottles of more icons - after I improve my Spanish!