21-29 Jan 2012
Official recognition of a job well done – the prize a trip to Chile !!
Only one of us could go – and after much soul searching we decided it should be me! Janet would instead travel to Aldeburgh, Lea to Paris, Merrill to New York: our well-deserved breaks after all the hard work over Christmas.
I was one of five independent merchants to win the coveted prize – our journey together a bonding of kindred spirits. They were Anita Mannion (Leamington Wine), David Ogden (Corkscrew Wines), Patrick Rohde (Aitken Wines) and John O`Keeffe (Christopher Piper Wines). Accompanying us were our hosts Gail and Alfonso of Wines of Chile.
We flew to Chile`s capital Santiago, British Airways via Brazil. Unfortunately there is no convenient direct flight to Santiago which is a shame because one would serve Chile better as a tourist destination – and it deserves better. The route home incidentally was longer, painfully long, via Argentina and then Spain, one fraught with delays, missed connections and lost baggage – but by this time we were happy bunnies and nothing could dampen our spirits. We had had the time of our lives compliments of Wines of Chile, after all.
First off, lunch at the Central Market: an incredible fish market and restaurant sheltered by a high-ceiling steel structure, apparently designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. We had some of Chile`s fresh seafood: ceviche, conger eel, abalone, shrimp, Razor clams, scallops and best of all, Anguilla “baby” eels……. washed down by Ay…(don`t remember the name now) Sauvignon Blanc, an unusual complex style, not entirely to my liking, more like a Viognier blend than the crisp, fresh Sauvignon I recognise as Chilean (the name will come me….or not!).
After lunch we took a tour of the capital, its famous squares, government buildings, art and history museums. Evidence of its recent political history is everywhere. Santiago, being centre of government, was the focus of regime change from its democratically elected socialist government to the military government led by dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet is remembered now as a murdering fascist for his coup d`etat in 1973 and all the killings, of course, but the good he did was to open up Chile`s markets to global trade and his conservative policies largely lived on after him from 1990 through subsequent democratic governments to this day, leading to a now very prosperous and successful Chile – in strictly wine terms there has been a a miracle change for the better which wouldn`t have happened without Pinochet. The point is endlessly argued, academically and theoretically, but socialist expropriation and high level taxation is still blamed for the collapse and inertia of the industry, and the turn round in the industry`s fortunes was post Pinochet.
The Cimate in brief
Chile is long and narrow, as we know, the Pacific Ocean to its west and the Andes mountain range to its east, separating it from Argentina`s Mendoza. There is no love lost with Argentina it seems, so the Andes is a good natural barrier in more ways than one (our own differences with Argentina are only amplified by the good relationship Britain has with Chile). There`s also the two extremes of north and south: dry desert in the north of Chile and the wet fjords, lakes and glaciers in the south – and, perhaps most important of all, the Coastal range of mountains and their splinters between the ocean and the vineyards. Now add into the mix the cooling Pacific current which originates in the Antarctic and moves up the coast of Chile – and add wind! The Coastal Range has natural `gaps` through which the air is sucked from the Pacific to cool the vineyards. A warm Mediterranean climate with a breeze, how perfect is that! Now consider those Coastal `splinters`, vineyards on slopes and flats with variable soil compositions (many of them volcanic), variable altitudes, variable distances from the sea (or proximities to the Andes), and variable exposures to the sunshine. And cold nights! Consider all this and it is clear you have a complex, very, very diverse landscape. This, the perfect environment for producing quality wine grapes!
Next morning, early, we flew out to La Serena in the very north, desert country.
Foggy and moist in the mornings due to the Pacific influence and well fed by cooling moist winds, it is nonetheless important to irrigate in this otherwise desert, low-fertile sandy land. But irrigate they do – and the drip-drip action of irrigation works its magic here, working the minerals gradually which are absorbed by the vines roots producing mineral-rich wines.
Fungus can be a problem in the form of Oidium, but essentially the vines have to work hard and here they produce healthy, good quality grapes and phenolic maturity. Syrah in cool years have plenty of spice, while warmer seasons produce a more opulent style, grown mostly on its own roots which is typical of Chile generally due to being free of the phylloxera louse. Not to say grafting on rootstock is not used at all here or elsewhere – it is, mostly where necessary to assist penetration into hard, rocky ground. We tasted examples of both styles of Syrah and my favourite was the cool-climate.
We also tasted fine turbot with an elegant Chardonnay, a wine-food highlight.
The Tamaya farm produces citrus fruits, avocados and grapes, their water supply provided by reservoirs in the foothills of the Andes. The large proportion of clay there assists in retaining the water around Tamaya, and the water assists in leaching out the minerals. It has a calcium–rich substrata, which feeds the vines and provides the grapes with good acidity. The clay itself apparently contributes viscosity to the wines. However, it the long growing season which provides Tamaya wines with their freshness and appeal.
This is copper country – its biggest market apparently China. No surprise there.
The colluvial mixture of clay, silt, sand and calcium-rich limestone is also good for growing Chardonnay, and Tabali prove the point well. Indeed their range of wines is a demonstration of elegance and achievement in difficult growing conditions.
Return Flight/overnight Santiago
Vina Mar, Casablanca
Vina Mar, a member of the second largest wine group in Chile (VSPT) is a public limited company on the Chilean stock exchange. While the group as an entity is very corporate, proud and eco-friendly, its wineries are individual and left to their own devises, simultaneously enjoying a high level of investment. The best of both worlds it would seem.
Here in Casablanca it is largely cool and windy white wine country, known for its Sauvignons and Chardonnays.
Very much copper mining territory, it should be noted here that Chile produces a third of the world`s copper market and is by far the greatest export. Arguably it is rather too dependent on copper and subject to market fluctuation and economic decline when copper prices are low. Agricultural products and especially fruits are a distant second, followed by salmon from the fjords south of chile and wine exports fourth.
Incidentally, avocado is a big Chilean export, as is artichoke (both delicious and used regularly in salads here, ideal with Sauvignons).
Here there is a granite substrata with a clay topsoil – and due to its proximity to the sea it is cooler and more windy even than Casablanca which is higher and further inland. These are some of Chile`s best fresh white wines, the sort, frankly, I enjoy most. These lowland, coastal, largely south-facing vineyards achieve ripeness over typically long growing seasons. Sauvignons are the classic green, zesty style ideal for aperitif, and the Chardonnays flavourful with a mineral edge and delicious lick of citrus fruits. The Pinot Noirs were also fresh and vibrant. We enjoyed the wines with a fantastic seafood lunch by the vineyards. These were some of my very favourite wines on the trip, this being the only winery in Chile with its own regional denomination. I hope to be bringing some to Great Horkesley soon.
Interestingly, at the tasting we used Stolze glasses to taste even the white wines, more akin to our Riedel Pinot Noir glasses. I usually use mine for reds only, but I might well think again. It was lovely swishing my Sauvignons and Chardonnays around the full bowl-shaped glass and the aromas were wondrous.
Winemaker Maria del Pilar Gonzales together with her daughter Guillermo Aida Toro were our most delightful hosts for supper at Chocolan, my favourite their Petit Verdot-Syrah Rose which we have stocked for years and enjoyed there by the vineyards as an aperitif.
Here, in Curico Valley, is where they started sparkling wine and it`s still probably the best place to source it. They practice both the Charmat and Champagne method, using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Haras de Pirque, Maipo
This winery in the shape of a horse shoe which raises both horses and vines with equal passion. We were introduced to the most beautiful stallion, a young racing horse in his prime. Actually, the winery was beautiful too – and even the people at this winery were beautiful! Made me feel very middle-age +. The Equus range of wines were bright and approachable, the Haras de Pirque purposeful , complex and characterful (as the name suggests), the Albis, flagship joint venture wine with Antinori from Italy, stunning.
This fine winery, part of the VSPT group, is stand alone in every other sense. Its own natural amphitheatre of vineyards, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah vines are raised in volcanic colluvial and alluvial soils, with limestone and plenty of stones. We discussed the merits of vines raised on alluvial versus colluvial soils, alluvial being ancient river deposits while colluvial is the rock debris accumulated at the base of slopes through the action of rainwater or gravity. Alluvial has produced the red-fruited Cabernet of Clos du Fous by example, while the Cabernets of Altair, colluvial, are darker with more cassis. It`s all location, location! Altair also has its own stand alone viticulteur – a shepherd who cares for his sheep (his vines): Rene is a man who is passionate about what he does (in his own inimitable way!) and he likes to speak very much of terroir!! A funny man – he had me in stitches – reminded me of a dear Venezuelan friend of mine (so laid back he was practically horizontal). And his wines were great. At £50+ a pop these wines would be a hard sell, but boy they are good: Cabernet dominant blends they have fresh bright fruits, superb concentration and great purity.
Montes in perfect harmony with nature has a flow of water directed into it, entirely symbolic and aesthetic I think, though I wouldn`t be surprised if it generated energy. Certainly most of the wineries I have visited so far would choose natural energy sources wherever practicable, either air, water or sunshine. Green is New Zealand`s colour but Chile wants a part of it. Indeed, there is much about NZ which is Chile – its wild, diverse beauty, its clean, cool air, volcanic soils, geysers and hot springs, its good wines! Chile is simply a little behind the kiwi`s (their socialist past), and now they are learning from the kiwi`s and everyone else and in a decade, if they play their cards right….. well, they can achieve great things. Meantime, they are not doing so badly! Montes Chardonnay which we have stocked a while is fresh, yet tropical and creamy. At £13.99 a steal. However, the Montes Folly Syrah, which we also stock at £36.99 is the gem here. Its label design by Ralph Steadman is striking on the shelf – and the wine joyous, blue berries, black berries, spice… we visited the vineyard and noted its deep, red sandstone and clay soils, the tiny blue berries. I was shown how they remove the upper bunch from any one cane to stimulate concentration in the one remaining bunch, such is their commitment to quality here. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn`t dreaming. I really am awake and in this place of my dreams!
On the flats were Carmenere, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, more fertile land providing easily everything these vines could want for full, phenolic maturation. The Carmenere`s – Chile`s near indigenous grape (not so – the vine is originally from Bordeaux) but yes so, in the same way Argentina now owns Malbec. This grape more than any other is unique to Chile. And it is the most controversial and difficult of all grapes: the one with tendencies toward greenness; the erratic one; the Pinotage of Chile; the one which doesn`t quite fit a marketable niche: Carmenere with Curry? Carmenere with roasted red meats? Carmenere with meat pies? `With walnuts? (Chile is a huge producer of walnuts). It has dark fruits and it`s spicy – at best very good indeed, at worst horrible. For me, the best are the elegant Carmeneres and the Carmenere blends. Montes Purple Angel is excellent – 92% Carmenere, 8% Petit Verdot. Apparently the trick to eliminate the greenness is removal of the leaves, to reduce the pirazine in the grapes; but just as important is to pick before being over-ripe. Indeed, better a tad of greenness from early picking, having removed the excess green by summer pruning the leaves.
We also tasted the new Outer Limits wines – their Sauvignon Blanc vines planted just 8km from the sea and deliciously zesty and fresh – one of my favourite Sauvignons on the trip.
We visited the Clos Apalta winery – and first the eponymous name brought back fond memories of Pangea, the Syrah by Vina Ventisquero which i have so enjoyed on several occasions also produced in Apalta: the wine by winemaker John Duval. “Apalta” that small area of vineyard in Colchagua with the biggest reputation for fine wine. My only regret on this trip: not visiting Vina Ventisquero (the winery which also produces another favourite of mine, Heru Pinot Noir). We enjoyed a fabulous lunch here and terrific wines, but for me the stand out was the cellar: so many state-of-the-art wineries in Chile but this one stratospheric; the architecture wondrous. The winery built into the hill and the clever use of rock and iron and wood and air and water and sunshine.
Many of the Chilean wineries we found to be green and generally more eco-friendly than not, but this one surpassed all in its organic and biodynamic practices. They have the animals for dung and compost, the vegetation to attract insects in the vineyards, use of natural yeasts only, minimal use of sulphur during winemaking, the cows horns … stop there! This was my first opportunity to witness biodynamic farming, and I arrived a sceptic. We were shown the quartz stone ground to powder and put in the cow horns, for burial in the vineyards. We witnessed the gut -sacks of manure hung in the vineyard for exposure to the sun before being buried to return energy (or something) to the earth. We were taken to the sacred place where their manures matured – pots of vegetation treated like treasures, produced from a variety of vegetation and goodness knows what – I didn`t like to ask. And we were told about pruning according to the moon cycles so as not to waste the sap and the whole process was explained clearly and passionately and it seemed just a little weird….. but the wines were good by jove, some of them very good, fresh and elegant. I am reminded of M. Chapoutier in the Rhone and Albert Mann in Alsace who also practice biodynamic viticulture: who also produce fine wines. Is there something in it, after all? Perhaps now I am less of a sceptic – if not quite a believer – agnostic maybe?
A thoroughbred of a winery and another beauty with striking architecture and no expense spared. Here the subject of agronomic engineering came up! Yes, stimulating stuff. Really though it is an interesting fact that many Chilean winemakers have backgrounds in engineering – perhaps signifying the need to build new vineyards and the mindset required to do so. Arguably, as a direct result of the socialists grip on wine production (as a means of stemming consumption 1930-Pinochet), many of the vineyards are new in Chile. They are selected for their micro-climate and specific soils to suit individual grape varieties – and it is largely an ongoing craft, requiring ongoing evaluation. If an own-rooted grape variety proves not to perform in a particular place, the grafting onto it of another variety is done, or simply new clones are tested. Chile is young still, with huge potential. As it happens this vineyard, by the state-of-the-art Eraazuriz winery, is not so young – some 50 years. Indeed, here in Aconcagua near the mountains they have been making good Cabernets and Syrahs for some considerable time – certainly the wines of Eraazuriz impressed me.
Clos de Fous, Aconagua (our most southern destination!)
We stock the low-sulphur burgundy-style Clos de Fous Chardonnay, their principle wine, the first wine we tasted that late afternoon by the Pinot Noir vineyard… it was noticeably chilly, an indicator of the cooler climes down south here, but the company was warm and the wines delicious. Francois Massoc the winemaker and Albert Cussen “his boss” were a humorous double act, though I imagine they both get to play the straight guy when it comes to business. These are daredevils who have pushed the boundaries to produce quality fruit where few would dare before. And it has clearly paid off.
The Pinot Noir has been closely planted on what are dunes of clay and alluvial sandstone over granite – a method of electronic soil-mapping was used to determine the layers for planting purposes. Now 3 years old vines, closely planted in the burgundy way, we can expect great things, I`m sure.
We tasted a very nice cool-climate Cabernet as well, red-fruited, crunchy, a far cry from the usual Chilean dark jammy fruits and one to look out for.
Over lunch we discussed the requirement for patience in the fermentation process (as you do!). Apparently the carbonic acid (co2) in the fermenting juice excludes the need for use of much sulphur in their wines, especially good news for our sulphur sensitive customers. In particular they spoke of the need to wait for as long as it takes for the secondary malo-lactic fermentation to finish its cycle – one time taking almost three years! Apparently it can`t be hurried or cut short because of an unwanted manifestation of out-of-balance vanilla aromas. Only with white wines can it sometimes be desirable to stop malo-lactic fermentation all together, to preserve the crisp malic acidity, a factor in the style of the finished wine. Perhaps it`s best not to labour on such matters – better to simply enjoy the fruits of other peoples labour!
Lunch was overlooking the vineyards from one of five mud-built huts which these talented guys have built themselves: no ordinary tin-pot huts but luxurious wattle and daub thatched-roof mud huts with all the trimmings and vineyard dunes all around them in the most beautiful setting possible…. thank you gentlemen for your company and warm hospitality!
Coastal visit: 2 hrs splashing around in the waves, careful not to be dragged under the tectonic plate by the strong currents there, followed by a few cool beers while we dried off! NB. Kunstmann Amber Beer, not bad at all!
Our final soiree in the Bellavista quarter of Santiago, a good night out!
Shopping excursion (sore head)
Flight to Buenos Aires / Madrid / Home
It seemed to me there are some ordinary and fantastic wines in Chile – and a good deal between. The ordinary whites are bland and the ordinary reds a little “muddy” – perhaps it`s the rough tannins, a certain greenness, or the lack of varietal definition or both. I`m not just referring to the wineries we visited – indeed most didn`t fall into the category – but wines we tasted in Santiago and those I have tasted at home. The category tends to be cheap (though not all are) and it occurs to me that Chile should either raise their game and avoid the mass market all together, or try to produce more definition in their bulk wines – with softer, juicier tannins. In time with older vines this might well happen naturally. I would say don`t be afraid of the sweet notes when it comes to these wines. Ideally give them a name to separate them from the more premium wines: the equivalent of Vin de Pays or even Table Wine.
In the mid-price category Chile comes into its own, and this is the category with arguable most potential, especially when you consider most of the vines are still fairly young. Indeed, in an ideal world these wines, already very much on the right course in qualitative terms, would not increase too sharply too quickly in price terms. The industry relies on its exports and the world is in an economic downturn. Better to assume the position of strong middle ground and market share, below New Zealand, offering great value for money. In this category my own view would be to focus on regional identity and in particular bright fruits and varietal definition suitable to location. Avoid the muddy mouth feel and green notes in reds, promote the clean fresh characters of whites. Carry on knocking out the clean, fresh Sauvignons – and please, please don`t stop working on Chardonnay and Syrah. As for Carmenere – personally I would forget it as a single variety unless you have something very special there. Instead, use it as a blending wine. Certainly, avoid at all costs over-ripening, over extraction, too much alcohol!
In the super premium category I think there is less need for price sensitivity – and many of the top wineries are bang on course for great wines. We tasted quite a few reds from £25-£75 per bottle, fantastic wines which would see off quite a few old world wines in the category I would bet. Even Carmenere!! Upward and onward and bravo Chile!
With thanks to Wines of Chile and all the great wineries we visited for their superb and generous hospitality. We had a fabulous time – and love your beautiful country.