Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Submissive Drinker’s Guide to Chilean Wine

From Food and Wine Maven Ben Nelson comes this guide to Chilean wines from his recent tastings in Chile spanning 8 wine regions and covering around 30 wineries and 200 wines:

Who is a submissive drinker? Well, it’s easier to define who is not a submissive drinker. If you think you can tell the difference between crushed stone and pulverized rock, then you’re not a submissive drinker. If you spend hours reading and writing tasting notes (whether you make up half the stuff you’re writing or not) on wines that you will probably never drink again or may not even sample then you’re not a submissive drinker. If you don’t think good wine can be had for a double digit price, then you’re not a submissive drinker. If you don’t find the world of wine baffling in its complexity, hard to follow, and generally drink-inducing, then you’re not a submissive drinker. But if you are interested in just being told what to drink or what labels to look for, then read on.
The Submissive Drinker’s Guide to Chilean Wine

The storyline surrounding Chilean wines today seems relatively familiar—an ocean of easy-to-drink, cheap wines, quickly taking over the mass market and a clutch of very expensive (well over $100) wines that give big-name French brands their newest source of thrashing in blind tasting competitions. But there’s a far more exciting development (for me, at least) coming out of Chile around very impressive mid-priced wines. What’s more, these wines are not uniform in taste or style, which makes the market even more exciting.

First, the logistics. August 2010, 9 days, 8 wine regions, 2000KM, around 30 wineries and 200 wines. I concentrated on wines in the $20-$80 range, though tasted some below and above. To my surprise, the majority of the wines were unremarkable but drinkable. I was surprised because generally I expect most wines to be poor in quality. The nature of the sun exposure in the major wine regions as well as the soils, vines, and the cool winds coming in either from the ocean or down from the Andes combine to provide tremendous fruit with which good winemakers can produce outstanding wines. The wineries themselves are an odd mix of high levels of sophistication and a good amount of naivety.

The good: impressive wineries in general with good equipment, high quality barrels, good fruit, access to very cheap labor, and substantial overall investment in state-of-the-art facilities that translates to a great deal of hand-crafting where the winery finds it necessary. The bad: poorly developed tourist infrastructure, rather formulaic wine-making (e.g. some fear of experimentation on barrel age), still widespread manipulation of the wines (e.g. adding acidity), and a rather confusing marketing system that doesn't conform to international labeling conventions (e.g. new brands launched to introduce high-quality wines, low-end wines are slapped with Reserva designation, etc.).

Now to the wines. I have included a list of all of the wineries I tried at the end of this guide. If I do not mention a winery, it does not mean that the wines were bad. In fact, the majority of the wines were acceptable to good. But I am only mentioning the remarkable here. Where I do talk less favorably about wines, it is only because their reputation has preceded them in some way I believe unjustifiable, given what I experienced.

A natural evolution from the mass production Chilean wines that rely on their fruit to get them sold are fruit forward wines that bring a level of complexity to the picture. At first blush, they appear to be clones of dreaded fruit bombs but structure is not far behind, which makes these wines interesting and merit their mentioning here.

I’ll start things off with two wineries I would not have imagined talking about at all. And indeed, Miguel Torres bitterly disappointed in several high-end wines. However, two Cordillera wines, the 2008 Chardonnay (with 15% Riesling) and the 2007 Carignane/"Carinena" (which is actually 54% Carignane, 24% Merlot and 22% Syrah) were both drop dead delicious. Yes, the fruit on both was intense and ever present but there was structure there as well and an easy recommendation at twenty-something dollars. These wines are for drinking (and enjoying) now. Two philosophical twins were found in Aresti, a bulk wine producer that has just started branching into the premium market. The 2009 Trisquel Gewurtztraminer and the 2008 Trisquel Syrah were both simply delicious and for $10-$15, a crazy value. None of these four wines will lead to cathartic moments or serve as inspiration, but they are all tasty and should at least be tried side-by-side to see Chile at its value-oriented, extracted, fruit-driven best.

I’ll continue with another unlikely house that had some unlikely wines. Anakena is known for, let’s be straight, cheap wines. A substantial line-up at under $10 can be found and Anakena is certainly one of the standard bearers of the cheap, drinkable wine movement from Chile. But there was something interesting in a couple of their offerings. Their ONA line is considered their high-end line and at the low-to-mid teens per bottle, it’s very affordable. Their 2008 ONA Riesling-Viognier-Chardonnay is a fruit bomb in any sense of the term. Why am I mentioning it? Because the flavor profile was extraordinary and highly personal to me—it reminded me exactly of a vanilla/strawberry ice cream from my youth—a flavor I haven’t tasted in 20-25 years and this wine brought it rushing back. Perhaps that taints my recommendation but what the heck—it’s tasty! Drink it right after you buy it—2 years max and at $12/bottle, a great wine to bring to parties.

A couple of other ONA wines did not disappoint either. The 2007 Syrah and 2008 Cabernet-Carmenere-Syrah blend were both well-structured, the latter having good tannins and both with big fruit up front. At $17 a pop, no need to hesitate. But the real value discovery was the 2008 Indo Cabernet—priced at under $10, it would give a $30 US Cab a serious run for its money. Well structured, great smooth tannins, and 15% syrah for all sorts of interesting fruit. Problem is, I haven’t been able to find the Indo line in the US yet, though theoretically it should be available.

Along the same line, and the second main strand I was impressed with in Chile, is great value cabernet throughout the country—I would recommend the 2006 Lagar de Bezana Aguacera Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Don’t let the fancy name fool you, at under $20 (if you can find it), it’s a stunning value. I thought it was a maybe-buy if it were $40-$50 with great structure, fruit and acidity. The most interesting thing is that the Cabernet is the star of the lineup with both of the other wines costing at least twice as much. Others to seek out are the 2006 Erasmo (and look for the 2007 when it comes out and the 2005 which is on the market) which at $25 punches at least twice its weight, displaying that same nice structure and tasty fruit. The Los Boldos lineup includes several Cabernets of note. The Los Boldos 2007 Cabernet lineup from the Grand Reserve to the Vielles Vignes to the Grand Cru in the traditional line as well as the Sensaciones from the new world line are all worthy of recommendation, but with the Grand Cru meriting special mention for an extremely well-structured Cabernet. The problem is that they are close to impossible to find and therefore prices are hard to determine. The Grand Cru is easily a $50 wine that I would get 3 bottles of for the cellar for a straight forward old world style cabernet. At $30, it’s a no brainer case. The rest of the lineup should be snapped up if you can find it at $25. Echeverria also had impressive Cabernets in the $20 some dollar range. The 2006 Limited Edition and Family Reserve wines are recommended. I did not try the Founder’s selection but expect it to be very strong given the others.

On the higher end, the 2007 Domus Aurea Cabernet is delicious, and has years of life ahead. When it’s released, buy it, especially if you find it for $40 as some past vintages are selling at. I cannot ignore the 2006 Concha Y Toro Don Melchor, which was outstanding (though the 2004 and 1996 that I tried were not to my liking) and can be found for $50, which is an absurd steal. The Cabernet lineup at Santa Rita also impressed. The 2005 Santa Rita Floresta Cab is delicious with strong dark fruit on the front palate. It finishes a touch rough when opened but even with a little bit of air it integrates well. Two,  maybe three, more years and it will sing if the fruit continues to hold, which I suspect it will. An excellent drink for $35, which you should be able to find. I tried the 2004 Carmen Cab Gold Reserve, also from Santa Rita, which was huge and still out of balance on the finish but shows potential. I would look for the 2005 which should be very good if the `04 is an indication. However, I wouldn’t pay more than $50 for the wine. The 2005 Santa Rita Casa Real cab is shut down upon opening with massive yet gentle dry tannins on the finish. Is the fruit there? There are indications that yes, but it's a gamble. I'd wager $40, but no more—you can find back vintages for that price but `05 is $50 minimum.

Cabernet of course is not the only grape worth mentioning. The 2005 Santa Rita Pehuen Carmenere, is very nice with well-structured tannins, good acidity, but is slightly disjointed. I suspect it would integrate easily with air but at $50 a pop, it’s too much. If you can find it on sale at $30, don’t hesitate. A standout blend is the Von Siebenthal 2005 Montelig (Cab/Carmenere/Petite Verdot). An absolutely first rate blend that is exceptional with the component parts showing through in a big way. I bought 6 at $60 a pop. Taking it up another notch is the 2006 Toknar from Von Siebenthal which is 100% Petite Verdot—that’s right 100%. This wine is a monster. I tasted the same bottle over 6 days and it peaked on day 4! I bought 5 at $100 a pop, though upon release I believe you should be able to find it for $80 or so. GRAB IT.

The 2005 Neyen which I found at $50 online is a steal. The wine gives the Montelig a run for its money without any help from Petite Verdot. The 70/30 Carmenere/Cab is absolutely delicious. The flavors are well-integrated, balanced, and PURE. The same purity I tasted years ago in the 2001 Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta and that was noticeably absent in the 2007 version (along with any taste as Casa Lapostolle charged a huge amount of money to taste 2 terrible wines before the Clos Apalta, which was just opened and freezing cold—a tannic monster with no fruit flavors to talk of—shame on them). In fact, Neyen only began production in 2003 and I would wager the fruit was sold to Lapostolle in 2001. The 2006 Neyen was also good but somewhat disjointed; though Neyen claimed it tastes even better than the 2005, at this stage I am skeptical. I will look out for the `07 however. A surprise was the 2006 Ninquen—not the Antu Ninquen—(65/35 Syrah/Cab) which was a tasty balanced effort by MontGras and the highlight of their portfolio. Upon opening, it reminded of our sophisticated fruit bomb category but with a day of air it developed delicious complexity. I would say 2 hours of decanting would do the trick. A few others to keep in mind—The 2007 Loma Larga Pinot Noir ($22), Errazuriz Sangiovese (can’t find), 2006 Gillmore Merlot (can’t find), 2008 O Fournier (80% 100 year old vine Cab Franc—phenomenal and to be released next year), 2006 San Pedro 1865 Limited Edition ($31 65/35 syrah/cab), and the 2007 San Pedro 1865 Carmenere ($15 excellent value) are also recommended.

So far we have talked about wines as opposed to wineries and that is because all of the wineries mentioned have had less than recommendable wines that I tried. Three exceptions that I want to especially highlight. The first is Altair, which for my money had the single best value Chilean wine on the market today—the 2002 Sideral. Apparently some confusion in the import market is our gain, and you can find it for less than $20/bottle—for a cabernet heavy Bordeaux blend which I would easily pay $75 for. The 2002 Sideral, on 100% new oak, tastes as smooth as silk. The flavors are not just integrated but from first sip to the 3+ minute finish, all flavors, acids, fruit, and tannins are harmonious from burst to burst—this with 1.5 hours of decanting. I am in for 3 cases. The 2005 Sideral and the 2005 Altair (the first wine) are phenomenal and I will be getting a case of each. These are as good a Bordeaux blend as I have tasted and though I cannot find the `04 and `05 on the US market yet, the `02 and `03 are selling as low as $50 which is shocking (winery price is $120). I cannot recommend the `03 Sideral as it is disjointed and I did not try the `02 and `03 Altair, but the `02, `04 (which I bought at a store in half bottle for $20), and `05 Sideral and the `04 and `05 Altair are all delicious with the `05s being wild standouts for cellaring and the `02 Sideral for drinking now.

Antiyal is the very personal project of one of Chile’s most renowned winemakers and it shows! The 2008 Kuyen Syrah/Cab blend (as low as $22), the 2007 Antiyal Cabernet which was singing arias 30 hours after being opened, yet was insanely delicious up front ($40-$50/bottle), and the `07 and `08 100% Carmenere (yet to be released but no question the best pure Carmenere of my visit to Chile) were all fabulous. Buy buy buy.

Lastly, Casa Marin. I was floored by their portfolio, just knock-out top to bottom, and was afterward told by a trusted source that it has perhaps the best fruit in the country. The two single vineyard 2008 Sauvignon Blancs (the Cipresses especially with its insane minerality and a finish that boggled) and the 2009 Sauvignon Gris (phenomenal—just phenomenal) were hands down the best white wines I tried in Chile—all of which had intense fruit balanced by even more intense minerality. I wouldn’t be shocked if these babies were still drinkable in 10 years, but I doubt anyone will have the discipline to wait. I have already bought a couple of their Gewurztraminers and Rieslings to try back home. The 2006 Lo Abarca Pinot was also delicious and I heard the `07s were even better. 2006 was apparently a difficult year, not just in Chile, but in Casa Marin in particular. Well, what great news that is. As all of these wines are in their teens and $20s online, do not hesitate for a second.

To me, these three wineries rank among the best in their spiritual homelands: Casa Marin in Alsace and the Santa Lucia Highlands; Antiyal in Sonoma and Tuscany; Altair in Napa and Bordeaux, but all quintessentially Chilean. Bravo.

Wineries Visited:
  • Altair
  • Anakena
  • Antiyal
  • Aquitania
  • Aresti
  • Casa Lapostolle
  • Concha y Toro
  • Domus Aurea
  • Erasmo
  • Errazuriz
  • Gillmore
  • J Bouchon
  • Lagar de Bezana
  • Loma Larga
  • Leyda
  • Matetic
  • Miguel Torres
  • Montes
  • Neyen
  • O Fournier
  • San Pedro
  • Santa Rita
  • Vina Casa Marin
  • Vina Casa Silva
  • Vina Echeverria
  • Vina Garces Silva
  • Vina Los Boldos
  • Von Siebenthal

1 comment:

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