A short while ago in this space I wrote about my most recent experience in Chile. It was January, and I was in a sunny and 30ºC+ Santiago in the height of summer enjoying the opportunity to judge at the country’s 7th annual wine awards. When the competition wrapped up, a group of tired but happy judges spent several more days diligently uncovering yet more of Chile’s secrets. Like a group of astronomers scanning the night sky to spot the next supernova, we used our allotted time to scour a few wine regions for more values and heart-stoppers. Some regions I was visiting for the first time, while others I was revisiting to track the changes and developments in this-fast paced industry. Suffice to say that Chile is a dynamic country. The world of wine is spinning and changing ever-faster it’s true, but there is a real sense of momentum and purpose in this South American industry. And it’s hard to keep up with all of the developments. Chile is one of the fortunate few countries to have recorded an increase in export sales volume in 2009, in what was otherwise a mostly disastrous year for sales. So the Chileans must be doing something right.
The hazy morning after the wrap-up gala we leave Santiago and make the hour or so drive to the Casablanca Valley. This is certainly one of the most internationally recognized regions in Chile, having made a solid reputation for itself in the nearly thirty years since Pablo Morandé pioneered plantings of cool climate-loving varieties in the valley. Casablanca is windy and 4-5º cooler than Santiago on average, with the climate moderated by cool breezes and the fog that rolls in from the Pacific as reliably as a Swiss train. The morning we arrive at Veramonte winery is sunny and warm, but not hot. Gently moving air rustles the leaves of the vines and cools the skin. Yet not all zones of the valley are equally cool. The areas further in land from the coast, nestled at the foot of the hills that separate Casablanca from Santiago, are measurably warmer than the vineyards out by the sea. We drive to the east, away from the coast, through Veramonte’s extensive vineyards to a spot tucked at the end of the valley. We can go no further. It’s noticeably warmer here. But it’s still considered a good growing site off the frost-prone valley floor and on well-drained, low vigor hillsides.
Distinguished chardonnay and pinot noir among others are produced in the Casablanca Valley, but it is the sauvignon blanc that gets me excited. The feeling was strengthened throughout a well-organized and informative tasting of sauvignon blanc from several Casablanca estates held afterwards in Veramonte’s tasting room. If it’s even cooler climate style wine you’re after, than pass through Casablanca and head to the Leyda Valley, with some vineyards situated just a few kilometers from the cold Pacific coast. This is one of the most suitable regions in Chile to produce riveting, zesty whites and lean, firm elegant reds. Seek these out if you haven’t tried any yet. There are 3 Casablanca wines in this Vintages release, all white, including an innovative and very satisfying (and organically-grown) blend of chardonnay, viognier and marsanne from Novas.
After lunch and some engaging conversation about the relative merits of satellite imagery, the Humboldt Current and drip irrigation, we leave Casablanca by small plane (we load our own wine as there are no flight attendants on hand) and fly north to the Elquí and Limarí Valleys. Right on the edge of the Atacama Desert, these two areas have been growing grapes for many decades though almost exclusively to make Chile’s national spirit, pisco. Only in the last decade have they been identified as high quality potential wine regions. Like Leyda and Casablanca, the secret to quality winegrowing is the moderating effect of the Pacific and in some cases, the elevation of the vineyards. The Limarí Valley is gaining a lot of attention for the marked minerally profile of its wines, both red and white. This is an area of high Limestone content and high salinity in the soil. Irrigation serves two purposes here: one, to keep the vines alive and photosynthesizing and to reduce the water stress induced by inadequate rainfall, and two, to reduce the salinity of the soils.
Our tastings of the wines of Limarí show that this is a special place to make wine to be sure. It’s even windier here than in Casablanca, and the tablecloth, covering the makeshift vineyard table that supports our welcoming glasses of refreshing rose, very nearly alights on the wind. I look towards the coast and the low-rise hills separating us from the ocean, which seem to reach up and grab the drifting clouds out of the air and hold them fast to their crests. Hours later we emerge from the winery and there they are, immovable, constant, like clumps of cotton sitting on the hills. Our arrival by plane to Limarí had been delayed by the Camanchaca, the thick soupy fog that moves in from the sea, here as elsewhere in coastal Chile. It’s a fog that delivers moisture to the vines, cools the air temperature, disperses sunlight rays and delays air traffic with reliable consistency.
The release features 3 wines from Tabalí winery in Limarí, one of the leading producers in the region. Out of these, the hands-down outstanding value is the 06 Tabalí Merlot Reserva, a wine of super depth and intensity for under $15. Be sure to explore the diverse regions of this thin sliver of South America through the glass and get a sense of why Chile has earned itself a place on world markets and a reputation of making great value wines.
Outside of the feature, March 6th is a particularly rich day for bargain Hunters. For the first time in quite a few releases, all of the top ten smart buys are under $20. Some of my personal favorites include the savoury Rapsani from Tsantali in Greece, a wine lover’s wine crying out for some simply grilled lamb chops or kebabs, the wonderfully elegant, traditional style Dão Portuguese red from Quinta da Fata, and the classy Vignalta Rosso Riserva from the Veneto in Italy. If you’re looking for whites, it’s hard to beat the cool and crisp 08 Sileni Cellar Selection chardonnay from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, a very tidy and restrained wine for $14.95. Or for a memorable taste of wet rocks slathered with wildflower honey and peach purée, try the 07 Bürgerspital Silvaner from Germany’s Franken region in the unmistakable bocksbeutel, the flagon-shaped bottle rumored to have been modeled after a goat’s scrotum.
Top Ten Smart Buys:
1. 2005 VIGNALTA ROSSO RISERVA DOC Colli Euganei $19.95 91pts ***
2. 2007 QUINTA DA FATA DO Dão $16.95 90pts ***
3. 2007 ALKOOMI CABERNET SAUVIGNON Frankland River, Western Australia $19.95 90pts ***
4. 2007 BÜRGERSPITAL WÜRZBURGER SILVANER KABINETT TROCKEN QmP, Germany $19.95 90pts ***
5. 2008 ANDRÉ BLANCK ET SES FILS CLOS SCHWENDI PINOT GRIS AC Alsace, $19.95 90pts ***
6. 2007 FERNGROVE SHIRAZ Frankland River, Western Australia $19.95 90pts ***
7. 2006 TORREVENTO TORRE DEL FALCO IGT Puglia $15.95 89pts ***
8. 2008 SILENI CELLAR SELECTION CHARDONNAY Hawkes Bay, North Island $15.95 89pts ***
9. 2006 TSANTALIS RAPSANI Rapsani, Greece $12.95 88pts ***
10. 2005 ENCOSTAS DE ESTREMOZ QUINTA DA ESPERANÇA Vinho Regional Alentejano $14.95 88pts **1/2
Featured Chilean Wines at a Glance:
1. 2006 TABALÍ RESERVA MERLOT Limarí Valley $14.95 89pts ***
2. 2007 EMILIANA NOVAS WINEMAKER’S SELECTION CHARDONNAY/VIOGNIER/MARSANNE Casablanca Valley, $18.95 89pts **1/2
3. 2008 ERRÁZURIZ SINGLE VINEYARD DON MAXIMIANO ESTATE CARMENÈREAconcagua Valley $18.95 89pts **1/2
4. 2008 TABALÍ RESERVA ESPECIAL PINOT NOIR Limarí Valley $19.95 89pts **1/2
5. 2007 MONTES ALPHA PINOT NOIR Leyda Valley $19.95 88pts **
6. 2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE CHARDONNAY Casablanca Valley $14.95 87pts **
7. 2008 ERRÁZURIZ SINGLE VINEYARD SAUVIGNON BLANC Casablanca Valley $14.95 87pts **1/2
8. 2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE MERLOT Rapel Valley $16.95 87pts **
9. 2008 CASA LAPOSTOLLE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Rapel Valley $16.95 87pts **
10. 2007 MONTES ALPHA CARMENÈRE Colchagua Valley $19.95 86pts *1/2
11. 2007 TABALÍ RESERVA CARMENÈRE Limarí Valley $14.95 85pts *1/2
12. 2008 MONTES LIMITED SELECTION CABERNET SAUVIGNON/CARMENÈREColchagua Valley, Apalta Vineyard $14.95 85pts *1/2
To see all of my reviews click here.
John Szabo, MS