Henry Yuen (Chinese posting: http://taiyangbao.ca/author/henryyuen/?variant=zh-hans )
The Chilean wine journey officially began once we were picked up at the airport. After an hour ride, we set foot on the first winery in the Maipo Valley located north of Santiago. The embracing 28C sunshine welcomed us and stayed with us all the way. Jackets off and out came the sunglasses, we walked into Vina Chocalan our first stop.
A family owned winery that started in 1996, Vina Chocalan now has over 250 acres of vines planted with over a third allotted to the ever popular Cabernet Sauvignon. We were led to the tasting room for a series of wine tasting right after a brief tour of the vineyards and an overview of the terroir. Greeting our palates were the Chocalan 2010 Rose and the Mavilla Sauvignon Blanc from the coastal San AntonioValley. A total of 9 wines, 3 each from Selection, Reserva and Gran Reserva of the 2010 and 2011 vintages were poured respectively.
I really enjoyed the 2011 Reserva Carmenere and Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, sold back here at home in BC with an attractive everyday price point of C$18.99. The Reserva Carmenere, scored a bit higher on my list, has a balanced profile that is fruit forward with hints of tobacco, cocoa and smokiness thanks to the 10 to 12 months in new French oak treatment. The Gran Reserva Pinot Noir, Gran Reserva Malbec and Gran Reserva Blend are quite impressive; however, at $28.99, they will likely fall into a very competitive bracket. After the tasting came an alfresco luncheon in the vineyard. With hearty hospitality and a lovely setting, the traditional Chilean BBQ meats and chicken tasted sublime. Warm breeze and bright sunshine provided us with a glimpse of what to expect in the next few days.
Strong European culinary influences abound in Santiago where high quality French, Italian and Spanish cuisines can be easily found in the city. Dinner at “Tiramisu Restaurant” that evening was delightful. After downing a few of the local specialty drinks, pisco sour; and sampling delicious pizzas from the wood fire oven, our first evening in Chili was a memorable one.
Salute to the organizer who understood our need to slowly adapt to the time change and eased us in into a good wine touring pace, only two tastings were arranged for us on Day 2.
Vina Valdivieso was the first winery of the day. The Valdivieso history of sparkling wines dates back to 1879 and is one of their older wineries situated in the now fully developed urban part of town within the Santiago city area. A short trip took us to this sparkling wine making facility. We were led into a system of underground caves where sparkling wines are stored. Due to massive volume of production, it is no longer effective or feasible to hand turn each bottle. The bottles are stored in trays put into steel cages and thereby turned by equipment. Besides the Reserva wines and their single vineyard wines, we also sampled their Prestige wines, Eclat 2008 and Caballo Loco n 13 – Central. The Eclat is a delicious 65% Carignan, 20% Mouvedre,15% Syrah with an inky, toasted apple nose and a balanced tannins for a smooth finish. The Caballo Loco n 13 – Central is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that has a hint of cocoa and mint, with dark fruit and a hint of peppery in the finish. This full-bodied wine is estimated to cellar well for 10 to 15 years. On the sparkling wines side, we sampled their Blanc de Blancs, Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Demi Sec and Moscato. Most styles are deliberately fruity with slightly higher acidity level when the grapes are picked early before too much sugar level sets in. I personally liked the floral Moscato with refreshing bouquet that finishes elegantly.
The second part of the day brought us to one of Concha y Toro’s wineries, also located in the MaipoValley. Concha y Toro is an internationally-known blend with a solid history dating back to 1883 when noble French grapevines from Bordeaux were first brought over and planted in this valley. With their impressive track records in winemaking, their iconic wine, Don Malchor 2001 garnered 94 points and came in fourth in Wine Spectator ranking of top 100 wines in the world. During the tasting, we sampled the Don Malchor 2009, powerful and smooth with an intriguing nose of dark berries and cocoa, this iconic wine finishes with a satisfying linger. Coming from 30 year old vines, it is 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 15 months in 70% new French oak, yields very low to render its concentration. Besides the iconic wine series, we also sampled their ever popular Casillero del Diablo range of wines that Canadians are familiar with. Others we sampled included their lovely Marques de Casa Concha range and the Gran Reserva Serie Riberas range of Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are very enjoyable wines indeed, and are true testament that Chilean wines have come a long way since the nineties and can no longer be considered a novice to the New World wine scene. A lovely luncheon was served at the historic stately manor that the founder Don Malchor occupied centuries ago.
We noticed by now that certain terms were used consistently in the Chilean wine industry. Such as the terms “icon wines”, “Gran Reserva”, “Reserva”… etc. used to identify their different ranges of wines, though they admit the word Reserva has no universal meaning and is not a designated rank since each winery has its own definition and standard of crafting its Reserva wines varietals.
The morning took us to the wineries of the ColchaguaValley with the first tasting at Apaltagua Estate Winery. Established in 1995, this family winery has over 260 hectares of vineyards from the ColchaguaValley, the CuricoValley and the MauleValley with each range showcases the characteristics of each region. From their Signature Cabernet Sauvignon with flavourful cassis, vanilla and wise treatment of oak; to their superlative but low yield Apaltagua Grial Carmenere 2008 loaded with dense dark chocolate and vibrant fruit flavour; and to their Tutunjian Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that is full of berries with a robust and smooth mouth feel, they all express the terroir of that particular block deliberately.
A short trip away and we were at the door step of Montes Wines. An enormous building at the foot of the hillside, the winery is designed to allow minimal handling and bruising of grapes at the beginning of the fermentation process where little hydraulics are employed during the grape distributions. We browsed up the hillside to see and understand the surrounding terrior and how the vineyard is managed at different elevations to allow the grapes to ripe with the correct yield and concentration. Familiar to our Canadian market is the Montes Alpha brand from which we sampled the 2010 Montes Alpha Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2009 Syrah. To showcase their icon wine series, the Montes Alpha “M” 2010, the Montes Folly and Purple Angel were also poured to enhance the ‘Montes Alpha’ experience and our wine-sipping pleasure.
In the afternoon, we arrived at Emiliana Organic Vineyards to have a first-hand look at how certified biodynamic vineyard is managed. With over 900 hectares planted, the philosophy is to allow each vineyard the biodiversity to stand on its own without external influence and total absence of chemicals. This is a step beyond organic farming that brings the future to the next level where natural balance of the land will be fully achieved. Their Coyam brand, starting with the 2001 vintage, is available in B.C. The prestigious awards each vintage has been receiving and the 90-point plus they consistently garner, these above-ranked wines are exceptionally good!
Another day of busy tastings was lined up for us in the ColchaguaValley. Our first stop - Vina Maquis. The vineyard is situated between two rivers resulted with well drained clay soil and a cooler terroir. The tasting was setup under the lovely Avocado groves which provides a natural shelter to the surrounding vineyards and farmlands. I particular liked the 2011 Rose that is 100% Malbec with good aroma and acidity level for a well balance bouquet and texture. The Maquis Lien 2008 is a blend that intrigued us with its complex flavors of dark fruits and hints of herbs, the value of pleasure is way beyond the price point.
Next stop was Vina MontGras, winery with a Canadian connection! Besides in ownership, the winery construction was designed and carried out by a Canadian engineering firm engaged to maximize the overall efficiency and productivity. The four wine brands showcased were MontGras, Ninquen, Intriga and Amaral. The MontGras Quatro 2011 is a blend depicting a hint of mint and cocoa; a bit of spice and pepper, a good mouth feel but higher in tannins. It will improve and mature in the bottle during the next few years. The Antu Ninquen Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere 2011 was hand-picked to provide the best grape condition. The wine has the herbal, grassy expression with balanced tannins. The Intriga 2010 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from a mix of 80 years old to young vines to provide the tannin contrast which makes the wine ideal for further cellaring. To provide a change of pace, we sampled the Amaral Sauvignon Blanc 2012. This organic wine is a cool climate wine that has peach and banana aroma with a fresh and balanced acidity. The wine has gone through three pressings at different pressure to extract the juice gently to keep the flavour and slow fermented in stainless steel tanks.
The final stop of the day was at Cono Sur which is another successful wine brand that has a strong presence in the B.C. marketplace. With over 1800 hectares planted at 100 different estates, this winery is big on organic to lessen the impact on environment. Instead of vehicles, bicycles are used throughout the winery by workers to reduce carbon emission. Thus the bicycle “bicicleta” in the wine labels is to promote its philosophy of minimal intrusion to the land. As we cycle along the vineyards, we saw geese and chickens as a means of controlling bugs in the vineyards instead of using chemical pesticides. Flowers and roses were planted everywhere to promote the bee population that will enhance the surrounding vegetation. A health vineyard is their first step to produce quality wines. With their hospitality, we stayed that their lovely summer resort and had a sumptuous dinner to further enjoy their wines. I especially liked the Cono Sur 20 Barrels series of wines that include the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. All are well crafted to express the terroirs of different regions.
After a restful sleep, we headed back to the Maipo Valley and visited De Martino Winery. Established in 1934, this estate winery has come a long way through the understanding of natural balance and the uniqueness of each terroir and finally gained prominence. They stress a lot of emphasis on discovering and understanding the land, the soil types and weather conditions to allow the grapes to express themselves fully. They planted Chardonnay in the Limari Valley due to its clay soil and the moisture from the Pacific Ocean; they planted Syrah close to the Andes for the granite soil; planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere and Merlot in the Maipo Valley with the nourishment from the river; planted Sauvignon Blanc in Casablanca for its coastal influence. These are attempts to plant appropriately to allow the grapes to best express themselves in a natural way. By the look of things, the results are promising. I particular liked the De Martino Legardo Series of wines and also the De Martino Familia which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and small amount of Carmenere and Malbec to balance the tannins. Lunch was served and we had a hard time saying goodbye to the vineyard and the scenery.
Last stop for the day was at Vina Undurraga. Another wineries that started in the 1880’s with over 1850 hectares planted. This wine brand is well known internationally especially for their sparkling. Grapes from different wines regions and Valleys are well represented. Very impressive ranges of wines with the Sibaris range all in the reasonable C$15.99 price point. The Titillum Blanc De noirs 2009 with 100% Pinot Noir crafted by traditional method was simply amazing. The TH (Terroir Hunter) range of wines are equally impressive in the $20 to $25 range with the TH Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 and the TH Carmenere 2010 as one my favourites.
The final tasting day had a light schedule with only one winery on the itinerary. Located in the Aconcagua Valley, San Esteban Winery showcased the high altitude viticulture and winemaking techniques. Vines are planted in steep sloped hillside with high altitude of around 900m. The soil is rocky and less fertile but the sunshine is captured at the right angle for the vines to flourish with a cool breeze from the Andes Mountain to provide the cooling effect at night. Despite the challenge of the steep slopes, all grapes are hand-picked for optimum condition when arriving at the winery. Sustainable and organic farming are the philosophy of this third generation winery using the InSitu wine brand. Upon the hillside, we had another alfresco luncheon overlooking the entire valley, a refreshing and delicious way to bring our wineries visits to an end.
That summed up our wonderful journey of wine tasting. While there were quite a number wines tasted as each wineries were gracious to showcase most of their wines, it was a challenge to remember all of them or make adequate notes of all the wines sampled. However, there is no doubt Chilean wines have come a long way. Passion and dedication provide the enthusiasm to smooth out the learning curve. The bulk wine moniker certainly doesn’t apply anymore. Best of all, the entire trip provided the insight into the minds of the winemakers and contemporary viticulture practices in Chile which I will discuss next.