Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wines of Chile: Masterclass

Earlier this year I participated in a fairly extensive tasting of wines from Chile, organized by the Wines of Chile trade group. I've done these virtual tastings before, with mixed results. Chile remains a bit of an enigma to me (and my palate) because often the wines seem insipid, or in other cases, just poorly made, but then I'll taste several that are outstanding. To discount the country entirely would be an error though, because I am often impressed with Chilean sauvignon blanc, syrah, and pinot noir.

This tasting consisted of three sauvignon blancs, three pinot noirs, three carmeneres, and three cabernet sauvignons. The latter two having wines that were also blends in the flight. Pricing ranged from around $13 all the way to $65 for one of Chile's most famous wines, the Los Vascos "Le Dix" Cabernet Sauvignon.

I'm not sure how the wines were selected or by whom, but I know that Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer was once again our gregarious, energetic host. He's being paid by the Wines of Chile trade group to promote their member wineries throughout the United States. Fred also makes a mean Pisco Sour. Representatives from each winery in the tasting were also on hand (via satellite) to discuss the wines and answer any blogger questions.

Unfortunately I've lagged on finishing this blog post. Still, I'm glad to share with you a tasting of twelve wines, white and red, from all over Chile. Instead of assigning numbers or grades to the wines, look for a simple "recommended" or "not recommended" after each tasting note. To explain, if I recommend a wine here it's because I feel it represents good quality-to-price ratio (QPR), tastes delicious, and is (relatively) flaw-free.

With that, I present twelve wines from across Chile's varied growing regions:

Sauvignon Blanc
1. 2012 Vina Casablanca "Nimbus" Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley: Plenty of grassy notes mixed with citrus come rushing up out of the glass. They persist on the palate too, helped by plenty of crisp acidity. There isn't a lot going on in this wine but what does exist is proportioned quite well. If you need a versatile food white, pick up a bottle and see for yourself, it will pair with most anything. All for only $13. Recommended.

2. 2011 San Pedro 1865 Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley: Amping up the aromatics and mouthfeel (as well as the price), this beautiful sipper brings the same green grass note as in the first wine, but it's restrained by more citrus and hints of tropical fruit, considerably brightening up things. Plenty of acidity helps the wine move along across your palate, but it veers into the "bitter wine face" a few too many times. That disjointed nature dooms this sauvignon blanc for me. Not recommended. $19 SRP.

3. 2011 Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc Colchagua Valley: Things start to get really interesting with this wine, and they should for $25 a bottle. It had some hallmarks of Sancerre, with the mineral and lime notes, but also a beautiful undercurrent of tart pineapple and other tropical flavors. I was impressed with the complexity and kept coming back to it as the night went on. Some of the other bloggers weren't too keen on it, but I felt that Casa Silva nailed the flavor profile for a cool climate sauvignon blanc without going too far into the gooseberry/cat piss side. Highly recommended.

Pinot Noir
4. 2010 Emiliana Novas Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley: My tasting notes refer to lots of fruit on the nose, with red cherry, strawberry, and hints of spice. I like how straightforward and unassuming this pinot noir is, but wish for more complexity. At $19, it's not expensive at all but I could pull a lineup of $20 Oregon pinots out that would blow this pinot out of the water. The finish was a bit short as well, but I liked the sheer "yummy" factor. Simple wine, yet tasty. Still, not recommended.

5. 2009 Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley: My first bottle was corked so the Wines of Chile folks kindly sent another. This big, 14.5 percent abv pinot has some "interesting" attributes. On the nose there is a bit of alcoholic heat coming through. Also present, aromas of vanilla, earth, and red fruit. Where this gets tasty is after you take a sip. Plenty of tannin (odd, no?) frames bright red fruit, dusty soil, black pepper, and baking spice. The finish is clean and taut, indicating that this is still a baby of a wine. Yes, it's $32 a bottle but it has a lot of potential! Recommended.

6. 2009 Morande Gran Reserva Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley: I couldn't figure this pinot out. Aromatically it was like a red cherry jolly rancher mixed with eucalyptus oil and dried-out pizza box. On the palate there was plenty of acidity to keep things light, but that weird cardboard thing kept showing up. The bright fruit was nice and the herbaceous flavors kept things interesting. The bottle wasn't corked or suffering from brettanomyces, as far as I could tell. Not recommended. $17.99 srp.

7. 2010 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere Cachapoal Valley: Weirdly enough, this bottle was also bad, with something happening after it was made and before I received it. Another bottle replaced. On the nose there was oak and buttered popcorn aromas (diacetyl) that overlaid secondary aromas of sliced jalapeno. After sitting for about an hour, the wine calmed down quite a bit. Nicely integrated tannin helped along by some vibrant acidity enfolded flavors of green pepper, dried herb, red berry fruit, and wood. This wine desperately needs food, if you buy it. $22 srp. Recommended.

8. 2010 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere Apalta Colchagua Valley: Thin to the point of being delicate on the nose. More of that green aroma and some wood influences, but also notes of plum and cranberry. I can't say this wine was a tour de force of carmenere but I did like how food-friendly it was. Good acidity that brought high toned red fruit and spices along for the ride. A clean, quick finish that readied the palate for another sip, and a very nice price point. Just wish for more interesting flavors! Still, $14 is hard to beat. Recommended.

9. 2009 Koyle Royale Carmenere Colchagua Valley: A blend of carmenere, petite verdot, and malbec. Some bloggers loved it, I felt it was a mess. Too much VA (volatile acidity) to make any sense of what was going on. The people tasting with me felt it was downright unpleasant to drink. $25.99 srp.

Cabernet Sauvignon
10. 2009 Ventisquero Grey Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley: Six percent petite verdot, the rest cabernet sauvignon. Seemed a bit undeveloped and too soft. What I mean by that is there wasn't much in the way of flavor integration, and there was a perceptible lack of tannin. Also, the wine simply didn't bring much complexity to the table. I re-tasted it several hours later and it had not appreciably developed anything interesting. I'm not sure if it was over-oaked or from young vines or what. For $29, there are far better choices to spend your hard earned money on. Not recommended.

11. 2010 Maquis Caberent Sauvignon Colchagua Valley: I tasted this wine several times over the course of the night and felt it opened up beautifully. The nose revealed aromas of cassis, spices, dried herb, tobacco, and oak. The more I swirled, the better all those aromas integrated, creating a wonderful tapestry. On the palate it was equally impressive, with plenty of tannin surrounding flavors of plum and black currant, tar, leather, dried herb, and cocoa. The finish was a bit quick, but I think this is a young wine that will get better with another year or two in bottle. For only $19, it nails the QPR quotient. Recommended.

12. 2009 Los Vascos "Le Dix" Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Valley: Don't drink this right now if you go out and buy it. My notes say "lots of potential.......I think". The ingredients are here for a great wine. Lots of tannin, flavors of leather, plum skin, tobacco, and cassis. Sound like a Bordeaux? Lots of stylistic similarities to young Haut-Medoc wines. The only question is whether or not all those flavors will merge with the tannin and acid to form a complex, compelling wine, or continue to stick out in jagged edges and at rough angles to each other. At $65, and with this producer, it's a pretty safe bet that in several more years, things will take a turn for the glorious. Recommended.

There you have it, 12 Chilean reds and whites to consider. It was a great walk through some of the regions and a fun opportunity to taste how the Chilean wine industry is coming along. I think they have a long way to go to become truly "world class" but there are very encouraging signs of progress. For my palate, the most promising wines coming from Chile are still sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and syrah.

What I'd like to see wineries down there do better is manage volatile acidity, keep their cellars free of brettanomyces, and make better picking decisions to keep the pyrazine levels lower. There is potential too in the Bordeaux-based wines, in part due to the varied growing areas of the country. Right now it seems as if the Chilean winegrowers are finding out which grapes grow the best at which sites. To that I say, keep up the good work!

Thanks to the Wines of Chile trade group and The Thomas Collective PR firm for inviting me to taste along with my fellow bloggers.

These wines were media samples.

Beau Carufel