The time of year when night bleeds into day. October winds blow colder and trees shed their skin. Fallen leaves cause urban sight lines to tighten with vertigo-effect like an intense, paranoid dolly zoom moment in a Hitchcock film. Fall is a time of super-heightened awareness and also the best time of year to focus on tasting and exploring wine.
Speaking of cold climates, the last two weeks have seen me taken to Chile, well actually, Chile has been brought to me. First, an unforeseen exclusive and intimate WineAlign tasting of the wines from Errazuriz with winemaker Francisco Baettig. Then, with the travelling main stage show that is the Wines of Chile, by seminar and through a comprehensive gathering at the Royal Ontario Museum.
The Chilean wine industry is no stranger to adversity, hurdles and bumps in the road. But unlike Ontario and to a lesser extent B.C., Chile’s obstacles have been more than a matter of weather. I could go back further in time but for the purpose of getting straight to the point, let’s start with an 18 year dictatorship during a period when the wine industry could have been developing in earnest. The year is 1990, Pinochet is out and democracy is in. That Chile has developed as a cohesive wine producing, exporting and marketing unit in just 23 years is nothing short of astonishing.
That earthquakes, most notably the nearly devastating 8.8 measured big one in March 2010 and global economic crisis has not crippled the fast yet still ripening industry is a testament to a people of strength and fortitude. Chile’s wine growth seems to follow a two steps forward, one step back path. But it rarely wavers and always rebounds, as it will again following the most recent harsh frosts of 2013.
Two sets of “black” frosts hit Chile’s vineyards hard. Americas Export manager for Ventisquero Juan Ignacio Zuñiga told a room of journalists and sommeliers about the late September and early October double whammy. “The worst case scenario is 70 per cent of the crop,” said Zuñiga “and the best case, 30 per cent.” Wineries employed wind machines and irrigation systems to spread the cold air and abate the damage but ran out of water by day three. “This is the worst type of frost,” he noted. “Beyond control.” From Reuters, “these frosts are the worst that agriculture has faced in 84 years, impacting the area from Coquimbo to Bio Bio,” the national agricultural society said.
Yet Chile will endure, as it always has. The Wines of Chile media seminar lent credence to the strong future in store for Chilean wines. Christopher Waters of Vines Magazine introduced six wines and their marketers after a quick yet concise dissertation on the effects of green viticulture on taste, cost and consumer appeal.
Chile’s wine regions are “blessedly Phylloxera-free,” hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean, the Andes Mountains and the Patagonian ice fields. The grape growing out of the many cool micro-climates are mitigated and assisted by beneficial winds that blow in from the edges of these three dramatic boundaries.
Waters quickly noted that the prevalence of organic farming and biodynamic wine production has surged throughout Chile’s wine regions. More dramatic is the adherence to the “sustainability code, of number one importance for gatekeepers.” This qualification has added essential meaning and is “a tool that winemakers have become empowered with.”
For the Chilean wine industry, green practices are not enough. Wines must tell a great story, “carry a narrative,” says Waters. In Chile so many also happen to be made to the sustainability code. Five to 10 years from now that will be a universal given. Sustainability, story and content. “What makes these wines special is what’s in the glass.”
I tasted more than 40 wines at the Wines of Chile event. While some of the most impressive examples were to be found at the highest prices, it was the $15-30 range that showed what Chile can do best. Here are 10 examples of the new Chile.
Via Chilcas Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($17.95, 309757) from the Maule Valley is graced by amazing freshness and vigorous, new wave energy. With an imagined dragon’s foot securely planted in the ancestry of Chilean wine, this radioactive red is a portal to the industry’s future. Roasted and brewed, in espresso yes but mocha, no. “Welcome to the new age, to the new age.” 91 @ViaWines
Viña Ventisquero Grey Chardonnay 2012 ($19.95) shows off Casablanca Valley elegance, from 13 year-old vines. Born of a south-facing slope on a single block of dirt within a vineyard. A mellow toast that sparkles aromatically is surely quartz and iodine speaking from out of the granite-flecked red clay over a granite foundation. A touch cool-climate turpenic, in citrus and apple. Veers anti-tropical with just a kiss (eight to ten months) of oak. Super fresh, low and slow bister layered despite the warm and challenging vintage. 89 @vventisquero @FitoZuniga
Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($21.95, 143198) comes out of the Aconcagua Valley, very near and dear to its Andes ombra shadow. Maceration mouthfeel ushered in on a viscous, spicy, piquant, capsicum wave. High tree fruit notes for Sauvignon Blanc place the wine somewhere between California and Marlborough. An SB heavyweight, with spice that plays and replays, balm prominence and righteous length. Oh, brother, she’s got blue-eyed soul, “my mash potato baby, a little Latin Lupelu.” 90 @errazurizwines @fcobaetting
Emiliana Coyam 2010 ($29.95, 649679) is the organic outfit’s “icon” wine, swarthy, round, powerful and well-rounded. While their flagship Gê achieves the apex of the sustainable movement, the Coyam is missing nothing. Has got everything but the girl; Syrah, Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot. A prime example of what stressed vines in healthy Colchagua Valley vineyards can do on a wild and volatile yeast journey. A broad spectrum of vinous material is on display and they cry out in unison, “like the deserts miss the rain.” Great freshness and so very berry, with supporting though not overbearing vanilla and a trenchant yet clean Syrah finish. Notes Export Manager Fernando Pavon, “a wine that avoids standardization.” 90
Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (LCBO $13.95, 262717, SAQ 262717, $14.95, B.C. 284125, $14.99) from Maipo fruit flaunts varietal typicity, plain and simple. Was bottled under screw cap back in 2003! A bissel of Cabernet Franc adds complexity by way of juicy currants, tart raspberries and caper berries. 87
Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (LCBO 263574, $12.95, B.C. 286385, $13.99) is uniquely and markedly realized upwards out of schist soil from a high Aconcagua crop that required some necessary thinning. Decidedly pale yet spirited, like old school Marlborough. Sagacious Kiwi mineral salinity, lean, dry and grassy. Less herbiage, intensity and flesh than the Max Reserva and yet its steely, stainless character is better and VGV, especially at $13. 88
Max Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2011 (LCBO $18.95, 335174, SAQ 335174, $16.95, B.C. 287805, $16.99) is executed with more of a cooler and less New World approach than the chocolate, Cassis and easy drinking 2010. Here the smells are Cab Franc-ish, with more pyrazine, less mocha, more berries and it is coated by finer tannins. Mint, eucalyptus and purple fruit but not so much a riper style. More elegance, structure and balance. “If you want to protect the Cabernet, you should do so with the leaves,” notes Baettig. The tartness of the fruit tells beneath the syrup. A confident wine made with some transparency, through indirect light, not with the hot Aconcagua sun burning on the fruit. 89
Max Reserva Syrah 2011 (LCBO $18.95, 614750, SAQ 864678, $18.95, B.C. 361311, 2010, $19.99) whiffs the most confounding nose of the line-up so far, cooler than the ’10 vintage, and very, very Northern Rhone. Bacon, smoked meat, juicy and spicy olive, dark but not woody, splintered or Java-scripted. The nose gets better and better and it shows good length. This is the 15th year of this wine. 89
Don Maximiano 2007 (LCBO 501247, $80, SAQ, 11396557, 2008, $79.25, B.C. 5012547, 2008, $$89.99) at the six year mark is showing extreme refinement and is not the California fruit bomb you might have been warned about. Tenuous teng, tang and verve, unique to place and mighty, mighty fine. Goes well beyond “all the sacred boundaries we’ve overgrown” to “build a brave new foundry close to home.” The 2009 is being released as the “Founder’s Reserve Cabernet” with touches of Syrah and Petit Verdot. That wine (tasted at Wines of Chile) will rewrite the Maximiano book. 91
Kai 2010 (Private Order, $144.95, SAQ 12051411, $116) charms, entertains and regales in spectacular aromatics. Currently in beast mode, this is rich, unctuous Carmenère. 2005 was this wine’s first vintage and here high-grained tannins will one day soften and round out in oak sweetness. For now there is some balsamic and spicy forest floor, which, says Baettig, “is part of the variety, so I try to keep it in the wine.” From alluvial, flat and thin soils, attacked by high sun exposure under less canopy. More fruit exposure leads to intensity. Long roots, rock, Carmenère. 93
Good to go!