Wines of Chile New York Grand Tasting

Wines of Chile New York Grand Tasting

Second lives both amaze and inspire me. Chile has produced wines for nearly five centuries, but until a very few years ago, Chilean wine made little impact on the international market. Confusion as to grape varieties, sloppy winemaking, and even political controversy have been major impediments. We can sweep all that away, however. Today Chile's wines and winemakers have earned the right to international attention. The Wines of Chile Grand Tasting, a once-a-year event sponsored by the Chilean wine industry, showcased more than 40 Chilean wineries.

The New York exhibition (smaller shows take place in Las Vegas and Chicago) was held at Gotham Hall in Manhattan, and this is another case for renaissance thinking. The massive building, faced with Corinthian columns, is the former home of the Greenwich Savings Bank. In the early 2000s, re-developers began a series of renovations, including multi-media wiring, to establish the venue as a very high-profile events center. At 36th Street and Broadway, you can't beat the location.

The same applies to Chile: for wine, you can't beat the location. The Chileans can grow wine grapes at any latitude, and at any altitude. Most of Chile is fairly arid and yet copious supplies of irrigation water are available from the Andes. Cool Pacific Ocean climatic influences affect some regions, like the Casablanca Valley, while hot-weather viticulture is possible in others. The country's relative isolation has sheltered it from many nasty vine diseases, particularly phylloxera. Land is relatively cheap, labor is abundant, and the country enjoys an excellent infrastructure that supports substantial agricultural trade with North America. Finally, and not insignificantly, French winemakers have been coming to Chile to add their expertise to the mix for over a hundred years. The Oxford Companion to Wine states that “Chile is undergoing possibly the most dramatic technological revolution in the wine world.”

You could feel this buzz at the Wines of Chile event. While the dollar has plummeted against the Euro, it has lost relatively little in relation to most Latin American currencies. Importers of European wines have been absorbing currency costs for quite some time, but the consensus is that the turn of 2008 saw the dam break; European wine became dramatically more expensive, while South American wine has remained competitive in this country (and in fact in many world markets). When you translate this math into return on investment and the ability to reinvest profits, you see Chilean wine grabbing ever greater expanses of American shelf space, and keeping it.

Viña Casa Tamaya is located in the Limarí Valley in Coquimbo, a relatively new wine region about 400 miles north of Santiago. North in the southern hemisphere means hotter, but Limarí benefits from the cooling influence of the nearby Pacific. With nearly no rain at all, the region can irrigate at will and produce plants free of rot and sheltered from frost. The growing season is long, the fruit well developed and rich. Tamaya's reds reflect Bordeaux and Rhône varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chile's special secret Carmenere (a Bordeaux grape that, like the Malbec in neighboring Argentina, has taken as well to its new home and its new home has taken to it). Tamaya's 2006 Reserve Carmenere (100% varietal) has grip, deep black fruit, oak and spice, a dense mouthfeel, and a nicely balanced finish, with admirable tannins managing the show.

The 2006 Tamaya Syrah Reserve comes with a powerful nose of rich, spicy red fruit: ripe pomegranate and strawberry. This is medium plus bodied wine, ripe and jammy on the palate with a touch of candied fruit, and a long, warm, concentrated berry finish. Tamaya's “Pink Goat” rosé is the product of 40% Syrah, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Sangiovese. It gives a fresh floral and mineral nose, well balanced acid, a powdery palate of fresh strawberry and raspberry and a dry refreshing finish. Both these Tamaya wines retail for $13.

Lauca Vineyards and Winery from the Maule Valley, Chile's largest region, some 600 miles south of Limarí, produces a lovely 2006 100% Pinot Noir ($11) I found satisfyingly mainstream (which means it tastes like Pinot and not some needless mish-mash), light, soft, and aromatically cherry. I tasted a touch of wood, the result of a modest three months in French oak. The theme of most of the show in my experience would be blends rather than varietals, Lauca's $16 Gran Reserva Ensamblaje being a case in point: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carmenere, and 15% Shiraz. Here the Cabernet punch comes through on the nose with some leather and spice. Twelve months of French oak bring chocolate and vanilla, but the wine matches these with plenty of friendly fruit, both black and red, round tannins, and very spirited acidity though to the finish.

Altaïr Vineyards showcased two interesting reds. Their $25 Sideral 2004 from the Rapel Valley matches 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Merlot, 6% Carmenere, 5% Sangiovese, 3% Cabernet Franc and 1% Syrah. I got a jammy nose, with black and red fruit—even some prune—very ripe, with a long finish that featured tobacco and mountain herb. Great acidity. The winery's flagship $65 Altaïr 2004 blend from the Cachapoal Valley is 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 11% Carmenere and 1% Cabernet Franc. This is a formidable wine in quite a Bordeaux style, with inky deep color, fruit concentration and tannins to match and the flavor product of new French oak: mocha, chocolate, with bitter chocolate on the fine finish. I had the good fortune of tasting this wine twice; once at the Altaïr table and a second time at the “Chile's All Star Red Blends” seminar where presenter Michael Green called the wine the “Château Margaux of Chile.” Green was quick to point out in making Franco-Chilean comparisons that the Gallic version usually has an extra zero in the price. Here's to moving decimal points leftward.

Odfjell Vineyards showcased three 100% varietals—a Carmenere, a Carignan, and a Malbec, all priced at $20—but the $35 Aliara 2005 was the one I tasted. This Central Valley wine is 45% Carignan, 22% Malbec, 22% Syrah and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of the vines are 100+ years old (and I presume on their own roots). This wine spends two years in new French oak, yielding coconut, cocoa, and toasty notes both on nose and on palate, combined with a fruity youthfulness; you no doubt could cellar this wine for a few years and profit from your patience.

The 2006 Espiritu de Chile Shiraz-Cabernet (74%/26%) brings a lot of sensuous pleasure in an $11 package: full-body, mouth-filling fruit, sweet oak and the spiciness of the Shiraz.

The Casa Silva Quinta Generacion Red 2005, $24 from the Colchagua Valley, mixes 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carmenere, and 25% Shiraz with 15% Petit Verdot to yield a wine with many fine attributes. The wine has stimulating acidity, is mouth-filling, has well integrated soft tannins and notes of spice, cherry, violet and cigar box. Wood aging is well applied with this wine; it is not overly jammy, not chewy, indeed quite elegant.

Arboleda & Seña's $78 Seña Red 2005, a single vineyard blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 9% Carmenere, and 6% Cabernet Franc from the Aconcagua Valley has got a great cherry and multi-berry (including blueberry) nose, acidity, texture, and oak-based notes of tobacco and cocoa. I call this a dramatic wine, not because I was brought to tears by it but because it gave me an arc, a story, all of whose pieces work together through space and time the way an effective stage play should; naturally the finish was nicely long, with a dessert of chocolate and spicy vanilla.

The Casa Lapostolle Colchagua Valley Clos Apalta 2005, at $75, seems to shout out to the Bordeaux (and perhaps the Napa) people: “We can compete with our own big wines, and at a much lower price.” The constituents are 42% Carmenere, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, and 4% Petite Verdot. The stops have been let out on this one: pre- and post-fermentation maceration, wild yeasts, 40 year old vines, 24 months in new French oak. Michael Green called this an “icon wine” with a showy style. Among the black fruit on the nose, the minority Cabernet pushes through. The color is dense, opaque. My own note reads “good acid throughput,” a phrase I hereby coin meaning that the acid doesn't quit for a second. Of course you can taste the oak, but my reaction was a pleasant sweet chocolate, with vanilla on a long finish. This is a polished wine, it can definitely profit from cellaring, and it has earned my respect.

The $29 Maipo Valley Santa Carolina VSC 2006 blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Carmenere, 15% Malbec, and 8% Petite Verdot. My first jotting, with the concurrence of several of my colleagues, is that this was an instance in which the Cabernet was not in your face (as it often can be even in lesser concentrations). Red fruit predominated. I noted pomegranate, cranberry, black cherry and sour cherry on the palate, with fine-grained tannins. The finish brings lip-smacking jammy berry fruit, with tannin and acidity competing for the endurance prize. A focus on ripeness is a choice, taken in this instance.

The reader may well note the conspicuous absence of white wines in this current package; I can only attribute this to the fact that I came to the show in a red frame of mind; this is astonishing given that June 10, 2008 was a 96 degree scorcher in Manhattan, but perhaps the cool marble tiling and brass facings of Gotham Hall had something to do with it. Oh, I've got it, the 18 wines we examined in the two seminars led by Michael Green were all reds, and all blends at that. Chile produces plenty of whites, Chardonnays of course but Sauvignon Blanc in particular establishing itself as a viable alternative to the current New Zealand mania (a boat on which I have yet to hop). I did get to taste the $21 Amayna Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from the cool climate Leyda Valley (the winery also produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc). This is a stainless steel fermented wine, with two months lees contact, a bit high in alcohol at 14.5%. My notes are simple: peach, mango, mineral, ripeness, forward acidity. While I did enjoy most of the reds I'd tasted that day, by the time I'd left the show, navigated the sticky streets, boarded my train and finished my tepid spring water, I was craving this crisp Amayna in a bucket of ice.

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Every time I read about or hear about Chilean wines I sense a wave of growing excitement. My own tasting experience certainly bears this out.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Tamaya Liari Valley Wines of Chile

Part of the team from Viña Casa Tamaya in Chile's Limarí Valley. Note the distinctive grill work in the background, a remnant of the era when what is now Gotham Hall was an imposing bank building.

Altair Vineyards and Winery

Winemaker Ana Maria Cumsille from Altaïr Vineyards and Winery. Again, note the marble slabs on the wall, another remnant of the age of elegant big-city banks.

Chile wine map

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