17 October 2008

Un País del Vino

I suppose it's about time I write something about one of my other obsessions: wine. Chile is, indeed, a country full of wine. From the northern bone dry and high elevation vineyards of the Limari and Elqui valleys near the Atacama desert to the southerly wet, cold, and rainy climates of the Bío Bío and Malleco valleys. Chile bulges with wine.

On the surface this is quite nice: it's everywhere; it's generally cheap; and everyone seems to drink it regularly. Normally this would be a perfect recipe for a wine culture--a society where art, food, and wine are indistinguishable from each other and the combination of each help form the country's cultural world view. Though I think this is slowly changing, the only culture expressed in Chile's massive vineyard campaigns are agriculture or, more precisely, agribusiness.

Yes, Chile is full of wine. It is also full of businessmen. And lawyers. I won't speak in statistics but Chile usually ranks 5th or 6th in terms of world wine exports, often competing with the US for those rankings. Currently Chile exports about seventy percent of it's wine. I'm more interested in the culture of wine and the products produced in the country that boasts South America's best and safest economy.

On the whole, Chilean wines are good. Some are quite good. Some, too, are a little less than good. Most, though, are only ever good: fine for drinking, far from interesting. Quality has never been an issue. Chile has never been plagued by phylloxera which means that there are some seriously old vines here and few require intervention or grafting. The price to quality ratio has always been Chile's selling point. But if, like me, you enjoy wines that express not only the grapes from where they are born but also the soil, weather conditions, topography, and maybe most importantly, the people who create the wines, then Chile's version of viticulture might fall a bit short.

In Chile, uniformity, not variety, seems to be the spice of life. Sameness a prized ideal. This is true not only in winemaking but everything related to agriculture as well as art, fashion, and most aspects of day to day life. A classic example is the available fish from this country whose western borders never separate from the Pacific Ocean. From top to bottom, somehow, someway, Chile only manages to pull and serve in its markets and restaurants about five varieties of pescado from its bountiful waters: salmon, sea bass, conger eel, merluza, and tuna. The same is true for its tomatoes (all medium-sized and hydroponically grown), color choice for cars (grey), and fashion styles for women (knee-high leather boots, giant black sunglasses, and whispy, macramed sweaters).

The same, I fear, is generally true for the Chilean world of wine. Walk into any grocery store for a bottle of wine (more on that below) and you are greeted to five walls: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Yes, Chileans know about exportation, and a little bit about exploitation, too. They know what sells and they know how to sell it. And in the walls of five to twenty US dollar wines that the grocery stores sell, you would be hard-pressed to find substantial differences within the major varietals. The wines are all of good quality and characteristically correct. Bottle variation is never an issue and even vintage differences are hardly noticeable. Year after year, tank after tank, the wines are all good.

From there you begin to notice that though the labels might look different, a quick check of the producer on the back of the label reveals walls of wines that are made by a handful of wineries. From north to south, hot to cold, a small handful of producers make enormous amounts of wine. Again, this contributes to a certain amount of homogeneity between labels, regions, and producers. Good for business, bad for craft.

The real problem (but also the answer) starts when you journey outside the grocery store to seek something of quality and character and value. In a city of five million people Santiago offers the wine curious exactly two wine shops: La Vinoteca and El Mundo del Vino. Yes, these two companies have maybe six shops spread through the city but they also supply and determine the wine lists for hundreds of Santiaguino restaurants including those in Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. In addition, for reasons I can't quite determine, many high-end and luxury cuvées are priced twice (yes, twice) as expensive in Chile as they are in the US. Almaviva, Clos Apalta, Don Melchor, Alpha M, Seña, and Domus Aurea are all priced at twice the cost of what you would pay for them in the United States. And I only listed the more common high-end wines most likely found in the US. The availability of $100-200 US dollar wines seems to grow with each visit to the wine shop.

This latest trend, however, might be the sheep in wolf's clothing. The increase in luxury cuvées from wineries who can afford to produce them parallels a slower but, hopefully, steadier increase in small producers who craft expressive, region-specific wines with low yields and more traditional techniques. Even within the three years I've been here a number of new labels have appeared. Twenty to thirty years is often the range of time how "behind" Chile is to the rest of the developed world. (Though in terms of the treatment of children and the elderly as real people rather than annoyances and burdens respectively, the US has much to learn from their southerly kin.) I'm not ever exactly sure what that comparison means but if this is true then when it comes to artisanal winemaking Chile is ahead of the curve.

About this time last year--when the temperatures take a turn for the hotter--I was stocking up on white wines when I noticed a new label in the (impossible to miss a new label because it's so) small section of otras variedades, or other varietals, meaning other than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was the 2005 Meli Riesling pictured above. It's from the D.O. of Maule, the largest and most geographically diverse wine-producing region, located at the southern end of the Central Valley. As of this date, this new project makes one wine, pictured above, apparently created from a "lost" parcel of Riesling in this predominately red wine region. The wine is vinified without any oak, kept at a relatively low level of alcohol (12.5%), and held in its bottle for six months before release. Four almost revolutionary contradictions to a national industry that favors mass production, plenty of oak, high alcohol levels, and immediate release and consumption. The cost of the Meli Riesling to the consumer: más o menos 3,000 Chilean pesos, or about six US dollars.

The first (and second and third) time I tasted this wine it rivaled some of the more austere Sancerres that I've tried. Bracing acidity and a core of minerality gave way to a softer finish of lemon and lime citrus and a touch of honeysuckle. Perfect with shellfish (mussles, oysters, and machas, or Chilean razor clams). A different version of a Riesling definitely, but not unlike the current and tasty examples coming out of New Zealand. I opened another 2005 vintage bottle last night that had been sitting around the basement for a while and what a difference a year makes. The Meli is much more round around the edges, ripe, and honeyed, resembling more those found in the Alsace. In fact, I haven't tasted a Riesling that well developed since I opened our last bottle of 2001 Albert Mann Riesling a few months ago.

Within months after its release, Meli started showing up on the wine lists of hip bistros in Valparaiso. The cool kids are ready for a change.

Meli is not the first to take the route of hand-crafted wine from low yields and site-specific properties (though it might be the first Riesling to do so). Thankfully there are a number of producers carving out the future and hope of Chilean wine, both in and out of country. Here are a few I've found worth pursuing:

Viña Tabalí: Though not an especially small winery (they make eight different bottlings), the wines from Tabalí show off the rich mineral content contained in the soil of the far northern Limarí valley.

Viña Pérez Cruz: Located in the Alto Maipo region, only 45 kilometers from Santiago, Pérez Cruz is not for the faint of heart. These are big wines but full of character and structure as well. Made mostly with traditional varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot) with bits and pieces of others like Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Côt.

Viu Manet: Another not-so-small winery. Here I'm mostly fond of their Secreto line of wines that bottle single varietals with a "secret" blend of an unnamed secondary grape of up to 15%. I'm not sure how popular these wines are but to me they add depth and character to some over-used varietals. Here's a clue: they definitely add Viognier to their Syrah with nicely perfumed results.

Matetic Vineyards: For me, a bit of a controversial winery. Flashy, expensive, and beautiful, Matetic would not be out of place in Napa Valley. Though they are also not afraid of oak or alcohol, it's hard to argue with their commitment to their very special micro-climate and soils of the San Antonio valley.

Viña Garcés Silva: Matetic's more sophisticated San Antonio neighbor in the adjacent Leyda valley. A family winery, each of their five wines (with the exception, maybe, of the barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc) reflect the cool coastal climate from which they are born.

Loma Larga: Another family vineyard located in the larger but equally cool climate of the Casablanca valley. Limited production wines (only the Syrah is ever made over 1000 cases) made from small French oak barriques and steel tanks.

Viña von Siebenthal: From the beautiful Aconcagua valley, Viña von Siebenthal produces only red wines: two Bordeaux-styled wines are made from combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. Two (mostly) single varietal wines: a Carmenère and a syrah called Carabantes. All are excellent.

Viña San Esteban: Along with Viña von Siebenthal, the Carmenère made under the In Situ label represent two of the country's more interesting versions. Elegant, structured, and expressive, these two cool climate Carmenères are a far cry from the more popular Merlot wannabes produced in the hotter Central valleys. Their Syrahs, too, are more reminiscent of the Rhone than many produced in this country. I also know for certain that these wines are featured at a prominent US retailer.

Viña Litoral (no website): Another single bottle production winery made by the hands of the very busy Ignacio Recabarren. The Ventolera Sauvignon Blanc is made within six miles of the Pacific Ocean. Intense, viscous, and full of salty minerals, the Ventolera could pass for a Sancerre.

There are others and I hope even within a few years time there will be others still. Whether it's a question of easing up on the mass market mentality, following more oenological muses, or a combination in between, I don't exactly know. Hesitation and cultural reluctance aside, the foundations are certainly here and available for the creation of unique, geographically specific wines. I hope the muses win the contest.

A few more resources:
Wines Of Chile
Andes Wines
Planeta Vino (in Spanish)
Wikipedia entry

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