Wide cerulean blue skies against a backdrop of snow-capped Andes, rolling vineyards of Sauvignon and Cabernet combined with a carnivores heaven of endless BBQ’s – what is the first thought that springs to mind when people think of visiting the wine lands of South America? Well, all of these are true but there is so much more – and more diversity to discover than most people associate with the wines of Chile & Argentina. Fancy Riesling with a racy elegance or a wonderful smoky Pinot Noir, maybe a cool climate Syrah or even a glass of little known Sauvignon Gris? All to be found – and more – from some of the most exciting vineyards of the New World.
My first Wine Tour to South America was in 1998, and have been returning annually, with the tour I organised for a London Livery Company this year being my 20th time exploring the vineyards of Chile & Argentina . It has been fascinating to see the developments in both countries over two decades – not only the wine focus but also from the social and economics point of view.
The wine consultant to these clients is the fabulous Derek Smedley MW. One of the most respected members of the wine trade, with a wealth of experience, Derek first visit to the vineyards of South America was in the 1980’s and he has continually been revisiting over the last 20 years. As a Master of Wine, of whom there are only 356 in the world, Derek’s in depth knowledge of wines from all over the world was valuable in putting the wines tasted on tour into context, and he was always there to clarify any wine questions throughout the tour!
Several of the group met up the night before in Santiago and were swiftly introduced to that heavenly (if what somewhat dangerous!) South American aperitif – Pisco Sour. Discussion rages if Chilean or Peruvian Pisco’s are the best – but I will be diplomatic and say that they are simply delicious and possibly best to stop at the second one! If you fancy trying them at home this summer, lots of recipes on line and the Whisky Exchange has a great selection of different types of Pisco.
Surrounded by an alarmingly large number of suitcases, we set forth on our first day, a Sunday so the streets of Santiago thankfully quiet, for our first visit to Vina Aquitania, which was started by three friends in the 1990’s. Bruno Prats (then of Cos D’Estournel), along with the late Paul Pontallier (of Chateau Margaux) joined with their Chilean friend Felipe de Solminihac to start a Chilean wine project together. Later, they became the “Four Musketeers” when they were joined by Ghislaine de Montgolfier (of Champagne Bollinger). The cellar is surrounded by their vines, which in turn are edged by the ever encroaching suburbs of Santiago, giving the cellars a slightly surreal setting. Hosted by Felipe’s son, Eduardo de Solminihac, it was the perfect visit to set the scene for our Chilean wine adventure. Many of the group are self confessed serious Champagne lovers, so it was interesting to see the positive reaction to their Sparkling wine, with Zero Dosage, just what was needed to put a zing into a Sunday mid morning.
Truly a boutique estate, where even the labelling is still done by hand, a full tasting had been set out invitingly on the lawn. The estate also owns vineyards in the very south of Chile in Malleco and the SOLdeSOL Chardonnay and SOLdeSOL Pinot Noir displays lovely cool climate characteristics. The Chardonnay with its twice weekly battonage was rich & buttery with hint of hazelnuts whilst the Pinot Noir had a great nose of black fruit and raspberry leaves balanced with fresh acidity and black cherries. For a group of wine lovers, many of whom lean towards the Bordeaux end of the wine spectrum, the Lazuli Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 was the real star of the tasting, showing classical Maipo Valley Cab of cassis & mint with discreet tannins and a delicious elegant finish or as described by a certain MW, “moresome” – which became a new tour word! Wines available in the UK via Stone, Vine & Sun
Tearing ourselves away for our lunchtime appointment, we headed further down into the Maipo valley, to meet up with leading Chilean wine maker, Alvaro Espinoza. Alvaro has been instrumental in spreading the word about the advantages of following organic and biodynamics principles in the vineyards. Although he consults for a larger estate, we caught up with him on his own personal estate, Antiyal. A fascinating walk through the vineyards, lined with almond trees, whilst Alvaro explained the main points of biodynamics, including the herbal preparations needed and the various animals that also “work” in the vineyards!
A brief visit to the cool cellar, where Alvaro proudly showed off his concrete eggs, a new cellar discovery for a few people in the group. Increasingly more popular (despite the hefty price tag), winemakers from Bordeaux to Tuscany, Chile to the Uco Valley in Argentina are choosing concrete eggs for fermentation. The egg shape ensures a continual movement of liquid and the concrete provides a stable environment, which gives the resulting wines more texture and vibrancy. Joined by Alvaro’s wife Marina, we enjoyed a welcome glass of their Sparkling (Chardonnay & Pinot base) on the roof terrace of the cellars with lovely views across the vines to the mountains. Moving to Alvaro & Marina’s house, a relaxed lunch in the garden paired with their Antiyal wines showed exactly why Alvaro firmly believes in the holistic approach of biodynamics are right for his wines. They all showed a real sense of terroir, from the Pura Fe Carmenere , through to the Kuyen, a blend of Syrah, Cab Sauv, Carmenere and Petit Verdot showing lovely spiciness. To finish, their flagship original wine Antiyal, made with Carmenere, Cab Sauv & Syrah is always a favourite of mine from the early days when such world class wines from Chile could be counted very quickly. As always, a big seductive red with lovely smoky blackcurrants and a surprisingly elegant finish. There are quite a few sceptics about the Steiner principals of biodynamics, but for me wines made under this style of viticulture are without fail, more vibrant and alive in the glass. Whilst I might not go as far as a sommelier friend who has his hair cut according to which day it is in the lunar biodynamic calendar (leaf, root, fruit etc) to slow regrowth, I do hope that more wine makers convert to this more natural respectful way of viticulture. UK Importer is Vintage Roots
A free evening at our next base in Santa Cruz, resulted in some rather amusing discussions on orange wine the next day. Several of the clients headed to a local restaurant, where the owner is passionate about natural food. However, amongst the various wines sampled, he suggested an orange wine – which the clients were convinced was a gentle joke to wind up visiting tourists, such was its un-drinkablity. They were suitably horrified the next day to be told that actually Orange wine is style of wine made by quite a few winemakers in countries as varied as Austria to Georgia. Here is not the place to explain the concept, also as I am most assuredly not a fan of the style if you are interested, there is a lot on the web!
Happily our visit the next day was to the Montes winery in the Apalta valley, a short hop outside of Santa Cruz. Nestled at the foothills and surrounded by vines, the winery was designed with Feng Shui principals. Welcomed by Dennis Murray, son of one of the original founders, and Maria Walker, their export manager and of course the beautiful Montes Angel who stands in the reception, thankfully almost totally uninjured from the 2015 earthquake which saw her thrown out into the vineyards.
The cellar visit was impressive from the roof top selection tables, which were being prepared for the forthcoming harvest (the winery is of course all gravity fed – no pumping) through to the barrel rooms, where the wine is played classical music as they believe this has a beneficial effect on the wine, following a study carried out on the differences of music and ice & liquid. But as Dennis pointed out with a twinkle – only classical never AC/DC for Montes wines! A veritable array of glasses awaited in the tasting room (374 glasses in total – glad I was not on polishing duty later!) with a stunning view over to the steep slopes of their Syrah vineyard.
Joined for the tasting by two of their winemakers, Andrea and Gavin, the tasting ranged from the Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc with its elegant nettle nose through to three Icon Wines. The Outer Limits CGM was a wine with Grenache being the link between the other two varieties of spicy peppery Mouvedre and the brambly Carignan, all planted on 45 degree slopes! It would pair wonderfully with cassoulet. The Montes Alpha Chardonnay simply gets better with every vintage, and it a complete steal at the price of just a smidge over £10 – it is all buttery but with a lovely melon fresh sweetness as well. Knowing that two of my favourite Chilean wines were hiding in the final flight was great to know – the Montes M from predominantly Cab Sauv with Cab Franc Merlot and PV was cigar box and Bordelais in its leanings, but for me the Purple Angel and Folly show how stunning the top wines from Chile can truly be. The Purple Angel almost all Carmenere with just 8% of PV was rich blackberries and bay leaves, whilst the Syrah dominant Folly was sheer heaven in a glass!
Montes have always, since its creation and thanks to Aurelio Montes, been a winery that queries every pre-conception of wine making in Chile, and have – and continue to – challenge and lead the way, from the planting of vines on the impossibly steep slopes through to Aurelio’s current project of placing dynamite in some of his vineyards to see the effect on the sub soils, and if this helps the roots to achieve greater depth without needing to irrigate. Very hard to follow such a tasting, but next up was a tractor ride to the middle of their steep vineyards for lunch with spectacular views across the valley. The region had been consumed by smoke the week before due to the forest fires further across, and so in view of the surrounding bush, a planned BBQ was replaced with a delicious three course lunch – after of course the omnipresent Chilean Empanada – delicious with a refreshing glass of their Cherub Rosé, all strawberries & cream in a glass – with several other wines to relax with over lunch! UK importer is Liberty Wine
One of the great advantages of New World wineries is the freedom they have to experiment and so where better to visit next than Cono Sur, whose advertising strap line is “No family trees, no dusty bottles, just quality wine”. They source grapes from almost all of Chile’s vineyard regions, from North to the very South and this makes for a fascinating range of wines to taste. But first a visit to their vineyards at their cellar in the Colchagua Valley with one of their winemakers, the brilliant Guillermo Sanchez, to meet their (very noisy!) geese. Guillermo was fascinating about their sustainable philosophy and in detail about their integrated pest management. Everything in balance in a natural way, so the geese are released into the vines to eat the burrito spider which damages the soil and eat the vine roots. In front of their beautiful renovated country house, our tasting of seven wines required our attention!
Cono Sur have a range of labels including the widely available easy quaffing Bicicleta range (with the bicycle on the label) – bu we were concentrating on their premium 20 Barrels range. Starting with a Sauv Blanc from Casablanca only 14 kms from the Pacific, which was all grapefruit lime and slightly salty through to their 20 Barrels Chardy 2016, of which 1% goes into concrete eggs giving great structure without the use of oak – ripe and rounded like a Charentais melon. The Bloc 23 Single Vineyard Riesling was a revelation – elegant white flowers with 7 gms of residual sugar giving no sweet sensation just balance. Pinot Noir is something of a passion at Cono Sur, so much so that back in 1999 they created a separate winery at the property solely for thr Pinots. They also employed a Burgundian consultant in the shape of the brilliant Martin Prieur, and this is reflected in the style of Pinot they produce with the 20 Barrels Pinot 2015 which was v sweet fruit backed up by smoky black cherries. In comparison, alongside was their Icon Pinot Noir, Ocio 2014 , which had much more meatiness to it. From their plots in the Limari valley came the 20 Barrels Syrah 2015 with black inky fruit, pink pepper spice, mulberries was suggested as a tasting note – but it ended with a delicious tapenade savoury richness. A glass of their Sparkling Brut was the perfect way to start lunch with a delicious BBQ on the verdant lawn – with several more wines to taste (drink?) over lunch! UK Importer Concho Y Toro UK
Heading back to the Maipo, where our next three nights would be on a private wine estate, which is some 2600 hectares bordered by the foothills of the Andes and the River Maipo. Vina Tarapaca has had a varied history since its foundation in 1874 including featuring as alimony in a high profile divorce country in the Catholic dominant Chile. Today, the estate is an enchanting place to stay, the Villa with more than a passing resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara – but instead surrounded by vineyards and a tempting cooling swimming pool!
During our stay, over relaxed dinners on the terrace, we tasted a huge range of their wines including their Method Traditionelle Sparkling from the Casablanca Valley through to the delicious Late Harvest , an unusual blend of Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon and Moscatel which was the perfect pair for the dessert of Lucuma Mousse! UK Importers are Laithwaites
Away to the west of Maipo are the Casablanca, San Antonio & Leyda valleys, where the proximity to the Pacific Ocean means that the vines benefit from the cool climate. First stop was the boutique estate of Leyda, in the eponymous DO Leyda. Originally the site of a blue tiled train station, it was the last station on the route from Santiago to the coast. The young team of their Viticulturist, Winemaker and Export Manager welcomed us to a delightful shady dell under the trees, set up immaculately for a full tasting including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah from each of their three lines – Reserva, Single Vineyard and Lot. Absolutely fascinating to be able to taste all 12 wines which really displayed the terroir of each parcel and the microclimate created by the vines proximity to the ocean with its cooling affect of the Humboldt current. The Reserva SB was all aromatic green nettles, whilst the Single Vineyard from the IC Davis Clone 1 was flinty and minerally, with a long finish. This particular vineyard is named Garuma after a local bird and the vineyards have three pickings times several days apart to combine zest & acidity with a little more richness on the later picking. The Lot 4 SB, which is planted with the 317 clone from Sancerre, was attractive gooseberry on the nose and followed up with great mouthfeel thanks to 20% fermented in French Oak. Of the three Chardonnays, the one that impressed was the Lot 4 Chardy 2014 with a deep golden hue and remarkably elegant. In the Pinot Noirs: – Reserva PN 2016 was bright fresh red fruit, the Single Vineyard PN 2015 sang with hints of raspberries but nice structure, whilst the Lot 21 PN 2015 – well – it received the “Delicious – Must Buy!” tasting note! – it was black cherries, warmth yet elegant. Cool Climate Syrahs are getting a fair bit of press attention in the last couple of years – and with good reason. The freshness that the wines attain due to the slow ripening season of this Chilean cool climate region, brings an added complexity to the variety. The Reserva 2015 was blueberries and with an attractive acidity. The Lot 8 Syrah 2013 was an impressive wine to end on but for me the star of their Syrah stable was the Single Vineyard 2014, white pepper combining with blueberries again and even a hint of chocolate on the finish – heavenly! Some of their wines available in the UK from The Wine Society.
Hard to tear oneself away from this “Winnie the Pooh thinking spot” under the trees for our next tasting, but onto another small estate, this time family run, Casa Marin owned by the dynamic Maria Luz Marin. The vineyards are situated less than 4km from the Pacific Ocean and so have a very particular micro climate, which is reflected in the elegant and mineral charged wines. Maria Luz has had a long career in the wine trade, but when she wanted to plant in the then ignored San Antonio Valley, she was considered totally crazy! Thankfully, she remained determined and planted in Lo Abarca with their first harvest in 2003. Today, Chile is unrivalled in the number of its young female winemakers, but their path has been helped by Maria Luz who was the first female Chilean winemaker to really make her mark. She has been joined by her charming son Felipe as wine maker, whose training in California and experience in New Zealand, bring an added dimension to their wines. Their flagship Sauvignon Blanc Cipreses 2016 is one of the most elegant SBs around (it has won Best Sauvignon Blanc in the World from Decanter magazine), floral on the nose, and salty minerality on the palate, but it was the texture that impressed most – and with a PH of just over 3, this wine will age superbly, so do buy a few bottles to stash away for a few years. A serious SB that would work well with food! I will confess to be a Riesling lover – so imagine the delight of tasting two vintages of their Riesling Miramar! The 2015 had a classic petrol nose but enlivened by lime and sherbet whilst the 2009 with the extra 6 years of bottle age showed how right Felipe is in saying their Rieslings can age happily for at least 15 years. If you are unsure of Riesling, with memories of cheap over sweet wines, now is the time to give it another go – the residual sugar of 9 gms per litre give a great balance to the natural acidity – and one reason why it works so well with dishes with a classic asian influence but also well with seafood (seabass cerviche with a miso dressing would be heaven!). If you have trouble finding the Miramar, then do look out for their other Riesling stocked in Marks & Spencers – you cannot miss the hippyesque label!
Sauvignon Gris is an almost forgotten variety that has found its home in Chile, and their Estero 2016 was a good example of this pink tinged grape, with grapefruit & herbs on the nose. The Pinot Noir Abarca Hills 2011 was glorious – green tomato leaves backed up with smokiness on the palate. But time for some lunch in their wine bar, where the great pairing was the seafood risotto along with the Vinedos Lo Abarca Sauvignon Blanc, Felipe’s own project – he only made 2700 bottles of this wine! One of his tasting notes for this wine is celery on the nose – which is a new one on me – but having tasted it, it is spot on! Dotted around the cellar and gardens are various beautiful mosaics designed by Maria Luz’s sister Patricia, everything from the life size gentleman above through to a woman reclining on a bench – one more sign of the attention to detail at Casa Marin. UK Importer is Alliance Wine
After so much wine tasting, a day of R&R was called for, so a whole day to relax and let one’s palate recuperate was planned at Vina Tarapaca. A “do as much or as little” policy was in place – some went off horse riding with their gaucho, whilst others attempted the wicked pitch & putt, cooled off in the pool or took a horse drawn carriage around the estate. For those missing their daily tannin hit, there was an (optional!) wine tasting with a difference. Hosted by the always smiling estate Manager, Claudia Diaz, she had prepared a blending session. Split into three teams, with ten different barrel samples to use, the aim was to create a Cabernet Sauvignon blend – up to 15% of Merlot or Syrah was permitted and there were Cab’s sourced from various vineyards on the estate. Armed with pipettes, this could have been a recipe for confusion, but neither Claudia or I had taken into account the competitiveness of the teams! The resulting noise levels from intense discussions could be heard across the estate and were not suitable for those of a nervous disposition – but what a hoot! Both Claudia & I in tears of laughter as the teams surrounded their final blends with more security than Nato, but phrases such as “A smidgen more of that organic syrah will give the right elegance” through to “1% of this will make all the difference on the finish” floated on the air. Derek Smedley MW had the unenviable task of judging the final blends – all I can say, although the wine trade would have missed him madly, he should have been in the diplomatic service!
Lunch under the cork trees beckoned, so a glass of Sauvignon Sour to revive the palate after the blending. An invention of Tarapaca’s excellent in house Chef, Juan, it is a fabulous lighter (less alcoholic!) alternative to Pisco Sour – simply replace Pisco with Sauvignon Blanc in the recipe – delicious! Chile produces some of the best fruit & vegetable in the world, so a relaxed lunch of technicoloured salads was perfect with a full Chilean BBQ. Sadly our last night at this small piece of Paradise in Chile, as we had to leave Tarapaca early the next morning for our adventure over the Andes to Argentina.
To read about the Argentina section of the tour, please do check out my blog. http://lovewinefood.com/south-america-wine-tour-part-2-argentina/
For more information on Chilean Wine do visit the excellent Wines of Chile
For further tasting notes of these wines visit Derek Smedley MW’s excellent website – http://www.dereksmedleymw.co.uk
All photographs taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey