Wine Tour of Alto Adige and the Veneto

Spectacular snow-capped mountains as a back drop, long hot sunny days with a glass of Pinot Bianco in hand - Alto Adige in North East Italy has to be one of the most perfect places for  a wine tour. Great wines, superb food, stunning scenery – no wonder that it often features in those “best places to live” listings!

Piazza dell Erbe, Verona

A tour that I organised this year for a group of wine lovers, kicked off in Verona, that beautiful city with its Roman Amphitheatre, Verona is compact enough to get the feel of it within a couple of hours, yet there are enough cobbled side streets to escape the ravening hordes. Away from the bustle of the main square, a host of small shady squares nestle ready to revive your weary feet with an Aperol Sprizt - the quite livid orange but delicious Aperitif that appears in every bar in the Veneto!

Bottega del Vino, Verona

Thanks to the variety of the Veneto’s geography, traditional dishes ranges from simple grilled fish from Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, through to delicious risotto from the rice fields of the Po Valley. Starting off at one of Verona's most best loved institutions, Antica Bottega del Vino, founded in 1890 and which has one of the most impressive wine lists of the region. Delightfully traditional with its wooden furniture, walls lined with ancient bottles, the Bottega has a vibrant energy that makes it ideal for a quick glass of wine with friends, perhaps with some of their delicious cicchetti (local dialect for nibbles with drinks!) such as fried quails legs or  a more relaxed lunch featuring their traditional Veneto specialities. The classic dish Risotto all’Amarone, a deep purple hue which paired well with the Ripassa Superiore from Zenato (a "halfway" house of a wine between the lightness of Valpolicella and the sheer power of an Amarone, it makes the ideal food wine. Although the weather called more for a salad, wine was the focus of the evening, so a meltingly tender braised beef cheek was paired with the truly delicious Vigneti di Ravazzol Amarone Classico from Ca La Bionda. One of my favourite Italian wine producers for a long time, Ca La Bionda has its vines in the Valpolicella heartland where the Castellani family make superb wines, their Amarone is a perfect balancing act of elegance with tannin and richness. To finish, a seasonal Apricot Frangipane tart picked up all the apricot notes of the unctuous Recioto di Soave Le Colombare from leading Soave producer, Pieropan – a real vino di meditazione!

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Trentino & Alto Adige are often lumped together as wine regions, which is unfortunate as they are very different in grapes, climates and culture. As you move North along the East side of Lake Garda, the countryside changes from the rolling hills of the Valpolicella valleys into mountains. Somewhat unusually, Trentino has lots of vineyards planted on the flat, in this case the Rotaliano plains, where the red grape variety Terodelgo Rotaliano is king! Calling into Trento for a brief visit en route to Alto Adige, to see the impressive Castle Buonconsiglio, where the Council of Trent was held as well as the Duomo with its Rose Window - Trento is still Italian in feel but with the countryside leading towards alpine.

Courtyard at Alois Lageder

Alois Lageder has long been an advocate of sustainability in wine production - long before it became the fashionable buzz word and where better to have the first wine tasting of Alto Adige than at their cellars in the village of Magré. With the sun streaming down, bees buzzing in the lavender and the gentle back drop of crickets chirping, one could be forgiven for thinking it was Provence. A trio of their biodynamically produced wines to taste before lunch: their Haberle Pinot Bianco - one of my favourite white varieties of the world, highly under rated but here showing lovely complexity due to the amount of lees contact. It suffers by word association to Pinot Grigio (which whilst there are some very good examples of PG, the majority that arrives in the UK is bland watery nothingness for sale in huge quantities)  but remember that Pinot Bianco was historically the main grape variety of Burgundy, long before the more amenable and easier growing Chardonnay took over. Their reserve Chardonnay Lowengang 2014 was impressive but rather international in style, whilst their Gewurtztraminer Am Sand 2015 was a delight with typical notes of Roses and Lychees with a long finish, convincing more than a few doubters of this aromatic variety.

Tagliata at Alois Lageder

Over lunch, in their aptly named Bistro - Paradeis - the excellent, all organically produced dishes were paired with another four wines. A quirky blend of Viognier, Petit Manseng (and a few others….) the Cason white balanced out the delicate fried zucchini blossoms whilst the main course of Tagliata, showed that when meat is this good - the simpler and quicker the cooking - the better! I'd chosen two reds to see which paired better - but with everyone having different palates, the room as was divided. The Conus Reserve Lagrein is a beautiful brambly example of this local indigenous red grape variety - but it would be hard to visit Alois Lageder and not experience their excellent Lowengang Cabernet (actually a blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Carmenere, some from over 100 year old vines).  Not only superb wine & food in a beautiful setting, but the family’s philosophy gives hope in a world of doubt and distrust “ Today’s widespread individualism calls for a new awareness. For us, alliances are more than a form of operative collaboration; they help overcome individual egoisms in the interest of the greater whole. We endeavor to achieve our goals in cooperation with others”.

Alto Adige or Südtirol as it is also known, comes as somewhat of a surprise to the first time visitor. Just over the border from Austria, this autonomous Italian region was only ceded to Italy in 1918 after World War I. Although officially a bi-lingual region, most residents speak German as their first language and Italian second (there is a third local language “Ladin” but only really spoken in mountain villages). So whilst your head tells you that you are in Italy, you are surrounded by Germanic language, architecture and food. It is possibly one of the most appealing places to visit, with a combination of Germanic efficiency & precision, along with Italian passion & flair. Everything is a charming mixture of these two cultures and nowhere more so than the regions capital, Bolzano.

Applecrack Cocktail

The Art Deco Park Hotel Laurin has an impressive history of hosting Austrian Royalty and Archdukes - and after sampling the refreshing Cocktail Applecrack - based on one of the region’s most prolific produce - apples, dinner in the cool leafy garden was the ideal place to relax and sample a few more wines from estates that we could not fit into the programme.

Alto Adige cuisine features a lot of traditional Austrian ingredients such as caraway seeds and horseradish and spices such as cinnamon, as well as a wonderful array of breads including the irresistible Schüttelbrot! The cool clear waters of the mountain rivers are a fisherman’s dream for trout and salmon, and the home smoked salmon with apple horseradish with Nals Magreid Sirmian Pinot Bianco was light and elegant. Pinot Noir - that petulant, difficult yet seductive variety works very well in the region and one of the most impressive is the Manicor Pinot Nero from Mason de Mason 2015 from magnum was still rather young but was truly superb - elegant, full of raspberries & smoke and delicious with the roasted poussin. A more Italian dessert of raspberry Panna Cotta signalled the arrival of one of most alluring dessert wines anywhere - Moscato Rosa from Franz Haas. In the interest of research, I have tried a fair few Moscato Rosas but not one comes close to this explosive piece of sweet heaven in a glass. Back in the UK, I paired this Haas Moscato Rosa with a chocolate cake made with ground almonds  – delicious!

Terlano Cellars

Terlano, a small village just outside Bolzano is home to the eponymous Cantina Terlano (or Kellerei Terlan), where not only do they produce world class white wines but also in season, the prized white asparagus which goes so well with their crisp Sauvignon Blanc Quartz. The dramatic view of the mountain rising directly behind the cellar was equally matched by the attention to detail in the cellars, complete with colour coded lighting on the stainless steel tanks. Unusually for Italy, their philosophy is that white wines can - and should - age well, so we enjoyed fascinating tasting of dual vintages of a few of their wines to show how they develop in bottle. Vorberg Pinot Bianco Riserva tasted side by side in 2014 and 2008 were quite spectacular - with age the wine had developed into rich fruit flavours such as quince. Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva a blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardy and Sauv Blanc tasted in 2014 and 2009 vintages showed how these wines keep their lively acidity and freshness even after a considerable amount of bottle aging, and the ’09 in magnum had developed a rather lovely savoury note of black olives.  The cellars have started releasing small limited quantities of older aged whites onto the market, which is a brave but brilliant decision. Their newest flagship wine is the Terlaner I Grande Cuvee - complete with relevant price tag of £170 - simply a marketing decision to place it in the right section of the market! They also make a couple of reds from Pinot and Lagrein but it is the whites that capture and encapsulate this special sense of terroir.

Merano, known as the Floral City is famous for its Royal Visitor of the Empress of Austria, Sissi who stayed at the Trauttmansdorff Castle. Today the castle’s botanical gardens are set in a 12 hectare amphitheatre of 80 different landscapes from around the world. Combined with spectacular views across the Adige Valley, it is a gardener’s paradise and an oasis of peacefulness to visit and discover its delights including a 700 year old Sardinian oak and waterlily pond with lotus flowers.

Historical Barrel at St Micheal Eppan

 

With all the villages having dual names on the maps, the German and Italian versions are not always easy to reconcile, so Eppan / Appiano is one of the easier to recognise. Home to one of the most influential cellars throughout the history of wine making in the region, St Michael Eppan, whose Art Nouveau cellars dating from 1909 has been complimented by an Uber modern tasting room. Welcomed by the always entertaining President, Anton Zubling, whose passion for leading this Co Operative cellars, made up of 350 contributing wine estates, shines through in every word. The cellars are fascinating from the original carved barrels, to the modern walls made from broken glass wine bottles and the old tile lined concrete vats which now house 225 litre barriques.  One of the most impressive wines of the cellar is their St Valentin Sauvignon – not because it is their Icon wine with a high price tag, but because it has won the prestigious Tre Bicchiere award (Italy’s most important wine award) 15 years in a row! Given the company it keeps with this award, its value price ratio is hard to believe at just 15 euros at cellar door!  Across their range, all the wines are textbook examples of their grape variety – including the delightful Pinot Bianco (a favourite variety of the President so hence my present to him was a bottle of English Pinot Bianco from Stopham Vineyard!) through to the Pinot Grigio Anger, showing that this much maligned variety can have personality!

Dreamcatcher in Franz Haas cellars
Roof Top Photography!

 

 

Wine makers come in all types, but passion, low boredom threshold, down to earthness along with a “can do” attitude, endless attention to detail, love of family and topped with a fair dose of stubbornness is what seems unites the best ones. Franz Haas in the small village of Montagna has earned the respect of wine makers across the world for his simply stunning wines – and like many great wine makers, loves the challenge of the capricious Pinot Noir. Welcomed into their cellars, where the creativity of Franz’s wife, Luisa is everywhere – from armchairs & curtains made from corks through to what every cellar should have - a Dream Catcher! Hosted by the eloquent Andy, their Export Manager, a great tasting of seven wines awaited from their Moscato Giallo, through their Pinot Grigio (“It’s Pinot Grigio but not as we know it Jim”!) Lepus Piano Bianco and the beautiful blend of Manna, named after the maiden name of Franz’s wife. Although slightly changing the blend over the years, Manna combines Riesling, Chardy, some late harvested Gewurzt and a dash of Sauvignon Blanc – resulting in a wine that can age so very well – one of the best food friendly white wines on the market today. Fascinating to taste the two Pinot Noirs side by side – with the Classic showing mulberries with a gentle smoky finish but the PN Schweizer 2014 went up a gear, with more grip yet an impressive elegance along with depth and complexity. Complete with eye catching labels designed by a family friend, Riccardo Schweizer who worked with Picasso and Chagall. One of the most welcoming families in the wine world (even when it was Luisa’s birthday the day of our visit!) – Andy even imitated a mountain goat by climbing onto the roof to take better photos for us!

Bolzano

Bolzano as the regions capital has much to recommend it to the visitor – famous today for being home to Ötzi the Iceman, there are many other museums and lovely porticoed arcades lined with elegant shops ideal for retail therapy. Andres Gotlieb Hempel escorted us around the city for a City Tour with a difference.  As an architect, it was a fascinating insight into the divided history of Bolzano made evident by the contrasting architectures on either side of the river from the Austrian mural decorated townhouses to the austere Arch of Mussolini. Andres has written various books about wine and architecture in the Sud Tyrol, including Wein Bau, with glorious photography. He is also something of an expert on the beers of the region – but that will have to wait till next time!

White Wine Soup

The cuisine of the South Tyrol today is more of a melting pot, but the most traditional dishes hark back to the glory days of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and where better to taste such tradition than at Wirthaus Vögele. A tavern originally called The Red Eagle dating from 1840, which was a meeting place for strategists during the war (using the name Vögele – “birdy” – as a code word!). Today, the Alber family continue the welcoming hospitality in this traditional “Stube” which is listed as a Tavern of Historical Importance. Starting with the unusual but very local White Wine Soup with Cinnamon Croutons – which paired so well with a Riesling 2015 Kaiton, which was followed by Venison & wild mushroom casserole with the classic Knödel, a bread dumpling. Though it might sound a little heavy, the glossy gravy made it quite irresistible especially alongside a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva Sass Roa from Laimburg, whose notes of blackcurrant and blueberries lifted the venison perfectly. Given that Südtirol produces about 10% of apples grown in Europe (up to an even more impressive third of all organic apples), no surprise that the classic Austrian dessert of Apfelstrudel finished up this traditional dinner at the Vögele, paired with a v moreish Spatlese Gewurtz from J.Hofstatter.

Renon Railway

Dramatic, Brooding, Majestic, Spectacular - one can easily run out of adjectives to describe the simply breath taking Dolomites and this UNESCO World Heritage part of the Alps certainly inspired the climber Reinhold Messner and the architect Le Corbusier. Easily accessible from the centre of Bolzano via a very modern Cable Car, climbing dramatically 950 metres in just 14 minutes, high above the vineyards of Santa Maddalena, the Renon Plateau is something out of the back drop of The Sound of Music! The narrow gauge Renon Railway, celebrating its centenary this year (and we were lucky enough to board one of the original wood panelled carriages) , winds its way through a delightful scenery of rippling meadows dotted with wild flowers, Alpine farm houses surrounded by woods, and views across to the Dolomites. From Collalbo, there are a range of walks to discover the scenery including the quirky 2500 year old Earth Pyramids. Alternatively, simply bliss to sit outside the Belmens Post on the terrace and breath in the pure mountain air (with maybe a glass of Riesling to hand as well!).

Girlan Vernatsch

The Holzner family have run a Hotel in the Dolomites for over 100 years, and with stunning views across the mountains from the terrace, an ideal place to revive with lunch. Their in house Chef wields an excellent understanding of flavour combinations, so even simple sounding dishes leap from the plate in vibrancy. Staying seasonal & local, lunch began with Val Passiria Trout & asparagus, followed by a perfectly pink rack of lamb ending with a delicate Honey Crème Brulee (Südtirol having 6000 Bee colonies taking advantage of the meadow flowers and alpine flowers). A Grüner Veltiner from outstanding winemaker Manni Nossing as an apero to revive the palate before lunch showed just how well this variety works in the region, with fresh grapefruit on the nose backed up by slight spice on the finish – a producer to look out for. The trout & asparagus cried out for a classic Sauvignon, so the Winkl Cantina Terlano fitted the bill well with its crisp nettle notes. Vernatsch is the local name for the variety known in Italy as Schiava, and gives red wines that are often relatively (!) light – ideal for a hot summer’s day in the mountains and the Gschleier 2015 from Girlan did not disappoint as a partner for the lamb (and won best label of the week award!). Indeed the enticing cherries on the nose were backed up with considerably more silky tannin than expected from this variety, perhaps due to it being sourced from old vines. As a comparison, the Blauburgunder Trattmann Mazon, the flagship Pinot Noir Riserva from the same producer Girlan, should have had more complexity than the Vernatsch, and delicious though the PN is and I’d enjoyed quite a few vintages of it during my forays into the region, but on the day, the star was rather surprisingly the Vernatsch!

View from dinner over Lake Caldaro

Erste & Neue, which translates as “The First & the New” was created in 1986 but has older origins with the Erste founded in 1900 and the Neue founded a whole 25 years later! Their cellars are located in the small town of Caldaro, not far from the eponymous lake, and hosted by the knowledgeable communicator, Judith Unterholzner, a great selection of their wines awaited our attention. The varietals were from their classic range and their Puntay reserve line. Two wines stood out – the Puntay Sauvignon 2016 from 60 year old vines which had a depth that would work well with dishes such as braised fennel. Puntay Kalterersee Classico Superiore, grown with low yields on Porphyry based soil, was an inviting red, all black cherries as well as redcurrants and would go well with roasted tomatoes or even a light red option for baked whole bream. The unusually hot weather was beginning to sap our tasting concentration, and so we repaired to the cooler shores for dinner in an idyllic setting overlooking Lake Caldaro as the sun set behind the mountains. The owner of Seehof Keller is apparently a keen windsurfer, and he chose his restaurant well, as the Ora breezes in from Lake Garda every afternoon to Caldaro, making it the ideal spot for windsurf lovers! One of the issues of eating with in such beautiful settings is that the views often distract from what is on the plate. The Chef at Seehof Keller has made sure this is not the case with imaginative, beautifully presented food. A simple plate of San Daniele prosciutto was complimented by a parmesan mousse, whilst gnocchi with watercress and pheasant ragu was light and irresistible but it was the dessert, a variation on mocha which had many a pudding lover smiling in the gloaming! For the white wine, I’d chosen Stoan from Cantina Tramin, who as one of only 30 wine estates in Italy to hold the two star rating in the Gambero Rosso Guide, are a winery to follow. Recently, the winemaker requested, and despite no doubt horror on the part of the company accountants, that the whites were not released on the usual dates, but given an extra year aging in the cellar before release. The Stoan 2014 is a blend of 65% Chardy, 20% Sauv Blanc, 10% Pinot Bianco and 5% Gewurzt – superbly balanced- white flowers and apricot to start ending with a delightful multi layered complexity that drew one back for yet another sip! For the red, Amistar from Peter Solva, a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Lagrein, Cab Franc & Petit Verdot, but the unusual aspect that 3 % of the grapes are dried on the vine giving a raisin like finish to the wine. To end back with an Erste & Neue wine, it was the turn of Anthos 2012, a white passito blend of Moscato Giallo, Gewuzrt and Sauv Blanc. Rich tropical fruit led into slight spice of nutmeg – truly delicious dessert wine.

Molinara Vine at Serego Alighieri
Serego Alighieri Crest

Sadly, day dawned with the realisation that we had to leave Alto Adige.  Passing along the valley floor, following the Adige River, flanked by orchards, vines and hill top Castles, the Valpolicella region awaited. Leaving all notions of Austrian influenced Italy behind, the gently rolling hills a patchwork of vines, cypresses and cherry tree orchards lined with dry stone walls, Valpolicella quietly but proudly carries its beautiful countryside well. The most historical estate of the area, Serego Alighieri is today run by the descendants of its famous owner, the son of Dante Alighieri, when Dante was exiled from Florence in the 1300’s.  A shady cypress lined avenue leads down to the Foresteria, today converted into very comfortable apartments (I previously organised a wine & cooking school tour here for Leiths staying on the estate and realised then that it is a small jewel of peaceful heaven away from the bustle of Verona). The central courtyard, once the threshing yard, is lined with a pergola of vines, including one pre-phylloxera vine of the Molinara variety. Today, Serego Alighieri works in partnership with Masi, but the wines of the estate retain their own distinctive style. Time for a welcoming cooling glass of their Possessioni Bianco, their only white wine, made of Garganega (the white variety used in nearby Soave) and Sauvignon Blanc. A rickety stair case leads up to the drying rooms, where after harvest in late October, the best bunches are laid out on bamboo racks and allowed to dry naturally throughout the Winter, reducing their liquid content by 30% plus and intensifying the sugars – these will be used for the flagship Amarone and Recioto wines. Wandering through the garden of the Villa, past immaculately sculpted hedges, a lawn with wild mint giving off a delicious scent and even thanks to the micro climate, a banana tree, next was a visit to their ancient cellars which gives a clue to a distinctive aroma of some of their wines – they still use a small percentage of Cherry Wood casks for aging the red wines.  In the elegant dining room of the Foresteria, we were joined for lunch by Contessa Massimilla di Serego Alighieri, the current generation of Dante’s descendants to run the estate. A vegetable tartlet with local Monte Veronese cheese was matched with a Masi wine, the famous Campofiorin made by appassimento method, and it was interesting to compare with the Brolo di Campofiorin Oro with the pasta course – both of which lived up to the Latin on the label  nectar angelorum hominibus (nectar of the angels!) But the iconic wines of Serego Alighieri are surely their Amarone and their Recioto – up first with veal cooked in hay was Vaio Armaron 2011, made from the classic three Valpolicella grapes of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, this seductive Amarone combines cherries backed up with subtle spice making a wine that was greeted with a reverential silence on the first sip! Followed by its sweet sister, Recioto Casal dei Ronchi 2013, hard to describe as wonderfully balanced between rich sweetness that does not cloy, cherries, chocolate, coffee and spice – Recioto is truly a unique style of wine!

Arena di Verona

To complete the tour, a return to Verona for those who decided some Opera was needed to balance out all the wine & food – but first a last evening at SignorVino, just below the Archway leading to Piazza Bra and the Roman Arena, where Nabucco was due to begin as night fell. Although a rapidly expanding chain of wine shops, SignorVino was begun with the simple premise of showcasing 100%  Italian Wine! The staff (at least in the Verona branch!) are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic to suggest more unusual wines to the less discerning tourist who wanders in looking for a gift to take home. In a private room stacked with wine bottles from all of Italy’s 20 wine producing regions, I’d chosen a final few wines to sum up our time in Trentino- Alto Adige & the Veneto (with a delicious buffet just to avoid hunger pangs later in the middle of the Va Pensiero Aria later!) – a palate livening Brut Perlé, a Trentino sparkling from Ferrari ( no – not the ones with those red cars, but an excellent fizz producer!), followed by a white from one of my favourite Soave Producers – Graziano Pra. He has been one of the key people for revitalising the reputation of Soave, by proving what the Garganega grape is truly capable of in the right hands. Their Soave Classico Montegrande was opulent, with good structure, thanks to its time in barrel and a certain drying on the vines of some of the grapes before harvest.  Staying in the region, there was time for a last Amarone, but also to sneak in a ringer from out of zone – Rancia by Felsina, hailing from Tuscany – for no other reason that I simply adore this Chianti Classic Riserva with its enticing black fruit, coffee and spice and also as a reminder of the first tour I escorted these clients on, which was to Tuscany some 18 years ago! But back to the Veneto for our final wine, this time from the area around Breganze – a gleaming golden glass of Torcolato from Maculan. A dessert wine made from 100% Vespaiola grape variety, it is honeyed, rich yet with a great balance of acidity. The perfect wine to finish off a week of exploring these beautiful regions of North East Italy, whose wines I simply cannot praise enough. Alto Adige is split 60% / 40% of white & red wine production, with a wide range of different varieties including some lovely indigenous ones, everything from sparkling through to intense dessert wines, unlike some other wine regions which are limited to only one or two varieties, which makes it quite irresistible for the curious wine lover - which paired with some great local food -  I strongly recommend a visit!

All Photos taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey

To read more of the wines of Alto Adige  -

 

http://www.altoadigewines.com

 

For more information about visiting Alto Adige -

 

https://www.suedtirol.info

 

 


South America Wine Tour - Part One - Chile

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. https://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