Chile

What To Buy A Wine Geek For Christmas

13 December 2016

Christmas Party‘Tis the season for holiday parties, my most favorite season of all. A good friend of mine recently threw one, and conversation turned, as it inevitably does at such events, to whether we had finished our Christmas shopping. My friend hadn’t, and he confessed that he found me especially difficult to shop for.

“Why?” I asked, more than a little incredulous. I can’t think of anyone with desires less complicated than mine.

“Well,” he responded, “I know you like wine, but you’ve got your wine blog and everything, so I always feel nervous picking a bottle out for you.”

“What??” I didn’t bother trying to understand his feelings, and chose instead to act like he was an idiot. “Just go in a decent wine shop, tell the clerk that you have a wine snob friend, tell him your budget, and have the clerk pick something out,” I said, a little too loudly. I wasn’t even drunk. All I’d had was two chocolate/peppermint scones and a cup of decaf.

That is really all you need to do to come up with perfectly wonderful gift for the wine geek in your life. Find a good wine shop, go into it, and ask an employee for a recommendation for a wine snob that costs between $___ and $___.

A grower Champagne

A grower Champagne

I would end my gift-guide post right here, but I know that lots of people out there would rather have Trump fact-check their foreign policy thesis paper than ask a wine shop clerk for advice. For a birthday one year, I remember that I asked party guests to bring me an unusual wine. I made it very clear that it need not be expensive, and that if people had doubts, that they should ask a wine store clerk for advice. Precisely one of my guests asked a clerk for advice (she brought me a beautiful white from Santorini).

I’m not entirely sure why there is this aversion to talking with wine store clerks. Perhaps it’s a worry that the clerk will hard-sell an expensive wine, or even worse, that the clerk will judge a person who doesn’t have a lot of wine knowledge.

Judgmental wine clerks do exist, I can’t deny it. I wrote about one at Binny’s that I encountered a while back, for example. Fortunately, he is much more the exception than the rule. Most wine shop employees are great fun to chat with and are more than happy to recommend something in whatever price range you set.

Frank Cornelissen

Frank Cornelissen

That said, if you’re determined not to talk to a wine clerk, here are a few gift ideas guaranteed to impress your wine geek friend without breaking the bank:

Grower Champagne. Most Champagne is a blend of grapes grown by different vineyard owners. Grower Champagne, however, is produced by the person who grew the grapes. To tell the difference, you’ll need your reading glasses. Look for a number on the bottom of the label (it might be on the front or back). If it starts with “RM,” you’ve got a grower Champagne. If it starts with “NM” or the less-common “CM,” you don’t. Grower Champagnes start at about $30 or so.

Something from Jura. Pronounced approximately “zhoo-rah,” this region, located just east of Burgundy in France, has become a darling of wine geeks everywhere.  Expect to pay around $18 to $25.

Something from Sicily. Sicily, too, has surged in popularity, but don’t just grab any old Sicilian off the shelf. Go for something that costs more than $15. Bonus points if you can find something by Frank Cornelissen.

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

High-end red from Argentina or Chile. People tend to regard wines from Argentina and Chile as bargains, not splurges, and indeed, there are plenty of wonderfully drinkable inexpensive wines from these two countries. But many winemakers have upped their game, and it has become easier and easier to find Argentine and Chilean wines with true elegance and force. In general, look for something that costs $20 or more, and it’s bound to taste more expensive than it is.

Single-Vineyard Riesling. Any wine geek worth his or her brix will appreciate a high-quality Riesling. Look for one from the Mosel or Pfalz with a vineyard designation. A German vineyard name often consists of two words, the first ending in “-er,” as in Ürziger Würzgarten. Look to spend between $20 and $30.

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Toro. This Spanish wine can vary in quality, but the region is small and exclusive enough that you’re likely to find a big, fruity and spicy red, whichever Toro you choose. It’s a a less obvious choice than Rioja, and it’s one of my personal favorites. Toros start at around $16, but buy one over $20 if you can.

A Magnum of anything. A Magnum is a large-format bottle containing the equivalent of two standard bottles of wine. No wine snob can resist a Magnum. If you can find and afford a Double Magnum or a Jeroboam, the recipient will be your devoted friend for life.

And remember folks, it’s just wine. It’s supposed to be fun. Shopping for wine should be fun, giving wine should be fun, and drinking wine should certainly be fun. Don’t let anyone else, be it a judgmental shop clerk or an overly picky wine snob friend, tell you otherwise.

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The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better. Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

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Phylloxera And The TSA

13 August 2015

As I write this, I’m awaiting my flight to Corning, New York, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference will take place. The wine talk this year started a little early, however.

When I walked through the metal detector in the TSA Precheck line in O’Hare’s Terminal 1, it beeped, most unexpectedly. As a relatively frequent traveler, I’ve perfected a uniform I wear through the detector that I know won’t set it off. But it wasn’t my outfit that caused the beep.

“You’ve been selected for additional screening,” the security guard informed me. Ah well. I alerted him that I preferred to opt out of the backscatter machine and do a pat-down instead. I don’t trust the emphatic government claims of the machine’s safety. It’s only been in operation a few years — not long enough to ascertain any long-term effects — and it’s no secret that the government isn’t always honest with the public.

In any case, I opted out, and a tall gentleman in his late 50s led me to the pat-down mat. “Have you done this before? Good — OK, so you know I’ll be touching inside your collar and brush against some potentially sensitive areas with the back of my hand. OK, please raise your arms.” He felt my sleeves, and asked, “So where are you off to today?”

“I’m headed to Corning, New York, to go to a Wine Blogger Conference. It should be a hoot.”

“Really, so you’re a wine guy,” he asked, feeling the inside of my shirt collar. He started brushing his hand down my back. “You know, I buy wine now and then myself.”

“Oh really? What sort of things have you been drinking?”

“I’ve bought a few bottles of Caymus,” he replied, and he noted a few other brands. “I like to wait until Binny’s [Chicago’s biggest wine store] has a sale, and then I stock up. The good stuff is all sitting in my basement, and when I retire, I’ll start opening it,” he laughed, running his fingers around the inside of my waistband.

“That’s a really good strategy,” I concurred. “Binny’s has some great sales!”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, now standing in front of me and patting my torso. “You know, It’s funny, but I really like Chilean wine, too.”

“Ah, Chilean wines give you a lot of bang for the buck,” I said, because it’s true.

“Right, they’re really good! You know, there was a fungus in the 80s that attacked American vines. Yeah, they had to cut the vines off, and transplant them to different roots.” I realized he was talking about phylloxera, which is an insect, not a fungus. And it caused the most damage in Europe, not the United States, and that was in the late 19th century, not the 1980s.

“Oh right!” I nevertheless replied, not correcting him because doing so would have been inconsiderate, and because he was at that moment running his hands down my legs, starting at a “sensitive area.”

“But in Chile,” he explained, “they never had the fungus [insect]. That’s why I think their wines taste a little better,” he confided in me, giving me a wink as he checked his gloved hands for bomb residue. And he may indeed be right — there are those who say that American rootstocks adversely affected the taste of European wines post-phylloxera, and that Chilean wines may have a slight advantage, growing on their original vinifera roots. “Have fun at your conference!”

I put my belt, shoes and watch back on, wondering how the heck I ended up talking about phylloxera with a security guard’s fingers partially in my pants. I can only imagine that it’s an omen of things to come at the Wine Bloggers Conference!

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The Remarkable Red Of Viña Vik

14 February 2015
Viña Vik

Viña Vik

I have had the fortune to explore numerous wine regions around the world, but never have I stayed in a hotel quite like Viña Vik. This new property gleams from its hilltop perch like an alien space base, its spiraling titanium roof a beacon above the vineyards. And what vineyards!

Millahue ValleyThey grow in the valley and up the sides of the low mountains surrounding the hotel on all sides, until finally they give way to groves of acacia. A small lake covers much of the rest of the valley floor, where flocks of waterfowl gather. It is a sublime landscape. Every view from the hotel is a vineyard view.

On the map in my World Atlas of Wine, Viña Vik looks to be just a stone’s throw from one of my favorite Chilean wineries, Casa Lapostolle. But Viña Vik is on the edge of the Cachapoal Valley, and Casa Lapostolle is in the Colchagua Valley. I was disappointed to learn that despite their proximity as the crow flies, it takes well over an hour to drive between them, skirting a high ridge. Fortunately, confining myself to the Viña Vik property didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.

I toured the vineyards with Miguel, a young gentleman who “used to hate wine.” It seems working at Viña Vik has changed all that — his passion for wine became quite clear as he showed me the 950-some acres of vineyards and led me through a tasting. He pointed out where Cabernet  was planted, where Merlot, and the hillsides of slower-ripening Carmenère, Chile’s signature variety. “All the vines are grafted onto American rootstocks,” he explained, “because of the phylloxera.”

Carmenère Grapes

Carmenère Grapes

Confused, I replied, “But there is no phylloxera in Chile.” Chile is one of the few wine-growing countries in the world as yet unaffected by the destructive aphid-like pests.

“American rootstocks give you better grapes,” he quickly responded. He gestured towards the panorama of grape vines before us. “These are the only vineyards in Chile growing on American rootstocks.”

The quality of American versus European rootstocks is up for debate, but the care with which Viña Vik selected its rootstocks is indisputable. In the strikingly contemporary winery — water flows all around the boulders scattered about its roof, keeping the barrel room cool and humidified — he showed me several maps of the valley. Agronomists had carefully tested the soil composition at regular intervals, and Viña Vik determined which of seven different American rootstocks best matched the soil in each parcel of land. Though a certain section of the valley may be all Cabernet, for example, those vines aren’t necessarily growing on the same type of rootstock.

Viña Vik's WineryMiguel guided me through an absolutely fascinating private tasting in the barrel room. The winery currently produces only one wine, but Miguel didn’t restrict the tasting to that one red blend. First, we tried some of its component parts, including a big, tough and well-structured 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; a round, decadent and much softer 2013 Merlot; and a complex and earthy 2013 Carmenère with a finish redolent of mesquite smoke and spice. (Syrah also goes into the mix.)

Tasting these components helped me identify their contributions to the final blend. The 2010 Vik had an enticing aroma of dark, almost jammy fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay the bottle down for another couple of years. The finish went on and on.

Viña Vik Varietals

Bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère that go into Vik’s blend

I found this wine for sale here in the U.S., retailing for $150 at Sotheby’s Wine. Yet the Viña Vik hotel pours the wine freely as its house red! Each lunch and dinner, decanters of the stuff would appear, and waitstaff would fill our glasses as often as we liked. It was always served too warm, alas, but even so — what a treat! It worked especially well with a dish of Wagyu beef slow-cooked for 24 hours and served with a rich potato purée.

I’ll never forget my stay at Viña Vik. Because of the wine, yes, but also because of the 4.8-magnitude earthquake which startled this Midwesterner out of bed one morning. It lasted all of six or seven seconds, but that was enough to have me springing out of the sheets and diving, naked, under the desk.

Viña Vik's red blendAnd there was the afternoon an odd smoggy haze filled the valley and drifted over the hotel. I later learned that it was no smog. At dinner, a couple related how they had been hiking and encountered a helicopter manned by heavily armed guards. Instead of walking the other direction, they approached and asked for the time. The guards, it turned out, were the Chilean equivalent of DEA agents. They had discovered an illegal field of marijuana on public land adjacent to the hotel’s property and were setting it on fire. That was the smoggy haze — a great cloud of pot smoke! No wonder the Wagyu beef tasted so good that night…

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Postcard From Chile

26 January 2015

I didn’t have a chance to visit many wineries in Chile — the hotel I selected was on the wrong side of the mountain. But the vineyards here are stupendously beautiful, and the wines I’ve tried exhibit rich fruit, prominent spice and good structure. What a blessing, to visit such a scenic wine region that produces such elegant wines! It’s sheer joy to be here.

IMG_6212

Carmenère Vineyards at Viña Vik in the Colchagua Valley

 

Casa Marín Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio Valley

A focused Casa Marín Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio Valley

 

Horseback Riding through the vineyards of Viña Vik

Horseback riding through the vineyards of Viña Vik

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