Chile

A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

At large wine-tasting events, I usually run out of time before I get to try everything I would like. And a recent tasting of Portuguese, Spanish, Argentinean and Chilean wines organized by Winebow in the Pump Room of Chicago’s Public Hotel was no different. With only minutes to spare, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t yet tried one of the wines I was most excited to experience. I dedicated my last minutes to the table of Chilean winery Cousiño-Macul, which, in addition to the expected Chardonnays and Cabernets, presented an unusual Sauvignon Gris.

Cousiño-Macul’s youthful agricultural engineer and assistant winemaker, Gabriel Mustakis, manned the table, and he explained that the parents of the current Sauvignon Gris vines came over in 1860 from Bordeaux, arriving just before phylloxera hit France. This pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

The renewed interest in this variety is no doubt due to the fact that these wines can be “much more elegant” (if less aromatic) than Sauvignon Blanc, as Wine Searcher attests, and that Sauvignon Gris can “produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” as the Oxford Companion asserts.

The 2013 Cousiño-Macul “Isidora” Sauvignon Gris, named for the family’s 19th-century matriarch, certainly had no lack of aroma. It smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted the wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

I found an entry on Cousiño-Macul in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The review was quite mixed — it called Cousiño-Macul “Chile’s one-time best winery,” lamenting that the winery “maintained its old-fashioned standards” as other producers overtook them in terms of quality. But this 2007 edition of Sotheby’s goes on to say that Cousiño-Macul “recently relocated to new vineyards, and has started producing fresher, fruitier, better-focused wines since the 2002 vintage.”

Based on this distinctly fresh, fruity and focused Sauvignon Gris and the creamy and exotic 2012 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay I tasted, I’d say my Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is out of date in this case. Cousiño-Macul is clearly back at the top of its game.

An Unexpectedly Centered Tasting

5 April 2014

Tasting with Rebecca DelottOver the years, I’ve tasted wine in a lot of different places, including obvious places such as tasting rooms, restaurants and cellars, as well as more unusual places such as ghost townsnational landmarks and buses. But I had a completely new and unusual wine tasting experience a few days ago, thanks to my favorite yoga teacher.

Rebecca Delott organizes periodic yoga and wine tasting events. That might strike you as gimmicky, and perhaps in less expert hands it would be. Rebecca, however, leads yoga classes as well as wine tastings professionally. The wine tasting isn’t just a way to get people to come to yoga. It’s an integral part of the class.

About 16 or 18 of us gathered at Namaskar Yoga Studio on Chicago’s north side, and participants ranged in age from late 20s to mid 50s or so. We did some vinyasa flow yoga for 75 minutes, with several opportunities to do relatively advanced poses. After the class, the couple across from me remarked, “We usually do the beginners class here, but we’re in the big leagues now!” Like any good yoga teacher, Rebecca frequently illustrates several ways to do a pose, ranging from the gentle to the truly challenging, which makes the class suitable for yoga neophytes and experts alike.

Side Angle pose with Cabernet

Side Angle pose with 2012 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

I must admit I just expected to get a workout and a wine tasting, which wouldn’t have been at all a bad thing. But the yoga class left me feeling centered, grounded and relaxed — not necessarily my usual state of mind. It actually changed the wine-tasting experience. My nose and palate felt more open and receptive. Just as drinking from the right glass can enhance a wine, it seems doing some sun salutations in advance of a tasting can as well!

The four Chilean wines we sampled weren’t especially unusual — a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon — but each was well-balanced and quite tasty. Rebecca gracefully fielded an array of questions about the wines, ranging from “What does ‘unoaked’ mean?” to more technical questions about vinification. She managed to hold her audience’s attention even as she discussed carbonic maceration, an achievement I wouldn’t have thought possible.

If you have a chance to attend one of Rebecca’s classes ($40), it’s well worth it to experience how yoga affects the wine tasting experience (check the “Workshops” page of the Namaskar Yoga website for upcoming dates). Some exercise and meditation turns out to be an excellent warm-up for the palate.

Cheers and Namaste!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” WHITE WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #412):

I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

2008 CHIMNEY ROCK “ELEVAGE BLANC”:

I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

The Not Merlot Of Chile

19 October 2013

Historically, Chile has not been especially proficient at identifying its grape varieties. As described in this post, Chile’s Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all until the 1990s. And it wasn’t until 1994 that a French professor discovered that thousands of acres of what was thought to be Merlot was actually another grape entirely. Since Merlot was quite fashionable in the 1990s (and up until the release of the film Sideways), vineyard owners must have been initially dismayed to learn that they in fact had some odd, old Bordeaux variety that no one had ever heard of. But what a propitious discovery it turned out to be.

The vineyards contained not Merlot but Carmenère, which had “virtually died out” in Bordeaux, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, by the time it was discovered in Chile. Though this variety is “rarely acknowledged in the vineyards of Bordeaux today,” notes The Oxford Companion to Wine, it was “widely cultivated in the Médoc in the early 18th century and, with Cabernet Franc, established the reputations of its best properties.” The reason the Bordelais eventually abandoned the variety, the Companion goes on, was because of its “susceptibility to coulure and resultant low yields.”

I think this is a fact that’s important to emphasize: The abandonment of Carmenère in Bordeaux had little or nothing to do with the quality of the wine it produced.

Even more exciting, the Carmenère “had been preserved in its pure, ungrafted format,” according to Sotheby’s, since the original vines had been imported from France in the 19th century before phylloxera required the grafting of vines onto American rootstocks. At its best, according to the Companion, when yields are limited, Carmenère “has the potential to make some very fine wines, combining some of the charm of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea Leon Iriarte at Del Frisco's in Chicago

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea León Iriarte at Del Frisco’s in Chicago

That sounds like a winning combination to me, and so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to dinner with Andrea León Iriarte, the winemaker of Casa Lapostolle (one of Chile’s most critically acclaimed wineries), and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Lapostolle’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines.

Founded by the same family that owns Grand Marnier, Lapostolle grows its fruit organically, and then takes things one step further by employing time-consuming biodynamic practices as well. These practices have tangible effects in the vineyards and in the wines, according to Iriarte, who noted that organic and biodynamic agriculture has made the differences between vintages more distinct.

Just as important, Lapostolle sited its vineyards to take advantage of the most favorable terroir, rather than the most fertile soil (where many of Chile’s vineyards were originally located). The World Atlas of Wine cites one of Lapostolle’s vineyard sites by name, in fact, noting that “the most quality-conscious producers are now actively seeking poorer soils, such as those of Apalta in Colchagua for their best wines.” As described on the Lapostolle website, the shape of the Colchagua Valley also naturally regulates exposure to the sun, which is particularly beneficial in warmer climates.

All that sounds promising, but would the Carmenère varietals and Carmenère-based blends we were trying taste like the ideal that the Companion described above? Or would the wines be what Sotheby’s argues that Carmenère too often becomes, “a one-dimensional parody of overripe blackcurrants”? Let us consult my tasting notes:

2011 Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Carmenère: Though officially a varietal, this wine is technically a blend of 89% Carmenère, 6% Merlot and 5% Syrah, and most of my resources agree that Carmenère indeed benefits from the addition of some blending grapes. I found the aroma of wine-soaked wood enticing, and the flavor did not disappoint: big fruit, round but lively acids, some oak, and a fresh finish — a pleasant parsley-like lift at the end. Paired with some of Del Frisco’s superbly tender beef, the wine tightened up, and more notes of iron and earth came to the fore. An excellent value for about $14, and certainly not the blackcurrant bomb of Sotheby’s fear.

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: The “Song of Apalta” was thus named, according to Iriarte, because of the birds’ nests discovered in the vineyard (the winery itself also takes the form of an abstracted bird’s nest). The 2011 is only the second vintage of this blend of 45% Carmenère, 25% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Syrah. A less-expensive reinterpretation of the flagship Clos Apalta, this wine was originally created for a restaurant, but it proved to be so popular, the winery started making more of it and marketing it more generally. I can see why. It had a nose of dark and dusky fruit, and powerful flavors. After a blast of big, big fruit, a hit of white-pepper spice kicked in followed by some significant but well-balanced tannins. Paired with the beef, the tannins felt more rustic, giving the pairing a rather masculine feel. Another very fine value for about $20 a bottle.

2011 Lapostolle “Cuvée Alexandre” Carmenère: The fruit for this wine, a blend of 85% Carmenère and 15% Syrah, comes entirely from the top-quality Apalta vineyard. And as with all Lapostolle’s wines, the fruit was hand-harvested. The attention to detail makes a difference — this wine had a meaty, red-fruit aroma and notable focus on the palate, with restrained red fruit, green-peppercorn spice and some soft tannins undergirded by a meaty note. Again, it packs a lot of flavor considering its $15 price tag.

2009 Lapostolle “Clos Apalta”: On its website, Lapostolle calls this opaque purple wine a “world-class blend in the Bordeaux tradition,” and indeed, if you are interested in experiencing what the top Bordeaux wines of the 18th century might have tasted like, the Clos Apalta might be getting close. A blend of 78% Carmenère, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot (another Bordeaux variety now rare in its original home), this wine is a worthy splurge, with fruit coming from vines ranging between 60 and 80 years old. I knew from the lusciously rich aroma that I would be in for a treat. Absolutely gorgeous fruit managed to seem at once jammy and focused — no mean feat. The perfectly balanced acids and tannins made the wine feel exceedingly elegant, and undertones of violets and thyme added to its complexity. The finish went on and on — just when I thought it would be over, yet another flavor would reveal itself. As Barrett aptly noted, the Clos Apalta “happily overstays its welcome.” It tasted fantastically rich with the lamb, which brought forth additional notes of dried herbs. It sounds expensive at $70, but if you put this wine side-by-side in a blind tasting with Bordeaux wines costing two or three times as much, my money is on the Clos Apalta.

It seems odd to think that Bordeaux’s reputation as a top wine region is due in no small part, historically speaking, to the former success of its Carmenère-based blends. It seems odd, that is, until you taste wines like Lapostolle’s.

A Formerly Unusual Sauvignon Blanc

16 October 2013

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc may not sound especially unusual, but the story of this wine is surprising indeed. For many years, it turns out, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, much of what was sold as Sauvignon Blanc “was actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse” (The Oxford Companion to Wine considers these two varieties to be synonymous). Despite their names, they have little in common with Sauvignon Blanc. The Oxford Companion notes that “wines produced from Sauvignonasse are much less crisp and aromatic than those of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has less patience with Sauvignonasse, simply stating that it’s “not related to Sauvignon and has no Sauvignon character whatever.”

Tom Stevenson, the author of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, was frustrated by Chile’s unwillingness to distinguish between Sauvignon and Sauvignonasse, and he made a trip to the vineyards himself. In addition to plenty of Sauvignonasse, he discovered acres of confusing mutations and crosses: “Sémillon with Sauvignon, Sauvignonasse with Sauvignon, and Sauvignonasse with Sémillon.” Separating the Sauvignon Blanc from the Sauvignonasse turned out to be not so simple after all.

But in the 1990s, Chilean vintners began a serious effort to replant vineyards with true Sauvignon Blanc, and today any reputable winery that labels its wine as Sauvignon Blanc is indeed bottling wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from true Sauvignon Blanc. One Chilean Sauvignon Blanc particularly worth seeking out is made by Casa Lapostolle, a critically acclaimed 19-year-old winery founded by the owners of Grand Marnier.

I had the opportunity to sample a glass of the 2012 Lapostolle Casa Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc over dinner with winemaker Andrea León Iriarte and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the wine’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines. It put to rest any remaining doubts as to whether Chile can make world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night. This practice helps preserve some freshness in the fruit as well as reduce energy costs. Because the grapes come in already cool from the night air, the winery expends less energy bringing the grapes to the correct temperature for fermentation.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded — this Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

This wine, it should be noted, isn’t 100% Sauvignon Blanc. The 8% Sémillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris surely help round out the edges. Iriarte confided that there likely is just a touch of Sauvignonasse in the blend as well, from “just one or two” old vines that weren’t removed from the vineyards. “It adds to the complexity,” she said. It’s also a subtle nod to Chilean wine history; a faint whisper from another era.

Unusual Reds At Tangley Oaks

7 August 2013

Red wines at Tangley OaksOf course, the tasting at Tangley Oaks with Anthony Terlato didn’t stop with the white wines. We tasted quite a few delicious reds as well, including an earthy and richly fruity Rutherford Hill Bordeaux-style blend from Napa, an elegant and forcefully focused Terlato Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, and a powerful Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap in Napa.

But you don’t need me to tell you how good a Napa Valley Cabernet can be. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely looking for some new discoveries, and I certainly made some. These are the reds we tried that were not only delicious but unusual:

2012 Cusumano “Benuara”: This Sicilian blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah comes from Presti e Pegni, a set of hilly vineyards west of Palermo near the town of Alcamo (see a beautiful photo of the vineyards here). Nero d’Avola is an “increasingly reputable red grape,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, never a book to shy away from a back-handed compliment. This variety indigenous to southern Italy (originating centuries ago in either southeastern Sicily or Calabria — its history is murky) has taken Sicily by storm, and it is now the island’s most widely planted red grape. I love it — I think Nero d’Avola tends to be an excellent value for the money.

Readers of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia might shy away from a Nero d’Avola from Alcamo, a region it dismisses as unable to produce wines “of any real quality or character” due to fertile soils and high yields. But the Cusumano “Benuara” blend proves that assertion false. It had a mysterious aroma of dark fruit along with something aromatic — fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) detected an underlying salinity in the nose. It tasted big and beefy, with plenty of ripe, dark fruit and big spice, yet it managed to not overheat, avoiding a problem I’ve noticed with the occasional Sicilian. I can see why Mr. Terlato called Cusumano “the most important producer of quality wines of Sicily right now.”

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: Founded in 1994 by the well-funded owners of Grand Marnier, Lapostolle has rapidly become one of Chile’s top wineries. Admirably, all of its vineyards have been certified as organic and biodynamic since 2011, making Lapostolle wines a good choice for eco-conscious drinkers. The Oxford Companion notes that Apalta “has a reputation for fine Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah” due in large part to the efforts of Casa Lapostolle. And wouldn’t you know it, the Canto de Apalta is a blend of all three, with the addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon. As such, this wine resembles the much sought-after “hermitaged” Bordeaux wines of the 19th century, which blended local varieties (such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère) with powerful Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhône. It’s still a winning combination. This wine from the Rapel Valley had gorgeous color and a subtle, deep red-fruit aroma. With big fruit, big tannins and spicy acids, it struck me as a fantastic value for a $20 wine.

2012 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier: Another appellation of the northern Rhône which quickens my heart is Côte Rôtie, a 555-acre region producing some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish. This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco2007 Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco: Indigenous to Umbria, Italy, the Sagrantino variety almost died out at one point, but it’s gained ground in recent years, especially since Sagrantino di Montefalco gained DOCG status in the 1990s (Montefalco is an Umbrian hill town). Now, I wouldn’t buy just any Sagrantino di Montefalco — the Oxford Companion complains that “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication in the production zone is not high…” But the family-owned Goretti winery proves to be a notable exception, if this wine is any indication. It tasted darkly fruity, with a rustic texture, a fun zing of spice and a satisfyingly raisiny finish. It had no trouble standing up to a plate of Piave, English Cheddar and aged Gouda.

2009 GALAXY: At first glance, it doesn’t seem there’s anything all that unusual about this blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah and 15% Merlot from California. But the process used to arrive at this combination is unorthodox indeed. Each component of the blend is produced by a different winemaker (Elizabeth Vianna, Bryan Parker and Marisa Huffaker, respectively). The three of them gather each year in a hotel room, where essentially they’re locked in until they agree on a blend. It would be fun to be a fly on that wall, I have to think! Whatever happened in that hotel room, this year’s blend tastes huge. It’s a big, spicy wine with dark fruit and some meaty notes. Lusty, gutsy, and altogether delicious.

Note: These wines were sampled free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting organized by Terlato Wines.

The Memorable Whites Of Viña Chocalán

2 May 2013

Vina ChocolanOne of the eco-lodges where I stayed in Costa Rica veered much more towards “resort” than “lodge,” with a swim-up bar, wine bar and even a small sushi restaurant. I felt, I must admit, a little silly supping on sushi in the middle of Central America, but then I suppose it’s no more ridiculous in Costa Rica than it is in Chicago.

In any event, this sushi restaurant had two cases dispensing some surprisingly unusual wines by the glass, and I sampled several small pours along with my fish. The wines of Viña Chocalán turned out to be something of a revelation.

This winery dedicated to “sustainable and socially responsible” production methods is located in Chile’s famous Maipo Valley, near the town of Melipilla just south of the capital, Santiago. Phylloxera-free Maipo is well-known for its Cabernet, Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, its Carménère. But the sushi restaurant’s wine case boasted some true Maipo oddballs: Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Riesling in the sushi restaurant’s wine case.

I was initially confused to see these three varieties coming from one winery — Viognier traditionally thrives in France’s warm Rhône Valley, far from much chillier Alsace and Germany, where Gewürztraminer and Riesling are happiest. But a closer inspection of the labels revealed that Viña Chocalán’s Riesling and Gewürztraminer come from San Antonio, not Maipo. San Antonio, which Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “the fastest-rising new wine district in [the coastal viticultural] region,” is closer to the Pacific Ocean than Maipo, making it more susceptible to the cooling influence of the Humboldt Current.

None of these grape varieties is grown in any significant amount in Maipo or San Antonio. None of my reference books mentions any of them, and even the Viña Chocalán website omits Riesling and Gewürztraminer from its roster of wines. These are pioneer varietals, and if these examples are any indication, I’d say they have a serious future:

Viña Chocalán Gewürztraminer (San Antonio): I loved the sweet, floral aroma, which reminded me of jasmine and honey. On the palate, this wine started with some slightly watery fruit, but it tightened up into some white pepper spice and a finish of tart acids.

Viña Chocalán Viognier Reserve (Maipo): A fine example of Viognier — dry, tight, focused, minerally and floral at the end.

Viña Chocalán Riesling (San Antonio): This was the one that really blew me away. Its dry, tart and woodsy flavors totally took me by surprise. This isn’t a Riesling that will please everyone, but I found it racy, exciting and wonderfully unusual.

You may not see any of these specific wines in your local shop, but keep your eye out for Chilean varietals besides the usual Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Carménère. Winemakers are engaging in some fascinating experiments down there, and you might just stumble across a real gem.

Leap Into Limari

29 February 2012

There’s a lot more to Chile, it turns out, than Maipo and Colchagua, two of Chile’s most famous wine valleys. I recently ended up with a bottle of 2008 Tabali Reserva Especial Syrah from the Limarí Valley, a region I’d never heard of and certainly couldn’t place on a map. I couldn’t place Maipo or Colchagua on a map either, for that matter, so I knew it was time to reach for my trusty World Atlas of Wine.

In such a long, thin country, I assumed that latitude determines the climate of a particular vineyard. Most growers held this opinion until quite recently, and indeed, the wine regions are organized from north to south. But according to the Atlas, the terroir varies “much more from west to east, according to a site’s geology and proximity to the cooling influences of the Pacific and the Andes.”

The cold Humboldt Current running up the coast and the snowy Andes Mountains allow high-quality vineyards at latitudes much closer to the tropics than in most other countries. The days get quite hot, but crisply cool evenings keep things under control. The Atlas notes that Chile’s wide day-night temperature variation “is almost certainly a factor in the clarity of the fruit flavors.”

Until oenologists realized the potential of Chile’s other regions, most vineyards were planted around Santiago in areas like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Unfortunately, this is “the wrong place,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It argues that the Secano region harbors the most potential in Chile, but even today this “forgotten” region remains relatively inaccessible and underutilized.

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