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Elations and Elevations

Still roaming around South America, Keith Hoffman bids Argentina adios and sets his sights, and quest for more epicurean goldmines, on Chile.

Chile is an ideal place to produce wine. Her grape-growing regions are naturally protected against phylloxera, the root-destroying louse that plagues vineyards, worldwide. Chile is flanked on all sides by environments phylloxera simply cannot penetrate: the Andes, the great Pacific Ocean, and bone-dry desserts. Operationally, this gives Chilean wine makers the benefit of not having to graft all their vines onto naturally louse-resistant American rootstock. This eliminates a huge farming hassle, and provides significant monetary savings.

Another likely consequence of not having to graft vines onto foreign rootstock is that the varietal flavour expression of grapes grown on such vines may be more “pure” than everywhere else in the world. The growing regions have yet another key advantage, since they’re usually very dry, but are also thoroughly supplied with any needed water for irrigation from the snowmelt of the Andes. (Grapes grow best when water is applied only to their roots, not their skins). Such advantages have not gone unnoticed by the wider viticultural world. Attention, major foreign and domestic investment, and foreign viticulture expertise continue to flow. Indeed, Chile’s modern-day wine industry is now delivering on all of its endemic advantages. In fact, in 2004, Chilean red wines won the top two spots in a major international blind tasting. She continues to rise.

Chile’s wine history began in the 16th-century when Spanish missionaries planted a red grape called “Pais”, a varietal similar to the “Mission” and “Criolla” grapes found in California and Argentina, respectively. All three of these grapes are thought to be descendents of a “black grape” brought to Mexico in 1520 by the Spanish conquistador Cortés. Pais remained king in Chile until the current century when Cabernet Sauvignon muscled him out. Today Pais, while still making up 40 to 50 percent of Chile’s vineyard acreage, is sadly a jug wine ingredient. In 1851, Chile’s modern-day wine future was born when yet another Spaniard imported cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, etc. Many of the great Chilean vineyards, including Concha y Toro, were formed quickly thereafter, and define the country’s wine legacy to this day.

Chile produces some fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, at least one astounding Pinot Noir and a host of nice whites. The real grape star of Chile, however, may end up being Carmenère. Just like Malbec in Argentina, the Carmenère grape grows much better in Chile than it ever did in the vineyards of Europe. Both Carmenère and Malbec used to be mixed in Bordeaux blends until the 1840s when the phylloxera epidemic decimated European vineyards. After the plague was tamed, both the Malbec and Carmenère grapes were considered too much trouble to replant and completely fell out of favor. These castaways, however, remain listed as two of the six “approved” grapes that can make up a Bordeaux blend. They may be forgotten in their home turf of France, but they are giving Argentina and Chile new nationally identities.

In the vineyards of Chile, Carmenère was long mistaken for Merlot, and it was bottled and sold as such. In 1994, mere minutes after modern DNA analysis techniques uncovered that Chilean Carmenère was genetically distinct from Merlot, the Chilean wine industry seized upon a truly great idea. They stopped mixing up the grape with Merlot, and decided to promote Carmenère as a national icon. In short, they deemed Carmenère “the grape of Chile”.

Carmenère is a wine you want to drink fairly young, as it doesn’t age as gracefully as Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. She has cherry, earthy, spicy, tobacco and tanned leather aromas and flavours. It can perhaps be simply thought of as varietal that displays some of the flavours, aromas and mouth feel that one finds in Merlot and Pinot Noir. With each year, Chile seems to get closer and closer to developing Carmenère into a complex, elegant varietal.

Concha y Toro Tour

The eyes of our vineyard guide darted around like a tweaker coming off a methamphetamine binge as he seemingly ignored gravity with blithe prances in front of a field of ripening vines. He started, stopped, changed tone and paused at entirely miscued moments, and he spoke with a curious amalgamation of British, French and Dutch accents. Add all this to a speech style shaped by his native Chilean Spanish, and he was the single most bizarre orator I’ve ever listened to. He did, however, know his wine.

Concha y Toro is a winery about one hour’s drive from downtown Santiago. It has a sort of Disneyland feel and tour, but the cheesy stuff in the main cellar was pretty entertaining. Regardless, Concha is the leading South American winery in terms of volume and global presence, and actually ranks as one of the top 10 wineries worldwide. She is the leading exporter of Chilean wine, and for many around the globe, the face of Chilean and South American wine. Concha has 6,000 hectares under vine and one of her flagships, the Don Melchor brand, is grown on 20-year-old vines.

The wines on the tour are solid. Definitely opt for the slightly more expensive tour as it includes a pleasant cheese plate at the end and one extra tasting. When the tour ends, be sure to sit down at the tasting bar and pay for a few more glasses; they have some very good selections, including some of their most rare and expensive offerings. Some of the standouts were “Amelia”, a 2006 Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley aged a full 10 months in French Oak. In other words, too much oak but a nice, curious salty finish. Other than that, its nose is classic Chardonnay with some aromas of Sauvignon Blanc. “Marques de la Casa Concha” a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon had a plum, velvet and oak nose with a smooth, slightly tannic taste. Still very good. “Coyam” is a 2006, six-varietal blend (Syrah, Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Mourvèdre) from Emiliana in the Colchagua Valley. Nose: oddly flat, oak, barrel room, light plum, leather, coffee. Taste: sharp plum, clove, late cherry. A standout for sure. But top ranks go to, first, “Don Melchor” a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon with three percent Cab Franc. A great nose of plum and peach, and a deep-plum, damp-earth taste with supple tannins and multiple layers. Brilliant. And second, “Ocio” a 2007 Pinot Noir from Cono Sur winery, Casablanca Valley. A nose of cherry, blackberry, red dirt and violets, and a stunning, masterful taste of crisp leather and wood layers. I do not know how one can make a better Pinot outside of Burgundy. Astounding.

From the Menu

Chile offers a brimming selection of fresh seafood, but two items not to miss on any visit are conger eel and sea bass. Both are truly ugly pieces of work when alive and flopping about, but they have tender, wonderful white flesh that cooks well over myriad preparation techniques. They also both pair easily with various wine styles. Conger is light, white, flaky, akin to true cod in flavor and similar to the Congers caught in European waters. The Chileans like it fried, but it’s also the main show in many stews, and the marquee of "Caldillo de Congrio".

Their "Chilean Sea Bass", as it is know in the States and in Europe, is nothing remotely related to any sea bass. Requests to dine on it invited nothing but blank stares. That name is simply a clever marketing ploy. In Chile, the fish in question (Dissostichus eleginoides) is known as meraluz, meraluz negra or bacalao de profundio. Meraluz is also known as the Patagonian toothfish, and forms the most valuable fishery in Chilean and nearby waters. She has been called the white gold of the seas and, due to demand and pricing, has suffered from poaching. When in Chile, be sure to try both conger eel and meraluz, paired with coastally influenced, acidic, whites or velvety Carmenères.


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