Wine with Altitude

Every wine book will tell you that, if you want to grow grapes successfully to produce wine, your vineyards should lie between latitudes 30° and 50° north of the equator or the same south of the equator.  And, looking at the major wine making regions of the world, that is broadly true.  At lower latitudes than 30°, it’s likely to be too dry for vines to survive while, further from the equator than 50°, you’re rarely going to get enough warmth or sun to ripen your grapes properly. 

Taking this a stage further, the style of wine you can expect will vary enormously depending how close to the 30° or 50° line you are: big, chunky, ripe alcoholic wines come, in general, from the lower, warmer latitudes while something crisper, fresher and more aromatic is typical of wines grown closer to 50°.

But a bottle I opened recently didn’t fit these last 2 rules at all.  Tabali’s Barranco Viognier (Wine Society, £14.95) comes from Chile’s Limarí Valley, which sits almost exactly on the warm 30°S line, yet this wine was delightfully fresh and clean with attractive flavours of ripe pear, red apple and a little fragrant peachiness. And, although 13.5% alcohol, this was in no way heavy or chunky, just nicely mouth-coating.

So how have Tabali achieved characteristics typical of much cooler climates at such a latitude?  The answer is altitude; the Río Hurtado vineyard, from where the grapes for this wine come, lies at 1600 metres above sea level (almost 5000 feet) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  At that height, despite benefitting from 300 days of sunshine a year, the temperatures are far cooler than they would be closer to sea level and, as a result, the grapes ripen more slowly and retain that vital streak of acidity that make this wine so refreshing and drinkable.  One maybe to enjoy on its own but, even better, to accompany either fish or poultry in a creamy sauce or, perhaps, a pasta carbonara.

What’s in your Wine?

Well, fermented grapes, of course, but is there anything else in the bottle you should know about? These days, when almost all food products have detailed lists of ingredients and allergy warnings on the labels, it’s perhaps surprising that all you get on most wines is the simple message ‘contains sulphites’. For some mysterious reason, wine is exempt from many of the labelling requirements that other foods and beverages must comply with.
So, credit to the Co-op supermarket chain who voluntarily list the ingredients on all their own label wines. Take their ‘Irresistible (their description, not mine!) 30° Pinot Noir’ from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£7):

apart from the expected Pinot Noir grapes, it contains tartaric acid – a common adjustment when grapes are harvested for extra ripeness – plus 3 ingredients to help ensure the wine reaches you in good condition: an antioxidant (nitrogen), a preservative (sulphur dioxide – hence the ‘contains sulphites’ message) and a stabiliser (cupric citrate).


It also goes on to tell you that a small (125ml) glass contains 98 calories – useful information for any weightwatcher – and that it’s suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
And then there’s a comment ‘made using oak staves’. This is something that most producers don’t want to tell you – not because the staves are harmful (they’re not), but because it destroys the ‘mystique of the barrel’ – the idea that the oak flavours that many of us enjoy in our wines come from the wine resting in one of the rows of oak casks we’ve all seen at many wineries.
The truth is that these casks are expensive (typically around £750 or $1000 each) and using them for wines that are going to retail at under £10 a bottle doesn’t make economic sense. There are 2 cheaper alternatives: either gathering off-cuts from the barrel-making process into a giant ‘tea bag’ and suspending that in a tank of wine or, better, using oak planks or staves in the same way. It’s this 2nd method that the Co-op are telling us about on their label.
Oh, and I’ve been so busy blogging about the label, I nearly forgot to comment on the wine. It’s rich and mouth-filling and brimming with cherry and plum flavours. Not over-complex but very drinkable and, for just £7, a very good buy.

Re-thinking Chilean Wine

If I say ‘Chilean wine’ to you, what springs to mind?  Personally, I think of wines that are approachable, easy to drink, fruity, reliable and good value for money.  And UK wine lovers seem to agree – Chilean wines are big sellers here, particularly in the supermarkets.  But, do you see what’s missing in my description?  Nothing about wines that are exciting, challenging or innovative.  That’s not quite how I see Chile.

Part of the problem is that their wine industry is dominated by just 7 giant producers who, together, are responsible for over half of Chile’s wine.  By good marketing and a consistent product, they have secured a top 10 place among UK wine importers but, as a consequence, much of their offering is just a little bit safe.

But a piece in the latest Decanter magazine (labelled October) suggests that things are beginning to change.  Chile’s producers are expanding into new areas of the country, experimenting with different grape varieties and looking to produce more complex, age-worthy styles of wine.

The article prompted me to dig out a bottle from one of those 7 producers that I bought some time ago from the Wine Society (£14.50 at the time) and has been sitting quietly under our stairs ever since.   20 Barrels is one of Cono Sur’s premium labels and my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 2013 vintage, making it just over 7 years old.  So how had it aged?

I decanted it to find that the colour was still deep and vibrant, no sign of the browning rim that might show that it was past its best.  On the nose, quite fresh and fruity, with the blackcurrant aromas so typical of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape together with a few earthy, dusty notes.  The same followed through in the mouth with some plum and cassis, good intensity reflecting the 14½% alcohol and a little pepperiness and some spice from the well-integrated oak.  It had good length and the wine was still fresh and clearly with some years ahead of it yet (although not for me – I only had the one bottle).

So, time to re-think Chilean wines?  Perhaps.  At the entry level, the wines are easy drinking and good value for money but stretch a little upmarket and wines like this 20 Barrels definitely promise a good future if this is the direction in which Chilean wines are heading.

Compare and Contrast

compare

“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!