The Bordeaux-Chile Link

Los Vascos Cab S

A few brief words on the back label of a bottle I opened recently caught my attention: “…vineyard with ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock.” But the wine wasn’t from Bordeaux, it was from Chile – Los Vascos’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £9.99) – and the phylloxera bug hit Bordeaux in the 1870s. So, what’s the link between Bordeaux and Chile, was the vineyard really planted almost 150 years ago before phylloxera and what does it mean that the rootstocks are ungrafted?

To start answering those questions, we need to turn the clock back to around 1850 when a number of wealthy Chileans began to travel to Europe. Not only did they enjoy the sights, they also experienced some of its fine wines, which were very different from those available in Chile at the time.

One visitor was so impressed, he imported a selection of vine varieties from Bordeaux and hired a French winemaker to make his wine for him. This, of course, was some 20 years before France’s phylloxera infestation, and so no-one had even thought about the need to graft vines to combat the disease.

What is grafting? It involves planting a vine root in the ground that is resistant to phylloxera (or whatever pest you’re trying to protect against) and then connecting your chosen non-resistant vine (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or almost any of the other varieties we know and love) to it. It is now universally accepted as the best method of protecting against phylloxera, for which there is no known cure.

Chile has been lucky – today it’s one of the few wine producing countries that remains free of this particular pest and so most of its vines are ungrafted.

But, back to the wine – the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife, Hilary’s first comment was that wine tasted ‘more Old World than New’ and I know what she meant. This was a wine made in quite a restrained, elegant style without lots of the overt fruit flavours found in many New World wines. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the estate is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Château Lafite fame; the lean Bordeaux influence certainly shows through and maintains a link to that region now dating back almost 170 years.

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Terroir in Chile?

Talk about wine to anyone in France and, before long, you will hear the word ‘terroir’.  The local climate, soil, slope of the land and grape variety or varieties planted all contribute to the terroir and some include local traditions and winemaking in the mix, too.  In that broader sense, terroir is what makes one wine different from another. 

Given that, it’s surprising that you rarely hear the word used by growers outside France.  They’re aware of it, of course – anyone who has ever tried to grow anything, either professionally or for fun, knows that certain plants grow in certain places and not in others – they just don’t seem to use the word.

So, I was interested when, a few years back, the Chilean producer Undurraga introduced a range of wines under the ‘Terroir Hunter’ name.  Was this simply a bit of marketing or was there something behind the name?  The first example I tried – a Grenache blend, I think – showed clearly that these were quality wines and I’ve looked out for them ever since.

terroir cab fThe latest is a blend of 85% Cabernet Franc with 15% Merlot (Wine Society, £14.95) from the Catemito vineyard described on the back label as being on shallow, sandy clay soil on an alluvial terrace overlooking the Maipo River.  The terroir concept continues by noting that the local climate is temperate with cool breezes encouraging the slow ripening of the grapes. 

And the taste?  A lovely herby, green pepper nose greets you (my wife thought ‘spearmint’) followed on the palate with rich, dark blackberry and chocolate flavours.  There are still some well-integrated tannins there even though the wine is already more than 5 years old and a super, long, dry finish.  One slight reservation: the 14% alcohol shows through a bit making the wine a little ‘hot’ but, with the right food – red meat, game, mushrooms, aubergines or tasty hard cheeses all spring to mind – and decanting in advance to clear the sediment, this is a real winner and a credit to the use of the term ‘terroir’.

 

One for the Holiday Table

“You’ve not blogged about wines to drink at Christmas” a friend said to me recently in an accusatory tone.  He was someone whose knowledge made him more than capable of deciding what do drink for himself – and I told him so.  “Yes, but there will be some people who would welcome some tips” he replied.  OK, he’s right, but, at the moment, every media site I look at seems to have the same idea, so there’s no shortage of advice.  And, of course, as I’ve said many times before, everyone’s taste is different, unique to them, so how useful is that advice really?

Having said that, I did Blog on the subject way back in December 2016 and, for those who are interested, those posts are still available in my archives.  Most of the wines I mentioned then are also still available and good (although the vintages and, particularly, the prices will have changed). 

So, with apologies to my friend and to others who would have liked an update, I’m going to Blog instead about a delicious white I opened last week – one that would certainly be good enough to grace any table over the holiday period:

Chilean ChardEmiliana’s Signos de Origen from Chile is a real bargain at £12.50 from Bristol independent wine merchant, Grape and Grind.  Lovely peach and pink grapefruit aromas greet you on first sniff and those flavours follow through onto the palate.  Although 14%, there is no heat to this wine, just a full, rich and flavoursome mouthful from the unusual grape blend of Chardonnay supported by the 3 white Rhône varieties Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  I like the clean freshness of the wine, a result, no doubt, of the cool Pacific influences on the Casablanca Valley where La Vinilla vineyard lies.

We enjoyed it with some roast salmon with spiced sweet potato wedges but I can see it going equally well with other fish, soft cheeses and – dare I say it – even with turkey!

Cheap and Bland?

I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction.  Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them.  I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine.  As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to.  I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.

The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed.  I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye.  But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white peter-schweiger-gruner-veltliner– fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.

For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular.  Prunus_Dao_TintoI hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group.  But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation.  I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.

My reward for 2 successful choices?  I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!

A Wine Secret

We all love a mystery, don’t we?  So, when I read that a certain wine was from a secret vineyard location, I was intrigued.   Add in some exclusivity – only 1200 bottles were made (the equivalent of just 4 Bordeaux barriques) and that the wine was intended for the producing family’s own use – and I was properly hooked!  It’s a great marketing story and, of course, it might be true (although the cynic in me is doubtful), but true or not, the ploy worked and I bought a bottle.

And, did it live up to the hype?  Absolutely it did!

QT Carmenere2De Martino’s ‘On the QT’ Carmenere (Waitrose, £19.99), from a ‘tiny plot of special vines tucked away in Chile’s Isla de Maipo’, was full of delicious black fruit flavours and the oak ageing was subtle and just right – in short, it was the best Carmenere I’ve tasted by some way.  Until now, I’d thought it was a grape variety that produced perfectly drinkable medium-bodied reds, but nothing exceptional.  After this, I’m certainly revising my opinion.

Carmenere, itself, is a bit of a mystery grape.  Widely grown in Bordeaux before the phylloxera devastation towards the end of the 19th century, it was mainly ignored when the replanting took place and is now only found in a few isolated spots there.  But, about 20 years ago, it was ‘discovered’ in Chile in some vineyards previously thought to be Merlot (the original cuttings for these vines are said to have come from Bordeaux).  As a result, Chile now has the world’s largest planting of the grape and a unique selling point to offer alongside their real Merlot.

For lovers of mysteries, Waitrose have other bottlings in their ‘On the QT’ series: a Malbec, Gruner Veltliner, Fiano, Grenache and Chardonnay from Australia and even a port.  I’ve not tried any of them yet but, if the Carmenere is typical, they are worth seeking out – if you can find them.

Carmenère – the Clear Winner!

2017-11-13 18.25.40In the minds of many who enjoy a glass of wine, Chile is the place to look for something fresh, fruity, easy-drinking and not too expensive – the sort of wines the Australians used to call ‘sunshine in a glass’.  But that’s only part of the story: Chile is full of ambitious young winemakers eager to break away from the ‘cheap and cheerful’  tag and experiment with something more interesting that will appeal to those prepared to pay a little more. 

Typical of this trend is the Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon I blogged about earlier this year but, for a much wider selection, I joined  a tasting organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle recently and supported by ‘Wines of Chile’.  Committee member and wine educator, Tim Johnson’s choice included wines from all the main international grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  A particularly nice example of the latter (Falernia’s Reserva from the Elqui Valley, £14.95 from Great Western Wine) got my top mark of the evening.  

Among the less well-known was Huaso de Sauzal’s País (also Great Western Wine, £22.95).  País was brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and, after decades, even centuries, of neglect, has recently attracted the attention of a number of winemakers who are coaxing lovely red and black fruit flavours out of this formerly unloved variety.

These days, no tasting of Chilean wines could be complete with examples of Chile’s ‘own’ grape, Carmenère.  Once thought to be Merlot, it has been embraced enthusiastically since the error was discovered in the closing years of last century and, appropriately, provided the overall joint winners of the evening from Santa Ema (Tanners, £12.80) and Los Vascos’ Grande Reserve (Slurp, £13.95).

So, sunshine in a glass?  Yes!  But a whole lot more, too!

If you would like to join the Bristol Tasting Circle and enjoy tastings like this, please leave your details in the comment box below and I will pass them onto the membership secretary.

 

Chile Going Places

Not so long ago, I blogged about a Chilean wine that was voted overwhelmingly the best of the day at a course on the wines of the Americas I ran at Stoke Lodge.  And now, another bottle from the same country, opened at home recently, has confirmed my view that Chilean wine really is going places.

errazuriz-cab-sErrazuriz’s Max Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Waitrose, £12.99) is full of lovely red berry fruits enhanced with subtle vanilla flavours from 12 months oak ageing.  At almost 3 years old, the tannins are still noticeable but neither they, nor the 14% alcohol are in any way intrusive.  This wine is just beautifully balanced.

Errazuriz is a long established company producing a number of different wines.  Their entry level bottles – widely available in supermarkets and other high street chains for around £8 – £10 – are always reliable and worth buying, while their more premium offerings often outshine wines selling for several £s more.   

Their ‘Max’ range, named in honour of the company’s founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, is from sites at the foot of Mount Aconcagua where the combination of warm days and cool nights is ideal for ripening the grapes while retaining good acidity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted comes from vines planted more than 20 years ago on gravel-rich soils.  This copies what we find in Bordeaux where the best Cabernet Sauvignon regularly comes from vines planted on well-drained, gravelly soils; the reflected heat from the stones helps ripen the grapes while the good drainage means the vines have enough water to grow but aren’t rooted in cold, damp earth.  The use of older vines, too, is a sign of quality – they typically yield wines with more intensity and character.

So, while wines from Chile are already deservedly popular in the UK, I’d suggest exploring those at a slightly higher price – that’s where the bargains really begin.