Chile: The ‘X’ Factor?

In these times when many, including those who enjoy a glass of wine, are watching every penny, it’s worth looking in your local supermarket for something from Chile; you’re very likely to find some attractive, very drinkable wines, both red and white, from as little as £6 a bottle.  Major brands such as Concha y Toro and Santa Rita are reliable and generally available and all the familiar grape varieties including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are widely grown.  No wonder Chile is among the 10 largest importers of wine into the UK.

Chile’s vineyards extend more than 850 miles north to south spanning some of the perfect southern hemisphere latitudes for grape growing.  Hot, sunny summers are common but they are offset by the cooling effects of the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west.  As a result, the grapes not only ripen perfectly but they retain the acidity vital for wines that are both refreshing and balanced.

But, for those lucky wine lovers who have a little more to spend, do Chilean wines have that ‘X factor’ that will prompt them to happily pay £10, £15 or even more?  My answer is undoubtedly ‘Yes’ – but you need to be selective.  Take Koyle’s Cerro Basalto Garnatxa (Wine Society, £14.95) for example.   (Garnatxa is the local name for the variety known as Grenache in France or Garnacha in Spain).  This Chilean version is a robust, chunky red with lovely rich flavours of prunes, figs and cooked plums plus a smoky, earthy backdrop that just cries out for intensely flavoured winter casseroles.  We paired it with an oxtail stew but venison or beef cooked in a similar way would work as well.  My one surprise was the level of tannin remaining in a 2018 wine.  Decanting helped, as did the food, but I really wish I’d have left it on the wine rack for a couple of years longer – or bought another bottle to lay down.

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Big but Balanced

I’ve been blogging for weeks about our record-breaking summer and the wines we have enjoyed to accompany lighter meals, often eaten outdoors on our lovely terrace.  Suddenly all has changed.  Autumn has arrived in a hurry and so we have turned to richer, more robust food, better suited to the cooler season.  Daube de Boeuf has long been one of our favourites – a flavoursome beef casserole with the meat marinaded in a mixture of red wine, herbs and a twist of orange rind before long, slow cooking.

The wine to drink with it?  Red, of course! 

Alain Jaume’s Vacqueyras (Majestic, £15.99) is a chunky blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) that has been sitting on our wine rack for many months, just waiting for the right dish to pair it with.  It is, indeed, a big, mouth-filling wine – the label says 15% but I’d never have guessed that high as it is so well balanced.  It does need food, however, to show at its best and our Daube was ideal.  The first impression is of intense black fruits, herbs and a certain smokiness but, as the wine opens in the glass, attractive dried fruit flavours kick in alongside.  Our bottle, from the 2019 vintage, was still quite tannic – decanting in advance certainly helped – but, with hindsight, I should probably have left it unopened for another couple of years at least.

Vacqueyras is one of the villages of the southern Rhône valley, just a short drive from Châteauneuf du Pape and producing wines in a generally similar style to its more famous neighbour (although, as it is less well-known, they are often rather better value for money). 

Summers can be very hot in this part of France and heat-loving grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, giving very full-bodied reds with, it seems, ever-increasing levels of alcohol.  The challenge for producers now and (even more) in the future is to harness this and make wines that, as with the bottle recommended here, are big, rich and lush yet still properly balanced and with no unpleasant ‘burn’ on the finish.  

A Versatile Red

I was chatting to a friend about Italian wines when my wife called over to me ‘don’t forget to mention those lovely Sardinian whites’.  I agreed and duly passed on the recommendation for the island’s very drinkable and often good value Vermentino-based wines.

I must have still had Sardinia on my mind when I was choosing a wine to drink with dinner that night as I picked Isola’s Cannonau di Sardegna (Novel Wines, £13.99) out of our wine rack. 

For those not familiar with the name ‘Cannonau’, it’s the islanders’ name for the grape more commonly known as Grenache – part of the blend in Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape or the ‘G’ in Australia’s GSMs.  (It’s also called Garnacha in Rioja and generally in the Spanish-speaking world).

Whatever you call it, this one was a delicious, silky smooth unoaked medium-bodied red full of attractive black fruit flavours.  I tasted damsons and plums together with some peppery spice and even hints of chocolate (which may have been a nudge to what was to follow).  The finish was medium length and the tannins very soft and restrained.  It worked really well with a game casserole made from a mixture of pheasant, partridge, venison and who knows what else from our local butcher.

But the wine had a surprise for me.  As I often do, I left a little in my glass after dinner to sip throughout the evening.  When it came to coffee time, my wife and I split a bar of bitter chocolate and I tried the wine again.  I found the chocolate bringing out some lovely cherry fruit in the wine that I hadn’t noticed earlier.  I know some reds do go well with dark chocolate (Argentinian Malbecs, for example) but I wasn’t expecting this pairing to be so successful.

Which just proves that food and wine matching is far from an exact science; some of the most unlikely combinations can sometimes deliver the most pleasant of surprises.