Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Western Australia

After landing in Perth (and recovering for a few days from jetlag), I repeatedly listened to Nick Cave's song "More News from Nowhere." That's no concidence, as Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, two thousand kilometres from its nearest major Australian city, Adelaide. Adding to that tangible sense of isolation, the main wine region, Margaret River, is another three hours south of Perth, and the other quality area, Great Southern, is five hours away. Despite its far-away location, not only is some great wine made, there are some very good microbreweries and Margaret River is the centre of a vibrant tourist industry.

Margaret River 

In 1965, Australia’s leading agronomist Dr. John Gladstones published a report commissioned by Western Australia's government into which areas of the state might be best suited to grape-growing. He pinpointed Margaret River, due to its Mediterranean climate (very wet winters and dry, hot summers) and its gravelly soils, which he rightly felt made it ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Two years later, another doctor, Tom Cullity of Perth, planted vines, laying the foundation for Vasse Felix, still one of Margaret River's premier wineries. Others followed: Cullen planted vines in 1972 and Leeuwin Estate in 1974. The elegant wines, quite different from the bold, fruity wines often made elsewhere in Australia, caught the attention of the industry on the other side of the vast island, and now there are over 150 wineries in Margaret River, receiving acclaim around the world.

wine and surf rule in Margaret River
Margaret River’s location is certainly ideal. The best vineyards are located not far from the Indian Ocean, which moderates the climate. The proximity to the ocean means that there are lots of trees planted around the vineyards, to protect the vines from strong winds. The ocean also bring in lots of rain - Margaret River receives nearly 1,200mm of rain a year, 1,000 of which fall in the winter. These heavy rains provide the vineyards with water for the growing season; some wineries irrigate rarely and there’s plenty of water in reserve if it’s needed. Despite the summer heat, Margaret River has a long growing season, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon while also adding complexity to the white grapes.

styles of wine 

tasting room pours are excessively small
Margaret River, particularly in the northern part, is textbook Cabernet country. It's usually blended with a bit of Merlot, but the latter grape is falling out of favour. It's being replaced by Malbec, which was originally planted by Tom Cullity in 1967 when the grape was much less fashionable than now and which adds a spicy, tannic structure to the wines. The Cabernet blends are full-bodied but not too tannic or fruity or overripe.

Shiraz, despite the best efforts of local winemakers, doesn't really work here, being too thin and dilute. Instead, it was the white grapes I found most interesting. The Bordeaux influence is again important, as Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon work together very well. Semillon is too unfashionable these days to make it commercially on its own, but its waxy, full-bodied texture complements perfectly the herbaceousness and acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. These blends are fresh and lively; those without any oak ageing are quite fruity, while those with oak ageing have complex, engaging aromas of vanilla, spices, and nuts. The latter are particularly ageworthy, with enough body and acidity to last five to ten years, if not more.

Some of the greatest wines being made in Margaret River, however, have nothing to do with Bordeaux. Chardonnay here is simply superb. Clones planted in the area take a long time to ripen, gradually building up aromatic complexity (I also heard that the grapes are susceptible to leaf roll, which slows the ripening). At the same time, acidity is preserved from the cooling breezes coming in from the ocean. Just as importantly, what I most liked about Margaret River in general is that winemakers don't interfere with the wines too much. The Chardonnays are by no means overoaked: oak is used to give the wines a spicy texture and body but the fruits and acidity are still very pure.

wines 

Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2015 (A$115; $90) 

Named after the founder of one of Margaret River’s first and still most distinctive wineries (they are certified biodynamic), this is an expensive Chardonnay but as good as it gets. This a smoothy, subtly textured wine: smoke, cream, and vanilla come from the oak, and there’s a dry, stone, mineral mouthfeel, given weight from the oak and aromas of stone fruits and cinnamon and all-spice. This is a white wine I would love to taste in another ten years, or even more. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪

Stella Bella Suckfizzle Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2012 (A$45; $35) 

Stella Bella have some great labels and some great names: Suckfizzle is their vineyard to the south of Margaret River named after a character from Rabelais. This is a terrific example of a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend with a little bit of maturity: a creamy vanilla texture from the oak, waxy, green, herbaceous aromas from the grapes, refreshing acidity, and a rich, round mouthfeel. Such wines are particularly food friendly - with white fish or white meat, and spicy dishes that are popular here given the proximity to south-east Asia. ✪✪✪✪✪

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (A$31; $24) 

Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc on its own has a crisp, refreshing acidity one would expect from the grape, but there’s also a richer texture to it than from, say, Marlborough in New Zealand. This Sauvignon Blanc is part of Leeuwin Estate’s “Art Series,” the labels of which feature a different work of art by an Australian artist each year. The most famous of the series is the Chardonnay (A$99; $75; ✪✪✪✪✪✪), one of the first wines back in the 1970s to show the potential for Chardonnay in Margaret River. The series also features Riesling, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I particularly liked this distinctive Sauvignon Blanc for its rich, dry, mineral texture, its stone and tropical fruits, and its interesting, spiky aromas of lemongrass and nettle. ✪✪✪✪✪

McHenry Hohnen Amigos White 2012 (A$28; $22) 

Due to the warm Mediterranean climate of Margaret River, there is some interest in planting Rhône and Spanish grape varieties. In theory, this should work but the old-fashioned winemaking techniques of the Rhône and Spain don’t always translate well to the New World - I tasted a few Tempranillos which were simply too clean and straightforwardly fruity. White blends are more successful, perhaps because they don’t need the long ageing. The Amigos, from the founder of New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay, is a blend of Marsanne, Chardonnay, and Roussanne and despite the presence of Chardonnay is a characteristic white Rhône blend: stone and tropical fruits, nuts, white pepper, and ginger aromas in a rich but balanced wine. ✪✪✪✪

Margaret River's first modern winery

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (A$37; $28) 

The original Margaret River winery produces a range of three Cabernet Sauvignons, including the high-end Heytesbury ($A90; $74; ✪✪✪✪✪). I also liked the mid-tier Cabernet (with 7% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot in the blend), a range which the winery introduced in 2013 as part of an expansion programme. This has a smoky texture, with intense, concentrated black fruit aromas and chocolate, coffee beans, and a spicy peppercorn finish. A very good example of the full yet balanced Cabernet blends of the region. ✪✪✪✪✪

Si Halcyon Merlot 2015 (A$40; $31) 

Si (named after owners and winemakers Sarah and Iwo) are an eclectic winery: they are based in the south part of Margaret River, away from the renowned vineyards of the north. They make wine from their small vineyard from vines planted in 1978 and also own 5ha of land in north-east Spain, making wine from Garnacha grapes (I can’t imagine the amount of travel that must involve). They’ve also got Shiraz in Great Southern, showing the good sense to ignore the Shiraz planted in Margaret River and concentrate on the best area in Western Australia for the grape. The philosophy is minimal intervention, with little sulphur added, and lots of experimentation. This makes their wines quite distinctive, and making a quality Merlot in a region where others feel it’s too green and astringent demonstrates the couple’s obstinate but quality-orientated temperament. This is a tight, wound, tannic wine, with red plums and black cherries giving it a juicy texture, with a dry, herbal, spicy finish. ✪✪✪✪✪

Established producers such as Vasse Felix show the long-term quality of Margaret River; more experimental producers such as Si point to the potential for the region to go in different directions. It’s quite a conservative region (as is Perth itself), so don’t expect much change just yet: just be assured of consistent quality.

Great Southern 

A region with more surprises, however, is Great Southern, which unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit. While in Perth I got to taste a few wines from the region. Its climate is more varied than Margaret River's, becoming gradually more continental as it goes inland. Shiraz has a rich, voluptuous elegance to the wines, characteristically Australian but with a spicy, game undertone. The subregion of Mt. Barker, which has a combination of Mediterranean and continental climates, is especially good for Shiraz. Another subregion, Frankland River, inland and more continental, specialises in Riesling, the cool nights keeping the acidity high. The wines I tasted had some sweetness to them, unusual for Australia - more of a German style, but still with a lime fruitiness. Great Southern is definitely a region to keep an eye out for.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

South Africa

South Africa may be the best country in the world to go wine tasting: most of the wine regions are within an hour or two's drive from the major city of Cape Town, many of them are located near the beautiful Atlantic coast, and the wine, like the food, is incredibly cheap. The low prices are in part because of the weak rand; this is great for the international consumer, but it is not particularly good for either the South African economy or the wine industry. A common complaint I heard from producers during my visit to South Africa is that the wine is "too cheap": the best wines simply do not fetch the prices that other countries can charge. Land and labour cost little, and the domestic market will not pay much more than 100 rand for a bottle. That’s about $8 right now, and I know of no other market where high quality wine is available for that price (and the mark-up in restaurants is very small).

Despite enjoying the low prices, I understand the concerns of those within the industry. In the UK, South African wine is very popular because of its affordability, but it's difficult to persuade customers to spend as much on a bottle as from, say, France or California. Meanwhile, in the US, those consumers who like to spend money on wine will choose a $100 bottle of Cabernet from Napa over a $30 bottle from Stellenbosch, even though they're the same quality - $100 sounds much more impressive than $30.

But while South African wine remains so affordable, there's no more consumer friendly wine market. I was there for just eleven days, which allowed me a short introduction to the country's diverse wine regions, and how they are fast developing.

Constantia 

South Africa's modern, international wine industry is very young, going back to the fall of apartheid in the 1990s. At the same time, winemaking dates as far back as many of Europe’s regions. Farms - as locals describe wineries - were established in the late 1500s, and the industry flourished in the late 1700s and early 1800s, before collapsing due to favourable tariffs in the UK being removed in the 1860s and the onset of phylloxera.

The wine that set the standard for South Africa two hundred years ago was the sweet white of Constantia, just south of Cape Town. It was as highly prized as any wine in Europe; no other "New World" wine, and few European wines, came close to its reputation or price. After the collapse of the wine industry and twentieth-century government protectionism, the wine had long ceased to be made before it was regenerated in the mid-1980s by Klein Constantia. This was part of a small number of conscious efforts by producers to revive the production of quality wine in South Africa, which laid the foundations for the post-apartheid boom. Now, Klein Constantia have over 75 hectares planted on the steep slopes rising up from False Bay, the winds from which make Constantia one of the coolest in South Africa.


Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2013 (895 rand; $65)

Vin de Constance is mainly made from Muscat de Frontignan, harvested over the course of two months, from fresh, young grapes until the last to be picked are almost like raisins. The wine is rich and sweet, with expressive aromas of honey, marmalade, orange peel, and dried apricots, the sweetness on the palate lifted by a refreshing acidity, with a long finish of sweet spice aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. A complex wine that most likely has several decades' life left in it. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Tulbagh 

Wine production in the twentieth century was dominated by sweet, cheap white wines. It’s hard to imagine an area as warm as Tulbagh - despite being part of the Coastal Region, it's 75km inland from the coast - but things have changed over the last twenty years, mirroring the advance in South African wine since the fall of apartheid. Instead, the focus is now on Shiraz, which suits the warm climate that's still moderated by cool breezes from the sea and the protection of the surrounding mountains.

view from Saronsberg vineyards
For all the interesting Shiraz being made, Tulbagh is also home to what I consider the country’s best Pinotage. Pierre Wahl is the winemaker at Rijk’s and makes three different Pinotages (as well as Chenin Blanc and Shiraz), under three different labels: A Touch of Oak (a terrible name, but the wines are very accessible), Private Cellar, and Reserve. The wines get better with each label, but maintain their quality throughout the range.

Pinotage has the often well-deserved reputation of being bitter, with an imbalanced combination of underripe and overripe aromas. However, all three of Rijk’s wines are quality examples of Pinotage. I asked Pierre what distinguishes the best Pinotage - i.e. his - from lesser examples, and his answer was enlightening:

  • Pinotage is a high yielding grape, so yields need to be contained by planting on low quality soils and stressing the vines
  • Bunches are very tightly packed and don't receive the sun evenly; to counter this, the canopy should be cut back while the berries are very small so that they can receive extra sun and load up on sugar before the bunches are fully set
  • Pinotage is high in malic acid, which is why, after malolactic fermentation, it can lose a lot of its acidity and feel very flat and flabby: acidification is necessary before the MLF begins

Pierre convinced me, through his wine and his observations, that Pinotage is a grape capable of producing high-quality wine. Nevertheless, his were the only evidence of that opinion I tasted throughout the trip: the winemaker has to be fully committed to Pinotage to make memorable wine out of it.

Rijk's Reserve Pinotage 2013 (375 rand; $27)

The top range Pinotage is made from 70% bush vines, which add extra concentration. Although the wine has rich aromas of ripe red and black fruits, there's great structure, with firm tannins, a spicy finish, and a long, lingering finish. There's a subtlety to this wine that's so often lacking from the obvious chocolate, coffee aromas of most Pinotage. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Saronsberg Full Circle 2014 (400 rand; $29)

Saronsberg produce a range of Rhône reds, and this wine brings them all together. Mainly Shiraz, with Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Viognier also in the blend, the Full Circle has ripe, spicy, smoky characteristics, attractive floral aromas from the Viogner, and ripe but firm tannins. Still a young wine, with the structure to age well. ✪✪✪✪✪

Stellenbosch 

view from Vergelegen of one of Stellenbosch's many mountains
Stellenbosch is the Napa of South Africa: full-bodied Cabernet-based wines that are more expensive than anywhere else in the country, and where the tasting room is as important as the wine. It’s a beautiful region, cooled by the nearby Atlantic coast but warm enough to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes fully ripe. The mountains also shape the region, resulting in different climates: wind is an especial factor, blowing in from the coast and buffeted around by the many mountains. This is the one region where producers - often backed by international money - are trying to make wine that can compete internationally, both commercially and in terms of quality. In that, those wines can taste little different from other full-bodied, ripe reds from the New World, though there is slightly more of a herbaceous quality and the wines are usually not quite as extracted as, say, those of Napa.

As elsewhere in South Africa, there are good Shiraz/Syrah-based wines being made, the warm climate giving the wines an attractive voluptuousness. There are also some very good whites, and it was very pleasing to see Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends. This is the classic white Bordeaux blend, but it has been much neglected in recent years in favour of single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc. Again, the warm climate, together with some oak ageing, gives the wines full richness, but the acidity of both the grapes keeps the wines refreshing. These are extremely good food wines (fish, white meat), convenient given that many of Stellenbosch wineries have excellent restaurants.

De Toren Z 2013 (330 rand; $24)

It was pleasing to find a producer (from anywhere, not just South Africa) willing to take Merlot seriously. Although it's only 50% of the blend, it's the backbone of the wine and there are engaging, balanced aromas of smoke and tobacco, herbs and sweet spices, ripe but not overripe red and black fruits, with gripping, textured tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪

Waterford Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2012 (210 rand; $15)

Another Shiraz-based wine - in this case, blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre - that demonstrates the potential for the grape in South Africa's diverse climates. The wine, named after the winemaker, is full of black pepper, liquorice, earth, and blackberry aromas, but what really makes the wine stand out is the dusty tannins which make it especially reminiscent of the Rhône. ✪✪✪✪✪

Vergelegen GVB 2013 (340 rand; $24)

Taking their Bordeaux influence to an extreme, the top wine of Vergelegen (don't even try to pronounce it unless you speak Dutch or Afrikaans) is a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend. On its own, with rich aromas of stone and tropical fruits, beeswax, vanilla, nuts, salt, and cumin, this is an interesting, powerful wine. With food, it becomes something else. We ate at the on-site Camphors restaurant and this wine paired superbly with the pork belly dish, cutting through the fat and sweetness of the pork, which in turn subdued some of the wine's intense aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪


Elgin/Walker Bay/Elim 

Very different were the wines a little further along the coast. Wind and coastal influence are so important in South Africa, and nowhere more so than the Elgin, Walker Bay, and Elim regions, which are all an hour’s drive together east from Stellenbosch. Although the sun beats down on the regions, the wind is noticeably cooling. This makes the regions great for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and, most unusually for South Africa, Pinot Noir. These wines are still full of ripe fruit aromas and not tame by any means, but the acidity is refreshing and crisp in the whites and the tannins firm and gripping in the reds that they take on a different aspect from other wines in South Africa.

Paul Cluver Estate Pinot Noir 2014 (180 rand; $13)

Travelling through the Southern Hemisphere has one disadvantage: the warm climates make it hard to find quality Pinot Noir. Elgin's cooler climate, however, is well suited to the variety and the nose of this example immediately took us away from the warm sunshine of Stellenbosch. Smoky, with aromas of wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, coffee, black pepper, and liquorice, and with really gripping, grainy tannins, this is one of the few New World Pinot Noirs I could confuse for Burgundy - and at a ridiculously good price. ✪✪✪✪✪

Hamilton-Russell Hemel-en-Aarde Chardonnay 2016 (395 rand; $28)

It's rare to taste a wine so young that already has such deep complexity. It was bottled just three weeks before we tasted it; no surprise that the acidity was so fresh, but the aromas of stone and tropical fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and a smoky texture were astonishingly developed. We immediately bought a bottle of this wine and drank it with our sandwiches while we looked over the lake next to the tasting room. Like the Paul Cluver, this was a wine that could be mistaken for Burgundy (though at a not dissimilar price) - Walker Bay and Elgin are regions to look out for. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Hamilton-Russell, Walker Bay

As important as the cooling influence as the Atlantic Ocean is, South Africa’s climate, even by the coast, is still warm. Alcohol is high, fruits are ripe, and the wines are rich. In a climate as sunny as South Africa’s, that’s how it should be. The country, after a century of isolationism, is still learning its trade. Because of the value of its wines, it may at times struggle to be taken seriously, but take advantage of the low prices to taste some very, very good wine.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Uruguay

Through football, Uruguay is famous for its street-fighting spirit, forged from lying between the two major giants of South America, Brazil and Argentina. Essentially created as a buffer between the two, Uruguay is a small country of just 3m people which features aspects of both countries - the language has a Brazilian shush to it, while the meat-based food is similar to Argentina’s. Uruguay is, however, quite distinct from the two countries, as its wine shows.
 
view from Alto de la Ballena

the climate 

Uruguay is over 1,000km from Mendoza, and unsurprisingly its climate is quite different. Situated on the Atlantic coast, Uruguay is much wetter and more humid than neighbouring Argentina or, indeed, Pacific Chile. This has a big impact: grape varieties must be hardy enough to withstand the humid, wet, and often windy conditions; the vineyard needs a lot of attention; and the style of wine is less ripe and full-bodied. The climate is not dissimilar to Bordeaux’s and, like most of Bordeaux, it’s difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripe.

the regions 

The historic vineyards of Uruguay are situated around Montevideo, almost in a semi-circle, where Canelones, to the east, is the most known. To the north, on the Brazilian border where the climate gets more humid, is Cerra Chapeu, where the first plantings were in the 1970s. Another recent region is Maldonado, near the ocean and subject to particularly wet, windy weather. Alto de la Ballena were the first winery here, buying their first land in just 2001. There’s a mixture of tradition and innovation, found in other South American countries, that can make Uruguay quite unpredictable.

tannat 

tannat and its large leaves
Tannat dominates plantings and it sets Uruguay apart from other wine-producing regions around the world where the variety is little planted. The grape originates from south-west France, where the main appellation is Madiran, and, like Malbec, it was brought over in the mid-nineteenth century during the wave of phylloxera-driven emigration. It can be a difficult grape to grow, requiring attention in the vineyard to manage its large leaves that can shield grapes from the sun and prevent ventilation, but it’s suited to the climate of Uruguay as its robust berries can withstand fungal pests. It’s planted all over the country, more bitter and tannic near the coast, softer and fuller bodied further inland.

In Madiran, the wines can be incredibly tannic, ready to drink only after many years ageing. This is in part due to the grape variety, but also because of long periods of extraction which make the wine very difficult to drink when young. In Uruguay, the wines are more approachable, due to less extraction and also because the grapes get riper on the vine. Even so, on its own Tannat can be quite astringent and is arguably best in a blend - either in a main or a supporting role. Back in the 1970s, wines from Tannat were often blends to soften the wine, then 100% Tannat took over as international consumers are more receptive to single-varietal wines. Blends are coming back, though; for instance, adding Merlot certainly makes the wine more immediately attractive, while still giving the wine ageing potential.

What I noted about wines from Tannat is that they have a consistent herbal quality, with aromas of fennel, oregano, and tarragon, which makes the wines quite distinctive. Although the fruits are riper than a wine from Madiran, the wines are still not forward or overly expressive. There’s a subtlety to them, with firm tannins to give the wine backbone which allows a period of oak ageing without fear of domination from the oak.

other grape varieties 

Quite a few people I met argued that, rather than Tannat, the most suitable grape for Uruguay is Merlot. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult sell, particularly abroad, but Uruguayan wines made from Merlot can be world class. The grape ripens before the autumn rains come and the small berries withstand the humid conditions. The Alto de la Ballena 2010 Merlot was as good a wine as I’ve tasted on this trip so far: smoky, intense red and black fruits, and really alive, despite some age, with high acidity and gripping tannins. It’s what high-quality Merlot tastes like, and it’s a shame that the UK and US markets are so unreceptive to Merlot that the winery is unable to export the wine.

White wines are also high quality. Uruguay’s climate is cool enough for the wines to have refreshing high acidity: Chardonnay is the most planted white grape, but Sauvignon Blanc is more interesting with a crisp, mineral drive. My favourite white wine of the trip was an Albariño, another grape whose thick skins are ideal for holding up to wet weather. From Garzon, a relatively large producer, the Albariño wasn’t quite as floral or aromatic as wines from Rías Baixas often are, but there was a wonderful crisp, stone, mineral aspect to the wine.

It will be interesting to see how Uruguay develops, and if it’s able to make its mark on the world stage in the presence of such major players as Chile and Argentina. Like its football team, the country punches above its weight and the wines are exported to Brazil, Europe, and the US. Tannat is the grape that will continue to drive Uruguay’s market, but if you're visiting look out for the white wines and reds from Merlot and, another grape with high potential, Cabernet Franc.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Mendoza

pergola trained vines
Although Mendoza is just 250km from Santiago de Chile (in contrast, it's 1,000km from the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires), it's immediately very different, not least in the fact that the Spanish is more easily comprehensible. The Italian influence is apparent, in the amount of coffee drunk, the milanesa steaks and the better food, as well as the tall pergola vines grown throughout the Mendoza region. The latter is something only a wine geek would spot, but it does show how Argentina's wine culture has been heavily shaped by immigration, not only from Italy but also France and Spain.

There are some definite similarities with Chile. The export market is important, and producers are looking towards cooler regions such as Salta to the north to provide greater variety for those markets. But it's the differences which are more interesting, particularly as Argentina's culture is more wrapped up in wine (and food) than Chile's.

mendoza

Mendoza is a very large region. Of Argentina's 1,400 wineries, 1,250 are in Mendoza. On a map, getting from one sub-region to another, or even one winery to another, looks like a short trip, but it's something of an ordeal travelling around (and don't rely on either google or apple maps!), as the areas are so spread out. This explains the subtle variety of climates and styles of wine which makes Mendoza such a fascinating and popular wine-producing region.

The city of Mendoza itself is vibrant, bustling with traffic till late in the evening. This is not the centre of wine production, however. Fifteen kilometres to the south is Lujan de Cuyo, which is where quality wineries begin to be based. The land rises from 750m elevation in Mendoza to 950m south of Lujan, to over 1,000m - and even as high as 2,000m - in the Uco Valley. It is at this altitude that some of the more interesting wines are being made. There's plenty of sunshine to get the grapes fully ripe, but the heat is less intense and the afternoons much cooler than the flatter vineyards to the north and east. This results in wines of a balanced restraint and a refreshing acidity.

To the east of Mendoza is Maipú, lacking the elevation of Uco and therefore producing simpler, fruitier wines from the warm climate. Mendoza is a hot region, which is why altitude is so important to lessen its impact. Tasting a wine, especially Malbec, from Maipú and one from Uco really emphasises this.

Andes behind the vineyards

malbec

Argentinian wine is synonymous with Malbec, even though this is a relatively recent development. The grape was brought over by immigrants from Bordeaux and south-west France in the mid-nineteenth century in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic that struck Europe. Until the late 1980s, due to financial crises and dictatorships, Argentinian wine was simple and for local production - in the 1970s, Argentinians drank a remarkable 100 litres of wine a year per person.

The last 30 years have seen a transformation in the quality of Argentinian wine, and it's been led by Malbec. This grape has given the industry a unique position in the wine world, as in France it's now limited to the small, though high-quality, region of Cahors. The grape succeeds in Mendoza because it needs the warm climate in order to ripen fully, but in the mean time the cool nights slow the ripening down which retains the acidity and prevents over-ripeness.

Altos los Hormigas Valle de Uco Terroir Malbec 2015 (230 pesos in a restaurant; $15)

This was the first wine we tasted after arriving in Mendoza (at the excellent Fuente y Fonda restaurant), and we were so surprised by how restrained this Malbec was in contrast to so many fruity examples we've previously tried. This shows how the altitude of Uco Valley transforms Malbec into a very different style of wine. Wines in both Mendoza and Buenos Aires restaurants represent extremely good value. ✪✪✪✪

torrontés

However, Malbec's dominance can prevent customers from seeking out other Argentinian wines. That's why producers are investing in regions to the north and south to produce cooler-climate wines. At the same time, they've also been looking towards grape varieties other than Malbec as a way of advertising Argentina's potential diversity. Chardonnay is an international variety much planted, but it's Torrontés, which like Malbec has the unique characteristic of being grown little elsewhere in the world, that producers use to distinguish Argentina from the rest of the world. It's a problematic grape, though. It's incredibly aromatic, with rich floral, pear, and grape aromas. Locally, it's called 'The Liar,' because there's a perception of sweetness on the nose despite the wine being completely dry on the palate. In this, it's like Voignier. Also similarly to Viognier, it lacks acidity, and often feels flabby and flat; alcohol too can be overly high. To compensate these difficutlies, grapes are grown at the high altitude of Salta where the cool nights can raise acidity and reduce alcohol. Despite this, alcohol can reach over 14% and I am still to encounter a wine made from Torrontés that truly convinces.

Susana Balbo White Blend 2015 (550 pesos; $36)

The exception perhaps comes in a blend: the best wine I tried featuring Torrontés was a Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Torrontés blend from Susana Balbo (Argentina's first female winemaker and now a senator). Torrontés adds body and rich aromatics to the waxy herbaceousness of the other grapes, which in turn compensate Torrontés's lack of acidity. ✪✪✪✪

bonarda 

Another grape variety which could serve as a direct alternative to Malbec is Bonarda. Known as Douce in France, Croatina in north-west Italy, and Charbono in California, Bonarda is the second-most planted grape in Argentina. It's fun, fruity, with rich aromas of plums and chocolates. It's often used for inexpensive wine or in blends with Malbec, but the odd single-varietal wine stands out. The fruitiness of the wines, whether cheap or expensive, is very appealing; the best examples go from being jammy to having a firm tannic structure and a smoky quality.

Zuccardi Emma Bonarda 2014 (580 pesos; $38)

One of Argentina's biggest - 2m cases a year - and oldest producers, Zuccardi produce everything from entry level to incredibly expensive. This is probably the most expensive Bonarda I have tried and it was fantastic. Smoky, fruity, tannic, upfront, but very balanced. ✪✪✪✪✪

Monday, 5 December 2016

A week in Chile

For a long time now, my wife and I have talked, at times wistfully, about going on a big wine trip to explore different regions and experience first-hand where the wines we enjoy so much come from. Well, we finally took the plunge, quit our jobs, and have just embarked on a nine-week tour that will encompass Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. I'll be blogging as I go along, sharing what I learn; like the trip the blog starts with Chile. 

climate 

We're here at the end of November, just as Chile's summer is beginning. No surprise that the weather is warm, but the heat in the afternoon is intense, the sun beating down relentlessly. There are moderating factors, however, which add to the quality of the wines. Breezes blow in from the ocean, which can still be felt in the foothills of the Andes. Fog can roll in too, though not beyond the coastal regions. The nights are cool, the temperature dropping drastically, which helps most of all to prevent the grapes from becoming overripe. 

Chile's climate is by no means uniform. As a whole, it can be split into three: coastal, the valley, and the Andes, going from cool to warm to moderate. There are lots of specific variants to these climates which have the potential to make Chile's wines more interesting, relating to proximity to the sea, exposure to the sun, protection from the wind, and altitude. 

Viña Aquitania, Maipo Valley
Our first visit was to Viña Aquitania, in the suburbs of Santiago but also in the foothills of the Andes (the buildings of Santiago are not attractive, but the backdrop of the Andes is spectacular). As we felt the breeze gently blow, our guide explained how this western part of Maipo Valley was cooler than the lower, eastern part, mainly due to the much cooler nights at higher altitude as well as the wind. As a result, the fruits in the wine are less ripe and obvious.

There are local variants on the coastal side of Chile too. The coolest parts of Casablanca are the lowest vineyards, as they are most exposed to the ocean; the warmest are higher up away from the ocean. Again, this produces different styles: Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca's most distinctive grape, is grassy and vegetal in the cooler vineyards, more tropical and full-bodied in the warmer, higher ones. 

styles 

Overall, the wines are ripe and fruity. Often, this ripe fruitiness can be too obvious, a simplicity the best producers are working to move away from through site selection. Other producers tend towards oak to compensate for simplicity. 

The most interesting variety is arguably Syrah, particularly from the cooler San Antonio and Casablanca regions. It's spicy and smoky, but immediate and appealing with ripe black and blueberries. Inland, it’s bigger, bolder, and more tannic. The coastal regions also produce crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc with pleasant fruit aromas ranging from green to tropical fruits. Pinot Noir is being grown in different parts of Chile in attempts to make styles of wine that reflect the country's varied climates, but even from the cooler areas such as Casablanca or the southern Malleco, I've found it too fruity.

Carmenère 

Such is the wide range of grape varieties grown in Chile that there has been an understandable attempt to focus on just one in order to give Chilean wine a discernible identity. The chosen variety is Carmenère, a Bordeaux grape planted in Chile back in the nineteenth century, when it got confused with Merlot. Given that virtually nowhere else plants Carmenère, there's certainly room for Chile to carve out a niche. However, there is a good reason no one else plants Carmenère: it's just not that interesting and even the best wines offer little other than blackcurrant aromas. There is perhaps a future for Carmenère away from single-varietal wines in the guise it was originally used in Bordeaux - in blends; Carmenère can add structure, tannins, and black fruits, and distinguish a wine from other Bordeaux blends made around the world. 

the market 

Much of Chile's wine is exported, as there is relatively little domestic demand for the wines. This is a country in thrall to beer and pisco, rather than the cheap wines locals remember past generations drinking. Most visitors to wineries are foreign, and the best wine bar in Santiago, Bocanariz, was almost solely filled with tourists. This influences Chile's producers in several ways. Domestically, brands dominate and consumers rely on scores, as there is little interest in finding small, unknown producers. All producers, whatever their size, have to appeal to the international market, which is why so many good-value but simple wines are produced. It also explains why so many varieties are grown, from Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay to Merlot to Malbec, in order to appeal to an international audience used to single-varietal wines. The result is a dependable style of wine, but based more on international trends than local taste. 

the future 

Viña Montes, Colchagua
Speaking to those in the wine industry while I’ve been here, I’ve heard a lot of debate about the quality of Chile’s wines and whether they will ever come close to the great wines that have been made in France for centuries. It’s certainly frustrating that Chileans are not more interested in their wine, and that lack of domestic interest holds the industry back. It must be remembered, however, that although winemaking in Chile goes back to the 16th century, Chilean wine in its modern incarnation is relatively young. The Casablanca region saw the first grapes planted in 1982, while many of the wineries I visited were only established in the 1990s onwards. There is still a lot to learn about the different regions, particularly the cool ones near the coast and those far to the south such as Bío-Bío and Itata. It may take some time for these regions to fully express themselves, but there is potential, should the industry choose to follow it, for Chile to make wine of more consistently high quality than it currently does.

wines  

These are some of the highlights of our tastings. They’re more expensive than most Chilean wine sold domestically or abroad, but they give an indication of what the best producers are trying to achieve and that Chile’s wines can go beyond the ordinary.

Viña Aquitania Sol de Sol Chardonnay 2012 (17,000 pesos - $25) 

Many Chilean producers source grapes from different regions in order to produce the many styles of wine that the international market demands. Although Viña Aquitania are based outside Santiago, the grapes for their Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay come from Malleco, the southernmost region in Chile where just a handful of producers work. This Chardonnay is aged for nine months on its lees, giving it a nutty, biscuity feel. The cooler climate of Malleco ensures high acidity, making this a refreshing wine, with stone and tropical fruit aromas that aren’t too overripe. ✪✪✪✪

Viña Montes Folly 2007 (80,000 pesos - $120) 

Of the 800,000 cases Viña Montes produces, 95% of them are for export, showing just how dependent producers are on the international market. They make a wide range of wines, from the everyday drinking to the very expensive. Tasting this wine was our first indication of the great potential Syrah has. It’s named "Folly" because Montes were the first to plant in the hills in warm Colchagua, even in the 1990s deemed a foolish thing to do. At nine years old, there’s a wonderful, expressive maturity to the wine, with a beautiful nose of smoke, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and violets, but it’s still big and bold, with blackberry and spicy black pepper and liquorice aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Matetic EQ Syrah 2013 (12,000 pesos - $18) 

Another Syrah, this time from San Antonio near the coast making the wine a bit less big and bold than the Folly. The warm days still give plenty of ripe fruits (blackberry, blueberry), but there’s a perfumed nose of violets, vanilla, and cedar to give the wine an attractive balance. Very drinkable, particularly at the price. ✪✪✪✪

Loma Larga Malbec 2013 (17,000 pesos - $25)

Loma Larga are another young producer focusing on quality from their small property in Casablanca. This Malbec, unusual as the grape is so strongly associated with neighbouring rivals Argentina, demonstrates the potential of Casablanca's cooler climate. This climate makes the Malbec very distinctive, more like one from the Loire than Mendoza. It's very restrained with high acidity, firm, light tannins, and aromas of brambles, violets, fennel, and a light pepper spice that lingers on the finish. ✪✪✪✪✪

Montsecano, Casablanca

Refugio Pinot Noir 2013 (20,000 pesos - $30)

In a country of overripe Pinot Noir, the best wine from the grape variety by far is the Montsecano from Casablanca. It’s a joint project between Julio Donoso, a photographer who lived in France for nineteen years, and André Ostertag, one of Alsace’s great and most distinctive winemakers. The grapes are grown on a steep hill just seven kilometres from the coast on difficult red clay soils with as little irrigation as possible. The second wine, Refugio, is similar in style, some of the grapes coming from Montsecano and the majority from a nearby vineyard. Neither of the wine is aged in any oak, which Donoso views as too dangerous with a high chance of contaminating the wine. Instead, they’re aged in concrete eggs, although the Refugio sees more stainless steel than the Montsecano. The Refugio is an intense wine, with almost underripe fruit aromas of raspberry, red cherry, blackcurrant, and blackberry and bitter, herbal aromas of mint and fennel. Donoso told us that he finds beauty in the imperfections of a wine; this is a great example of a wine whose unusual distinctive qualities repeatedly draw you in. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Huaso de Sauzal Pais 2014 (28,000 pesos in a restaurant - $42)

This is a suitable wine to finish on, as it perhaps shows that Chile’s future best lies far back in the past. The first vines in Chile were planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1530s for religious purposes. The simple grape used to make wine for Mass is called Mission in California, Criolla Chica in Argentina, and Pais in Chile. There are still plenty of old Pais vines planted, particularly in the warm Maule Valley, and arguably it is those old vines that Chilean winemakers should be focusing on to distinguish Chile from other countries, rather than Carmenère. Drunk with a delicious rabbit dish on our last night in Santiago in Bocanariz, this Pais from Cauquenes in the Maule Valley was an extraordinary, quite delicious wine that was almost like a Pinot with restrained red fruit aromas, and a smoky, peppery, meaty quality. The acidity from the old vines was refreshingly high, making it an extremely good food wine, together with the fine, grainy tannins. Maybe not all Pais is as high quality as this wine - yields do need to be kept in check - but I look forward to trying more examples. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

We were only able to visit the Maipo, Colchagua, and Casablanca regions - there's a lot to explore both further north and south. Let's hope Chilean winemakers continue to explore the country and push Chilean wine beyond its safe limits.