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A New Era for Chilean wine


When you’re looking for a good every-day wine on a tight budget, you might find yourself turning to the wines of Chile. This long, narrow, and climatically diverse South American country has developed quite a reputation for value over the last couple of decades. But thanks to recent shifts in winemaking and marketing philosophies, Chile has increasingly become a source of interesting and high-quality wines that is worth keeping a close eye on. Much of the wine is still eminently affordable, but it now has quite a bit more to offer for the money!

Let’s take a look at some of the trends that are currently changing the face of the Chilean wine industry:

Experimental viticulture:

In a warm, dry, and geographically isolated country with little threat of disease or pests (Chile is the only major wine-producing country that has managed to remain completely free of the devastating phylloxera louse!), large quantities of wine can be produced with relative ease. However, in an effort to step up the quality and complexity of their wines, many producers are experimenting with techniques in the vineyard that stress the vine and facilitate even ripening, resulting in smaller yields of more concentrated fruit with balanced acidity and alcohol. Some of these methods include higher altitude plantings, early picking, the revival of old vines, and the exploration of cooler climate vineyards. Some regions to look out for include Leyda, Bio Bio, Limarí, and the Casablanca Valley.

A new approach to marketing:

With consumers becoming increasingly educated about wine and improving their understanding of their own personal preferences, wineries are beginning to step up their game from entry-level to higher-end and premium wines. While the Chilean section of the wine shop remains an excellent place to find sub-fifteen-dollar bargains, a new focus is beginning to emerge on smaller producers and more serious wines. Taking a page from Tuscany’s book, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, a superior-quality Bordeaux-style blend, established the category of “Super Chilean” wines with its 1989 release. It has since inspired comparable wines of top pedigree including Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserva, Emiliana Ge, Almaviva, and Lapostolle Clos Apalta. These blends often include Syrah and Carménère in addition to traditional Bordeaux varieties.

Grape Diversity:

A wide range of grape varieties can easily be grown in Chile’s versatile conditions, so many producers are looking to differentiate their wines either by putting their own spin on internationally beloved varieties, or using uncommon or locally historic ones, like País, a variety brought to Chile in the 1550s by Spanish missionaries (hence its North American synonym, “Mission”). This grape is shedding its reputation for overly tannic, unappealing bulk wine to make way for brighter, fruitier wines often made using whole cluster fermentation and/or carbonic maceration. Chile has also begun to consider some less common varieties from European countries, such as Spain’s Mencia, Portugal’s Touriga Nacional, and Italy’s Greco, Fiano, and Aglianico.

Meanwhile, the more common international varieties are showing no signs of slowing down.  Cabernet Sauvignon will always have its place, but classic Rhône varieties like Grenache and Syrah are picking up steam, encouraged by favorable climatic conditions and soil types.  Malbec, much more closely associated with neighboring Argentina, is another one to keep an eye on, especially when old-vine plantings are utilized. In cooler climate regions, fresh and light Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are produced with low alcohol and refreshing acidity, but don’t call them Burgundian — these wines are intended to express Chile’s unique terroir. Meanwhile, Sauvignon Blancs set themselves apart from those found in New Zealand with methods such as early picking, barrel fermentation, and lees contact to create a softer, less herbaceous or grassy style.

Old-world influence in the winery:

In addition to grape-growing techniques aimed at reducing yields, alcohol, and sugar levels in the vineyard, practices in the winery as well are moving in a direction inspired by the balance of old-world wines. This includes eschewing the use of new oak in favor of concrete eggs or large vats made of neutral wood to create food-friendly, approachable wines with round, silky tannins. When new oak is used, the goal is to create better integration with fruit flavors. Additionally, efforts in the vineyard to reduce alcohol levels in wines are further carried out in the winery during the fermentation process.

If you’ve been pigeonholing Chile as the land of bargain wines and bargain wines alone, now is the time to take a closer look as this country embarks on an exciting renaissance of wine production!

South Africa: New Land of Vines

MeerlustOn a continent that typically brings to mind dry, hot deserts and rainforest jungles, it’s easy to forget that there is also wine. But on the very southern tip of South Africa, vineyards thrive and produce a wide variety of grapes. Though the wines were slow to market due to the embargo on South Africa during apartheid,  the country has managed to solidify its presence as a quality wine producer over the past few decades. As a huge fan of South African wines, I wanted to share a few tips on what to try!

Reds are smokey-meaty:
This is a good thing — fire up the grill! Something about the land in South Africa brings out a gamey character in red wines, like bacon fat or smoked meat, especially in Syrah. Of course, this has nothing to do with the wild game that runs about in the country, but it is a happy coincidence — South African red wines are some of our favorites for roasted meats, stews, dishes from the grill, or anything wrapped in bacon (and what is not amazing wrapped in bacon?!?!?).

Sauvignon Blanc rivals that of New Zealand:
Crisp, grassy, tropical, zingy — all words that perfectly describe this alternate Southern Hemisphere thirst quencher.

But Chenin Blanc should be your new go-to wine for summer:
Chenin Blanc (until recently, the most abundantly planted grape in South Africa) is made in a dry style here, and is quite different from its Loire Valley counterparts. It has crisp acidity, a mineral component, and a wonderful texture — in a blind tasting, someone once took one of these for a Macon-Villages (which is Burgundian Chardonnay).  So if you love refreshing whites with character at great values, stock up!

At least try Pinotage:
If you’ve heard of Pinotage, congratulations. If you love Pinotage, well… you’re in the minority! The “flagship” crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that was concocted in a laboratory in 1925 hardly made the wine world swoon when it was first introduced. But wait! There is plenty of high-quality, GOOD Pinotage, despite the general public opinion.  It’s certainly worth a try, especially the excellent example from Southern Right.

Merlot: The “M” Wine

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Don’t look at me like that! Just because there is a big “M” on my chest does not mean that I am bad. I wanted to be pure and chaste and loved from afar, but you brought me to too many parties and there I was on a table. foils cut and uncorked. The servers poured me into big goblets and everyone drank me like I was nothing. Wineries through the decades planted me in low quality, high yielding vineyards just so they could make money of my vines. Can you imagine that? My daddy, Cabernet Franc, and my mother, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, would never have approved. Or would they? Unfortunately it worked; everyone drank me like water and tossed the empties into the recycle bins.

There are over 600,000 acres of Merlot planted in the world. Most of it in France, a great deal in Italy, some in the United States, Australia, Chile and Argentina – I suppose there are Merlot plantings everywhere. Merlot is an important varietal. The grape provides plenty of soft, succulent red wine  that gives winemakers blending options to make their wines better. On the Left Bank of Bordeaux, a little bit of Merlot goes a long way and on the Right Bank, it is king (especially in Pomerol). Yes, I am proud to be Merlot.

October is Merlot month, and in that spirit I am tasting examples from all over the world. Follow the hashtag, #merlotme, on Twitter, and learn more about the excitement that is now surrounding the varietal. It is time to fill your shopping cart with Merlot, the “M” wine! Three of my favorites are: the 2012 Duckhorn Napa Valley, the 2011 Rodney Strong and the 2010 Twomey by Silver Oak. Now please look at me square in the eyes, I am ready to serve you. Your relationship with me may never be the same again.

From Burgundy with love: Appellation Bourgogne

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To most lonely and dedicated wine souls, Burgundy is the greatest challenge of all. One taste of a Montrachet or Romanée-Conti and one is doomed for a life of endless searching, and the painful reality of never-enough-money to even sniff wine’s Holy Grail. Even village wines cost more money than most mortals can spend. So it comes down to this: rare, ultra-expensive wines are often difficult to pronounce and harder to locate, even if one has reconciled the cost of the wine. It is no wonder that so many consumers have been chilled out of this precious wine region. Yet Burgundy, well aware of this situation, has begun to market wines that we all can afford.

Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir is now the ticket back into Burgundy and provide the world with not just delicious and affordable wines, but wines that can be found in the marketplace. Wine experts freely admit that Burgundy is the birthplace of quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While both varietals (more chard than pinot) are widely grown throughout the world, history and research always begin here. Bourgogne is now the appellation that delivers the flavors of the varietals, as well as the characteristics of Burgundy at an affordable price.

Over the last 20 years, I have been most impressed with Bouchard Père et Fils and how their continued growth to make better and better wines. The current 2012 Bourgogne Chardonnay and 2012 Bourgogne Pinot Noir are excellent representatives of this category and of these varietals. One doesn’t always have to break the bank to enjoy the wines from this land that stretches from Dijon to Lyon. This pair of wines are from Burgundy with love.