Chile, Day 2: Lapostolle

Fun fact: when I landed in Chile, I had no idea, but I’d always pronounced the name of this winery incorrectly. Even though I vaguely knew that Lapostolle is the name of the French family that produced Grand Marnier liqueur, I somehow thought that the name would be pronounced as if it were a Spanish name – and I was totally wrong. Sitting with an old friend of mine in a Peruvian restaurant in Valparaiso, sharing the best ceviche I’ve ever had, I was trying to thank him for the wines he’d selected as a belated wedding present and, well, I got it wrong. It’s Lapostolle, three syllables, and very French.

Forty-eight hours later I found myself relaxing over a lunch of empanadas and beef stew behind a colonial bakehouse in Cunaco, a small town in the Colchagua valley, just down the road from Viu Manent winery. The restaurant was called Mistela, and there is no doubt in my mind that you couldn’t possibly find a better restaurant in wine country. It was summertime, warm with a slight breeze, and we sat outside at an old wooden table, looking across fields of wildflowers towards grapevines in the distance. The service was gracious, the food nothing short of amazing – and most importantly, I felt truly relaxed and a million miles away from my office. Lapostolle had confirmed a visit to the winery later on in the afternoon, and I was hoping that it’d actually work out, unlike the Cousiño-Macul debacle the day before.

Fed, watered, and thoroughly refreshed, we hit the road again and snuck over into the relatively small Apalta valley, which meets up with the Colchagua valley near the relatively large town of Santa Cruz. Seeing that we were slightly ahead of schedule, we drove past Lapostolle and on to Montes winery, which was only a km or two further. Unlike other Chilean wineries, their gate guard was friendly and welcomed us in, explaining where we could park and that the gift shop was open. Sure enough, it was, although you reach it by way of their offices, which was a little bit strange. Lovely building, though, and if you ever wanted a Montes T-shirt or apron, you’d be in the right place. Once again, though, it wasn’t clear if you could taste wine or go on a tour, and time was running out, so we made our excuses and left.

Back down the road a couple of miles and there we were at a rather imposing gate compound with a guard; slightly confused (which appears to be usual for me when visiting South American wineries, I’m afraid), I waited for the guard to appear. He did, bad Spanish ensued, and he smiled and explained how we could get up to the winery, which was easy enough. Several minutes later – we drove slowly so as not to dust out the vines – we arrived at a very plain parking lot, parked, and sat down with a couple of German tourists and waited for the tour to start. The tour started – and then Lapostolle’s Brand Ambassador, Diego Gosselin, arrived, introduced himself, and soon it became clear that we weren’t there for the tour, but rather for something a bit more in depth than that. Suitably embarrassed, I thanked him profusely, and then we got to work.

Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Grand Marnier, founded the winery in 1994. It’s a familiar story: French company visits the New World, preferably somewhere where the harvest isn’t the same time as France, and founds a winery dedicated to producing high quality wines. Sometimes it doesn’t work out – I still miss the Deutz winery that used to be in California – and sometimes it does. Just as Robert Mondavi partnered with Chilean to found Seña – in that case the Chadwick family – the Lapostolle family partnered with the Chilean Rabat family. Unlike Mondavi, though, the Lapostolle family eventually took over the entire operation, buying out the locals.

Grapes had first been planted near the site of the winery back in the 1920s, which meant that the Lapostolle folks had a fairly good idea as to the potential quality of the site. Many of the vines are still producing today, which of course means that if you’re looking for old vine Carménère and Merlot, then this is probably a good place for you to start… but I digress. The older vineyards are generally on the valley floor, but they’ve also begun planting newer vineyards on the hillsides as well, taking full advantage of the microclimate of the site. Standing outside the winery, I was reminded somewhat of the Dry Creek Valley in California, or Sonoma more generally: it seemed warm, dry, rocky, a little bit scrubby… only the Andes looming in the background were an obvious reminder that this was not even remotely Californian!

Mind you, I’m no architecture critic, but I have a real soft spot for building that are designed not to be flashy from the outside, but rather to be wonderfully thought out once you’re on the inside. The entrance to the winery was nothing special – it reminded me of a Spanish seaside hotel, concrete and wood and glass, but of course it wasn’t designed to be beautiful, but rather to be functional. During harvest, it looked to be no problem to set up sorting tables outside to receive grapes coming in on trucks; just as with, say, Drouhin Oregon, it had also been constructed to minimize energy usage and to avoid having to pump wine around the winery (it’s gravity-fed – and they seem to be fans of pigéage, only pumping over once or twice at the beginning of fermentation and then again only for the standard product lines).

Speaking of product lines, they were thankfully straightforward: Casa at $12, the Cuvée Alexandre line at around $20, and Clos Apalta, the tête de cuvée, at around $75. Grapes for the flagship wine are grown here, as merlot and cabernet for the Cuvée Alexandre, but they’ve got other vineyards as well; their syrah and sauvignon blanc comes from the Cachapoal valley (up by Altaïr winery), and they’ve even got chardonnay planted in the Casablanca valley, the fairly cool valley nearer to Valparaiso than to Santiago. Of course this is an oversimplification – I think they may have other, smaller vineyards near these main three – but I was taking notes as furiously as I could and didn’t get it all down!

Anyhow: we walked through the winery and this is what I remember. Gravity-fed as much as possible, it looked superficially like Altaïr on a grand scale, with large oak uprights for fermentation arranged in an oval, smaller barrels on the next level down, older barrels on the floor below that, and underneath it all a very James Bond-like wine library as well, complete with futuretronic auto-lifting glass door (yes, really). As I mentioned earlier, the winery is set up so that you can hand-carry sorted grapes directly from the sorting table into the room with the oak uprights; once they’ve moved grapes from into the uprights, they’ve got equipment to chill it down to about 5 degrees for a week or so. Unusually, they don’t use packaged yeast at all, opting instead to go with local native yeasts; they’re also in the process of certifying their vineyards as biodynamic (!) over the next two years or so. In short, they’re obviously dedicated to leaving things as much as they are as possible: no acidulation, no pesticides, no added yeasts, no nothing. Just as the winery building itself shows its beauty in its functionality (and the wonderful views out over the vineyards and valley, of course), I started to get the feeling that these people are very serious indeed about producing wine that has a real sense of place to it.

Speaking of dirt, the 200-odd hectares of vineyards nearby are planted on gray sand with clay way down deep. Surprisingly, they dry-farm the older, established vines on the flats, but the newer ones on the hillsides still have drip irrigation set up for now. Everything’s south-facing, too, which means that it’s cooler than vineyards down in the valley proper. However, there is another subtle difference: it doesn’t get as cool at night as it does in the valley because cool air from the Andes doesn’t flow down this valley. In short, it sounds like it’s overall cooler but with less temperature variation than the Colchagua valley proper.

After viewing the winery proper, we had a quick squiz at the guest houses; I’d seen them online but alas found them to be solidly outside my price range (let’s just say that a single night’s stay for two people cost more than a round-trip ticket to Chile from Los Angeles does). Up close and personal I found myself briefly kicking myself for not going into debt to stay there – yes, they were beautifully furnished and oh, that view – but thankfully I returned to reality soon enough and was more than happy to sit down and taste the wine.

We tasted eight wines at Lapostolle; here are my notes from the day.

1. Casa Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (92% sauvignon blanc, 8% semillon)

This is from the Rapel valley, further north than the winery; the Rapel valley includes the Cachapoal valley, which is where (I presume) most of the grapes for this wine were grown. This part of the country does get cold air coming down from the Andes, so it’s a cooler climate than the Colchagua valley. The soils are largely alluvial, with lots of large pebbles.

Tasting notes: Lush and perfumed, almost like fresh Bartlett pears. Not Kiwi or Sancerre at al, not fruity banana wine either; maybe a bit of tropical fruit, but a definite edge of waxy, lemon notes presumably from the old vine semillon mixed in from the Colchagua valley. Returning to it for a second time, there is a definite hint of a cat’s pee nose here; the most impressive thing here is (to me) the texture, which is rich, creamy, and mouth-filling. The finish is long as well.

This wine seemed to me to be very good value for money – and if not perhaps as good as the Lapostolle semillon sauvignon blanc chardonnay I’d had earlier in the week, only so because this was styled more along the lines of a dry white Graves. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from watery Californian, tropical-fruit New Zealand, or stony-mineral Sancerre; it manages to taste different and interesting enough to warrant a purchase.

2. Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay 2008

This, the only wine from the Casablanca valley, would therefore be the wine from the coolest climate. At first, a very worked style was apparent, with very subtle flavors of quince and wood smoke. It opened up to show a really lovely sort of baked custard tart quality, delicate and creamy; I guessed that there was definite lees stirring here and I was told that I wasn’t wrong (thankfully). Toasted nuts were also in evidence, but as with everything else very restrained, very elegant; the wine appeared to be all about showing as many distinct notes simultaneously without any one aspect dominating. Definitely more Burgundian than Californian, though, with no hint of any buttery or blowsy characteristics.

As it turns out, the trick here is to gather biodynamically grown fruit from seven different exposures, vinify some of it in 1- and 2-year French oak and some in stainless, and avoid malolactic fermentation. Mix it all together and presto, you have an absolutely elegant wine that would be good value at twice the price.

3. Casa Carménère 2008 (85% carménère, 15% merlot)

Grown with fruit bought in from contract growers as well as with some estate-grown fruit, we’re back at the value brand here. What’s it like?

Kind of an aggressively fruity/jujube aspect to the nose here, frankly kind of whorish, but it tastes much more serious than it smells. Plenty of firm, somewhat drying tannins here that show quickly after the sweet plums and smoky mouth; there’s also a note of spearmint or eucalyptus on the nose, which makes for a quirky, moderately complex wine.

If you’re a fan of the Chris Ringland school of winemaking, this might be a good place to start. Definitely aggressively fruity compared to their more expensive wines, the big tannins here should make this an excellent choice for steak. On its own, though, it’s overwhelming; you could try cellaring it a couple of years to tame the tannins, but you’d be better off grilling T-bones, I think.

Interestingly, they don’t add acid to their carménère, which appears to make Lapostolle very much the odd man out here. According to Alder Yarrow, nearly 100% of Chilean carménère is acidulated – but this one isn’t. I didn’t detect any flabbiness here at all, though, so I suspect they’re doing something very right in the vineyards.

4. Cuvée Alexandre Merlot 2007 (85% merlot, 15% carménère)

An entirely estate-grown wine, this strikes me as a very Ridge-like wine: native yeasts, relatively little new oak, no fining, minimal filtration, and biodynamically grown grapes. In short, no tricks here.

Tasting notes: Relatively light and sweet (not in terms of sugar, but rather sucrosité… you know), there’s also a fleeting hint of tomato leaf; the overall effect is very fresh and appealing. Medium in body and very supple, the wine shows almost a kind of smoky, meaty effect (which I suppose is probably the ubiquitous carménère adding depth and complexity to what would otherwise be a merely pretty wine). There’s also a subtle hint of black olives and some burnt cocoa notes on the finish; there’s also a fleeting hint of that spearmint or eucalyptus oil on the nose here too. Tannins are fine and well-judged; not dominant, just correct.

5. Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (85% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot)

Another estate wine, at this point I was definitely getting a strong sense of the house style; again, I’d say that the most stylistically affiliated wineries I can think of would be Ridge in California and perhaps Grosset or Clonakilla in Australia. I almost got the sense that the person making these wines was following a few simple rules: grow grapes the best you can, don’t mess with it, and when in doubt, aim for elegance, not raw power.

My tasting notes: Mulberry scented wine here with a very young look to it in the glass. Pain grillé here for sure, no doubt about it; a wonderful, almost textbook example of how to use oak to add complexity and balance to a wine without overwhelming it. Initially sweet (again in the sense of rich, concentrated fruit), the wine quickly shows complex spices and herbs. Absolutely huge character here; this is the proverbial “loads of personality.” Overall, the tendency is towards oregano and herbal notes, which are in pretty incredible balance with the spicy oak and rich fruit. Tannins are the only thing that don’t seem quite there yet; they’re somewhat lighter than the other wines, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I’d be very, very excited to taste this again in a year’s time and see where it’s going.

6. Cuvée Alexandre Syrah

This is an estate wine as well, but from the Las Kuras vineyard near Requinoa in the Cachapoal valley; this is just down the road from Altaïr.

My tasting notes: This is very, very much la syrah here, feminine and floral, and not Côtes du Rhône or (God forbid) Barossa shiraz. Smoke and bacon fat, classic in the extreme here, this is smokehouse violets lying on a raw venison steak.

I stopped taking notes on this wine because I wanted to fully experience it in the moment: this was possibly the best wine I tasted in Chile. There are a handful of New World syrahs that all manage a similar effect: the rich, ripe fruit you don’t often get in the Old World, but not overwrought at all, but rather sensitively grown and vinified with an eye towards smoked meat, bacon fat, and flowers. For my money, this wine can hold its own with the likes of Cayuse and Clonakilla. Truly remarkable wine, no question about it.

7. Cuvée Alexandre Carménère 2008 (85% carménère, 15% merlot)

This wine hasn’t been released yet; I believe it’s the first go at a midrange carménère, rounding out the Cuvée Alexandre line. For better or worse, this is very much carménère; it’s kind of a love it or hate it proposition. Me, I wasn’t a huge fan of this wine at all.

Tasting notes: The acid seems a bit out of whack here. Overall, the wine tends towards the bass end of the spectrum, showing notes of dark chocolate, tobacco, and spices. If the syrah was elegant, this is a wine taken in nearly the opposite direction: this is muscular, brutal, and very nearly harsh. If it were up to me, I would hold this back for a year before selling any of it at all: the tannins need time to soften, and it just doesn’t seem well integrated at this point. I suspect this wine could be a big seller at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, but this really isn’t a style I particularly appreciate.

8. Clos Apalta 2007 (61% carménère, 12% merlot, 24% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot)

Nearly every winery produces a wine that’s much more expensive than anything else the winery produces. This retails for triple the price of the Cuvée Alexandre; yields are lower than any other wine they produce, they use only new barrels, the vines are ancient (well, 60 or 80 years old) and ungrafted, they’re biodynamically grown, everything’s hand-destemmed, all native yeasts… you know the drill. We’ve all been to wineries and read through the list of Reasons Why This Wine Is Totally Worth A Lot Of Money. We then taste the wine – if we’re lucky – and most of the time my reaction is “well, OK, I taste the new oak and it’s concentrated and, well, that’s all well and good, but is this really anything special?” This wine is.

Sometimes – not very often, but every once in a while – you smell a wine you haven’t tasted before and the first thing you think is “oh, there’s that undefinable, ineffable great wine smell.” This hasn’t happened often to me.

My tasting notes: Unctuous, almost like Port at first, the wine smells overwhelmingly of graphite, stone, and minerals. This does not smell like fruit. Tarry, rocky, stony, asphalt and tar: additionally, there is huge, bright acidity here that suggests immense ageing potential. Tannins are curt, serious, and not at all green. There’s almost a fresh, wet redwood smell here; I also feel warm stones and sense a light jasmine or honeysuckle perfume surrounding it all. This wine manages to balance acidity an dfruit absolutely perfectly; there is obvious structure here that will carry this wine forward for decades.

The greatest wines are not like other wines. The greatest wines are instantly recognizable as themselves and themselves alone. This wine has the potential – and I hope that it eventually is – to be recognized as one of the greatest New World wines.


When we were finished at Lapostolle, I felt that we’d just experienced something very, very special. A month later, I’m still convinced of that; the Cuvée Alexandre syrah and the Clos Apalta in particular were phenomenally lovely wines that really went the extra mile: they showed, well, terroir. After all of the hype I’d heard about carménère, I feel like I’ve finally tasted something that justifies it; just as with California zinfandel or Hunter sémillon, I think that Lapostolle are obviously growing something equally distinctive (in the sense that no other place on Earth produces anything like it) – and they’re doing everything right in the vineyard and winery to ensure that its character is transmitted without distortion.

More like this, please!

Casa Lapostolle
Price: $NA
Closure: Other
Source: Other

Clayfield Wines

I sometimes become intellectually lazy if immersed in something for too long. Perhaps it’s a universal experience or simply a personal failing; in any case, one of the great pleasures of any long term endeavour is to reach a tipping point of challenge and stimulation where jaded complacency gives way to renewed enthusiasm.

I mention this not simply in passing; this afternoon, I spent several wonderful hours tasting wines with Simon Clayfield. The wines were his current (and some previous) releases under the Clayfield Wines label.  I’ve written about Clayfield Wines before and confess to have enjoyed them beyond reasonable measure; to me, these are wines of immense integrity and appeal.

The process of tasting them at length with their maker was in some respects daunting. Clearly — and unsurprisingly, given I am but an enthusiastic amateur — the sophistication of his palate far surpasses my own, so it was as much a learning experience as anything else. What was fascinating, though, was to understand the common thread that holds these wines together, and how this might relate to a certain philosophy of wine.

What they are not is superficially uniform. Variation between vintages and labels is striking, so much so that it was a challenge, at first, to relate the wines to one another in a meaningful way. They do in fact relate, and quite profoundly, but there isn’t anything so obvious as, say, showy oak or a put-upon style on which to hang one’s tasting hat. What unifies this portfolio, and perhaps Mr Clayfield’s approach in general, is a pragmatic response to vintage variation and site character combined with an uncompromising attitude towards balance.

These overriding principles make sense of a portfolio of Grampians Shiraz wines whose alcohol levels range from about 13% to 15.8% abv (in the case of the 2008 Thomas Wills Shiraz) and whose styles move from elegantly spicy and medium bodied to full-throttle, dense and quite tannic. Indeed, once finished tasting, I felt as if I’d had a glimpse into the region’s full potential, which is an impressive achievement within a single portfolio of wines.

The 2005 Black Label wine prompted me to suggest perceptible alcohol isn’t necessarily a fault. This is certainly out of step with the current vogue for elegant, medium bodied styles, but I reiterate my feelings here and provide the 2008 Massif and 2008 Thomas Wills wines as ample evidence in support of this position. Both show some alcohol on the nose and palate (keeping in mind our tasting conditions included a 42 degree Summer’s day), yet remain coherent expressions of Shiraz that are refreshing and food-friendly. Most importantly, these wines show balance, in the sense that no one element stands out to the detriment of the others.

The 2008 Massif Shiraz ($A25) changed enormously in the glass. Starting quite big, with some port-like aromas, I found it initially challenging, as I rarely enjoy a fortified character in red table wines. As it cooled a little, the wine freshened considerably, evolving its aromas through several stages to end at ripe plum, cherry pips and olive. The palate is luscious and rich, not at all overripe, with fabulously smooth tannins and a sense of expressive, accessible fun. This is the closest Clayfield Wines comes to an early drinking wine, in the sense that it is open and generous, though showing a sense of complexity that other wines at this price point would do well to emulate.

The 2008 Thomas Wills ($A35) is a curious wine, conceptually. The intent here is to reference an outmoded red wine style of the sort that might have been drunk a hundred years ago, perhaps before striding out to face a renowned fast bowler in a game of cricket. I described it while tasting as an “anti-fashion” wine, and it stands alongside wines such as those from Wendouree in terms of its independence from the prevailing vinous norms.

To the wine itself, this is altogether tighter than the Massif, showing more complex aromas of rich aniseed and almonds alongside robust dark fruits. As with all the wines I tasted, mouthfeel is striking, here showing a round, textured presence through the middle palate and beautifully fine, silt-like tannins that melt onto the back of the tongue. This is a beautiful wine, coiled and tight for now, with a depth of fruit and power only hinted at. The alcohol is absolutely in balance within the context of this style, seeming to enhance flavours on both nose and palate, similarly to how salt might bring out the inherent flavours in a particular dish.

Oak handling on both these wines is quite different, yet very sympathetically done in both cases. This positive oak treatment is in line with my notes for previous Clayfield wines and clearly a strong point for this maker.

The 2006 Black Label Shiraz ($A45), which is the premium label, is all potential at the moment. It’s very aromatic, with almonds and other high toned aromas sitting atop powerful, but restive, spice and plum fruit. The dots may not be connected right now, but they are all there and it seems what is needed is simply time. The palate shows a remarkably elegant flavour profile, with the sort of seamlessness one always finds in the best wines. Classic Grampians concentrated plum fruit and spice, shored up by an abundance of chalk-like tannins. This will be fabulous.

According to the most recent newsletter, the 2004 Massif Shiraz is currently available as a museum release at $A40. A riotously expressive nose, with brown spices (cardamom-like), a good whiff of iodine, subtle but glossy cedar oak and some char siu, all atop regional fruit in the fresh plum spectrum. We spent some time discussing the iodine character, which is really distinctive and reminiscent of the seaside and Betadine swabs in turn.  The palate is light to medium bodied and, structurally, there’s still a lot here. Definitely one for those who enjoy classically styled, lighter wines, it shows a sense of balance that is quite different from, say, the 2008 Massif.

The 2004 Massif comes from a single (non-Estate) vineyard on an East-facing slope, which is shaded in the afternoon and, hence, develops quite different flavour characteristics from sites that receive more sunlight late in the day. This is strikingly, almost blatantly, obvious in the wine. There’s a sense of honesty here; a transparent view into the fruit that isn’t so much about “minimal intervention” (whatever that means) but which is all about understanding the best expression of a particular site in a particular vintage, and working to highlight this character above all else. I feel with this wine I am tasting the vineyard and year, which is, after all, the point of great wine.

The 2001 Black Label Shiraz was a real treat for me, as it’s the first Clayfield wine I’ve tasted with evident age. On the strength of this, I’ll be ensuring I always leave a few aside each vintage. Initially, a big hit of ripe banana, which is apparently related to the particular yeast used. This blew off after a while, revealing the most floral aroma profile of all the wines tasted. It smells of classic Grampians Shiraz but also, lightly, of juicy green flowers and honeydew melon. It’s the freshness of watermelon skin and aloe vera, and it adds a fascinating dimension to this wine. A small percentage of Chardonnay may be a contributor here.

On the palate, there are some deliciously leathery aged characters just beginning to peep out alongside a structure showing hints of that wonderfully limpid quality of older red wines. It’s far from old, though, with masses of primary fruit and interest. The whole is very clean, and shows a sense of relaxation and ease that is quite beguiling. It reminded me a bit of the 2005 Black Label in its round, luxurious mouthfeel. This is a wine to make you feel smart if you drink it with dinner; casual elegance, effortless sophistication.

I felt humbled and somewhat demolished after tasting through the range. They are without exception excellent wines, all of which I would be happy (indeed fortunate) to have on my table. Yet their differences challenged me at first. I suppose that’s what happens when you begin to understand something more deeply. My experience of the Grampians until now has been mediated by some flagship wines that are distinctive and beautiful in their own right (Seppelt St Peters, Bests Bin 0, Langi, Clayfield Black Label), plus a smattering of lower priced labels with a similar, less amplified, regional character.

What the Clayfield wines gave me is a view into the fabric of the region, full of site and vintage variation, leading to wines of uniformly high interest but wonderfully diverse character and style. I felt I had zoomed in for a closer look, and the closer I came, the more there was to see. That’s a deeply exciting thing for a wine lover to feel, as it promises exploration and inexhaustible interest.

How nice, then, to have a guide like Simon Clayfield, who, quite apart from being a technically accomplished winemaker, imparts a sense of appropriateness to all the wines he touches. His is a different approach from the winemaker who imposes a certain character irrespective of what the season might be saying. There’s a celebration of diversity in the Clayfield portfolio, of responding to nature and a particular moment in time, seeking to bring out the best in each opportunity to make wine.

Chile, day 2: Altaïr

I’ve just settled in to a comfortable, faintly antiquated (do the ’40s count yet?) lounge chair at the Hotel Antumalal in Pucón, and it’s time to finish up my wine tourism-related blogging for this trip to Chile. After all, this may be a not-for-profit/just-for-fun endeavor on our part, but letting it infringe on my volcano-climbing, hot-springs-soaking vacation-having good times is probably not a good idea. (Then again, it did serve as an excuse for the lovely hotel staff to loan me two wine glasses without giving me grief for eating or drinking something that I hadn’t bought from the hotel – yay for that.)

Last Wednesday, the 23rd, we left Santiago behind for a day trip down to the best known Chilean wine producing region, the Colchagua valley. Although I had again written to a few wineries a week before, only two replied to E-mail, so only two winery visits were planned. Because my Dad is a big fan of Montes pinot noir, I decided I’d stop in there as well if possible, but other than that? Two would certainly suffice, especially if I somehow achieved my dream of finding the perfect wine country restaurant for a long, leisurely lunch outdoors.About an hour and a half after leaving the hotel in Santiago, we turned off for Altaïr winery, located a dozen or so miles east of Route 5, the national north-south highway – and in the Cachapoal valley, which is higher, cooler, and to the north of the Colchagua valley. Yes, their Web site suggested they were only 1 hour 15 minutes from Santiago, but I can’t for the life of me see how that would have been legal (or possible: the amazing infrastructure upgrades and improvements seem to have resulted in an amazing amount of commerce, of lumber trucks and apple trucks and, well, I’m sure you’ve seen Chilean produce: this is where it comes from).

Altaïr, as with Seña, is a joint venture gone wrong (as it were). Just as the Mondavi family imploded after going public and investing in not-so-great-in-retrospect ventures such as Disney California Adventure theme park wine attraction (no, really), Altaïr is what’s left over of a French-Chilean joint venture. The French have long since departed, but the Chileans are carrying on very well, thank you, paying careful attention to the land and upgrading things as they see fit (they’ve recently ripped out the merlot and sangiovese and are replanting with more appropriate grapes for the local climate). The winery itself is of course shockingly modern and appropriately expensive, presiding over a very dramatic view over the valley. Inside, it’s filled with artwork to rival any Napa boutique winery and packed to the gills with beautiful technology designed to make gravity do the work wherever possible: no pipes and pumps here, thank you very much. Yes, the lovely French oak upright fermentation tanks are a bit old and they aren’t quite able to replace them on the originally intended schedule, but you know what? I’ve had amazing wines from completely neutral concrete tanks, so I don’t think that’s going to bother anyone except the occasional luxury-minded tourist who’s there more for the experience than the wine.

Speaking of the experience, we paid $36 per person to visit. Was it worth it, you ask? Well… I’ll give a very, very cautious yes here. Upon arriving at the winery and negotiating the gate security (always a pleasure… hrm), we slowly made our way up the hill to the stunning winery building where we were greeted by a lovely young woman who spoke flawless English. She then guided us over to an outdoor patio where another woman was waiting with a spread of coffee, tea, cookies, and freshly squeeze orange juice, making sure that anything we could possibly want to eat or drink before the tour was ready for us. Sure, drinking coffee was probably a bad idea in terms of tasting wine later on, but who could resist a cup of freshly brewed coffee with homemade cookies with an amazing view like that over the valley? Yes, I know I’m not talking about wine for a minute here, but in terms of pure tourist satisfaction, that alone was worth the entrance fee. To sit there, in that place, with that view, with two friendly staffers making you feel welcome was a real pleasure.

After coffee, we began the tour in earnest. Just as with any luxury winery, they were keen to talk about their selection process (three tris, single berry selection, thank you very much) and to show off the gravity-fed winery, the fine French oak barrels, and so on. All very well and good, but more interesting was the notion that they vinify their two wines (they only make two!) entirely separately – unlike, say, Quilceda Creek, they don’t declassify lots and then sell it under a separate label. They keep ’em separate from the get-go and sell them that way.Production is about 1,000 cases for Altaïr, more than that for Sideral, the less expensive wine.

Here are my tasting notes:

Sideral: Milky, rich, thick looking wine, still fairly young with minimal hints of age (if any). Surprisingly green at first with capsicum notes. Much more of a French vibe going on here with slighty oaky notes, extremely subtle. Finish is pretty amazing, soft and also supply tannic with extremely good legnth. Very elegant ripe fruit – no green tastes at all – with hints of dark raspberry and damson. With some air, very much of a mocha, roasted-coffee note presumably from judicious use of good French wood. Remarkably delicious.

Altaïr: Obvious sediment in the glass, remarkably beautiful to look at. Much more perfumed than the Sideral, almost more Australian in intent: reminds me of Penfolds Bin 707 cabernet. Extremely fine tannins on the finish; again, an extremely faint green smell on the nose (don’t get me wrong, I found this to be elegant and absolutely correct in this context). At the edge, almost a homeopathic dose of white flowers existing as a halo above the wine. With further aeration, almost a bit of smoky Loire-esque bacon fat too. Definitely needs time for sure, but very, very good indeed right now.

To sum up: these are both excellent wines – and yet I found myself wondering what exactly about them makes them essential. There are plenty of extremely well made wines around the world, so why these two in particular? Do we really need another luxury red wine that tastes essentially the same as many other wines in its class? Yes, I’d love to drink some of this on my own time and yes, I’d probably fondly remember the place, but you could substitute a Napa or Mendoza or McLaren Vale wine here and I may not notice at first.

After tasting their two wines, we paid our bill (ouch) and were asked if we didn’t want to buy anything else – that’s always awkward, but I tried to explain that I was worried the wine would cook in the car, which seemed to do the trick – and then we left for the rest of the day’s driving to Santa Cruz, the town at the heart of the Colchagua valley wine region. I was kind of amused that the security guard insisted on inspecting the contents of our trunk upon leaving the winery – who knows, maybe they’ve had problems with Americans stealing wine after tours? – but soon after that we were back on Route 5 south and on our way to our next destination.

Next up: lunch at Mistela in Cunaco, near Santa Cruz, and then a visit to Lapostolle.

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Chile, day 1: Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and Cousiño-Macul

After leaving Undurraga, we made our way to Viña Santa Rita; as they hadn’t replied to E-mail asking for a tour, I had to talk my way in at the gate. Thankfully, the gate guard decided that we must be there to go to the restaurant, which sounded just fine to me – I was very hungry and looking forward to the gourmet restaurant that I’d heard was on their property. We pulled in to the parking lot and… well, were confused. When you arrive at Santa Rita, there isn’t an obvious interest: there’s a striking modern museum just up the way, what looks like an old bakehouse with a few tables and chairs outside, and a big building that I suppose could be mistaken for a tasting room of sorts. However, once you enter that building, nothing is obvious. I couldn’t figure out where the tours would leave from, so I just walked through oand over to what I assumed was the restaurant.

Although the café did have food – mostly prepackaged sandwiches that looked exactly the same as the ones you’d find at a Copec gas station down the road – it was obviously not the much-touted gourmet restaurant that you see in their brochures. Hm. Well, the sandwiches were deftly augmented by freshly sliced avocado, which was lovely, and we did get to eat outside with a lovely view, so it wasn’t at all bad, just not what we were expecting. Afterwards, we wandered into the obviously newly constructed Andes Museum and had a look around; it’s a fabulous collection of artifacts from both indigenous peoples as well as early Spanish colonization. I felt like I shouldn’t have been in there at all – I mean, surely you should pay, right? – but at the same time I was very happy to see the collection.

Afterwards, I thought I’d wander into the big building and try to taste some wines. This time, they had left a door slightly ajar, leaving a view into what looked something like a tasting room – and it was obviously closed. However, on the other side of the hallway was a dimly lit stairwell – and a shop! Surely this would lead to success? Alas, no: it led to a room filled with winery-related gift shop items… and a couple from Brazil (older man, younger woman) who were deeply involved in buying a hat (an Akubra sort of thing). The two shop employees – an older man and a younger woman – were very, very involved in selling them that hat… so much so that my timid inquiries into whether or not they did any wine tastings were met with a fairly curt “we’re busy now, can you come back later?” Damn. I guess the profit margin on that had was astronomical. Oh well! At least we got to see the museum for free.

Given that I’d booked a tour at Cousiño-Macul at 4pm, we had another hour or two to kill, so I figured we’d just stop in at Concha y Toro, the humongous winery conveniently located between Santa Rita and C-M. Once again, the standard procedure was familiar: arrive at fancy gates with security guards, stumble through a bunch of bad Spanish (my fault entirely), and be admitted to parking lot. From there, it wasn’t clear what you were supposed to do next, so we just decided to walk towards the winery itself, essentially following the other tourists. We stumbled across a multimedia presentation/movie-viewing room of sorts, where a CyT employee asked us what we were doing there, so I asked to taste some wine… and he pointed out a restaurant bar to us where you could presumably by some wine. After seeing what was on offer – I think it was $30 or $50 for a flight of three of their wines, none of which were recognizably “the good stuff” – I declined and decided to go for a walk around the lavish grounds instead. That was fun enough, but I kept expecting to be kicked out of the park; thankfully, this didn’t happen, so we walked back out the front of the property only to find that the gate guard building had a small window in the back of it where you could purchase a guided tour. D’oh! Anyhow, given the large numbers of tourists here, I’d expect that it would be nothing more than a standard package-tourist sort of affair, so I figured we’d lucked out by not doing it.

With an hour left to kill before the much-anticipated Cousiño-Macul tour, we detoured to a gigantic Chilean shopping mall en route, which was awesome in that we got some amazing ice cream, but also completely insane as it was two days before Christmas. Thankfully, we found parking and made it out just in time to arrive on time, as scheduled, at Cousiño-Macul, where… the gate guard insisted that we were not allowed to enter the winery as it was entirely closed due to inventory. What? But I have a reservation, you see? I showed a printout of the E-mail from the winery to the gate guard who just shrugged and said “no.” Luckily, another car had pulled up behind us and the driver offered us use of his cell phone, so I called the woman who had confirmed the tour; she put me on hold and when she came back online explained that she’d just called another of their wineries nearby, Viña Aquitania, and confirmed a visit to that winery instead. In the meantime, we had some excitement as the better part of a London plane tree had fallen to the ground a few feet away from the car, smashing into an impressive array of future toothpicks and narrowly missing the two of us stuck at the guard shack. Wow! Somewhat irritated but relieved that they’d come up with an alternative, we then turned the car around and left for Viña Aquitania, which was at least nearby.

However, our excitement was short-lived: Viña Aquitania might have been close by, but it was most definitely closed. We pulled up to the iron gates, waited a few minutes in vain for a guard to arrive, and… nothing. Grrrr. So we called it a day and drove back into town to park the car and chill out in the hotel room before dinner.

As Billy Bob Thornton once said in Bad Santa, “They can’t all be winners.” As a wine drinkin’, tourist kind of guy, I have to say that I was thoroughly disappointed by the time I got back to the hotel – until I remembered the wonderful guide at Undurraga and the amazing luck at seeing the Andean museum at Santa Rita, which more than made up for the ineptitude of the Cousiño-Macul staff.

Bonus: We ate the night before at Miguel Torres restaurant in Santiago; I don’t have much to say about it that it was a moderately awesome experience. Even though they were out of all of the wines I had wanted to try (e.g. Carignane blends) and out of every entrée and main I tried to order (I ended up with camarones al pil pil and a nearly inedible salty-as-hell octopus dish), the waitstaff were incredibly friendly and our bottle of reserve Carménère was delicious and a wonderful accompaniment to sitting outside and watching traffic flow by. It just goes to show you that service can make up for not having the wine you want or the food you want to eat in stock; if people are friendly enough, you can shrug it off and just go with the flow.

Next up: we drive south for a day to visit Altaïr, Montes, and Lapostolle.

Chile, day 1: Undurraga

It’s been ten years since I was last in Chile. Ten years ago, I had hoped to see a few wineries, but in November 1999, all I found was that no wineries near Santiago were open as it was the off season: sure, Concha y Toro and a few other big names would be open, but only starting in November. This information was difficult enough to come by: the Internet didn’t have much information available, the local tourist offices weren’t particularly helpful, and guide books were stumped as well. I wound up visiting one winery only: Mumm had a production facility in the Casablanca Valley that looked open as we drove past, so I stopped in only to find absolutely no wine tasting available, a dusty glass display case filled with Passport scotch, Seagram gin, and Olmeca tequila (apparently these were other brands on offer from the same company that was producing sparkling wine under license from Mumm), and some Special Millennium Champaña-type sparkling wine on offer, which I bought and drank a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. (It wasn’t very good.) Otherwise, all I could do was buy stuff in local supermarkets – I never did find a wine shop – and see what I could see. Mostly, I remember that much of what was on offer wasn’t very good (especially in remote tourist areas), the prices were cheap, and nothing was particularly memorable.

Fast forward ten years: the airport’s been upgraded (finally, the domestic gates are next to the international ones), there are amazing infrastructure improvements (tunnels, highways, cash-free toll gates, you name it), English signs are everywhere, there appears to be a nascent wine tourism industry (right down to tacky tourist products like Maps Caminos de las Viñas / Winery Road Maps, produced by an Argentine firm and completely omitting any winery that hasn’t paid to be in it), wineries offer tours and tastings on their Web site, and there are even winery-specific restaurants in Las Condes and other trendy-slash-touristy areas in Santiago. Pretty awesome!

So: here’s what I did. I decided to set aside two days of my Christmas vacation to do some wine tourism things: wineries, restaurants, and anything else that I happened across. Dec. 22 was set aside for things near Santiago; Dec. 23 was set aside for things near Santa Cruz, in the Colchagua valley about two hours south of Santiago. My methodology was straightforward: E-mail or fill out Web reservation forms to book visits, ask about places to eat, and play it by ear. This post is about the first day.

Around Santiago, I wanted to visit four wineries: Viña Undurraga because it’s old and because some of its products are quintessentially old school Chilean (for example, they produce a wine called Pinot (ironically from Cabernet grapes) in a distinctive Bocksbeutel type bottle that every older Chilean knows very well), Viña Santa Rita (because their $7 wines were ubiquitous at Trader Joe’s when I first started drinking wine a decade ago), Concha y Toro (if only because they’re the biggest name in the industry), and Cousiño-Macul (because their Antiguas Reservas is a wine I’ve enjoyed before).

Of these four wineries, two of them never replied to tour reservation requests at all (Concha y Toro and Viña Santa Rita); Undurraga and Cousiño-Macul both replied quickly with written confirmations of tours. Well, I figured it was a start: I could probably fill up the time in between the two booked tours with stopping at the other two and having a look for myself.

We took off for our tour at 9am, arriving at the winery at 9:45am. A few miles before the freeway exit there was a giant Undurraga billboard advertising the winery… and then absolutely no signage after we got off the freeway! Thankfully, I’d printed out a decent map from the winery’s Web site.

Frustratingly, just as was the case in Mendoza a couple of years ago, the winery had no obvious entrance once we got there, so we eventually guessed at it and drove up to a locked gates. Again, just as in Mendoza, every winery in Chile seems to have a guard at a locked gate who speaks only Spanish (not a huge problem, thankfully, as being a Californian I picked up a little bit of Spanish growing up there) and doesn’t have a list of guests, which entailed the usual dance of me trying to explain that I wanted a tour and that I had a reservation. OK, no problem.

At the winery itself, there was a lovely tasting room set up on the edge of a beautiful green lawn, complete with wine tourism tchotchkes, bathrooms, and a friendly receptionist who took our money ($14 a person) and asked us to wait for our guide. Our guide turned out to be a young Chilean who seemed to stick more or less carefully to a script designed for tourists who had never visited a winery before, beginning with some history about the family that had founded the winery (as with many New World wineries, this was a local wealthy family with a country estate producing wine for the capital city nearby, although the winery has since passed on to different owners recently) and continuing to basic information about how wine is produced (frankly boring for anyone who’s even somewhat of a wine drinker, so I began the subtle dance of telegraphing that I knew this stuff already). Interestingly, though, the guide picked up on this quickly and began talking instead about local Chilean customs (“blend” refers to a wine with two varietal components, and “assemblage” generally to any wine with more than two varietal components) instead, which was interesting. He also took the opportunity to compare grape leaves, picking some carménère and pinot noir grapes and showing the differences between the two (which was interesting; I’ve never been good at ampelography). We then ambled through the wine production facilities, having a look at the equipment (mostly big food-grade plastic bins used for collecting grapes, plus huge destemmer-crusher and bladder press machines and some gigantic filtration devices) and the fermentation areas (humongous steel tanks and slightly less humongous steel tanks) – this was definitely industrial scale winemaking, but interesting nevertheless. We then descended into the barrel rooms, which included the occasional tourist display (the one for their Sybaris brand wines was especially lovely) as well as an entire section of the original building filled with original equipment such as ancient French presses and uprights made from raulí wood, neither of which had been used for a hundred years). They did a fine job of communicating the history of the winery and concentrated on their entry and mid-range wines with zero talk of Altazor, their tête de cuvée wine: this seemed appropriate given the targeting of the tour towards casual wine drinkers looking for somewhere beautiful to visit near Santiago; certainly, the extensive gardens and wide open green spaces were a welcome diversion from the crowded, smoggy, modern city of Santiago (and yes, they did mention that you could book in for a wedding complete with horse and buggy rides if you desired).

Upon exiting the winery itself, we were then on another corner of the same green square where the tasting room was – and the staff had set up an old wooden table under a tree with a few bottles of wine, glasses, and spittoons. The location couldn’t have been more lovely on an early summer day. Four wines were on offer.

1. T.H. Sauvignon Blanc Leyda, 2008. This was the most expensive wine of the tasting; it retails for around $15 and is a new label for the winery. T.H. stands for “Terroir Hunter” – the idea is that these are wines from distinct geographic locations and are therefore more interesting than their more traditional product lines; this one was from the Leyda valley, to the west of the winery itself. The Leyda valley is nearly at the coast (like the Casablanca valley) and has a similar maritime climate. My notes follow:

Definitely more of a peppery nose (tomato leaf?). Not sweet, good typicité. Not very much like Sancerre, not Kiwi passionfruit salad wine either. Not particularly mineral. Savory on the finish, moderately tasty.

This wine was well made and (to me) a bit on the boring side, not offering much in the way of distinction. Still, it was nice to see the new owners attempting this kind of course change for an old, somewhat fusty family winery.

2. Aliwen Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon / Carménère 2007. This would appear to be two levels down from the T.H. wines, going for about $6 locally; this was produced from the Rapel valley, which is the next major wine producing region to the south (Cachapoal and Colchagua valleys are contained within the larger Rapel valley denomination); this is an inland, often mostly warmer region. My notes follow:

American oak on this one. Fairly light in color, ruby red. 30% carménère, therefore less color here according to the guide. Very fruity on the nose, red simple fruit and perhaps some vanilla. Moderately complex with a dark, tannic finish. Not particularly interesting; obvious wood; a little thin.Frankly not bad for six bucks, but not something I’d really want to drink either. At this point, the guide went off script and talked about the Chilean national preference for strong wood flavors, singling out Misiones de Rengo winery for being especially popular – it’s got a Catholic cross on the label, they use new barrels AND wood chips, he said, so it’s the most popular wine for Chileans who want a good wine. Interesting!

3. Sybaris Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. This would be their mainstream “reserve” line, selling for around $10 locally. This is an estate wine, produced near the original winery in the Maipo valley near Santiago. My notes follow:

Lovely softer/floral typical nose, very attractive. Extremely small green note which is good, all very much in balance here.  Firm, tannic finish; very good value. The finish lasts for some time. Seems a prime example of good value Chilean wine.

4. Finally, a bottle of some God-awful way-too-sweet sparkling confection (Charmat, I believe) was offered in a hot-pink, “women like this, right” bottle obviously focus-grouped to death to appeal to the Brazilian wine market was offered. It smelled like gummi bears and tasted like children’s toothpaste. I didn’t write down what it was called and I don’t see it on their Web site; my best guess is that they’re now looking towards the Brazilian market as well. This (as it turns out) would be the first sign that Brazilians matter very much to the local tourist industry and to the wine industry as well.

We were offered the tasting glasses as a souvenir – lovely, but I don’t want to carry them around for two weeks and probably clean the broken glass out of my luggage after a few days – and then were wished safe travels home by our guide. What did I learn? Well, you’re not going to taste the good stuff at places like this, the cheap stuff is okay, the mid-range stuff is absolutely fine and very good value, and – well, Brazilians like sweet sparkling wine. All in all, this was a successful visit and I very much enjoyed the hospitality. I’d be curious to see what their traditional method sparkling wines taste like – they had some riddling racks on the property and may or may not use gyropalettes (something was lost in translation there) – and to see where the T.H. line is going (the sauvignon blanc was perhaps not the best representation of that line, I suppose).

Next up: Chile, day 1: Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and Cousiño-Macul.

Ramblings: the poetic production of wine style

The other day, I tasted a lovely white Burgundy. It was fresh and balanced and lots of other good things. On my not-overly-technical understanding, a lot of the flavours I tasted were a result of winemaker input; barrel fermentation, lees stirring, and malolactic fermentation being three that I know to have been applied to this particular wine. My tasting companion at the time remarked (and I’m relying on a hazy recollection) that he could see why many Australian producers emulate these wines and, perhaps more pointedly, how many fail.

Tasting this Burgundy, I wondered how its fruit character seemed so well matched to the winemaking treatment, showing synergies that, in the slightly alcoholic moment, defied many other wines I had tried. No doubt we produce some beautiful Chardonnays in Australia, and there’s a variety too, with significant stylistic variation between regions and producers. Yet these variations, and what seems to be a broad shift in style towards leaner wines, is telling. It’s as if the apparent naturalness and fit of the white Burgundy’s style is something we are still struggling to find in local expressions of this grape.

A recent discussion at The Winefront also got me thinking. In his introductory paragraph to a review of a Wedgetail Estate chardonnay, Gary Walsh writes: “Here’s a wine that plays to the strengths of both the Yarra Valley and Chardonnay. Hooray for that!” It seems perhaps too obvious that a producer would seek to achieve this sort of synergy when crafting a style, yet Mr Walsh’s point as I understood it was that some styles being sought at the moment aren’t sympathetic to their variety or region, leading to wines that may not capitalise on the potential of either. The discussion then devolved into questions of influence, inspiration and the process of settling on style. To my mind, these are complex considerations, without self-evident answers.

It’s not too long ago that Australian wines were identified explicitly by their adherence to Old World styles; hence, we had Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, Hock, etc. That might seem hopelessly outmoded, and perhaps it is, but it’s interesting to contemplate this approach in terms of where we are now. I would argue that, to an extent anyway, we still think in these terms. To continue the Chardonnay example, they may be labelled by variety, but comparisons with Old World styles are ongoing. One reads of local wines that are chasing “white Burgundy” or “Chablis” (or even “California”). And I get it; these models are often benchmark wines that, on one level, are worth emulating. Mr Walsh’s comment, though, throws things into disarray. By chasing a Chablis style with Yarra Valley Chardonnay, for example, are we applying a set of techniques to grapes that that may not respond sympathetically in turn? Or, to phrase it positively, I know what Chablis tastes like, but what does Yarra Valley Chardonnay, in its finest expression, offer? My bet is that, whatever its ultimate expression, it would not be mistaken for Chablis. As a consumer interested in a range of distinctive, quality wines, I would not want it to be, either.

One of the, perhaps naive, tendencies I have when tasting many wines, particularly those in the upper echelons, is to assume they are an expression of purely vinous intent. This is no doubt untrue. Winemaking is, in most instances, a commercial enterprise, so producers must consider the needs and desires of the customer in addition to their own. However, one of the attractions of wine is that, despite commercial imperatives, there is a level of passion for the product itself that translates to a focus on the sort of purity of craft and intent that, personally, is of great interest and value. And this purity, even if just one part of the picture, is the playing field in the present context. In other words, within the boundaries of the freedom afforded a producer, how does one set stylistic direction?

The easy answer is to copy something that already exists. I understand the urge towards homage, and am the first to admit that some lovely wines can result. There’s also an understable, somewhat romantic attachment to the tradition of Old World wines that can prompt the desire to emulate. But such wines frustrate me too. At their worst, they embody the pointlessness of Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake; it’s perfect, but why bother? They don’t tell me anything new or insightful. They are stillborn, in effect, because the concept behind them is an impossibility.

I’d like to think styles with longevity are those that tell us something new and that have, in and of themselves, unassailable integrity. Such a wine style would be sui generis, an inherent benchmark. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc embodies some of these ideas. I believe it is a style with longevity; a genuine regional classic that will survive the vagaries of fashion as its own, truly authentic, wine. There’s nothing in the world like it. It wasn’t arrived at by trying to closely emulate another wine. Rather, it grew from the character of the fruit and an understanding of what is unique about the flavour profile of the region. Not to suggest it is a static wine style, but it remains broadly recognisable, and the mainstream of producers seem to agree on how the fruit is best handled.

Yet such a pure view of authenticity is also an impossibility, no matter how much I might wish for it. The reality is, precedents exist, so the manner in which producers navigate the landscape of influence is, perhaps, the most relevant question of all.

Returning to my white Burgundy, conversation at the time turned to influence and poetics, two words that instantly prompt a search through the bookshelves for Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.

Bloom argues that poets are inspired to write by other poets, but that purely derivative work is inherently weak because it lacks originality. So, the influence of precursors must be negotiated in such a way as to produce work that is strong, and has longevity. The key point here is that precursors are used as a starting point, but are “misread” as a means of generating original work. The models aren’t simply reproduced, they are demolished, extended, hollowed out, improved upon, effaced, absorbed. The later poet, in other words, must engage with precursors in a destructive and creative manner, to avoid producing weak work.

The parallels aren’t perfect. The poetic canon, for example, works in terms of succession, whereas we live in a world of wine that is alive across geographic and, indeed, temporal boundaries.  But it’s instructive to look at how Bloom’s model might apply to the question at hand and see if it provides any answers. Underpinning all poetry is the notion of poetic vision. For Bloom, the task of the poet is to overcome the anxiety of influence and produce work that is strong and that expresses his or her unique vision, possibly in defiance of precursor poets. I liken poetic vision to terroir in wine. There is a truth, a uniqueness to terroir that, through vinification, can achieve its full expression.  As the poet uses language, the winemaker applies a series of techniques in vinification to most vividly communicate terroir. The job of the viticulturist and winemaker then, like the poet, is to identify and find the best means of expressing this truth. Which is another way of posing my question: how to decide what style is most appropriate given a particular parcel of grapes?

Take five Yarra Valley Chardonnays made from the same parcel of grapes but vinified separately, each in a different style. One has been made to taste as similar to Chablis as possible, a second in the Californian style but with less malolactic fermentation, the third like hyper Puligny-Montrachet, a fourth seemingly the reverse of everything we know about Meursault, the last a distillation of Chassagne style. The Chablis-like wine, to analogise Bloom’s theory, is “weak,” submitting to the influence of precursors and adding nothing new. It might be beautifully executed, and very tasty, yet it is destined to leave no lasting impression, to elicit a cosmic “who cares,” because it has nothing to say (except “me too!”). The other wines, in various ways, are attempts to produce strong work. They engage with precursors and misread them in various ways in an attempt to assert the truth of an underlying terroir. Some might be highly manipulated (there’s a sideline argument to be made here about the fallacy of minimal intervention as the best way to mediate terroir), all are potentially strong styles. Whether they are, in fact, strong styles is a matter for the vinous canon to sort out over time. It may be that the truest expression of Yarra Valley Chardonnay isn’t all that interesting (thought I doubt it). But what seems clear on this view is that an attempt needs to be made to engage with existing benchmarks in a creative, challenging and destructive way in order to understand the potential inherent to a particular terroir. One can neither seek to directly emulate existing wines from other regions, nor hope to create wine in a vacuum, uninformed by the good and great wines of the world.

There are a few implications of this argument. One is that terroir, as problematic as the term is, ought to drive style. It also suggests we need to engage deeply with Old World benchmarks in order to understand both the level of quality and style we are “up against” in the fine wine stakes. However, to see Australia as some kind of colonial outpost of Old World wine condemns us to long-term irrelevance. The answer lies not in emulating other styles, but in knowing them well enough, and being strong enough, to defy them.

Ramblings: Max Lake's Folly

Tonight, after news of Max Lake’s passing, no other wine would do but a Lake’s Folly Cabernet. And so I have a glass of the 2006 in front of me, richly regional and lip-smackingly delicious.

Truly creative people are frequently driven to publically, exhibitionistically realise their vision — not so much out of pure ego as out of a strongly held conviction that what they have to say is worth saying. The monuments that result can be sublime, grotesque, revelatory or ridiculous, depending on your point of view. But as time marches on, a canon forms, constantly evaluated and re-evaluated, challenged and affirmed. This hierarchy born of informed consensus validates the artist’s drive, and transforms an artefact into a standard against which other contenders are judged.

And so it is with Max Lake’s vinous legacy. Anyone who has taken the time to read his books can be in no doubt as to the passion he felt in matters of sensual pleasure, nor in the confidently expressed perspective from which his work sprang. I see Lake’s Folly as an integral part of Mr Lake’s oeuvre, as expressive and intellectual an artifact as his written works. Lake’s Folly wines are often discussed in terms separate from the mainstream of Hunter wine, and yet his Cabernet and Chardonnay are glorious exceptions that prove the two Hunter rules of Shiraz and Semillon. By being different, and successful, Lake’s Folly wines have carved a niche for themselves but also, ironically, have reinforced the Hunter’s classic styles. So Mr Lake’s belief both in the Hunter and in Cabernet are truly vindicated.

It is widely suggested that Lake’s Folly had a huge impact on the Australian industry. I’ve no doubt this is the case. For me, though, it’s about what I have in my glass tonight: Max Lake’s vision mediated via the (not to be underestimated) care and attention of Rodney Kempe. This is a beautiful expression of what wine should be. There’s nothing wishy-washy about its style or the intent behind its creation. That a wine can be simultaneously coveted, detested, discussed and dismissed speaks to its integrity. Tonight, I’m thinking about what wine in Australia might have been without Max Lake, and what it might be without him now. Surely, a glass of Lake’s Folly red is my only consolation.

Ramblings: Style v Substance (4 of 4)

The future

In a sense, it’s easy to describe what has come before, but much more difficult to prescribe a future path. I speak as a consumer first and foremost, someone who is unhealthily passionate about wine and who hopes to gain much pleasure from it for the rest of my life. I care deeply about what I drink, not only because wine is bloody expensive, but also because, to paraphrase Len Evans, life’s too short for crap wine. I might amend this sentiment to reflect my own point of view, which is that life’s too short for wine that isn’t true to its region, and that isn’t made to engage deeply with its inherent potential.

It’s a truism that our only unique asset as a wine producing nation is our land. The same varieties exist all over the world, but there’s only one Yarra Valley, or Margaret River. The experiences of nations with a far greater history of wine production than our own inevitably tell us that, in the end, regions are what come to be identified with wine styles.

A lot of the work has already been done by our industry pioneers and current leading lights, and thanks to them we have a range of regional wine styles that ought to qualify as national treasures. Yet there’s still so much energy and experimentation underway, and perhaps this suggests a shared feeling that the best is yet to come. It may be that in many existing regions, we’re only just beginning to identify not only the highest quality wines at a broad level, but also how a particular style may vary based on sub-region, and which outstanding vineyards ought to be recognised as such through unique bottlings. Drilling down like this enables us to capture the variety and drama within each region in order to tell, and sell, this story to the world. It also enables us to hone our understanding of what works best in a given region, focusing time and investment in these wines instead of on wines that can only deliver mediocre outcomes.

As for an end state, if we regard the Old World AOCs and equivalents as the natural conclusion to centuries of experimentation with vareties and terroirs, then in order to achieve the same level of quality and renown, perhaps we need to take a correspondingly long term view. It takes time to identify the strengths of each region, what works and what doesn’t, especially if we liberate ourselves from the comfortable constraints of received wisdom around varietal definition and style. By all means look to the Old World for inspiration, but not for wines to emulate in a New World context. Instead, take the lessons around blending, terroir and appropriate varieties and put them to work in a uniquely Australian context. Most of all, identify the truth in a region, nurture these authentic styles, and ruthlessly cull the rest.

There are some challenges with a “region first” approach. From a commercial perspective, I suspect many consumers rely heavily on varietal composition when purchasing. It’s an enormous shift to start thinking in terms of regions, especially after years of marketing and indeed winemaking focus on grape varieties. Regionality is also inherently more complex. There are only a handful of commonly used grapes in the local industry, and it doesn’t take long even for newcomers to grasp the range on offer. Regions, on the other hand, are both numerous and hierarchical in nature. A deep view consists not only of a broad categorisation (“Barossa Valley”) but also sub-region (“Greenock Creek”) and even vineyard or plot. Perhaps the shift to a more regional focus will take a long time, and may require a degree of market maturity. But if we agree that a view of wine primarily in terms of varietal composition masks our unique strength — our regions — then it’s an inevitable, necessary change. It’s our opportunity to understand what Australian wine is really about.

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Ramblings: Style v Substance (3 of 4)

A sense of place

If you accept that a sense of place is one of the principal pleasures of wine, then it becomes natural to seek out a variety of distinctive goûts de terroir. I would suggest that, historically, the Australian industry has chosen not to cultivate a series of intricate regional identities, preferring instead to view regionality more broadly or not at all. And this has often served us well. Grange, our greatest wine, embodies this approach to wine, where an identifiable style of the highest quality is achieved by using appropriate raw materials without preciousness with regard to regional origin.

I think it’s telling, though, that we have only one Grange, whereas there are myriad top French (and Italian, and German) wines that are inextricably related to, indeed that leverage powerfully off, their regions. As complex as are the rules relating to AOCs, their very existence provides support for the idea that a product’s origin, it’s regional identity, can be a powerful indicator of (perceived) quality. So whilst a 1er Cru Burgundy may not be a good wine, chances are one’s initial impression is that it might be.

In addition, the complexity associated with Burgundy’s patchwork of vineyards, whilst perhaps forbidding to a newcomer, promises endless exploration and riches to the dedicated wine enthusiast. These nuances aren’t covered up; rather, differentiation between this or that soil type is an inherent mark of the top end. Terroir is priced into the product, and consumers lap it up. Not that it’s purely a matter of marketing. The Old World lesson here is that, as a matter of course, we gravitate towards a more and more nuanced feel for regionality as a culture of wine production matures over the decades and indeed centuries. It appeals to our natural urge to overlay taxonomies and to organise what may begin as randomness. It creates a journey for us to follow. And, perhaps most powerfully, it creates the tantalising prospect of an ultimate wine — a wine that best represents a specific intersection of variety and region.

On the subject of ultimate wines, Mollydooker and its kin may represent the ne plus ultra of a particular trend in Australian wine. Broadly, this trend is represented by large scale red wines, perhaps high in alcohol, often limited run, historically popular in the North American market. They are often associated with specific wine regions in Australia: McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley amongst others. Indeed, they have helped raised the profile of these regions substantially in the international market. Further, some such wines have achieved the rare feat of conferring on specific vineyards (or even plots within vineyards) an amount of prestige. One would usually think of Burgundy when beginning to understand a region in terms of its patchwork of terroirs, but our hard-hitting red wine styles have been amongst the few in Australia to encourage scrutiny to this level.

What’s interesting about some of these wines is they combine an identifiably indigenous style with a sense of regional identity. They are, one might argue, sui generis, both authentically Australian and authentically regional. No matter one’s personal taste, it’s worth acknowledging they represent a breakthrough direction of sorts. And, further, that this future might represent the future of all Australian wine.

At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, there’s the Hunter Valley. The Hunter is well known for its Semillon which is generally regarded as a singular wine style on the international stage. Historically, too, Hunter Shiraz has carved out its own niche, occupying a more delicate, medium bodied position than our full blooded red wines. Despite possessing some of the oldest vines in Australia, indeed the world, the collective portfolio of Hunter wines is, to my view, short on insight into these individual treasures. This is why the work Tyrrell’s is doing with its range of wines is so important. By identifying especially notable vineyards or plots within vineyards and bottling their contents, wines like the Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz move us in the direction of a Burgundian model of terroir. The results, I would argue, are distinctively Australian wines that capitalise on their uniqueness whilst acknowledging the beauty of a fine-grained understanding of regional character. These wines, though they borrow an Old World approaches to region, could never be made anywhere else. And they taste it.

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Ramblings: Style v Substance (2 of 4)

Varietal definition

There’s a lot of energy in some quarters around “emerging” grape varieties. At first glance, this is intriguing because it gives us a view into what happens when you combine, say, Sangiovese with, say, the McLaren Vale. But how to judge the result? One’s expectations of character and potential quality from Sangiovese-based wines will in most cases have been formed by Italian examples. This might cloud one’s view not only of an individual wine’s quality, but of the potential for this combination and variety and region.

If we can break from the dictates of established styles, though, experimentation with different varieties could hold the key to understanding our potential as a wine producing nation. Indeed, it may expose combinations of region and variety that we’re simply not aware of today, and so illuminate a potential level of quality that surpasses our current achievements. And yet, for all this unexplored territory, I think a view of wine in terms of grape variety is fundamentally limiting. I’m aware that much of the conversation in Australia for a while now has been around varietal definition and, in the context of raising the quality bar across the industry, something like varietal correctness isn’t a bad lever to pull. But once you have a Cabernet that, we all agree, tastes broadly like Cabernet, then what?

I’ve seen the concept of field blends enter the marketing literature of late. Although field blends have been around for a very long time, it’s interesting to consider why, all of a sudden, they are gaining a perceived currency both here and abroad (especially in the USA) with wine consumers. My take is they form part of a broader trend towards “hands off” winemaking, where terroir is perceived to drive the character and quality of a wine, not the winemaker (of course this is a gross simplification). In the context of this conversation, though, field blends are especially relevant because, by their nature, they emphasise the vineyard above varietal composition. Even if it were possible to calculate the percentage of each variety in a true field blend, it would be quite beside the point. Wine is a product of its vineyard, full stop.

There are local precedents. The Lake’s Folly Cabernet, a long-established Hunter Valley label, eschews a purist view of varietal definition in the pursuit of a clearly defined regional style. This wine is a veritable fruit salad of grapes, yet year after year tastes resolutely of the Hunter Valley and, crucially, of itself. It is also a wine of the highest quality. That it tends to divide drinkers only adds, in my view, to its worth. Real personality, after all, always provokes a reaction.

The Unison Selection from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay is a contemporary Kiwi example of terroir-driven style at its most distinctive. Deliberately reticent about its precise varietal composition, its makers prefer to emphasise their flagship wine’s integrated flavour profile above its constituent components. Here’s a wine that blends several varieties found in Hawkes Bay to achieve something that tastes purer than any single variety might.

And rightly so; varietal “correctness” can be the great leveller, but it can also detract from an inherently unique regional influence. Who, really, cares the exact percentage of each variety that goes into a favourite Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape? The enduring character in these wines doesn’t come from rigid ideas around varietal blending (which, indeed, continue to change over time) but from broadly understood notions of style. I love the Unison Selection and Lake’s Folly Cabernet because they, first and foremost, identify with their respective regions, and use whatever mix of grapes is required to achieve their stylistic goals.

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