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

Tricyclo Merlot 2006

Plush, dark red in color, the nose at first suggests a heavily green Merlot, something along the lines of a Hawkes Bay merlot from ten years ago. This seems odd; aeration helps, changing the notes to heavy oak and camphor, almost a Victorian gentleman’s armoire sort of thing. Smoky bacon-wrapped cherries emerge at last, and you’ve got a fairly idiosyncratic rendition of Merlot that doesn’t seem quite to match any normal international style.Initially tannic, fairly aggressive acidity springs forth along with fairly simple red berry flavors, resolving into something like an Australian fortified Shiraz, albeit with less punch: this is thankfully a mere 13% by volume. Although not hugely complex, the oak turns out to be very well judged, offering up a soft baker’s chocolate cushion for all of that pretty cherry-berry fruit. The finish is noticeably long; a subtle hint of black olives and sweet spicy oak shows up just before the curtain falls.After two hours’ aeration, however, the wine does improve into a remarkably well put together drink; there’s enough shiny red fruit to make anyone happy, and the oak influence is subtle and interesting enough to make this really work for anyone else.All in all, this stuff is fairly delicious. Depending on its price, this is either a remarkable effort (if it’s $10) or a slight failure (if it’s $20). Funny how that works sometimes.Viñedos Errazuriz Ovalle S. A.
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Angullong A Sauvignon Blanc 2009

I gather the previous vintage was well rewarded at wine shows. Presuming the 09 is made in a similar style, I can see why. This is a generously flavoured wine, quite different in style from, say, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, despite a similarly vivid outlook. 

The nose is as cuddly as Sauvignon Blanc gets, with pungent yet soft aromas of unripe passionfruit, crushed leaf and gin. Somehow, it puts in me in mind of Smith’s Salt and Vinegar Chips, undoubtedly the best salt and vinegar crisp on the market. It’s not a seawater thing; rather it suggests the morish deliciousness of salt combined with the raw astringency of vinegar and the addictive sweetness of potato. 
The palate is quite gentle in the context of the style, though it takes until the middle palate for this to register. The attack is actually quite tight and crisp, acidity creating the greatest impression. Things broaden as the wine progresses, mouthfeel becoming thicker and flavour becoming sweeter. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hint of well-judged residual sugar, though it could just be the fruit. The acid rises again through the after palate, bringing back some zing and whisking the wine away to a clean finish. No great length, but that’s not a surprise considering the variety. 
A really crowd-pleasing style at a good price. Not my style, mind, but that’s neither here nor there.

Price: $A15
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Angullong A Cabernet Merlot 2008

There are many different interpretations of a “drink now” red wine, ranging from exuberantly fruity wines like Teusner’s Riebke through to this. I’d describe this as light, somewhat Italianate in style, except it lacks the requisite rusticity of mouthfeel to fully qualify. Nonetheless, it seems a valid enough answer to the stylistic question.

On the nose, quite expressive with a dash of caramel oak, some high toned fruit in dried peel mode and a general impression of levity. This isn’t a bruiser at all, nor is it especially refined or complex, but it’s quite a penetrative aroma profile nonetheless. The palate shows more liquidity than suggested on the nose, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. With the fruit sitting, as it does, in the upper registers, a more aggressively textural mouthfeel seems appropriate. The rough edges, though, are smoothed over here. Still, there’s ample intensity of flavour, and the fruit is clean. There’s a nice streak of acidity that runs the length of the wine too, which partly compensates for the lack of tannic fun. Pretty decent finish.
There’s some thought behind this wine, which I appreciate at the reasonable price point.

Price: $A15
Closure: Stelvin
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.

Chillán Carménère Reserva 2006

According to the back label, this wine was produced by a Swiss-Chilean company; this seems fitting as I’m currently shacked up in a lovely Swiss country hotel in the middle of Chilean volcano country. It’s been raining cats and dogs all day; after being growled out by a puma on a hiking track in PN Nahuelbuta, I’m more than ready to call it day, sit down, and have a drink.Somewhat greener on the nose than other carménères I’ve tasted this week, this has a correspondingly light color, more at pinot noir with some lightening at the rim. There are sweet spices on the nose as well: think allspice, nutmeg, and lemon sage as well. The overall effect is reminiscent of New Zealand merlot.Surprisingly peppery on the midpalate, the wine isn’t immediately particularly delicious. However, the relatively long bottle age here (most bottles I’ve seen have been from 2008 or even 2009) has smoothed out the tannins in a way that suggests most carménère is perhaps drunk too young. That being said, the wine is simple – other than fruity red peppers, or is that peppery red fruits? – there is not much here to appreciate, sadly. There are better options.Viña Chillán
Price: CLP 9500 (restaurant pricing)
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Flaxman The Stranger Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Flaxman wines are, if nothing else, beautifully packaged. Pete Caton has created the design, and lovely it is too, but the words are also well chosen and applied, something I wish I felt more often about wine labels. It’s all quite artisanal and cuddly in equal measure. The wine itself is made from purchased grapes (hence “The Stranger”).

The nose is slow to emerge from its shell. At first, I got a bit of stressed stalk and old oak, which has in time given way to quite dense red and black berry fruit. It’s not the most expressive nose — not right now, anyway — though it seems to express a coherent character in its low-key way. It’s almost as if there’s a whole aroma profile in there relaxing in shaded comfort. 
The palate makes complete sense of the nose, bringing what is merely suggested by the aroma into full sun. It’s also luxuriously textured. The entry shows dense, dark fruit, liqueur-like in expression and elevated in deliciousness. It also establishes a charismatic textural presence, with velvet-like tannins appearing almost instantly, weaving in and out of a fine acid line. It’s a deliciously sour, orange-juice acid that risks disrupting the more voluptuous aspects of the wine’s flavour profile, but which in the end just serves to keep things fresh and shapely. The middle palate is pure luxe, lashes of fruit flavour flowing over the tongue. There’s perhaps a hint of overripe fruit here, tending towards a prune flavour. No matter. This is a sensual wine; satin sheets and chocolates and all that implies. A decent finish rounds the experience off with a gentle taper, neither too dry nor simple.
A really lovely wine with serious “x factor,” particularly impressive considering the difficult vintage. 

Flaxman Wines
Price: $A35
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample


Frog Rock Rosé 2009 ($A15, sample)

A Mudgee rosé made from Merlot. Alas, not my preferred style of rosé. The nose is quite restrained, with muted aromas of dried cranberries, undergrowth and sweet basil, curiously attractive but lacking the level of expressiveness I would have liked to see. In the mouth, I’m not convinced by the balance of residual sugar and intensity, the former being too high and the latter too low. The acid also seems restrained, such that I find this wine lacks the essential quality of refreshment I seek in a rosé. The back palate is a little dryer than the mid-palate, which seems to tighten the latter part of the wine’s line to good effect.

I’m not sure if I’ve been let down by the wine or my expectations of it; it’s certainly clean and would no doubt taste good at cellar door after a hard day’s sampling.

Tahbilk Chardonnay 2008 ($A15, sample)

Fruit seems on the riper side, with a nose of Golden Queen peaches and a savoury, almost minerally, note too. It’s pretty rich and nostril-filling, if not overly refined. That savouriness translates on the palate as a steely, slightly hard acidity that seems at odds with what is quite plush stonefruit. If the two halves never quite meet in the middle, they nevertheless achieve a wine of decent flavour and refreshment. In particular, the wine moves quite briskly through the mouth, retaining liveliness while offering decent weight and generosity too. I’m liking this more and more as it sits in the glass. A bit jingly jangly, but in the end not bad at all.

Charles Melton Nine Popes 1996 ($NA, retail)

After a moment of mustiness passes, masses of tobacco and sweet, pure fruit. Indeed, this seems to be drinking well at the moment. I last had a bottle of this over two years ago, and at the time I remember thinking it still relatively primary in some respects. And although there’s plenty of fruit left, the wine seems more resolved than at last tasting, with a cleaner mouthfeel and greater complexity. Lots of savouriness whirls around that core of brilliant red fruit which, while simple on its own terms, is a nice foil to leather-like bottle age and general maturity. Very enjoyable.

Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2005 ($NA, gift)

Wow, a big mouthful of complex Pinot. This wine has a lot of impact and is a dense, chewy expression of the variety. A fair bit of chocolate oak, but the fruit’s character and intensity make the wine, showing a range of moods from mineral and sous-bois through to dense plum. So it’s not the most subtle wine; sometimes, a big smack in the face is exactly what I need. Quite a masculine style while retaining sufficient Pinot elegance throughout. Yum.

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.

Tahbilk Eric Stevens Purbrick Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

It’s appropriate, I suppose, at this time of year to feel grateful for a variety of things. For example, I’m grateful my liver continues to function effectively. It also strikes me I ought to be grateful for wines like this; wines that are held back for release, are strongly regional, and of exemplary quality. Mostly, though, I’m grateful to be enjoying such a lovely wine tonight.

A sweet nose — sweet in a cedar, eucalypt, earthy sort of way — that gives up very little to the  imperative of varietal correctness. There’s enough recognisably Cabernet fruit, though, to satisfy the purists. Ultimately, it is what it is and, for my tastes, the aroma is wonderfully comforting, in addition to being complex and balanced and all those serious things. 
The palate strikes me with its sense of appropriateness. It never rises above medium bodied, yet is a lesson in generosity and mature balance. On entry, lithe gum leaf and cassis wind around each other, giving way to a more textural expression of detailed fruit and earth as the wine makes its way through the mid-palate. There’s plenty of complex flavour within the context of the style, which remains doggedly elegant. The after palate dries with still-abundant tannins, quite chalky in character. They carry sweet fruit through a very long finish. Given the structure here, I’ve no doubt a few more years in bottle would yield pleasing results; I’m happy with the wine right now, though, especially in accompaniment to a cheese platter. 
Tremendously enjoyable wine.

Price: $A60
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample