Morandé Edición Limitada Cabernet Franc 2005

I’m developing a mini-obsession with Cabernet Franc lately; it’s such a distinctive variety, and has a relatively low profile as a varietal wine. I’m sure weedy (or worse) Loire reds haven’t done it any favours over the years, even they have a certain austere appeal. This wine, from Chile, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from something like a Chinon, being full flavoured and bodied. It manages to retain some of the angular elegance that I like in Cabernet Franc, though, and for that at least strikes me as worthy of attention. This is imported by Southern Cross Wine Merchants.

In the past, I’ve sensed a red capsicum note in Cab Franc that I’ve assumed is one of the more obvious varietal characters. This wine doesn’t have that note, but it still shows some vegetal influences, here — and oddly enough — closer to the crunchy gooseberry skins of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a fresh and frisky influence on what is otherwise a dense aroma profile, with ripe raspberries, tobacco and dash of the earthy rusticity that I associate with many Chilean red wines. Coherent and fun to smell.

The palate was initially too tannic to approach with much enjoyment, but a night’s rest has turned formidable tannins into a much more velvet-like mouthfeel. In fact, texture is now a real highlight of this wine. Lots of savoury berry flavour on entry, the sharper edges to the flavour profile provide movement to the middle palate, where pepper and tobacco spread over the tongue. Although it’s quite a structured wine, there’s good generosity of flavour and relatively unimpeded flow through the mouth. It’s fairly complex and what impresses me most is how well integrated the flavours are. Lovely buzzy texture through the after palate, and a decent finish, if perhaps slightly too influenced by nougat vanilla oak that is otherwise quite well behaved.

Good wine, well priced.

Price: $A30
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Santa Carolina Carignan 2008

Um, wow. Garishly purple in a peculiarly children’s-television kind of way, I can easily imagine Nomi Malone shoplifting some of this at a Sephora in Las Vegas. However, the way the wine smells is a hundred and eighty degrees away from its look: strangely dark, slightly peppery, with a nearly pickled, shoe-polished, venison meat pie edge to it, it’s a wonderfully seductive, complex wine of the sort you generally don’t associate with carignane.Delightfully immature, the wine doesn’t seem like it’s time to integrate itself just yet: there’s an initial impression of candied red fruits that quickly swaps itself out to reveal dusty wood shop shelves, somewhat clunky acidity (that thankfully keeps it all in check), and a thick, fat outro that slides by on groovy, tannic rails towards a long, gentle finish redolent of unfashionable hard candies and earthy, loamy sweetness with suggestions of forest flowers – it almost reminds me of the taste of oxalis that grows near California redwoods, with an almost citric tang combined with that rich, dark, earthy fruit.This is frankly insanely delicious – I wish I had some Parmesan cheese to eat with it, but alas, I don’t. If more wineries made carignane like this, I suspect more people would drink it. Then again, outside of California and Chile, I’m not sure there are a lot of winegrowers who take the trouble to grow it well.Santa Carolina
Price: CLP 6900
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Undurraga Altazor 2005

Altazor.jpgI’m jealous that Chris was able to visit this winery on his recent trip to Chile. Fortunately for me, the local distributor is a colleague of mine, and it was this connection that led to being able to taste Undurraga’s premium wine, the Altazor. 

Being half Asian, I appreciate the spectacle of ostentatious vulgarity as its own form of style. Hence, I am attracted to the packaging here. The bottle itself is weighty, with an obscenely deep punt, but what makes it for me is the unapologetically gold labelling, medallion-like in its glittering assertiveness. How can one fail to enjoy a wine so presented?
I thought it was corked at first, but the slightly corky smell faded and turned into raw oak and a curious tobacco note that reminded me of Carménère. No surprise, then, to know this wine, while predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, has a percentage of that characterful lost grape of Bordeaux. On the nose, crushed leaves, complex berry fruit — purple and red in character — and perhaps slightly jammy. I found the aroma to change throughout my experience of this wine, constantly shifting and evolving in an attractive way.
The palate is strikingly intense, yet only medium bodied, the combination of which establishes its intent as decidedly European. The fruit is pure, driven and attractive, varietal yet at the same time characterful, with an earthy, distinctively leafy edge. The attack is substantial and full, tapering slightly to medium and after palates of more elegant proportions. The finish powers through, extending to considerable length, with fruit and sweet, slightly uneven tannins carrying the can. There’s a particularly intriguing note of minerality on the finish, really striking and beautiful. Everything about this wine speaks of quality.
If you’re going to do a premium label, this isn’t a bad approach. It’s powerful and balanced, made in a classic mould, but with its own identity too. 

Price: $A80
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

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

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

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

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.

Lapostolle Casa Merlot 2007

This wine is all kinds of lovely. It smells of black olives, tapenade, oregano, lemon myrtle, smoke, and red fruits. It’s all rather complex, with a real sense of style. It tastes expensive: very bright acidity working in tandem with a sort of thick, almost yeasty body with smoky barrel notes and a fine sweetness finishing on a firmly tannic note. It’s almost as if there were such a thing as sugar-glazed black peppercorns: it’s all rich smoky sweetness, absolutely lovely. The finish really does coat your mouth with tannin, though, so if you’re drinking some of this, it would really, really help to have some steak handy.I drank a couple of New World wines last week – a $25 bottle from Napa and a $25 bottle from Mendoza – and although both of them had rich, round fruit and high alcohol, they weren’t anywhere near as pleasing as this wine is. I’m sensing not only restraint in the alcohol department but also a willingness to avoid industrial yeasts and simple, primary fruit flavors. This winery makes a wine this complex look easy. Lapostolle

Closure: Cork
Source: Gift