Monday, May 9, 2011

CHILE; Center of the Universe

A shelf-talker placed in front of the wine display case would have been overlooked if not for the hand-written accolade from the wine retailer posted next to it. "Great value from a cutting edge producer", it said. "Lot's of generous black fruit", and "organic", also caught my eye. I knew that the wines from Chile that were currently in our marketplace had grown into becoming a world standard for value.  Yet, in the back of my mind was the image of a dusty basket of South American wines sitting on the floor of my first retail wine shop, with a $2 or $3 national flags erected proudly above.  But that was the 1980's, and so much has changed since then.  Intrigued, I decided to purchase a bottle of Chono Syrah from the Elqui region of Chile, in part because I was unfamiliar with the growing region. As I revisited my wine books on Chile, I was delighted to find out that the remote northern valley of the Elqui River is considered by many to be the magnetic center of our universe!

Most of Chile's wines are produced in the vast Central Valley DO, surrounding Santiago, its capital. These West to East valleys uniquely benefit from the cold air pushed off the Pacific Ocean's northerly flowing Humbolt Current, as well as the descending cool night air from the dominant Andes to the East. From its cool valleys North of the capital in the regional Aconcagua DO, world class Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays are grown in the regions of San Antonio and Casablanca. To the west of Santiago, lies the large Maipo region, known for its red Merlot's and Carmenere's, but mostly it's distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon. Here in the sandy foothills of the Andes, above 1800 feet in elevation, is where the organically farmed Chapo co-op is headquartered. But my wine did not originate here in the Central Valleys. Nor was it grown in the Curico, or the widely planted Maule' regions that fan to the South towards the Patagonia, producing volumes of serviceable red wines. The international variety Moscatel de Alexandra, mostly used for grape distillation(Pisco), is also voluminously abundant here. I would have to look elsewhere for the center of the universe.
Elqui River

 In its northernmost wine region, 300 miles north of Santiago in Coquimbo DO, is where Elqui is to be found.  North of the Choapa region, and north of Limari, situated on the southern edge of the Atacama, the world's driest desert, is where the Syrah for my bottle was grown. This region is formerly known for sourcing Pisco, Chile's popular grape brandy, but of late has gained international attention with cool climate Syrah. This region is the Northern extreme, in a country of new world diversity.

For almost 500 years, Chile has been a wine culture.  It was the Spanish who introduced the Pais grape, or Mission grape, to this perfect climate. Free of the vineyard louse, phyloxera, vines continue to be planted here on their own rootstock. Once Pais was the most widely planted winegrape varietal in Chile; even representing a full third of all grape plantings as late as 1994.  In the decade and a half that has followed, Chile has more than doubled its total vineyard acreage dedicated to other international varieties, while the workhorse Pais has lost significant acreage. It is Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that is today fed into the thirsty export markets, not Pais.

In this perfect wine place, with its diversity in soils and climates, abundant water for irrigation and mostly free of deadly old world vineyard maladies, wine growing seems easy and natural.  With international investments, modern techniques and an eye for the global market, the wines of Chile today are made better than ever before.My Chono Syrah was bright, clean and racy in its dark berry flavors, with a hint of tar and eucalyptus, nicely framed by sweet oak. It proved to be a perfect partner for our beef dish.  And, Chile today is becoming so much more.

Lead by value brands like Concha y Toro,  Santa Rita, Gato Negro, and Los Vascos, Chilean winesales continue to grow annually in the sub-$15 categories. Higher priced brands, such as Casa Lapostolle and Almaviva, regularily build the increasing up-scale image of these terrific, value oriented wines from that perfect place. Larry Challacombe, general manager of Berkeley's, Global Vineyard Wine Importers, has said that, "even at $49.99, put head to head with wines from other areas, it's a great value!" Year after year, these quality exports of Chilean wine continue to grow, according to the Chilean Office of Agricultural Research and Policy, up more than 7% in volume when compared to the first quarter of 2010.
El Tololo Observatory

My glass of Alicanto Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio region north of Santiago is now shining in the diffused window light as I write this.  An easy to enjoy dry wine, it has a yellow-green tint to it in the glass, with gooseberry - citrus aromas and flavors that seem focused and bright through a generous finish.  Acid driven, it will be perfect with almost anything that I'd like to squeeze lemon on.  Or perhaps I'll finish it while looking at the stars in the night sky.  After all, it did originate from the center of the universe!

To Your Health!

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