Just back from a whirlwind six days in South America--Chile and Argentina to be exact--where I caught a glimpse of some of the top regions from each country. Although it will likely take me a few weeks to digest the vast amount of information and experiences from the trip, there are a handful of takeaways that are still fresh in my mind:
1. There Is Beauty In Carménère:
Despite what discount retail shelves may reveal, not all Carménère has to be exceedingly green and under-ripe in flavor. In fact, when managed to its greatest potential in the vineyard, Carménère is a star for Chile in terms of producing beautiful wines. TerraNoble is one example of a producer committed to revealing how Carménère expresses itself differently when planted in various sites; particularly with vineyards located closer to the ocean compared to those located near the Andes. The difference can be tasted in the CA1 and CA2 releases. The CA1, made from mountain grapes offers ripe red fruit characteristics with hints of cedar. The wine shows restraint preventing ripeness from overshadowing the subtleties of this wine. Elegant with bright acidity and assertive tannin, this Carménère shows boldness as well as sophistication. By contrast, the CA2 is made from fruit grown much closer to the ocean. Here fruit is richer and concentration with red, black, and even blue fruit aromas. The palate offers a more opulent style of wine robust tannin. The CA1 shows an almost old-world style earthiness, while the CA2 represents a refined new world style of how Carménère should be.
2. Mind The Soil Pits:
I’ve been around a few soil pits in my wine traveling life, but never so many as on this trip to both Chile and Argentina. (These are generally dug by backhoes, and are always intended to reveal soils and subsoils.) Perhaps it’s a trend for vineyard managers to show off one of their favorite parts of the job, but I like to believe that the abundance of soil pits I saw in my six day time--10 to be exact--is due to vineyard managers and producers alike really trying to hone in on what South American wine has the potential to be. Will there be a day where it is no longer lumped into one, glossed over New World category? Seeing just how intentional these vineyard managers are with their understanding of the soil makes me believe that there will soon be a time when Chilean and Argentine wine will be respected for representing their respective terroir without first being recognized as New World. We saw examples of this in the Vintisquero vineyards in Chile’s Apalta region as well as in the specific vineyard sites of Mendoza’a Catena Zapata vineyards. In Apalta, Sergio Hormazabal, winemaker for Root 1 showed us exactly how soils not 25 meters from each other could yield different wines, a practical example revealed to us in two separate parcel selection Carménère wines. The difference was deliciously astounding.
3. Take Note of Coastal Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc may not be the first grape that comes to mind when thinking of Chilean wine--we have Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon to thank for that--but don’t forget that Chile is a long, thin country bordered by mountains and ocean. In the Casablanca, San Antonio, and Leyda regions, producers are able to leverage the cooling ocean breezes to develop delicate and aromatic Sauvignon Blanc. For example, the Leyda Garuma Sauvignon Blanc offers notes of summer flowers and subtle honeysuckle balanced with herbal and grapefruit aromas. On the palate, the wine offers complexity and elegant structure with distinct minerality and a touch of salinity on the finish. For $18, this beautifully expressive wine is a steal.
4. Malbec Soars To Great Heights On Mountain Sites
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are likely familiar with the fact that Malbec is Argentina‘s signature red grape. But with the many varied examples on the retail shelves today, it’s not always evident what good, classic, benchmark examples of Malbec should be. In the case of Catena Zapata, one of the country’s most influential producers, what began as experimentation of growing Malbec at higher altitudes along the foothills of the Andes mountains has proven to be one of the best viticultural discoveries for the country. Wines from the high altitude Adrianna Vineyard at 4,500+ foot elevation reveal complexity of structure and Malbec that is both provocative and delicious.
5. Cab Franc May Just be Argentina’s Next Secret Weapon
While Malbec will no doubt reign supreme in Argentina for years to come, wine makers and viticulturists alike have found great promise in another Bordeaux variety, Cabernet Franc. While the cantankerous grape may not be as widely throughout regions such as Mendoza, it is seeing more interest in its ability to blend with Argentine red wines, as well as in single-variety offerings for both its structure and complexity. Alejandro Vigil, chief winemaker for Catena Zapata also has a side project in El Enemigo wines, a partnership between himself and Adrianna Catena. Over a dinner at Casa Vigil, which was perhaps one of the most memorable in recent years, Vigil shared his 2014 Cabernet Franc in all its peppery, cool-climate freshness. A beautiful wine, it stands as only one example of how other producers such as Bodega Renacer and Achaval Ferrer are leveraging the potential of this grape.
7. Don’t Discount Argentine Chardonnay
In the same vein as mountain Malbec from Catena Zapata, it’s important not to discount the great depths to which Chardonnay can perform in these higher altitude vineyard sites. Tasting from older vintages of parcel selection wines including 2009 and 2011 White Bones, as well as current vintages of both the White Bones and White Stones parcels, it was clear that this iconic grape has found a happy home in these Mendoza elevations. While the wines show amazing versatility for their respective parcels, they also showed an impressive elegance and maturity that rivaled many of its White Burgundy and Chablis cousins.
8. Don’t Leave Chile without a Pisco Sour
Before leaving South America, it’s worth noting that no evening in Chile was complete without a traditional Pisco Sour. While I had tasted Peruvian versions back in Texas, I had never experienced the Chilean version before this visit. While many bars may shake up a cop-out cocktail using a sugary pre-fab powder, a true Pisco Sour uses real citrus, fresh egg white, very little sugar, and, of course, a good Pisco. One Pisco in particular that I’m looking forward to seeing on the American market is a new release from La Postolle. Distilled from Muscat grapes, this spirit offers elegant, floral aromatics making it a sip-worthy apertif all on its own.