Some Feisty South Americans...
The recent news that France has now dropped into fifth place amongst British wine consumers – after Australia, California, Italy, and South Africa – sent a shock through the Francophile wine community. Bargain-thirsty Brits now clearly prefer South African Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage to “more complicated” Vin de Pays, made more expensive than ever thanks to the strong euro. How long can it be until South America’s two biggest wine producers – whose most characteristic grape varieties (carmenere in Chile and malbec in Argentina) originated, respectively in Bordeaux and Cahos before being transferred triumphantly to the southern hemisphere in the nineteenth century - start biting into French market share as well?
Although still well behind the above in terms of sales volume – Argentina, for example, currently accounts for just 1% of UK sales – consumers are becoming more aware of these countries wine as producers improve output and pay more attention to packaging/labelling. Favourable currency trends - the Argentinian peso must be just about the only currency not to have appreciated against poor, battered sterling over the past year – have also helped. So has the fact that Chile in particular has been quick to launch and nurture recognisable wine brands that time-and value conscious consumers feel they can trust. The largest producer – Concha y Toro, which makes wine across Chile’s vast 7800 mile length – has been particularly adept, with its entry level Frontera brand being heavily promoted by the likes of Asda in its 3 for £10 deals. Its Sunrise label is also attracting increasing numbers of price conscious punters, offering two bottles for £7 at some outlets. The canny producer now has pretty decent whites and reds across most price points for both the off and on trade, although its best known brand - Casillero del Diablo – continues to be its benchmark. (Buffs will be delighted to note that Robert Parker last year awarded a prestigious 97 points to its iconic Carmenere, Carmen de Peumo, crafted by the award winning winemaker Ignacio Recabarren). And it is far from alone: at the lower end, Santa Rita, Valdvieso of Chile, Cono Sur and Carta Vieja have also become familiar to wine buyers, with the likes of Anakena and Misiones de Rengo also making their mark. Chile in particular is making up for lost time, with its wines now accounting for some 8.2% of the off trade market, against just 5.9% five years ago, and 9.5% of the off-trade (against 6.5%).
But what really do these countries have to offer the British consumer? Oldandnewworld went along to their respective 2009 UK country tastings to find out….
Chile first. Held this year at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Victoria, this tasting seemed low key despite the presence of most of the best known producers. They also had a lot to show: the 2009 harvest in Chile saw a huge 24% increase in output over 2009, with production of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the country’s biggest grape in volume terms (some 40% of the total) all well up on last year. Surprisingly perhaps, carmenere - Chile’s delicious signature grape – is only accounts for around 9% of total production, despite growing international interest underscored by the belief that carmenere could become to Chile what Shiraz has become to Australia, or sauvignon blanc to New Zealand. Despite this we decided to focus our tasting on this variety in an effort to understand what makes it so special.
One excellent example is made by none other than Concha Y Toro, the 2007 Terrunyo Carmenere, from Rapel (around £10), a significant improvement on its still acceptable Casillero del Diablo carmenere. Slightly cheaper but also well-worth trying for its fine structure and delicious berry fruit is Santa Rita’s Reserve Carmenere 2007 (around £8, imported by Berkmann Wine Cellars on 0207 609 4711). La Porfia Carmenere 2005 is also well worth trying, at around £12 (Chalie Richards is the importer: 0845 850 4405).
Chile is of course, making some fine other wines too. Notable amongst these are some of the cold climate sauvignon blanc, notably from Bio Bio in the south, interesting (but generally small quantities of) viognier, gewurtztraminer and riesling, and some excellent chardonnay. We liked in particular Concha y Toro’s Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, with lovely buttery vanilla tones and full apricot/peach flavours (£10, contact email@example.com for stockists). Vina Casa Silva’s Lolol Viognier 2008 (around £11) and the same producers rose blend, Syrah-Carmenere 2008 (around £7.50, both imported by Jackson Nugent on 0208 947 9722) were both outstanding in their respective price brackets. As a curiosity, Botalcura 2005 Nebbiolo is great – not least because this is the only winery to actually grow the iconic northern Italian grape. If you have funds to spare and want something truly special, Casa Silva’s luxurious Altura 2004 is a fantastic, OTT blend of 50% carmenere, 33% cabernet sauvignon and 17% petit verdot; the fruit positively explodes from this wine, which will improve even more with a few more years behind it. The downside? Just 6000 bottles were made….
I found it challenging to make a truly objective assessment of what was on offer from a country whose wines I rarely come across, outside of impulsive supermarket bargain buys. I have nothing against Chile, but past samplings of Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have left me unmoved. I was hoping to have my perceptions corrected.
The quantity and good quality of Chile’s average wines are evident, but I deliberately sought wines that were marked by originality or outstanding characteristics. I found both, but in limited supply. After tasting largely Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvginons, Merlots, Shiraz and Carmeneres, I was struck by a certain homogeneity of taste and impact. Nothing wrong with that, but little to persuade me to raid the Chilean shelves of my local supermarket in preference to anything else. In order to ring the changes, I went in search of unusual grapes and top-end wines. Initially I focused on Rosés made with Carmenere and frequently blended with Shiraz, which seemed to me a good place to start. Those I tried were pleasant enough, albeit the lack of acidity in the Carmenere frequently made the body and attack of these wines somewhat flaccid, which together with a varnish-pink appearance and uncompetitive pricing left me reluctant to add any to my shopping list.
In a continuing search for surprises, two other less common wines stood out: Vina Falernia’s unusual Elki Pedro Ximenez 2009 offered a pungent nose, with an interesting, dry palate with plenty of acidity. Displaying faint sherry overtones and tight minerality often to be found in Riesling, this is a food wine, an ideal accompaniment to soups and tapas. The relative scarcity of PX as a dry wine on the UK’s dining tables would make an interesting diversion away from the more frequented varietals.
Echeverria’s Curico Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2005 crept up in the trophy and medal winners’ enclosure, having won an AWOCA Gold medal for Best Late Harvest wine. At around £10.49 retail, I found a great deal of character and complexity, good acidity and seductive fruit, delivering a luscious mouthful now and promising graceful evolution for several years to come.
At the premium end of the spectrum, there was much to admire, albeit with slightly overwhelming levels of alcohol.
From Vina Concha Y Toro, the Don Melchior Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 stood out as a fine example, displaying unctuous and classy fruit on the nose and a full and complex palate with exceptional structure, suggesting a long life ahead. Probably not one to be sacrificed until 2014 at the earliest. However, at 40 retail, one would expect no less. This wine would face stiff competition from its old and new world peers at this price point.
Casa Silva showed their premium blend Altura 2004, a potent concoction dominated by Carmenere, with one third Cabernet Sauvignon and just under a fifth Petit Verdot. This was a very full, alcoholic and powerful wine, but assembled seamlessly and with advanced ageing potential. I marked this as one of the top wines I tasted, but a price point of around £40 retail may deter all but those Chilean enthusiasts with deep pockets and great reserves of patience.
From Valdivieso, I sampled a beautiful Caballo Loco no.11, a full blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carmenere. This was a superb, well-knit example, made via a Solera system and therefore a NV wine distinguished from its predecessors purely by its serial number. Possessing enough voluptuous fruit and structure to drink now but carry it easily through the next decade and more, I felt that this was one of the most complete and excellent red wines I tasted. At £25, it is probably correctly priced and consequently, earns the title of my wine of the tasting.
If prizes could be given for the sheer enthusiasm of both the wine sellers and visitors, the Argentina tasting, held this year at Lords Cricket Ground, should get an honourable mention. Despite or maybe because of torrential rain – half of September’s usual amount in just five hours – the place was positively seething with people. Another noticeable thing was the preponderance of reds: at a guess, less than 30% of the wines on display seemed to be white (mainly Torrontes, Argentina’s great white aromatic hope, or chardonnay) or rose. Something else that became obvious was that a very large proportion of the reds were malbec or malbec blends, suggesting that unlike the Chileans with carmenere, the Argentinians are not shy about showing off their signature grape. Indeed, one almost wanted to taste more of the other grape varieties that Argentina is growing in increasingly large quantities, Bonarda and Tannat, the last of which has widely recognised cardio-vascular benefits. Cleverly, the Argentinians had even set up a special table to show off the effect of altitude on the grape, from the low Patagonian desert via Mendoza all the way up to the high Salta region, more than two kilometers high in the Andes near the Chilean and Bolivian borders. It was just a pity that this became (unsurprisingly) the most popular part of the show with far too many people for comfort jostling in what was too tiny an area.
However there were many fine examples – far too many to list here, but the following stood out:
All the wines shown by Bodega Noemia but especially the J.Alberto 2008 from Rio Negro, Patagonia. This 95%/5% Malbec/Merlot blend was sumptuously rich, with fantastic berry fruit flavours supported by mature tannins. Not cheap at £23 a bottle but well worth the splurge. This tiny producers wines (just 4800 cases) are available from The Wine Treasury on 0207793 9999.
NQN Winery had no fewer than four Malbecs at various price points – no mean feat when your total output is a not very large 70,000 cases. Best for me was the reasonably priced Malma Reserve Malbec 2006
The widely available Clos de los Siete (Majestic, Oddbins, around £12) was as good as ever, a blend of malbec (48%), merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon in this 2007 vintage (Mendoza region).
At the high end – both in price and altitude – the Bodega Colome Estate Malbec from Salta was very noteworthy; incredibly rich and fruity, this 2007 wine is a blend of 85% Malbec, 10% Cabernet and 5% Tannat. Full of berry notes and with lovely suggestions of the warm french oak in which it was aged, it will age very nicely thanks you.
Most unusual blend? No contest: it has to have been the Famila Schroeder Pinot Noir Malbec 2004 (available at around £25 from Moreno Wines on 0208 960 7161), produced in relatively small quantities in Patagonia. With 54% Pinot and 46% Malbec this marriage of opposites in fact produced a fine wine, with the firm suppleness of the malbec lending toughness and structure to the soft fruit of the pinot. Not for everyone, I admit (particularly at this price) but an interesting wine with which to astonish your dinner party guests.