By Celia Strong
Well, this week we have our work cut out for us. But fun work. We’re going to do two wines — one red and one white. Both new, from the same winery, and from Chile. It’s been a really long time since we tasted any anything from Chile, but fun, fun, fun! Not work. Of course, we’re going to do our history lesson first. As we go through it, though, I for one have my glass right next to me. Maybe you do too?
Chilean wine history started about 1554 when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought “vitis vinifera” vines with them to the country. Probably, these vines did not come from Europe, but from Peru. (Peru was “visited” by the Spanish before Chile.) And, probably, they were the “common black grape,” the ancestor to the Pais variety that became widely grown in South America. Until the 21 Century, Pais was the most widely planted Chilean grape. The original vineyards were tended by Jesuit priests who used their wines for Church services. By the end of the sixteenth century, Chilean history records not only Pais, but Muscatel, Torontel, Albilho and Mollar varieties were planted in Chile.
From the very beginning, the Chilean wine industry was handicapped by Spanish laws. The bulk of the wine drunk in Chile had to be bought from Spain and, in 1641, wine imports from Chile into Spain were banned. With no viable market to sell their wines to the Chilean industry turned to making Pisco, a local brandy, and some aguardiente, a distilled sugar liquor. The Chileans went so far as to try shipping some of their wine to Peru, but when Englishman Sir Francis Drake captured one of their shipments, the Spanish government responded by ordering Chile to tear out its vineyards. In the 18th century, Chile made mostly sweeter style wines from Pais and Muscatel grapes. Over the years, response to these wines ran good and bad, more bad, and awful. But, despite their political link to Spain, Chilean vineyard owners were influenced by their trips to France. The grapes from Bordeaux in particular were imported into Chile as well as French barrels, French wine makers and French tastes. When the phylloxera louse invaded the vineyards of France, and the rest of Europe, many immigrants came to Chile to work in the vineyards there. In the 20th century, political instability, government regulations and high taxes all slowed the growth of the Chilean wine industry again.
Before the 1980’s, most of Chilean wine was considered to be poor quality and was drunk locally. But, word spread of the good Chilean growing conditions, outside investors from around the world came into the business, and exports of good Chilean wine expanded. At one point, these wines were the third largest imported group into the United States, now fourth behind Australia.
In 1994, Chile defined four viticultural regions — Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcaqua and the Central Valle. The climate in these regions is temperate, comparing closely to California and Bordeaux, with summer temperatures averaging at 59 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Potential high temperatures are 86 degrees. Chilean wine laws were passed in 1995, and are closer to those of the United States than France or Europe. Wines are required to be 75 percent of the named grape if the wine is to be drunk in Chile, 85 percent for exported wines. Also, the wine must be at least 85 percent from the designated vintage and, if a specific region is claimed, the grapes must be at least 85 percent from that region. The term”reserve,” like in the United States, has no legal meaning.
More than 20 grape varieties are grown in Chile. Some Spanish and some French. Chilean wine makers have been developing an easy drinking style for their wines. Soft tannins for their reds, mild acidity and oak in their whites. Toward the end of the twentieth century, as Chilean wines were growing in popularity around the world, tasters began to doubt the authenticity of some of their wines that were labeled as Merlot. Ampelographers (grape variety specialists) found that most of the vines that were thought to be Merlot were in fact Carmenere, an ancient Bordeaux variety that was thought to be extinct. (They also found that the Sauvignon Blanc vines were mostly not, but a mutated cross of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.)
And that takes us to this week’s grape — Carmenere. Or the red one, at least. Carmenere (car-men-nair) was originally planted in the Medoc part of the Bordeaux region of France. It is a member of the Cabernet family who’s name comes from the French “carmin” for crimson. That means it’s safe to guess that its wines are dark, crimson red in color. In Chile, this variety has found a home, much like Malbec did in Argentina, where the soil and climate are more than friendly to it. Its wines are medium bodied, deep red in color with aromas of red fruits, spices and berries and tannins that are gentler and softer than in Cabernet Sauvignon. When a wine is made completely from ripe Carmenere grapes it has a cherry-like fruit flavor with smoke, spice and earthy notes and, possibly, some chocolate, tobacco and leather. These wines are best drunk fairly young. When you look at Carmenere grapes on the vine, it is easy to see why they were thought to be Merlot for so long. Each variety of grape has its own grape leaf shape and cone shape that the grapes clusters form as they grow. Merlot and Carmenere leaves are very similar, although there are noticeable differences in their cones. It was the close leaf similarity that caused the mistaken identity. On a personal note, the “discovery” of Carmenere’s existence in Chile has happened during my time in the wine business. Just like when you go to Napa during a harvest, you always remember the information on that particular vintage. A glass of Carmenere is always special to me.
Anyhow, our Carmenere wine comes from Calina. This winery is located in the foothills of the Maule Valley in Chile. This valley in one of four sub-regions in the Valle Central. The harvest of the grapes for this wine in done by hand. After a three day cold soak to extract the soft tannins, the deep color and the flavors, the juice is fermented and then aged in French and American barrels. The 2010 Carmenere is a dark, inky color with intense aromas of black cherries, fresh berries, spice and fresh herbs. The layered soft tannins support the opulent fruit flavors. The wine is 100% Carmenere.
And, as promised, we have a second wine, the Calina Chardonnay. These grapes are also hand picked and sorted, crushed as whole clusters, and then fermented sixty percent in French and American barrels and forty percent in stainless steel. Malolactic fermentation brings out a creamy texture in the wine that is full of citrus, peach, melon and tropical fruit flavors with an underlying minerality. A bit of oak lingers in the long finish.
So, there they are, our two Chilean wines for this week. Both spectacular, really, really good examples of what these grapes from this country can be. And both of them above and beyond in what they deliver. But, there’s always the question of price. Good news, though. They’re both $8.99. Part of the residual effect of Chile’s long-suffering wine industry? Maybe. But at least now we know there are still great wines at great prices. Enjoy.
By Celia Strong