As wine trends come and go, certain regions, countries or grapes enjoy the limelight, often at the expense of others. Chile certainly had its day in the sun a few years ago, and was then overtaken by Argentina and then New Zealand. Spain seems to be the region of the day now -- its rustic reds and fresh whites occupy an increasingly larger area of shelf space in Manitoba stores.
It's nice to come back to a country like Chile and see what winemakers are doing without the glare of the limelight. Based on what I've tasted recently, producers are focused on producing wines well-suited to their region that continue to over-deliver for the price.
Chile has a few unique features going for it no other wine-producing country can boast...
NO PHYLLOXERA / ORIGINAL ROOTSTOCKS: While the rest of the world's wine-producing regions have waged war against phylloxera -- a microscopic insect that ravages grape vines -- Chile has never suffered an infestation of the pest. Other regions solved the phylloxera problem by grafting vitis vinifera vines -- the family of plants that produces most of the world's most common wine grapes -- on root stocks from North American vitis labrusca vines.
Grafting protects the vines from the pest, and since Chile has never had to deal with phylloxera, it's one of the few grape-growing regions making genuine vitis vinifera vines on their own original root stocks.
NATURAL PROTECTION: Chile is surrounded on all sides by natural landmarks that help to keep pests like phylloxera from entering grape-growing regions. To the west is the Pacific Ocean, to the east the Andes mountain range, to the south is Antarctica and to the north the Atacama Desert.
Between the boundaries, over 110,000 hectares of grapes are planted in a number of different valleys, all of which are impacted in one way or another by at least one of the four barriers. In the north, the Elqui Valley feels the heat of the Atacama Desert -- combined with a higher altitude, it's a great place to grow Syrah. In the south, areas like the Bío Bío Valley are cooled by winds from Antarctica, meaning cooler-climate grapes like Riesling flourish.
In between, breezes from the Pacific moderate temperatures in the evening, providing ideal Mediterranean-type conditions for growing grapes. And the Andes Mountains provide rich volcanic soils as well as diversity in terms of elevation.
AN ABUNDANCE OF CARMENÈRE: Much in the same way neighbouring Argentina adopted Malbec as their flagship red grape, Chile took to Carmenère with the same enthusiasm, albeit with a lesser degree of commercial success. In the '90s, Chilean producers figured out much of what they thought was Merlot was in fact Carmenère -- also a Bordeaux grape variety, but one that ripens later. Until it was discovered this "Merlot" was being picked too early -- this resulted in wines mislabelled as Merlot that were somewhat under-ripe.
For the most part, winemakers are doing far better work at ensuring ripeness in Carmenère. When made well, Carmenère brings deep blackberry and plum notes with a distinct chocolate flavour in a rich, full-bodied wine.
Chile continues to deliver great value. And while you'll find some entry-level (read: $9-12) gems from Chile, spending a few extra bucks for mid-range (read: $15-20) wines will deliver reds and whites that really perform beyond their price point.
Want to taste a wide range of wines for a good cause this weekend? Head down to The Forks for the International Wine Festival of Manitoba. Put on by Fenton's Wine Merchants every year, it's a chance to sample reds and whites from around the world while benefiting Winnipeg Harvest, who receive proceeds from the fest.
Admission is free, with sample tickets costing 50 cents each. The festival runs today and Sunday from noon to 6:30 p.m.
CASA SILVA 2010 LOS LINGUES CARMENÈRE (Colchagua Valley, Chile -- around $20, private wine stores)
Casa Silva is known for great Carmenère, and the Los Lingues is no exception. Inky black in colour, this red delivers plum, blackberry, espresso, raspberry, tar and cocoa aromas. On the palate, meanwhile, it's full-bodied and ripe, with a chewy, almost-viscous texture that brings home black fruit, milk chocolate and black pepper flavours with very light tannin and some impressive length on the finish. * * * *
CONCHA Y TORO 2010 MARQUES DE CASA CONCHA SYRAH (Buin, Chile -- $19.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Buin is located in the Maipo Valley, just south of Santiago, and while the area is mostly known for Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a fine Syrah. Vanilla, black cherry, raisin, spice, black pepper and black licorice all come through on the nose. It's full-bodied and chewy, with more of the brambly black fruit accentuated by vanilla from oak aging and medium tannin. * * * 1/2