Friday, August 25, 2006

White Chile

Quick Quiz: Name the country in the Western Hemisphere with the longest tradition of wine production…

Considering I’ve already given away the answer, if you answered “The United States,” “Peru,” or “Trinidad & Tobago” – you may stand in the corner for the duration of this installment. The observant readers have already fixed their collective gaze south past the Equator to Chile – the nation stretching thinly down two-thirds of the western coast of South America.

Chile's wine production began in Spanish missions 450 years ago. "Modern" winemaking in Chile began in the 1820's when traders brought the first vinifera (WineSpeak for the major grape varietals: cabernet, chardonnay, syrah, et al) vines to the valleys and downslopes of the Andes. Chile’s climate is very "Mediterranean" -- and the grapes loved the soil. Unfortunately, Chilean winemaking tools lagged far behind the country’s potential. For over 150 years, wines were made with 19th century technology.

In the late 1980’s, the Chilean wine industry took advantage of new trade partnerships and domestic freedoms after the oppressive Pinochet regime left power to overhaul the entire industry. With modern techniques in place, wine production exploded. By the late 90’s, Chile had become one of the world's vital centers for wines of excellent value.

Interestingly, some of the world’s oldest surviving grapevines are in Chile. How’d that happen?

Let me introduce you to a little pest called the phylloxera aphid. Our little friend loves to visit vineyards. Not for the wine or the grapes – for the vines. Phylloxera loves him some grapevine roots. He’s native to North America, and the grapevines in this country are used to the presence of this tiny louse, so he does basically nothing to them. In the mid-1800’s, however, Phylloxera was overcome by a travel jones, and he decided to take a European Vacation.

Once arriving in Europe, our lovable little pest loved those French vine roots so much that widespread fungal infections followed, and over 40% of the original grapevines in France were destroyed – and every vine in Europe was at risk. The European wine industry was saved by quick-thinking horticulturalists who grafted those phylloxera-resistant vine roots from North American vines onto European plants, thus ending the epidemic. Chile's relative isolation and climate never gave phylloxera a haven to flourish. Without phylloxera as a natural enemy, those 1820’s European vines flourished in South America. Even today, Chile is the only place in the world where some of the original ungrafted European vines still grow.

Chile is best known for three varietals – cabernet sauvignon, carmenere (thought by many, me included, to be a regional merlot -- but it's an entirely different varietal), and sauvignon blanc. I want to focus on the last, as I think these wines really stand out in that price range.

Sauvignon blanc is the second most popular white wine consumed in the U.S. The top of the list, of course, is chardonnay – selling seven times as many bottles annually. Sauvignon blancs are crisp, generally citrusy (often grapefruity), and best drunk young. They’re much lighter than chardonnays and considerably more refreshing to drink in the heat of summer and early fall. SB’s tend to be straightforward, relatively uncomplicated wines – but there’s enough variation among the different producers that one can find a bottle for just about any occasion.

Here are a few Chilean sauvignon blancs catching my recent attention:

Peñalolen 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- the bouquet on this wine is extremely light. Faint scents of flowers join delicately with mandarin oranges on the nose. The Peñalolen isn't quite as dry as many sauvignon blancs. While there's some of grapefruity flavor, there's some honey and pineapple to balance it. The finish of this wine is a little spicy and very long -- you can actually taste a little tannin, which is extremely rare for a white wine. This well-rounded flavor makes this a fantastic summer food wine. For dinner, I'd probably pair this one with a shrimp pasta, bruschetta, or grilled fish and veggies. It’s also light enough to simply have as an aperitif (FoodSpeak for “a drink before dinner.”) This wine runs between $9-11, and is probably the best SB I’ve had recently.

Duo 2005 Sauvignon Blanc-- another gentle bouquet on this wine from Alto de Casablanca winery-- one might even say that it's "pretty." A nice pear scent goes right along with fresh flowers to start. The first taste of this one is much more tart than the previous selection -- much more along the lines of a classic, grapefruity sauvignon blanc. The tip of your tongue will get a peppery note along with some lime. The finish is "not quite acidic" -- what some wine reviewers refer to as "flinty," although there's still some decent fruit hanging around. This one is a very crisp sauvignon -- much more of a "refreshing" wine than a true food wine. You could certainly pair it flexibly with a chicken or fish dish. However, I was pleasantly surprised when, by chance (and by need – it’s all we had open!), we paired it with a spicy Thai chicken & green bean stir fry. I usually drink dry reislings with spicy food, but the Duo balanced it almost perfectly. For people who like crisp sauvignon blancs, you could do much worse than this one at under $10.

Errazuriz 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- Lots of "z's" in the name should bring us good luck, right? (Mental note to all of you -- don't look for help from me at Keeneland if you want to keep your shirt…) This sauvignon blanc starts you off with a gentle combination of lemons and apples. At first taste, the wine falls neatly between the above two in terms of the overall citrusy flavor. The main flavor I got was of fresh lemons (although not sour, per se). There's also a mild berry flavor that goes along nicely with the citrus. The finish is long -- with a fruity roundness and a little citrus "bite." This one goes for between $8-10. This wine would go excellently with any light meal with chicken, fish, or vegetables -- and would go well with wine-killers like a Caesar salad or asparagus.

For me, one of the best attributes of Chilean sauvignon blanc is the consistency. I've seen bottles of Chilean SB for as little as $4-5. Even at that price, you're still going to end up with a decent bottle for use at the pool or on a picnic. Good stuff for our last few weeks of heat.

Until next time -- Salud y amor!

3 comments:

MikeNYC said...

Mike, where is it that you purchase good wine for as low as $4 or $5? The cheapest I've seen is $9.

Mike said...

All over Kentucky. The sin taxes in New York are amazing. When my uncle came down here from Manhattan for my sister's wedding, he ended up taking three or four cartons of cigarettes back with him -- they were about half as expensive as what you have up there. I'd imagine that alcohol gets hit pretty hard as well.

Mike said...

Many thanks to Vine reader Scott S. who passed along this article about the difference between Merlot and Carmenere.