Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Wine Rules: 3: Chile does Bordeaux varieties well, but nobody else does Carmenère


Take a look at a map of the World, better still pull out an Atlas and turn to the page for South America. Or best of all, take a turn round a globe - it's much more fun because it spins and you can play that game where you can whizz it around superfast and see if you can stop it with a single finger on a named country. 

Never played that? Shame. Give it a go and and find yourself Chile.

Chile is the long thin country that makes up the western land border of southern South America.

Chile has a coastline that stretches for over four thousand miles, some 6,435 kilometres, North to South. And vice versa.

Its major exports are copper, fish, fruit, paper and wood pulp, chemicals and wine. And in the world of wine, Chile is a big big player too. It's the fourth largest exporter to the USA.

They've been at it for a while too because within 17 years of the time of its discovery circa 1537 when the Spanish explorers, colonists, conquistadors - let's be honest, invaders - had brought their usual disregard for human life and dignity to bear on the indigenous people of the area, the Mapuche, they also brought their vitis vinifera with them - the winemaking grapevine. So, as with the Romans in Life of Brian, not all bad news for the locals. 

In fact modern day Chileans drink significant amounts of wine themselves and Chile is now ninth on the list of the world's major producers.

But what the Spaniards didn't bring with them, and what Chile is still missing to this day, is the phylloxera louse. Which is good news for its winemakers as it means the vines don't have to be grafted onto louse resistant rootstocks. 

Today the main benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, financial, in that the lack of need of expensive grafted vines makes Chilean vineyards cheaper to plant and to manage.

The second principal benefit is that the phylloxera epidemic in France in the mid nineteenth century led some leading French winemakers to up sticks and transfer their considerable talents and generations of learning and experience to the vineyards of Chile. 

Hence Chile has been able to establish itself as a leading world producer of wines based on three of Bordeaux's leading grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

What put the seal on the deal was the introduction of stainless steel fermentation tanks in the 1980s, which led to higher quality, greater volume and ever more aggressive pricing due to the resulting economies of scale.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are typically well-made single varietals - that is, 100% one grape variety, rather than a blend as in Bordeaux of say Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - that are competitively priced, of predictable style and quality and that between them make a match for many a meal. 

Not that there wasn't a hiccup along the way to being ranked five on the chart of the world's major wine exporters. In fact there was something of a burp, if not a significant belch, of disbelief when it discovered all was not as it seemed.

Because two of the three varieties were imposters. Those early Sauvignon Blanc vines turned out to be hybrids of the two great Bordeaux white wine vines, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 

And what of the great red grape of the right bank of Bordeaux, the  Merlot of St Emilion and Pomerol fame? 

Much Chilean Merlot turned out to be even more remarkable because it was made from an entirely different grape that was thought to be extinct. Carmenère is one of the ancient grapes of Bordeaux, presumed wiped out by the phylloxera louse sometime between 1867 and 1892.

Since 1998 Carmenère has been identified as such by Chile's wine regulators.  

This deeply coloured crimson red wine, often high in alcohol, may come with violet scents on the nose, and is distinctively and immediately spicy or smoky on the palate with flavours ranging through green capsicums to cherry to chocolate.

And it's the wine Chile has literally made its own. Even if for years, for generations, it was sold as Merlot. 

Nowadays what it says on the label should accurately describe the contents, whether Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Carmenère.

So when you're looking for an everyday wine that will cover many eventualities, you can do a lot worse than plump for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. They are reliably made, offer predictable styles and flavours and good value for money.

But if you're looking at a shelf sign that says Chile and wondering which bottle has what to offer - and what tales it can tell - you need look no further than Carmenère.

The Wine Rules: 3: Chile does Bordeaux varietals well, but nobody else does Carmenère

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