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Carmenere, the perfect red for beginners

Whilst sipping my teeth black at Taipei’s Annual ‘Chilean Wine Tour’, I began increasingly to question why Carmenère is not more widely available here in Taiwan. Of all the Bordeaux varieties, it is the most approachable; no other grape from the banks of the Gironde has the softness or the gentle acidity of Carmenère. In the past, when there remained general confusion about what exactly Chile had in her vineyards, much of what we now know was Carmenère, was thought to be Merlot. As a result, the harvesting of this ‘Merlot’ resulted in the production of some wines that tasted rather green and mean. The reason for this being Carmenère’s propensity to ripen that much later than its more famous cousin. Now that Carmenère is being treated as a separate variety and not just Merlot’s sidekick, the incidence of Chilean wines tasting of tomato stalk is much less common. Ripe Carmenère is instead a vinous pleasure; plush, chocolaty and spicy yet it is the low levels of tannin that makes this so suitable for those at the beginning of their red wine journey.

As many will know, I do not overly concern myself with the idea of food and wine pairing but when chilli is involved, and you are curmudgeonly enough to insist on drinking red wine rather than the much more appropriate beer, then you need something with a very gentle tannic impression. In the past I have found success with cheap and cheerful Garnacha from Aragon (Campo de Borja, Carinena, Calatayud). These wines tend towards being both juicy and fruity with the suppleness of tannin that makes them slip over and around chilli’s fire, subtly diminishing the burn without ever extinguishing its own qualities in the process. Carmenère whilst nothing like Garnacha aromatically, has the requisite softness to work well with chilli’s heat.

If the first wine I had ever tasted had been a decent bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux, I feel sure that my fledgling appreciation of red wines would have been stymied, after all, it takes a while for one’s mouth to find the pleasure secreted amongst all that structure. Ripe Carmenère is altogether a more cosseting experience and one that Chile in conjunction with Taiwan’s importers should pursue with gusto.

Chono Single Vineyard Carmenère, Maipo Valley, 2012, 14%
Grape: Carmenère
Winemaking: A long post fermentation maceration (where the wine is left in contact with the grape skins) has given this wine plenty of volume. 12 months in French and American oak
Note: Generous and voluminous, cuddly but not a chubby wine. Peppery – think Piquillo peppers – and ripe, another fine way to introduce yourself to the Reubenesque charms of the variety.
Price: Approx. $20 USD
Score: 15.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

Espino Reserva, Carmenère, Maipo Valley, 2012, 13%
Grape: 89% Carmenère, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaking: 8 months in a mixture of different age French oak giving a subtle oak spiciness.
Note: Expressive nose of espresso, mint and warm spices sit happily alongside a generous and supple wine that provides a delicious introduction to the variety.
Price: Approx. $20 USD
Score: 15.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

Viu Manent, El Incidente, Carmenère, Colchagua, 2011, 15%
Grape: 93% Carmenère, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec
Winemaking: 16 months in 70% new French oak
Note: More famous as the producer of some of Chile’s best Malbec, Viu Manent are more than capable of producing full bodied, rich and intense Carmenère. This has the chocolate and spice one expects alongside some earthy and more alluring dried flower like aromas. Demonstrates that this grape can do expensive well.
Price: Approx. $50 USD
Score: 16/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

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Chile Revisited

Back in November I wrote a piece entitled ‘Chile: Still a Teenager?http://sniff.com.tw/?p=579. The question being asked was whether Chile was on the cusp of a potentially exciting adulthood or still stuck in a period of indecision about its identity. Having recently read Jancis Robinson’s illuminating report (http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-new-chile) on the palpable sense of change that she feels is being experienced in Chile and following conversation with Taiwan’s own Stephanie Lee during her trip to this most elongated of countries, I felt a rapid re-assessment of my previous post was in order.

Some twenty-five years ago, the wine producers of the Languedoc in southern France, realised that they could produce oodles of ‘easy’ wine capable of competing with the same fruit forward styles emanating from the New World. Since this phase in their history, many in the region have become more interested in the grapes and places that first shaped the Languedoc as a vinous entity. This has lead to a greater appreciation of previously maligned varieties such as Carignan (especially the old vines) and to the delineation of particularly prime sites such as the Boutenac ‘Cru’ in Corbieres. The same elemental change appears to be happening in Chile.

Pais is a grape variety with which you are most likely unfamiliar. It was brought to South America by the Conquistadores and has been used for making brandy and cheap plonk ever since. Deemed rustic, acid and low in fruit (a commonly held view of the aforementioned Carignan), old vine Pais is now being championed as a variety capable of much more. The ‘re-discovery’ of Pais, is a significant step in Chile’s maturation to ‘adulthood’. Chile never needed to fashion expensive Bordeaux style blends to be deemed successful or ‘mature’, but it did need to create, or be associated positively with, a style or variety all of its own (think Argentina and Malbec). Pais from its historical home south of Santiago in the regions of Maule and Itata, can be that variety as the two wines reviewed below amply demonstrate.

Torres, Reserva de Pueblo, Pais, 2012, 12%
Grape: Pais
Wine-making: Some carbonic maceration which helps soften the tannins and maximise the berry like fruit style.
Note: Bright eyed and bushy tailed this is exuberant and delicious reminding me of a cross between Beaujolais’ Gamay and Southern France’s Cinsault but with a little of Carignan’s pleasant rusticity. Medium in body and light(ish) in alcohol, this is perfect red wine for lunches and for serving cellar cold as the temperatures begin to rise with the arrival of Spring. Delicious.
Price: Currently available at a promotional price of 499NT, a rare and real bargain for Taiwan, buy some.
Score: 15.5-16/20
Available from: www.finesse.com.tw 

Torres, Estelado, Rosé Sparkling, Pais, 12%
Grape: Pais
Wine-making: Traditional method (like Champagne). 9 months on lees in bottle and only 9g/l dosage (so Brut style)
Note: Without any confection and showing some real elegance this is one of the best sparkling wines I’ve had at this price point for a long time. Fresh, zesty and red-fruited, a welcome change from the ubiquitous Prosecco.
Price: Very good value
Score: 16/20
Available from: www.finesse.com.tw

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Let Them Breathe

One of the most annoying aspects of social media is the constant reminder that people are drinking not only better wine than me but also more mature examples. Here in Taiwan my only storage is my wine fridge that allegedly holds 66 bottles but in reality shoehorning the contents of four cases of wine into its meagre maw is the best I have managed. The result is that wine does not get much chance to mature; such is the rapid turnover of bottles. Therefore the only old wine I get to drink is other people’s, or wine that I make old myself.

It is illuminating to realise just how easy it can be to experience a wine’s future development in bottle, today. Three wines that I opened with my tasting group on Tuesday of last week were perfect examples, the oldest being from 2009 and the others from 2010. One of them in particular the Podere Sapaio from Bolgheri (reviews below) was classy but demure on Tuesday, slightly more alluring on Wednesday and positively rambunctious by Thursday. The Clos Marsalette also opened up, progressively becoming more tobacco and fruitcake scented over those 48 hours. The Domus Aurea from the upper Maipo in Chile was the Dorian Gray of the line-up seemingly oblivious to the ravages of sitting on ullage in my kitchen. It remained very primary and pure with the pointed tang of fresh blackcurrants as dominant on the first day as it was on the third.

There is no doubt that having the facility to store more, or indeed having the money to buy mature is the ideal scenario for winos (should that be wine lovers?) everywhere. Yet the reality is rarely so convenient so open some wine, drink it over two or three days and take a peak into the future.

Podere Sapaio, ‘Volpolo’, Bolgheri, 2010, 13.5%
Grape: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 14 months in both large and small French oak barrels
Note: By the third day this was rich in black cherry, vanilla and graphite aromas. The firm and grainy tannins of day one had not altered much in texture but they appeared more voluminous. This is fine stuff and one for Bordeaux lovers who fancy a change.
Price: 2,500NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: www.ascentway.com.tw 

Clos Marsalette, Pessac Leognan, 2010, 13.5%
Grape: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: Matured in 50% new French oak
Note: Exuberant strawberry nose matured to more sweet tobacco and fruitcake by day three. Plush and plump and with ripe, grainy tannins, this is not the most complex Bordeaux you will ever drink but is crowd pleasing in its generosity.
Price: 1,450NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: www.winesymphony.com

Vina Quebrada de Macul, Domus Aurea, 2009, 14%
Grape: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc & 2% Petit Verdot
Wine-making: 18 months in 80% new French oak
Note: Incredibly pure and precise with brightness of both fruit expression and acidity making this delicious drinking now whilst promising a potential decade of further improvement. Very good.
Price: 1,800NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: www.icheers.tw

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Chile: Still a Teenager?

Although Chile has been producing wine for many years, the drive to match grape variety to both soil and region with its raft of concomitant factors of aspect, altitude, fog etc, is a concept not much older than my teenage daughter. Like any adolescent, Chile is still in the throes of discovering itself, deciding through experience, some triumphs and the occasional mistake, what to do and how to be.

The move towards greater regional delineation within Chile is somewhat confusing. The division of the landscape into three zones that run north to south: Costa (coastal) Entre Cordilleras (between the mountain ranges i.e it’s the flat bit) and Andes; sounds straight-forward but isn’t. Many of the valleys where viticulture thrives, run from east to west resulting in the likes of Limari, Elqui and Aconcagua having vineyards in two if not all three of these zones. Yet any confusion around zonal identity has not prevented some Chilean regions from producing wines that do have a sense of place. This is the Holy Grail not just for winemakers but for those marketing the wine and ultimately us the consumer. Why? Because it makes buying wine easier. Most wine-drinkers know what to expect from their glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Barossa Shiraz; Chileans in Leyda or Casablanca want to create a similar situation where the name of their region is definitively linked to both style and variety/s.

In a recent tasting of wines from Chilean producer San Pedro, in the company of their engagingly frank and amiable winemaker, Gonzalo Castro, wines in their more premium range were clearly expressing a sense of place. Chile may not have, as of yet, the same number of iconic wine styles as do the likes of Australia and the USA but an increased focus on matching place and variety bodes well for the post-adolescent phase of the Chilean wine industry’s development.

Below are the three wines from this San Pedro tasting that I found most engaging.

1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda, 2014, 13.5%
Grape:
Sauvignon Blanc
Wine-making: Stainless steel
Note: Almost water white in colour with an overt, musk and passion-fruit character. Crisp acidity, fresh and with a moreish and palpable intensity.
Price: 1250NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

1865 Limited Edition Blend, Cachapoal Valley 2011, 14.5%
Grape:
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Syrah
Wine-making: 100% French oak of which 60% was new.
Note: Fragrant with a slight herbal edge letting you know that Cabernet is present. Bright, sweet, black and dark fruit, some grainy, mouth-coating tannin, fresh acidity and balanced alcohol make this a harmonious whole.
Price: 1550NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

1865 Limited Edition Syrah, Elqui Valley 2011, 14%
Grape:
Syrah
Wine-making:
Note:
This was the most exciting wine. Deep purple with more black fruit than red, a little floral/violet character and some smoked meat. This really showed how good Elqui could be for Syrah as it seems able to provide density and freshness in equal measure, a region to watch over the next ten years.
Price: 1550NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

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Something for the Weekend 9: The effectiveness of Blind Tasting

Blind tasting is controversial. As an importer it was the final and most critical part of my selection process. Having spent time visiting producers and tasting wines in situ; it was only on my return home that a reliable assessment could be made. The blind-tasting of wines of a particular price point or region against their neighbours or competitors, helped remove some of the bias to which I was prone. I never bought wines from people I didn’t like but blind tasting also prevented me from buying wines from people I really did. It removed the emotion and romanticism I might have attached to people and places and left the raw product exposed for what it was. It is this reason why so many returning from holiday clutching their favourite wine of the trip end up being disappointed. Most wine tastes good when the sun is high and the serotonin is flowing. In the more prosaic surroundings of home, these same vinous ‘joys’ are often much less rewarding.

In the classroom, blind-tastings are frequently used as a method of torture rather than one of learning. There should always be a clear reason as to why one is tasting blind otherwise it becomes a game with too many crestfallen ‘losers’ and no real ‘winner’ – not in an educational sense anyway. Last Sunday my class enjoyed a flight of four wines (conducted blind), that worked particularly well as an exercise in varietal differences. Attempting to ‘bench-mark’ varieties or regional expressions of certain grape types is not always successful, but the Syrah, Carmenere, Malbec and Cabernet/Merlot we tasted proved deliciously up to the task. As an MW student I am keenly aware of making tastings illuminating and relevant; and these four wines, none prohibitively expensive, are worthy of some home study of your own.

Marques de Casa Concha, Syrah, D.O Buin (Maipo), Chile, 2011, 14.5%
Grape:
Syrah
Wine-making: 18 months in French Oak
Note: Classic Syrah. Blackberry fruit and fresh acidity that helps preserve this wine’s sense of purity. The oak does not get in the way and the ripe tannins complete the harmonious palate. Good value
Price: 1050NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Creationwines.com.tw

Marques de Casa Concha, Carmenere, D.O Peumo (Rapel), Chile, 2011, 14%
Grape:
Carmenere
Wine-making: 18 months in French Oak
Note: There is a little pleasant herbaceousness here but no under-ripeness that can leave Carmenere feeling green and mean. Chocolatey and supple tannins with a touch of spice from the oak.
Price: 950NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Creationwines.com.tw

Catena Alta, ‘Historic Rows’, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009, 14%
Grape:
Malbec
Wine-making: 18 months in French oak
Note: It is rare for me to drink any one wine more than a couple of times a year but this is one of the few I could happily have a glass of every day. It smells of cherry pie, vanilla, citrus peel and has silky, super-fine tannins. Persistent and delicious, exceptionally good.
Price: 2400NT
Score:18.5/20
Available from: icheers

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Margaret River, Australia, 2012, 13.5%
Grape:
63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: 14 months in 20% new French oak
Note: Mint, chocolate and tar (three of my favourite smells) accompanied by a structure of fine-grained tannins help give this wine more than just a sheen of elegance. Very good value.
Price: 1200NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: P9.com.tw

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