Someone has to do it…
When one of my national wine partners asked me in January if I would like to go on a wine tour to Chile and Argentina, I only had to take one look out of the window on a dreary, cold Halifax day to say yes.
Arriving in Santiago, Chile after an over-night flight from Toronto, we immediately headed off on the three-hour drive to Santa Clara, which is in the Central Valley, and of the premiere wine regions in the country. The countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills leading to the Andes in the distance.
Chile might have the most ideal grape growing conditions in the world, being sheltered on one side by mountains and on the other by the moderating Pacific Ocean. The climate is perfect with warm days and cool nights, and a long growing season, which allows the grapes to ripen to perfection.
Our first visit was to Casa Lapostolle, which is owned by the Grand Marnier family. (Yes the French liqueur.) The winery is perched mountainside and boasts breathtaking views. Five-star accommodations were available from a mere $800 per night. The winery was equally luxurious but a large tarantula crawling across the floor had me leaping metres into the air. The best feature was the wine table in the barrel room. The top of the table opened up to a set of stairs leading to a multi–level wine cellar, with thousands of bottles lining the walls.
The next day at Montes Apalta, a feng-shui water feature greeted us. The entire winery embraces feng-shui, with everything laid out in a particular order that includes an enormous egg-shaped barrel room with a curved wooded ceiling. Over the speakers, Gregorian chants play all day. Happy wine is good wine.
How was the wine in Chile? It was impressive to say the least. As vineyard practices and knowledge has improved over the last 20 years, the wine quality has increased exponentially. They grow so many varietals so well. Everything from Carmenere to Cabernet offered extraordinary value, and the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were also well made and delicious.
Flying into Mendoza Argentina, nestled up against the Andes in Argentina was certainly a different experience than modern Santiago, Chile. Mendoza is a small city with the feel of an old western town. The immediate impact is that of a city struggling to grow, with the political and economic issues of a constantly devaluing currency always evident. The winemakers, however, were overwhelmingly welcoming and proud of their heritage and their wines.
Whereas Chile has the influence of both the ocean and the mountains, Argentina is all about the mountains, and more specifically the elevation. The best vineyards start at about 600 metres (around the height of the CN Tower), and go as high as 1,500 metres. At this elevation there is lots of sun, but also cool nights, which allow the grapes to retain their trademark acidity.
It’s also an astonishingly dry landscape. Mendoza is a desert and 90 per cent of the land is not arable. Only those vineyards with irrigation supplied by the mountaintop snowmelt can survive. The average rainfall in Mendoza is 223 millimetres per year. Some years, it only rains twice. (Halifax gets about 160 days of precipitation, totalling 1,500 millimetres, per year.)
Wineries like Kaiken and Catena show how far the quality of wines here has come in the last 20 years. The Malbecs were simply stunning in quality and depth. If you were used to jammy and cheap Malbec, there were none in sight. It is exciting to see such quality and an embracing of high-altitude viticulture.
The great thing about both Chile and Argentina is that there is still so much more potential and so much to discover. The quality starts at $15 and goes up over $100, but for $25 to $50, you can find wines that may be unmatched anywhere in the world.
So grill some steaks on an open flame, pour some Chilean Cabernet or Argentinian Malbec with some friends and enjoy.
The under-$25 wine review
Errazuriz Estate Series Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Chile, NSLC, $14.99
Chilean white wines are getting a better reputation as newer cool-climate regions take advantage of ocean influences. As it does in New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Chile. This example is fresh and clean with strong citrus notes. Nice brightness; lots of grapefruit and lime notes. Another great Chilean value. Pair with a fresh spinach salad.
Trapiche Finca Las Palmas Gran Reserva Malbec 2011, Argentina, NSLC, $19.99
It’s an exciting time for Malbec in Argentina. The quality continues to rise with every vintage. This is a perfect example of an extremely well made wine for under $20. Lots of complexity: dark colour, smoky, cherry flavours and a rich dark-chocolate finish. Impressive complexity for this price. Pair with beef tenderloin and a red wine sauce. Delicious! 92/100