30 Nov 2011

City of Life (Santiago/Maipo Valley, Chile)

What a difference a day makes! It most certainly is a big change going from North America to South, not just because of the language difficulties, but the difference in setting. Adding on the difference in temperature and hours of daylight and it makes for an interesting transition. On first impressions Santiago seems like a relatively poor city in a developing kind of way, and from a certain perspective it is. Having travelled directly from New York City this is a somewhat unfair comparison. On closer inspection Santiago is a vibrant, bustling and growing city, and is as modern as many in Asia or Europe. Just be careful of anything valuable within easy reach, as it is likely to be snatched away, as I witnessed first hand. I won't bore you with details about what I got up to in Santiago, because it's pretty much the same stuff as what everyone does when they get here. If you haven't already visited I do recommend making the trip, as it is an eye-opening experience.

Click here if you would like to see more photos from Santiago.

The Maipo Valley is where the Chilean Wine Industry started, and is the centre of the industry as it is located in and to the South of Santiago. Many of the largest wineries in Chile are located here, including the largest, Concha y Toro. There are often no vineyards on site due to expansion of Santiago, so they source fruit from any or all of the other regions in Chile, to the North and South of Santiago. The further South West you travel from Santiago, the more rural it becomes and you start to see more vineyards.

Straight off the bat I need to say I haven't had much luck in Chile so far. Firstly it is pretty hard to drive around Santiago as there are one way streets everywhere, terrible traffic and the drivers are pretty crazy. Compounding this is the fact that the navigator I have rented from the car hire company is incapable of actually instructing me on what specific roads to drive on, it just gives a general direction to follow and expects you to do the rest yourself.

It's also been a little harder securing appointments as many wineries haven't responded to my emails. They also don't like you just turning up at the winery, even though they are open to the public. Not knowing what to expect I visited what I thought was the tasting room retail store of Concha y Toro, but it turned out to be just the retail store. The store is in a very upmarket shopping precinct which included such luminaries as Louis Vuitton. I got first hand confirmation that Concha y Toro make a lot of different wines, much like Penfolds, with numerous entry-level wines all the way up to iconic wines like Almaviva. It was suggested I call the winery to arrange a visit, so I'll see how I go with that.

Of the few Chilean wines I had the opportunity to try in Australia in my capacity as a wine buyer, I liked and stocked them all. A couple of note that represented fantastic value were the carmenere wines from Santa Carolina. Having learnt about the variety and its significance to Chile during my studies, I was intrigued to include carmenere wines in the stores range as a unique wine that couldn't be found in Australia. I was delighted to find that whilst the wines were certainly soft and velvety like merlot, they had a very different structure and nice earthy dusty tannins.

Members of my family had visited Santa Carolina when they were in Chile and told me what a great tour it was, but this was several years ago before the 2010 Earthquakes seriously damaged the winery and they had to indefinitely suspend tours. The winery wasn't technically open when I visited. There happened to be a group of backpackers with a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide who thought that it was, so were being given an impromptu tour which I joined. Having a brief look around was fantastic, particularly as we went down into the Bordeaux-inspired cellar built back in the 1870s. Amazingly these cellars were left completely intact during the 8.8 level earthquakes, a marvel of engineering and physics. They don't build them like they used to. A shame that we couldn't taste any wines, so we bought a bottle from a local Vinoteca to try later. My four new friends joined me on the next goose-chase; trying to get to the one winery I actually had an appointment for.

Before I arrived into Chile I had got in contact with Daniela Penno from Wines of Chile and Argentina (WoCA) who exclusively import Chilean and Argentinian wines into Australia based out of Sydney. Daniela was kind enough to contact most of the agencies they represent on my behalf and put me in touch with each of them to arrange a time to visit. The first on the list in the Maipo Valley was De Martino, which places itself at the forefront of innovation and site-variety selection. Established by Italian migrants and still family-owned, the winery is not large but like most sources fruit from many of the varied regions to get the best growing conditions for each variety and style.

The Chilean-born winemaker Marcelo Remetal is well equipped to utilise the best methods of capturing the sun and soil of Chile and expressing them in the wines without intervening. The presentation he made to us was enlightening and helpful to put Chile into perspective from a geographical and viticultural perspective. This was why I was so ashamed to have got a bit lost on the way and arrived so late. It was very generous of our hosts Marcelo and Guy Hooper to include my new friends at such short notice, but they seemed motivated enough to be visiting wineries in Santiago and thought it would be nice to share the experience. The wines themselves reflected the hands-off approach Marcelo has, with very limited oak, lower alcohols from earlier harvests, and a freshness of style. Whilst they are great early drinking wines I can see them improving in the bottle too. Of particular note was the old-vine field blend, a style that seems to be getting more popular in the new-world. Another was the Alto Los Toros single-vineyard syrah from the Elqui Valley further North (a place we were told was possibly the most beautiful to visit), which had a gorgeous texture and spice, very fine tannins but immense concentration from a very long ripening in cool conditions. Visiting De Martino was a great introduction to Chile, and made me look forward to getting out and visiting many of the regions of the next few weeks.

Click here to see more photos from Day One of the Maipo Valley

16 Nov 2011

Lakes Placid (Finger Lakes, New York - Day 2)

My second day in the Finger Lakes had much better weather thank goodness; it was a bit sketchy driving back to the motel in heavy rain at night (and by night I mean 5:00 p.m.) The Finger Lakes like the Niagara Escarpment were formed in the last Ice Age by glacial movement which not only tore up the gouges the lakes sit in but also shifted a lot of minerals and soil. This makes the region incredibly diverse in terms of terroir. It is also a fairly large region, taking about 1.5 hours to get from the most North East point to the most South West point. It's lovely driving this time of year, as most of the trees have lost their leaves and it is quite stark. There are numerous small towns throughout upstate New York, looking quite rural but not poor. During the Summer this place gets pretty busy, and there is a lot to see, do and taste. The wines aren't enough of a drawcard like they are in the Napa, but in a few years the 50% of the US population who live within a days drive will be flocking here to gobble up the wines.

Starting back on the Western shore of Seneca Lake, my first visit was to Fox Run Vineyards, originally planted in 1984. Although the name implies the vineyards are run by one or more foxes, the chief winemaker is Peter Bell, originally from my new favourite city, Toronto. When I was on the West Coast during the harvest and I was just turning up at tasting rooms without an appointment, I was very lucky if I got to meet a winemaker or viticulturalist. Over on the East Coast the vintage is well and truly over, but there are winemakers around checking on ferments and transferring wines. This means that at many of the wineries I have visited I have got to chat with winemakers, and Fox Run was one of the best opportunities. After trying the wines in the tasting room (with Kyle Anne, a former exchange student to Bright, Victoria), I was invited up the hill to the winery. Peter and his team showed me around and we all looked at some post-fermented wines from tank and barrel. Having tasted the wines I was not surprised to hear that Peter likes fining and filtering his wines, as they are very clean precise and approachable. Also as expected, the rieslings, cabernet francs and lemberger (blaufrankisch) were the standouts, but I wasn't a fan of the cab franc lemberger blend, as the character of each variety got lost in the blend. The fortifed lemberger was surprisingly good, considering the nature of this climate. I certainly appreciated Peter's time and insights, as he was extremely knowledgeable about wines from all over the world, and his young padawan apprentice Kelby is destined for great things having worked vintages in Australia and New Zealand. Best of luck at Yalumba next year Kelby, and I hope you have found your calling Sarah!

About five minutes South of Fox Run is Red Tail Ridge, a mom and pop operation established by Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan. They are small but gaining attention and looking to expand and bring new people onboard, including a marketing person and assistant winemaker, which I could do either or both. The lady who runs the tasting room was lots of fun, as was the atmosphere in the tasting room. There are some interesting wines made here, including three bubbles; a white, rose and a sparkling red teroldego, an obscure Northern Italian variety. It was a shame I couldn't try these with my background at Chandon, but it is a quiet time of year and they are very small volumes. Continuing the trend (I sound like a broken record), the wines that showed well were the riesling and blaufrankisch, and the burgundian varieties and meritage blend lacked ripeness and definition.

On the Eastern side of Seneca Lake are numerous wineries, some of the oldest in the region. Red Newt Cellars established a popular following for their very good portfolio of wines made by David Whiting, as well as their respected restaurant at the winery led by his wife Debra Whiting. In August of this year Debra was tragically killed in a car accident, which profoundly affected the winery and the region, as she was respected and loved by many, particularly the local farmers she sourced produce from to use in the kitchen. The portfolio is broad and deep, displaying the great potential for Alsation white varieties and Loire Valley reds (cabernet franc). The gewurtztraminers in particular were exceptional, and there was quite a difference between the Sawmill Creek and Curry Creek single vineyard wines, particularly from the 2007 vintage. These are made in a very classic Alsatian model, with rich viscosity, warmth and some residual sugar adding texture. The cab franc here was probably the best and most balance I tried in the region. Compared to some of their other wines it was good value, but compared to wines from other wineries, the Red Newts were a little higher.

As amazing as it sounds, the first Finger Lakes wine I tried was not in the Finger Lakes region. When I was in San Francisco, over five weeks ago, I was in a wine bar asking for local wines. I mentioned my trip and destinations I was heading to, and upon hearing I was visiting the Finger Lakes they told me they had a FL wine on the list. It just so happened to be a Sheldrake Point Riesling, and it was great. The Sheldrake Point winery and vineyard is located on Cayuga Lake, further East of Keuka and Seneca Lakes. The difference in terroir is noticable, as the rieslings are much more slatey in their mineral characters. They have just opened a brand new tasting room on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, and they are officially launching it on Thursday night, get down there. The GWT 2010 was the best I tried in the Finger Lakes, the Riesling (semi-dry) 2010 had exquisite texture and balance without compromising on flavour. The reds were a little disappointing, the cabernet franc not because it wasn't ripe enough, it just didn't have enough extraction to achieve the velvety tannins I had come to expect. A great place to finish my Finger Lakes experience. It was also great to finish the day with another enlightening chat with a knowledgeable Canadian, this time one of the owners at Sheldrake Point.

And thus, my North American Wine Adventure comes to a close. I'm on my way to Boston for a few nights, then New York City before I head to South America. I may try to visit some wine bars and stores there and report in, but otherwise I'll see you in Chile!

Click here to see more photos from Day 2 of the Finger Lakes

Purple Rain (Finger Lakes, New York - Day 1)

Quick question; how many readers actually knew that they made wine in New York State? If you answered yes, how many knew that grapes were grown here dating back to 1829. Much like in the West Coast, Prohibition and phylloxera all but destroyed the wine industry here, and it wasn't till after the end of WW2 that it was re-established. Until the 1960s varieties planted here consisted of either native varieties or hybrids between French and American varieties. Many might think that it is simply too cold to allow grapes to ripen sufficiently. Similar to the Niagara Peninsula, the vineyards in the Finger Lakes are planted near large bodies of water which have a moderating influence on the micro-climate, reducing the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures allowing for a more even ripening. It gets pretty cold in winter here though, so grafting onto European vinifera varieties onto native root stocks is vital to survive the severe cold.

The man to introduce and persevere with European varieties was Ukrainian born Dr. Konstantin Frank. This Ukrainian born PhD in viticulture saw the potential of vitis vinifera in this area, but understood why the vines had previously not survived in the climate. It was his understanding of European regions and the necessity of grafting onto native roots that resulted in him establishing his Vinifera Wine Cellars in 1962. Several generations later, many in the industry here have learnt from his experiences and the region is poised to capture the worlds attention. The winery now produces a large range of wines, from sparkling to white, rose and red. A wine making team consists of a German, a Frenchman, an Australian and two Californians. The sparklings are very good, focusing on the traditional champagne varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The region is gaining much attention for its Alsatian varieties though, particularly riesling. The rieslings at Konstantin Frank are very delicate and balanced. They don't have a strong minerality to them, but there is a certain rich lime blossom character to them. A highlight was the Lemberger 2009 (the German name for Blaufranksich), which had great acid and tannin structure, good balance and finesse.

Located on the opposite side of Keuka Lake to Dr. Konstantin Frank is Ravines Wine Cellars. A Provence-born Frenchman who spent six years as the chief winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank, the winery was established in 2000 by Morten Hallgren and his chef wife Lisa. Understanding what this region can offer, and also attempting to produce food friendly wines were the primary focus for this couple. This philosophy is reflected in the tasting room, as visitors can enjoy flights of the wine matched with locally-made delicacies. The focus is clearly on European varieties, but he does produce a white blend and red blended made from hybrid varieties, which are the weakest of the range, showing little elegance and a foxy wild character. Once again the highlights were riesling and cabernet franc, with the meritage (bordeaux) blend looking good too. The chardonnay was interesting, as it had gone through a rack-drying before pressing and fermentation, not unlike Amarone. The resulting wine was very textural and rich for such a cool climate wine, but was a little too oaky. It is an interesting approach to try and get depth and character from a variety that in my opinion isn't suited to this climate, much like pinot noir.

The modern wine industry in the Finger Lakes owes a lot to European migrants who persevered with the European varieties knowing that they would be great in the climate. Another of the pioneers was German-born Herman J. Weimer. Having grown up in the Mosel and worked in the Pfalz, he understood better than most the potential for German, Alsatian and Austrian varieties in this New York region when he established his vineyards on Lake Seneca in 1979. In 2003 he handed the reigns over to his apprentice Fred Merwath, who in 2007 brought in long-time friend and Swedish-born Oskar Bynke to handle marketing and sales. The legacy left by Hermann is very noticeable, as the very mature vines produce exceptional fruit. The wines were the best made I tried in the Finger Lakes, and are unbelievably undervalued, particularly the rieslings at under US$20.

Three vineyards provide the fruit for H.J. Weimer, all on the Western bank of Seneca Lake. The HJV vineyard is the original vineyard planted in 1976, and is located on the same estate as the winery. The soil types vary on the site, and when I visited they were installing tiles to assist with drainage. The other two vineyards are located about 10 miles North, but planted at different times. The Josef vineyard was planted in 1977 and purchased by Herman in 1996, whilst the Magdelena vineyard was purchased and propagated in 1999. Whilst there is quite a difference between each vineyard, the two close to each other have a distinct characteristic of ripe fresh-cut parsley, something I've never seen in a wine and never expected to see in a riesling. All of the reislings exhibit a minerality and austerity rarely seen outside of Europe. The Late Harvest Riesling 2010 is actually a Spatlese style, and would be an awesome companion to spicy Asian food. As expected the Cabernet Franc wines were spectacular, whereas the Pinot Noir lacked ripeness and depth. Fred was good enough to show me some wines from tank at various stages of fermentation, and even here I could see the parsley character, superb.

Click here to see more photos from Day 1 in the Finger Lakes

15 Nov 2011

Ice Ice Baby... sorry (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario - Day 2)

I haven't had the greatest luck in terms of timing for most of my visits in North America. This has been mostly due to vintage, but in some cases due to the big Wine Spectator tasting in NYC. The bad luck I experienced in the Niagara Peninsula on this particular Saturday was due to a promotion they have running every weekend in November, which is essentially a passport weekend. You buy a ticket and enjoy a bit of food and wine at as many wineries you can visit in one weekend. There were considerably more people in the region than normal, so I was contending with crowds. This was especially apparent in Niagara-on-the-Lake, closer to Niagara Falls with larger wineries closer together. Niagara-on-the-Lake is also very flat, which in my opinion doesn't make for great wines, but is easier to drive around I guess. Below is a photo I took above the Niagara Whirlpool.

Whilst Chateau des Charmes is one of the larger wineries on the Peninsula, it is still family owned and has been for over 30 years. The winery was established by a French Algerian who pioneered grafting European vinifera vines onto native North American rootstocks to help them survive the harsh winters, which can drop down to -30 degrees. The viticultural aspects of Chateau des Charmes are exceptional, using various trellising techniques and sustainable practices. The visitor centre is in the chateau on the estate, and is one of the best I've seen. They have various areas for retail and tasting, on two levels. They also offer tours on the half hour in summer, which starts in the vineyard and goes down into the cellars. The winery is best known for it's ice wines, which were exceptional but should be at $75 for 200ml. They produce the only savagnin ice wine in the region (possibly the world), which was very grassy for a dessert wine, but had a very concentrated citrus based mid-palate.

One of the more interesting estates I have visited was Coyote's Run, which has two distinct soil types for each vineyard. The Red Paw vineyard has what they call red Trafalgar clay loam, and the Black Paw vineyard has a dark Toledo clay loam. They promote the nature of terroir using numerous wines made from these two vineyards, and there is a significant difference between them. The issue I had with the wines was that they were either very light and devoid of character, or they were poorly made. These wines seemed to be suffering from their climate, as they lacked ripeness of fruit and tannin.

Stratus Vineyards, established in 2000, is making a name for itself as a sustainable and innovative winery that makes blending a focus. The facility itself is quite breathtakingly modern, and is a gravity-flow based energy-efficient winery. Amazingly the vines still had fruit on them, despite the shoots caning over and losing all of their leaves. A French winemaker uses up to 18 red and white varieties to blend the flagship wines, and depending on the vintage makes single varietal wines. It was fantastic to do a vertical tasting of the Stratus White and Red wines from the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages. The 2006 and 2008 vintages were very similar, so tasting the 2006 was like seeing where the 2008 will be in a few years. The 2008s were showing their youth, and not expressing a lot of fruit, but had great balance. The 2007 vintage was warmer, so the fruit for both wines was quite full and rich, and will develop faster in the bottle. In terms of the Stratus White, the 2006 was showing the best, picking up an oiliness and roundness from bottle age. The 2007 Stratus Red was the best now, as the 2006 was closed in the bottle and the 2008 was far too young. A similar approach is taken to the Ice Wines, as they release a white and red blend.

Another Frenchman makes the wines at 13th Street Winery, now located on 4th Avenue. A wide range of wines are made using fruit from numerous vineyards from within the Niagara Peninsula. The rieslings had a great richness and acidity balance, with an unmistakable crude oil and kerosene character. The rose made from cabernet franc, quite dark in colour, had a fascinating beetroot nuttiness with a wash-rind cheese note on the nose. The pinot was quite good for the region, but was showing very young. The cabernet franc table wine was very good, with structure and tannins, and great aromatics. I heartily suggest giving 13th Street a visit if you are in the area, as they also have a fantastic bakery and market.

Not unlike Fielding Estates, the Flat Rock Cellars Tasting Room is located on a ridge above their vineyards, and has a fantastic view. A Kiwi makes the wines here, but I didn't hold it against them. As you can imagine, they make a sauvignon blanc, which I found to be unmistakably made by a Kiwi, with obvious differences to an actual Kiwi SB. Another noticeable Kiwi influence can be found in the packaging of the wines, as they are all sealed under screwcap. He also has a serious pedigree at Felton Road in Central Otago, so understandably pinot noir is a focus at Flat Rock. The 2009 Estate Pinot Noir has lovely soft and mellow tannins, not unlike a Marlborough PN, and a good introduction to the variety. The 2009 Gravity Pinot Noir on the other hand has immense balance of fruit and savoury elements, great length and a gamey undercurrent.

Click here to see more photos from Day 2 of the Niagara Peninsula

14 Nov 2011

Top Shelf (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario - Day 1)

The Niagara Peninsula in Ontario has a lot going for it. Sure, it is one of the most marginal and challenging climates for growing wine grapes, but it was so many other assets at it's disposal. For one, as a cool-climate region it is poised to capitalise on the increased interest in cool-climate food-friendly wines both domestically and overseas. They have also garnered serious attention for their ice wines, trumping some famous European regions in a number of competitions. The Niagara Peninsula is also conveniently located only an hour or so from Toronto (their biggest market), right next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in North America (Niagara Falls), and less than a days drive to over 50% of the US population. Their agritourism is some of the most sophisticated I have seen outside of California, and they are doing pretty well. If only they could have more consistent vintages...

No different to many regions in North America, the Niagara Peninsula has a lot of new wineries. The oldest existing wineries go back to the '70s, but most have been established in the last 15 years. One of these is Malivoire Wines, founded in 1995 by Martin Malivoire, a former Hollywood special effects expert. Looking for stability and a chance to be close to home he and wife Moira established the winery on a former orchard, building a gravity-fed winery into the side of a hill. The winery and most vineyards are located in the Beamsville Bench sub-region of the Niagara Escarpment, benefiting from aspect, elevation and protection from wind. The initial focus was on Burgundian varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and gamay, but they have since expanded to included fuller reds and rieslings, identifying market trends and regional performers. They are best known for their Ladybug Rose, the 2010 being bone-dry with a nice savoury strawberry character, good balance without being too simple. It was interesting to hear how the Niagara Escarpment was formed, and also to see the influence on the winery that a special effects expert had. The cellar in particular felt like a futuristic army barracks.

With the weather deteriorating I headed further along the Escarpment to Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery. The mission here is pretty simple; to make world-class wines. Having tasted through most of the wines I would have to say they are doing a pretty good job of this. Their wines express unique terroir and varietal harmony, and whilst not in everyone's price bracket should be held up to show the immense potential of the region. The tasting room was lovely and warm (nice and quiet, too), so it was great to taste and ask questions of the very knowledgeable Jennifer. There are two ranges in the portfolio, the Estate Series and Terroir Series, which are understandably in much smaller volumes. Here were the standout wines for me;

Hidden Bench Tete de Cuvee Chardonnay 2008 - very bold bright peach and lime fruit, with a complex floral and pear nose. The palate is very rich and layered, yet quite light and clean. Citrus complexity and balance would be even better with food.
Hidden Bench Locust Lane Pinot Noir 2008 - dark cherry and game notes combine to create a very savoury fruit nose. Subtle yet opulent and rich, silky and soft. Hits an amazing sweet spot between fruit and savoury elements rarely achieved in new world pinot noir, but very youthful.

After some hearty pea and ham soup generously provided by my hosts at Hidden Bench, I headed off gleefully in actual snowfall. Further up the hill is Fielding Estate, which boasts a fantastic view out of the tasting room over the vineyards. The modest production covers a range of varieties, and includes a sparkling riesling. Working with so many varieties offers the opportunity to blend, and several white and red blends are produced. The range in general offer great value to consumers who may be new to wine, as they are very clean and precise wines, reflective of varietal character. They do lack interest, which in general you have to pay a bit more for.

Tawse Winery boasts old world inspiration and new world perfection, which is quite an absolute statement to make. It's not without merit though, as the wines are on the non-traditional side of new world, going for texture and mouthfeel rather than obvious varietal character. The white wines were the most impressive for me, including a range of single vineyard chardonnays and rieslings. Riesling in particular seems to do very well in this area, particularly the Tawse Estate Riesling 2010, exhibiting delicious ripe grapefruit characters. The red wines were perhaps products of their vintage, as they were unripe and a bit sour. The ice wines were both outstanding; an oaked chardonnay having great volume and a caramel edge, and a riesling which was reminiscent of quince paste. I discovered as I was writing this post that a tawse is actually a corporal punishment implement used in Scottish schools. I'm not sure if there is a connection.

That evening I just happened to be walking down by the famous Falls, and fireworks just happened to be going off. Here are a few photos, which whilst not great in quality show how amazing this sight was.

Click here to see more photos from Day 1 of the Niagara Peninsula

2 Nov 2011

Pacific Northwest - what I've learnt

Wineries don't need to be on the vineyards they source fruit from. They don't even need to be in the same region. Wineries in the Willamette Valley (Oregon) source fruit from Walla Walla (Washington). Wineries West of the Cascade Mountains in Washington source fruit almost exclusively from the East of the state. Red Mountain, a quarter of the size of the Walla Walla AVA, actually produces more fruit, but very little of the wine is made there. If a winemaker wants to make a particular style of wine, they will find the fruit they need. Many wineries deal with the tyranny of distance in different ways. Numerous wineries in the Western part of Washington were established close to Seattle, such as in Woodenville. The town of Walla Walla has been set-up as a wine tourism oasis. The Willamette on the other hand is naturally blessed with being less than an hour from Portland, but the Southern Oregon regions are not so lucky. The fruit for the wine may travel far, but visitors to wineries shouldn't have to, and wine tourism hubs are as common as shopping districts in town.

Very cool labels in Walla Walla, Washington