Friday, 14 October 2011

Stop the (wine) world, I want to get off

Sometimes I wish the wine world would just stop for a bit, so that I can catch up. It seems every time I look, there's a new wine region in Spain, a handful of grape varieties from Italy that I've never heard of, and a whole new grape-growing valley in Chile. Is there a never-ending supply of these things?

This latest yearning for a pause button on the wine world was prompted by a Chilean wine which hails from the Choapa Valley. Choapa? Choapa???

It's enough to make you hanker after the simplicity and stability of classic regions like...Burgundy. On the surface, it's all so straightforward: white wines are all Chardonnay, reds are Pinot Noir; the vineyard area has been minutely graded and differentiated over centuries and new bits do not spring up overnight like so many mushrooms; there is a strict hierarchy of quality, with generic Bourgogne at the bottom, going through village level, then Premier Cru and finally the pinnacle of Grand Cru.

Except it's not quite as simple as that....

Here's an illustration: Clos de Vougeot is a single walled vineyard in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits that is all classed as Grand Cru, hence it commands pretty astronomical prices. But it's big: 50 hectares (125 acres) of vineyard is enclosed within the walls, sub-divided between many growers (the average plot size is around 0.2 of a hectare).

The far-sighted Cistercian monks who decided to rip out the French beans, tomatoes and apple trees in favour of grape vines, would have made wine blended from the entire plot. Nowadays those monks are long-gone and each grower must try to wring the best quality possible from their few rows of vines.

The slopes at the middle and top of the Clos are generally agreed to make better wines than the plots on the flatter, damper ground at the bottom. And, let's be realistic, not all winemakers are created equal. Hence two equally eyewateringly expensive bottles of Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot may contain wine that varies considerably in terms of drinking pleasure. Caveat emptor!

So, to return to Chile, there they are at the other end of the wine adventure to Burgundy and most of the Old World. They are constantly exploring new territories within their long, thin string-bean of a country to see where grapes will flourish and which varieties best express the terroir. In vinous terms, Chile is a gigantic wine laboratory and, it must be said, the results are deliciously drinkable.

Chile, unlike any other major wine producing nation, does not have a long tradition of wine drinking. Up until recent years, grapes were grown primarily for distillation to make pisco – basis for the pisco sour cocktail. There were small winemaking concerns, based primarily in the Maipo Valley, close to the consumers and transport links of capital city, Santiago.

Over the years, Chile's winemakers have spread their wings and wineries to further flung and ever cooler regions, which would have initially been dismissed as too cold to ripen grapes – especially for such heat-loving varieties as Syrah (aka Shiraz).

This week's recommendations – Chile rather than Burgundy.

De Martino Legado Syrah 2010 - £10.49 from Caves de Pyrene (Artington, near Guildford)
The wine that prompted this column: from the Choapa Valley, which, I now know, is north of Santiago, roughly half-way between the Aconcagua and Limari Valleys. Chile is a long, narrow strip of land that flanks the Andes, but it is especially thin at this point, where the vines here are exposed to the cooling air of both the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Having initially made their name with well-crafted, reliably gluggable Merlots, then taking up Carmenère as their signature red grape, Chileans are now showing the wine world that they are also pretty nifty when it comes to Syrah. Really, do they have to be so good at everything they do? The answer seems to be yes.

The fact that they choose to label the wine Syrah, rather than its New World synonym, Shiraz, tells you that in terms of style this is much closer to the peppery, herbal, cooler-climate Northern Rhone versions than the exuberantly fruity Australian ones. This has a definite tannic structure and an almost Old World restraint to the black-pepper tinged berry fruit.

Matetic Vineyards Corralillo Syrah 2009, San Antonio - £85.80 for a case of 6 from Armit, £15.95 from Sipp London
Matetic have had a real cachet about them and their wines since they burst onto the Chilean wine scene in 1999. The other Syrah made by Matetic, labelled simply Syrah, is undoubtedly a fine wine, but the price has gone up to a frankly ridiculous £37 a bottle. This little brother, Corallilo, however, still offers class in a glass at a much more reasonable price and has got better with each vintage I've tasted. Satisfyingly savoury, but with bumptious juicy fruit and great balance, this is also organic and biodynamic.

Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008, Limari - £18.95 from, £24.95 from Berry Bros (
Limari is yet another recently exploited wine region where you'll find deliciously fresh, juicy red wines – and this altogether very sophisticated Chardonnay.

If you know someone who has an expensive white Burgundy habit, but who struggles to afford to keep it going, then do them a favour and point them in the direction of this wine.

I was lucky enough to taste this wine with the man who makes it, Marcelo Papa, the man responsible for the phenomenally popular Casillero del Diablo wines. It combines the ripeness of fruit and mealy nuttiness of Meursault with the poise and linearity of Chablis. It's a truly lovely wine and incredibly moreish.

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