Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Help Chile -- Buy Wine!

Just a quick post to point out that there's a great way for wine lovers to help Chile in the wake of the recent 8.8 quake -- buy some Chilean vino. Check out this link for recommendations (or read my Chile post -I'm still dreaming about the Morandé Sauv Blanc and Pinot Noir). It's estimated that the country (the world's 4th largest wine producer) lost between 12.5 and 20% of its cellared wine. For more details on the damage, read this good article from the Washinton Post.

While Argentina (and the rising popularity of Malbec) has threatened to eclipse Chile's wine star, I much prefer Chilean bottles, especially those from the cool climate area of Casablanca Valley, where I tasted. So help out los vinateros chilenos and buy some of their delicious offerings. That's what I call a win-win situation!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Argentina for a Week

I woke up early in Valparaiso, Chile on a Sunday morning to catch a bus to Mendoza, a trip that I heard would be spectacular -- straight through a part of the cordillera of the Andes, with a view of the range’s biggest peak, Aconcagua, at 22,840 feet. So I got to the station with what I thought was plenty of time and sat on the bench snacking on empanadas and drinkable yogurt (which is huge in South America) and throwing random bits to a very patient beggar dog at my feet. Eventually I figure I better check in with the man at the desk from whom I bought the ticket the day before since I don’t see a bus with a sign for Mendoza anywhere on the lineup. When I ask him where the bus is, he starts gesturing to the clock and saying it’s not right, then getting it down and changing it to an hour ahead, and then it dawns on me that this is what his serious warning was about yesterday when I bought the ticket, but I didn’t understand him. (In my defense, the Chilean accent isn’t the easiest and they seem to have much different pronunciation of certain words -- the woman at the hostel didn’t know what the heck I was asking for when I requested a “tenedor” with my breakfast. When I finally pointed at a fork she said, “Oh, un tenedon!” Hmmm, last time I checked there is no second ‘n’ in that word!). He hustles me to another ticket stand that has a bus leaving ahorita for Mendoza, where I buy a second $25 ticket (oh well) and me and my bags -- which include 6 bottles of Chilean wine -- are hustled on to a midsized lime-green-and-orange beast.

The 8-hour drive did not disappoint, and I snapped many impressive pictures from my window seat. The border crossing was interesting with the bus pulling into a massive warehouse and us passengers going through first a Chilean exit station and then an Argentine entry point and then a collection taken up -- my best guess was that it was intended to “butter up” the officials so they didn’t thoroughly inspect our luggage stowed under the bus. Guess we had enough because we were subjected to a ridiculously cursory look-through. Despite a similar collection being rounded up on the way back every stowed back was sent through an x-ray machine, but at least we were spared the time-consuming exercise of all hand luggage being inspected as well. I thought perhaps the tally wasn’t sufficient, but I think it was more to do with Chile’s exceedingly strict agricultural laws (don’t even think about sneaking in that uneaten empanada or sandwich upon arrival at the airport). Eventually we arrived in Mendoza where, due to my missing the earlier bus, a driver wasn’t waiting for me so after schlepping my stuff around the terminal trying to figure out the phone system (step 1, buy a card; step 2, try to figure out how to place a call; step 3, try 5 phones before the number goes through; step 4 , finally reach the woman organizing the wine tour and hear that the driver likely isn’t around so make my way to the house) I take a cab to Chacras de Coria, an upscale suburb about 15 minutes away from Mendoza.

I have no idea what to expect from the group I would be with for the next week, but I figured to be able to go for half price (since the arrangement was I would help out), visit around 10 wineries and eat some great food it didn’t really matter who it was with. I was in heaven when I got to the house, a lovely two-story affair in the leafy ‘burb, with a huge backyard I did yoga in, a swimming pool I laid out by (not quite warm enough to take a dip), and not one but two grills that we put to good use hosting an asado (Argentine BBQ) for the owner of the home and other expat wineauxs in the area. After 4 months of roughing it more or less, I was ecstatic to share a smallish room with a stranger -- it had a divinely comfortable bed and pillows, ample closet and shelf space, and even a little ledge that served as a nightstand (a major luxury often not included in budget hostels). The bathroom I used (one of three in the house) was spacious with dependable hot water that came out at a good volume, another rarity in the world of budget travelers in South America. So, even with some strong personalities among our group of six women (one guy was supposed to come but discovered in Houston, thanks to the helpful airline staff, that his passport was expired [!]), I savored every minute of my “vacation from a vacation” -- even when faced with a big stack of dishes to do at the end of almost every night.

We started out our tour with a visit to Achaval-Ferrer, which was started a decade ago by a group of partners including Santiago Achaval, a native Argentino who serves as president of the winery and is an alumnus of my employer, the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The vineyards had two notable features -- olive trees interspersed among the vines (“In the bad years for grapes, the landowners would live off the olives,” our guide, Santiago, explained) and canals, called acequias, cut through the earth to provide irrigation via a flooding system to the vines. Mendoza is well suited to this type of irrigation since the area has consistent weather -- vintners rely on the snow melt from the Andes to provide enough water each year. At Alchaval-Ferrer, like many wineries in the area, the focus is on Malbec, the Bordeaux varietal that is much more famous for its South American stylings than it was as mainly blending grape known as Côt in France. Indeed, the warm, dry weather of Mendoza allows the grape to get riper and richer than in its home region. Santi said the oldest vines in the area are 120 to 140 years old, but it has only been in the last five years that Malbec’s star has shot skyward.

A-F produces 150,000 bottles a year (12,500 cases), with 80% exported. The winery uses all organic grapes, labels and bottles by hand, and uses recycled boxes. They make just six different types of wine -- an entry-level Malbec using grapes from various vineyards; Quimera, a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; 3 vineyard designate Malbecs;and Dolce, a dessert wine made from sun-dried Malbec grapes, The ’07 Malbec, while young, had good minerality and red fruit components along with obvious oak-imparted vanilla and spice notes of the bouquet. The ’07 Quimera had a much more floral and herbaceous nose and cocoa notes on the palate without being very tannic. The Finca Mirador Malbec had big fruit, especially sour cherry, along with herbal notes while the ’08 Dolce had a rich, raisiny sweet flavor. A couple members of the group bought the Quimera to drink at the asado.

We enjoyed A-F, but liked the family vibe at Bressia, our next stop, much better. The winemaker and patriarch, Walter Bressia, was one of the pioneers in the area’s wine history and was known for making the region’s first blend, Profundo, a 50% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Malbec blend. We went on a tour given by his very personable -- and fashionable -- daughter (just 5 people, all family members, work at the winery), then sat down to taste two wines and nosh on a tasty (and unexpected but very welcomed) cheese and salumi plate. We sampled the ’07 Malbec, which spends 18 months in mixed oak and was very peppery with a long finish; drinkable now but needs some more time in the bottle to really shine; and the ’07 Profundo, which spends 12 months in new & used oak and was richer on the nose and palate with a bit of gaminess, notes of currant and herbs and well-integrated tannins. Bressia exports about 70% of the 60,000 bottles (5,000 cases) produced annually.

Our first day of tasting wrapped up with a lunch at Bodega Ruca Malen, where we sat in the outdoor dining area under a tent surrounded by vines on three sides. Nearly every course was superb, with the wine pairings hitting the mark spot on. The citrus notes of ’08 Yauquén Sauvignon Blanc was lovely with the summer squash, fennel and apply ceviche on a fresh cheese mousse; the tannins of the ’08 Yauquén Cabernet Sauvignon were softened by the beetroot capuccino with crunchy sweet potatoes seasoned with black pepper in a balsamic reduction; the soft structure and smooth tannins of the ’05 Ruca Malen Merlot were strengthened by the smoked pumpkin terrine with sun-dried tomatoes, Merlot sediments and plums; while the grilled beef tenderloin medallion with grilled polenta, sautéed vegetables and raisins in a black olive sauce shined with the aromatics of the ’06 Ruca Malen Cabernet Sauvignon. The ’08 Kinién Malbec was also served with the fourth course and showed excellent structure but it was too young; the ’07 was intended to be served but the winery had recently run out of it, their most high-end offering.

We left more than satiated and with many of the members of the group dreaming of a nap, but I, being the youngest of the group, could have hit a couple more wineries! Good thing there were more days of tasting ahead...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Valle de Casablanca, Chile

I'm baaaack... Well, been in the blogosphere, but through, my travel blog where I captured some of the highlights of my six months in South America. Here's part one of my wine tasting adventures in the southern hemisphere.

I don’t even remember how I found out about the Casablanca Valley wine tour I ended up taking, but when I was waiting outside of Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso house, La Sebastiana, at the appointed time, I was not expecting a black guy in a station wagon. After the second honk though I figured this was the Michael that was there to collect me for wine tasting with a group of Canadians. I felt lucky to be able to join their tour, since it would have been a good deal more expensive for me to do it on my own, even though I was expecting a busload of retirees that were staying in Viña del Mar, the upscale town with beach access that sits next to grittier Valpo. As we drove to Viña, Michael told me in his thick British accent that he was originally from London (his parents immigrated there from Nigeria) but had been living in Santiago for seven years -- he originally came on a student exchange and ended up marrying a chilena and having two young kids. I asked him about the group of Canadians and he tells me “They’re six sailors that have been playing war games with the Chilean navy for the last week.” I think he’s making a joke and that we’ll be joined by a group of pleasure-cruisers that have docked in Chile for a bit, but no, the group is indeed a bunch of enlisted men, all within a couple years of my age except for the Ex-O, James, who has about a decade on us but is no less fun.

Furthering the unexpected turns of the day, I immediately connect with Clayton, a tall, bespectacled guy from the Okanagan area of British Columbia (they’re all from BC) who, upon hearing that I’ve spent nearly three months off-and-on in Cuzco, tells me his mother is a Reiki master who is planning a trip there in the near future. Clayton has his first level of Reiki certification and I tell him how my friend is still in Cuzco completing all her levels of certification. Their boat’s next port of call is Callao, near Lima, and he tells me he regrets not being able to get to Cuzco or Machu Picchu since he has had a fascination with Peru since he was a young child. He believes in past lives, and something about one of them is connected to Peru; same with Japan, which led him to study Japanese and visit there numerous times. As the day goes on and I’ve told him about my love for electronic music, I discover he is friends with the owner of Compost Records (based in Germany) and has promoted for the label. He’s also into photography and, like me, often pauses or separates from the group to take shots of the vineyards. Oh, one other point; he’s shopping for an engagement ring for his girlfriend…

Casablanca Valley is a cool-climate growing region that is known for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir -- I figured that’s a perfect start to my wine travels of the continent since I was going to be heading for big-red country with all the Malbec (and Cabernet Sauvignon) in Mendoza soon. The region is about half way between Santiago and Valparaiso and I passed through it two weeks ago when I flew from Lima to Santiago and then went directly to the bus station for the 1.5-hour ride to Valpo. Despite an excellent climate for grapes, it cannot grow any larger due to water restrictions. It’s a shame, though, since the Sauv Blancs and Pinots I had there made me largely agree with the Chileans who told me “Our wine is better than Argentina’s.” The trip to Mendoza made me realize that I’m just not a Malbec fan, although maybe some of the bottles I’m hauling back would have changed my mind after being laid down for at least a couple years -- if I hadn’t given them all away as Christmas presents! A good Torrontés -- a white grape which can have a lovely floral nose and delicious acidity -- on the other hand, is another story and in my search to find one I really liked I was labled the Torrontés “freak” by the SF group I met up with in Mendoza. The best one turned out to be an unlabled one delivered to our house by a negociant originally from San Diego, but that’s fodder for the Mendoza wine tour post (I know the suspense is killing y’all….).

Our first stop was House of Morandé for a wine-pairing lunch, during which I let my “cork-dork” nature shine through, much to the delight of Michael who said “The more you talk the less I have to, so continue on.” We started out with a Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ‘09, which had fabulous herbal notes, the textbook SB characteristic of grapefruit and bangin’ acidity, and paired well with a ceviche of shrimp and white fish. I shared the bottle of it I bought with the Mendoza group gals, who all thought it was divine -- despite my love of sharing wine, I wish I would have saved it and it had been among the case I hauled back. The second course was a Reserve Pinot Noir ‘06, which had definite earthiness and good (but not jammy in the style of so many California Pinots) fruit and came with my favorite course -- a ragout of rock fish in a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce (love the way they broke the typical wine-food combo rules) with a delicately sliced thin, fried carrot as a garnish. Next up was the ‘07 Carmenere, Chile’s signature grape that was long though to be Merlot, which demonstrated distinct herbal notes as well as a healthy dose of earth and spice in a medium-heavy texture. The dish for that was a little torte of quinoa (the power grain down here -- super-duper fiber content and as much protein as meat), morcilla (blood sausage), which was in fact my least favorite, but they all can’t be hits. Finally, paired with a ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon that was a bit too hot for my taste but had good fruit characteristics, was a melt-in-your mouth osso bucco and a potato gratin -- my first taste at veal (I was a vegetarian for 10 years but gave up on that a couple years ago due to my growing love of wine and wine-and-food pairings).

After the leisurely long lunch that ran a bit too long we headed for Viña Mar, an industrial-sized winery that has an elaborate, Napa-style chateau. And like many of the big showpieces of Napa, the building was better than the wines -- at least the two that were hurriedly offered after our whirlwind trip of the facilities. No biggie, not like I’ve never seen how wine is made before. It was a wise choice on Michael’s part to leave more time for Emiliana, an organic (and partially biodynamic) winery in a spectacular location with views out the front and back of the vineyards, hills, and a range of animals from a oddly-shaped dark gray bird I’d never seen before to roosters and curious (but not overly friendly) alpacas. We all sat at a the long tasting bar and were guided by Lorenzo, who had spent 13 years in the U.S. (Miami and New York), and led us through the tasting of a nearly translucent Sauvignon Blanc that was delightfully floral on the nose and crisp on the palate (and now I’m wondering why I didn’t buy it!); a Chardonnay/ Viognier/Marsanne blend that had the round mouthfeel and creaminess of our JC Cellars white Rhone blends; a Pinot Noir that was very peppery with good spice and earth notes; and GOYAM, a signature blend of Cab, Merlot, etc. that was the show-stopper with a richness on the palate that wasn’t matched by any of the other wines we tried that day.

Rounded out the night with a trip to the Vinoteca, a wine shop in Viña del Mar -- like we needed to buy MORE wine; but actually we did since the Canadians have a horribly high tax on wine but a much lower duty. They were lads after my own heart, all of them buying at least 6 bottles and some of them nearly a case. They invited me to join them for dinner at an Argentine parradilla, basically a restaurant of (nearly) all meat all the time. Since they were shipping out the next morning they were calling it an early night and I was able to hitch a ride back with their driver after they got dropped at the ship -- thanks to my being able to communicate in Spanish (they didn’t speak any). They were remarkably well behaved for sailors, although I did call them on the fact that they were probably holding back on my behalf. I told them there was no need to do so and a few crude jokes ensued. The day was definitely a first, though, and did much to waylay any number of stereotypes. And, if for nothing else, that is why we travel, folks.