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.