Sear and Lovin in Chile
We’re flying high over the turbulent Andes Mountains. The stewardess is serving the last third of the plane as a rushed Spanish voice comes over the loud speaker. I can see the surprise in her eyes as she stops, turns and starts to collect the garbage. It’s the 25th minute of a 50-minute flight and we’re going down. I’m wondering if the onboard snacks will be my last meal. Ten minutes later we’re safely down at Mendoza’s El Plumerillo airport. The stewardess says this is the fastest they’ve ever flown from Santiago to Mendoza. At this point I just want a drink.
Things actually started quite uneventfully a few days earlier, as a number of us arrived in Santiago for a junket to visit Chile and Argentina’s growing wine regions. As we headed for our tour of the city there was an air of enthusiasm. Most of us had delighted in the local wines but only some of us had actually been here before.
The first thing you notice around the city, apart from the usual architecture and the construction everywhere, are the wild dogs. They are all over and very domesticated.
I was looking forward to our first day. Aside from visiting the very commercial Veramonte, part of the same family of wineries as Franciscan, Ravenswood and Quintessa, we were having lunch at Pablo Morandé’s new restaurant. Known as the father of the Casablanca Valley, I was looking forward to picking his brain about what he saw here. “In the early eighties there was nothing [in Casablanca] but we found the climate was ideal for white varietals. So I planted Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Today there are vineyards everywhere.” Morandé smiled over a glass of his not-too-sweet Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest.
He noted that his fingerprint wine — they actually have a copy of his fingerprint on the labels — is the Dueto line. We tasted the spicy Carmenère as he explained one of the great advantages of the valley. “The temperature varies dramatically during the summer; from 25 degrees during the day to almost 10 degrees at night. This allows the grapes to ripen very slowly, which balances the acidity and the sugars. You can taste it here,” he raised the glass as if he could physically see the finesse of the wine. I had to agree.
And when asked what it was like to be the father of an entire region, he laughed lightly and took another sip. He never answered the question.
We jumped around a lot, trying to see as much as possible; spending most of our time on the bus. It was there that I got to know two French brothers who were on this trip to learn more about Chile (it may have been to keep an eye on the competition, I’m not sure). Denis and Ivanhoe Johnston, from the Bordeaux negoçiant SEMAV, were typically French — argumentative, witty and the most discerning palates I’ve ever seen. They added a flavour to the tastings by picking out exactly what they liked and discarding the rest with snide side comments. They played on the doubts of some winemakers while delighting the others who managed to impress these brothers.
It was with them that we uncovered Terra Nova. The drive seemed to take us deep into the Andes but really it wasn’t that far off from the valley. As the temperature dropped, and road opened up, we saw a misplaced hacienda off to one side and what seemed to be vineyards, on the other. We drove through the gate and found no one to greet us. After about 15 minutes — we amused ourselves by freezing — a truck came roaring in and Max Errázuriz stepped out.
Part of the famed Chilean family, Max is actually a retired Polo player. Together with winemaker Sergio Traverso, they dreamed up Terra Nova — a small batch winery famed for its well-rounded reds made from Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
After a short tour of the property — mostly pins, with vineyards interspersed — we sat down for lunch. It was a meal to remember. Max and his family had made for us a typical Chilean meal of empanadas for starters, everything BBQ, an incredible potato salad, and to finish me off, a dessert I can’t even describe. My written snapshots don’t do it justice.
We all sat down at a long table in the back of the hacienda, started to eat and talk about nonsense, music, life in Bordeaux, as the bottles emptied. Everything tasted better with the stark country air. Everything felt great after the third bottle. We shifted from the medium-bodied, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon, to the balanced, fruity Merlot, to the depth and full-body of the Carmenère. I wanted to take a case home with me but in reality I just didn’t want to leave. But we did have to leave.
The next day we arrived at Viña La Rosa and lunch again. Our enthusiasm was waning and some were grumbling about having just eaten. That quickly faded as more and more of us started going for seconds and thirds. The spread set up by don Ismael Ossa Errázuriz, chairman of the winery. And the wine — mostly from the Cornellana vineyard which we were about to visit — was punctuated by the comments of Jose Ignacio Cancino, chief winemaker at La Rosa. A fresh passion fruit full Sauvignon Blanc, a lightly tannic but fruity Merlot and another rich Carmenère. I was starting to think that I wouldn’t make it home. My stomach was going to revolt at the airport. No more fast food and beer.
It seemed that the extravagant lunch was simply an energy builder. We waddled out of the large dining room and very slowly worked our way onto buses. The drive took only ten minutes as we rounded the corner onto a small crevice-like road, sandwiched between two mountains. The entrance to valley, at the end of the road, was unimpressive. A small sign simply stated, “No Trespassing.”
Just passed the cold sign was a welcoming sight. Rows, upon rows of vines, climbing gently up the mountain and going on in what seemed like forever. We got out of the buses, even more slowly, and started to walk. Some got lost in the vines, others just stopped and looked off into the distance, while a few people discovered the wildlife — a tarantula basking in the sun. We all found our way to the top of a hill in the middle of the valley. Outfitted with a small gazebo, we all just sat or stood, slightly cold in the Chilean fall. It seems that this valley of vines shouldn’t be here.
In the early ‘90s it was deserted, with only natural vegetation growing savagely. The Ossa family wanted to take advantage of the valley’s unique microclimate, which is ideal for cultivating vines. The problem was the rainfall. In an average year about 600 mm of rain descends in the valley. They needed to bring more water in and there was only one place to get it — the other side of the mountain. A decision was taken to burrow, creating an intricate system of canals and reservoirs. Standing up on top of the mountain we tipped a glass to the family’s ingenuity — for building something from nothing.
Back in the plane, flying from Santiago to Mendoza, I was trying to read lips. I cursed my ineptness in Spanish and considered returning the Berlitz CD I had bought three months earlier. I held on tight to the arms of my chair and glanced out the window from time to time. It looked like we could touch the top of the Andes. Full of white with veins of grey, the turbulence made it seem as if we might.
But we landed safely and in just two days I would have to take the same flight back. I headed for the bar.
Argentina is quite different from Chile. Not as many dogs roam the streets, for one thing. More European in flair, Mendoza doesn’t seem to have been impacted much by the recent economical downturn of the country. You also got the impression that they took their wine seriously, because right outside the airport was planted what seemed like an acre of vines. We hoped they were just for tourists, while the Johnston brothers joked about Cuvée Jet Fuel.
The enthusiasm had dropped quite a bit at this point. The travelling had taken its toll and we were winding down for our trip home. Leather, more than wine, was on most of our minds. But we quickly forgot the shopping once we arrived at Viñas de Vila.
Off in the foothills of the Andes lies a 400-acre estate. Discreet and refined, the Vila family has been making wine for more than a century, but only recently have they started making estate wines worth noting. Things were a bit tussled around the winery. In the middle of renovating, the family was excited to show us around. A mix of ultra-modern and ancient, they definitely have their work cut out for them.
While we were waiting for to eat someone pointed out something strange up on a ledge. Two kids were tossing around a ball so I was a bit confused by their movement. As I focused on the ledge my neck snapped back in a cartoon double take. There was a hawk perched, gnawing at some food. Used as environment-friendly pest control, the hawk seemed very relaxed around all these people. I was afraid it was eyeing dessert.
We soon sat down for what seemed like another ordinary winemaker’s lunch — family thanking everyone for coming such a long way, description of the low yields, etc., etc. But as the music started, the meal was going to be far from that.
The first troupe was a local band playing traditional Argentinean music. Filled with drums and the inviting sound of a pan flute, I thought I was back in Montreal bouncing to some street performers. Everyone got in the act and as the meal went on we looked to be working out the stress of having to leave, and living in the moment.
Along with the music came a bit of wine, of course. The smoky, spicy Merlot played well with the crowd as did the raisiny, herbal Cabernet Sauvignon. And the Malbec? The signature grape of Argentina was making the rounds from table to table. Full of leather, vanilla and some chocolate, it made a deep impact. Carmenère who?
The real show started as the first troupe finished. We clapped ready to call it a day when the tango music started. An amazing, bold voice came over the speakers. At this point everyone stopped what they were doing and bent an ear to listen. They were going to put on a show.
The trip was coming to an end and we needed to expend some energy. With everyone on their feet there was a settling vibe in the air. The tango-labelled red wine La Romance was being emptied at each table. Full-bodied with great balance, it was fruity and slightly tannic — a groovy end to our exhausting trip.