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Focus on South America

Helen Coburn believes it's not for nothing that Chilean wines are number one amongst Irish consumers and highlights a selection of South American treats

Feb 17 2012

Inspecting a Chilean vineyard the traditional way

Inspecting a Chilean vineyard the traditional way

At a time when many wine producers have reduced their Irish marketing, it was encouraging to be among a large contingent of press and trade invited to a special South American wine workshop, hosted by Chilean producer Santa Rita. 
 
Chilean wines are number one with Irish consumers, while Ireland is still Chile’s fifth largest export market. Along with Australia, its price quality ratio will be a vital tool for the trade in encouraging consumers to maintain wine buying levels in 2012. Argentina’s market share is smaller. Although Argentina actually produces more wine than Chile, a lot is consumed locally while it’s the world’s fifth largest wine producer, it is only eighth largest wine exporter by volume. Its biggest market is the USA, while Britain is Chile’s most important customer. However, Argentina is expected to grow its share of the UK and Irish markets in the future. Chile already has the sixth largest share of the British market, with strong growth potential.
 
Chile is not Ireland’s number one for nothing. It has been highly adept at offering excellent quality per euro at entry point price and just above. A few years ago, market success went to the heads of some Chilean producers and they started coming up with “icon” wines, made from young vines, and nowhere near offering value for the €50 - €150 prices often demanded. Nowadays, more sense prevails and classic styles, such as Santa Rita’s Casa Real, are carving out well earned spaces in the premium niche with prices which are more realistic. 
 
Watching Carmen's winemaker Sebastian Labbe as he tests some chardonnay

Watching Carmen's winemaker Sebastian Labbe as he tests some chardonnay

Despite having good wines at fair prices, Argentina has been slower to catch the attention of Irish consumers, partly because far fewer of its wines are present on retail shelves. That will change, however, as its domestic consumption is slowing in line with other wine producing countries, and producers will have greater need for export markets.
 
Both Chile and Argentina have become known for particular signature varieties, carmenere in the case of Chile and malbec for Argentina. There’s a debate as to whether these varieties are genuinely top rank and tastings at the recent workshop give some indications, though tasters were far from being in agreement on the matter. Australian wine maker and consultant, Brian Croser told the gathering that Chile’s task was to maintain and refine its cabernet product, while underpinning with wider diversity. The same could be said for Argentina. Each has the capacity to produce lively, fruity wines for everyday drinking, with classic Bordeaux blends and chardonnays for mid to premium wines. Chile has also shown it can produce keenly priced pinot noirs in both fruity and classic styles; Argentina has yet to show its full mettle here. 
 
Santa Rita's Cecilia Torres is in charge of the making of the flagship Casa Real

Santa Rita's Cecilia Torres is in charge of the making of the flagship Casa Real

With a huge range of sites and climates, both countries can experiment with grapes like shiraz, carignan, tempranillo, grenache, riesling, pinot grigio and even gewurztraminer. Chilean sauvignon blanc now regularly beats New Zealand at its premium game, and at a lower price to the consumer. As to signature varieties, it seems easier to produce a premium wine with Argentina malbec than with Chilean carmenere. Malbec has a tendency toward high PH values so that it can become a little fat and lacking in nerve; but where this is controlled, its smooth tannins, rich plum and sloe flavours and intense ruby colour can make it a fine wine indeed. Carmenere is trickier. It runs to green flavours and tannins, and, in the effort to get these ripe, growers sometimes end up with an excess of alcohol which overpowers the fruit. That’s not to say that there aren’t some fine carmeneres. There are, and just because it’s difficult to make them, they should be all the more regarded. But it could be argued that a truly first rank grape variety should give more, and give it more readily, than does carmenere. For some, malbec comes closer.
 
Why not try a comparative tasting of the two varieties and see what you think yourself? And with St Valentine’s and St Patrick’s Day coming up, how about treating yourself to a premium bottle from one of these countries to go with your special dinner?
 
Here’s some of what we found at that workshop - and a few extra for good measure. 
 
Santa Rita Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Santa Rita Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Santa Rita Medalla Real Chardonnay 2010: Leyda, Chile. One of the stand out chardonnays. Classic expression, with nicely defined green fruit and citrus, and very well balanced natural acidity. Good length of finish means that it also has ageing potential. 
 
Terra Andina Reserva Chardonnay 2010 Limari, Chile: Not as complex but much cheaper - this has light toast and lemon aromas and flavours and is very enjoyable and good value for money.
 
Santa Rita Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011: Casablanca, Chile. The nose reminds one of the fume blanc style of California and there may have been some lees stirring to add richness. Lovely spread of soft gooseberry and apple flavour on palate with decent length; this would be great with pork or turkey.
 
Carmen Gran Reserve Carmenere 2009. Apalta, Chile: This is an elegant carmenere but here’s the rub: it contains 10% carignan and 5% cabernet sauvignon. Taut, slightly green tannins and just a hint of menthol make this nicely structured wine a treat for cool climate fans. Flavours are of fresh blackcurrant and plum and there is very good length. This was my own favourite but other tasters were less enthusiastic about its greenness and trace of volatility; a case of try it and see.
 
Santa Rita Medalla Real Carmenere 2008, Marchique Chile: This needed a good swill to show off its aromas of fresh, vanilla laced fruits. On the palate is soft, tasty berry with a hint of liquorice and the finish is just a little dry. This was the favourite of a good many tasters.
 
Dona Paula Alluvia Parcel Malbec 2010. Mendoza Gualtallary, Argentina: A lot of tasters liked this chunky fruited, nicely structured wine which would be perfect for drinking with beef or game. Also shown was the Dona Paula Estate Malbec 2010 which is a good value bottling, with juicy blackcurrant and just a hint of mint.
 
Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet 2010, Alto Jahuel, Chile: This was part of a vertical tasting of this wine, running from 1989. It has tasty blackcurrant flavours and dry, slightly chalky tannins. It will possibly drink relatively young - time will tell.
 
Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet 2008: Sweet, ripe cassis aromas. On the palate are soft tannins and just a little warmth of alcohol; there’s lively blackcurrant and berry fruit. Should be a good medium term ager.
 
Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet 1999: If you happen to have a bottle of this in your cupboard or come across one at your off-licence, grab it now. This is a pitch perfect wine at its moment of maturity, with soft leathery aromas and chunky blackcurrant blackcurrant fruit. Its velvety texture and gentle savouriness will remind you of aged rioja; this is for slow drinking at the fireside.  

And that few extra….

Castillero del Diablo Chardonnay Casablanca Chile 2010 (Irish Distillers €9): Decent everyday chardonnay which won’t shame you at a special dinner either. There’s a matching Cabernet 2009 from Central Valley at the same price; it’s fruity, hearty and enjoyable.
 
Santa Rita Medalla Real Carmenere 2008, Marchique Chile

Santa Rita Medalla Real Carmenere 2008, Marchique Chile

Cousino Macul Antiguas Reservas Central Valley Chile Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Taserra €14.50): This label is back on the Irish market and Antiguas cabernet has ripe and juicy dark fruits yet with good balance of acidity and tannin.
 
Terra Andina Maipo Valley Carmenere Reserva Chile 2009/10 (Gleeson Gilbey €9.50): Haven’t tasted 2010 yet but, tasted recently, 2009 had very tasty berry flavours with decent structure and was very good for its price. 
 
Carmen Reserva Pinot Noir Casablanca Chile 2010 (Dillon €11): This wine has been terrific value since it appeared in Ireland; lovely summer fruits with good length make it classy and enjoyable.
 
Finca La Linda Viognier Argentina 2010 (Searson €11): Peaches, ripe lemon and hints of baked bread make up this lively palate; a dinner party wine with a difference.
 
Luigi Bosca Cabernet Reserva Argentina 2007 (Searson €15): A Bordeaux blend and Bordeaux style, too, and well concentrated for the money. Shows what Argentina can do in classic mode.
 
Altos Las Hormingas Mendoza Argentina Malbec 2010 (Liberty €15): Alberto Antonini is one of Argentina’s top wine consultant and this is his own production, with plum and damson flavours in nicely supporting tannins.
 
Santa Rita, Nativa and Terra Andina wines distributed by Gleeson Group: Santa Rita Medalla Real wines are priced at around E300 trade case of six. Medalla Real is €140 for 12. Terra Andina reserve wines are around €90 trade case of 12.
 
Carmen and Dona Paula distributed by Edward  Dillon. Wines start at around €9 retail. 

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