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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 274 (January 21, 2010)

Saturday, January 9: Deborah dropped me at the airport at 1:45 pm, three hours before my LAN flight to Chile via New York. The airline recommended we get there early because of the new security measures instituted since the bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound aircraft. In addition to the initial screening there is a full-body pat-down.

Our group, David Lawrason, John Szabo and Rod Phillips, are judging at the 7th Annual Wines of Chile Awards. Rod's luggage has been lost somewhere between Ottawa and Toronto. Other Canadian judges are either already in Santiago or will be arriving tomorrow.

We are booked into Business Class, which is a treat. A glass of Roederer Brut as we get on and during the one hour flight to New York a glass of Leyda Garuma Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from the San Antonio Valley (absolutely delicious). We have a two-hour wait in New York in the transit lounge, where we have a pint of Guinness to pass the time. The food on LAN is pretty good – salad, cream of mushroom and Brie soup, short ribs braised in cilantro, cheeses, then cheesecake. I ordered more of the Sauvignon Blanc after tasting the Catena Zapata Chardonnay 2007 and Vina San Diego de Puquillay Eucierra 2006 (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah). A glass of Croft LBV and a cognac to help me sleep. Watched Johnny Depp in Dilinger and stretched out to sleep. Got a fitful five hours.

Santiago Airport bar

Sunday, January 10: Santiago is basking in 28°C weather after leaving Toronto's minus 10°C with a wind chill factor of minus 20°C. Alfonso is the same driver I had when I was in Chile a year ago. He deposits us at the W hotel. It's only been open a few weeks and is very ornate.

Meet up with David Rose, who has been here for a week already with his wife, Marlene. Lunch at Mestizo, a popular indoor-outdoor restaurant. We begin with the traditional pisco sour and a debate over which is better, Peruvian or Chilean pisco. We should have a blind pisco-off with the straight goods.

Our group is now augmented by Anthony Gismondi from BC, Claudia Gomez, the winemaker from Amayna, and the marketing director for Chilean wines. We order a variety of hors d'oeuvres (seafood empanadas, abalone, shrimp, gravid lax, crab salad), which we drink with Amayna Sauvignon Blanc 2008 and Leyda Las Brisas Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008. Then we move on to Tabalai Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2008 and Vina von Siebenthal Carabantes Syrah 2006. As a main course I order tuna ceviche. Now I'm ready to sleep in preparation for an Absolut Vodka party and a pool party this evening.

Before the party, Rod and I have a pisco sour at the bar. Santiago's bright young things turn out for the Absolut party. The theme is blue and the cocktail is a mix of vodka, grenadine, blue curaçao and lime juice. Dinner for the group in the hotel dining room. It takes an age before the wine we ordered arrives. The waitress comes with one bottle for twenty of us and it's corked. In the meantime as we wait for the wine we snack on guacamole. Casa del Bosque Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Undurraga TH Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Amayna Pinot Noir 2007, Corallilo Syrah 2007 and Emiliana Villow Pinot Noir 2005 in quick succession. I order pasta with pesto. I duck out at 11 pm for bed.

The W's blue martinis

Monday, January 11: Up at 7:15 am. At breakfast I hear that several of the group stayed up till 1:30 am drinking pisco sours. We take two buses to Hacienda Santa Martina Nature and Golf Club to begin tasting the wines in the competition. Santa Martina is an exclusive club on a private road. There is a summer camp for kids in progress.

In the parking lot we hear this bearded guy shouting at us to wait; he's careering down the hill on a bike and spills over a low wall. In a manic torrent of words he tells us he's an oenolgist who's looking for the perfect terroir to plant his vineyard. Without taking a breath and pulling soil samples from his pockets, he gives us what turns out to be a very knowledgeable discourse on Chile's topography and why it's such a great place for grow wine grapes. Turns out he's an actor hired by Wines of Chile and has already appeared before the group who arrived a day before us (visiting Vina del Mar). His persona on that occasion was as a land owner.

Our panel at the competition

John Szabo goes for a dip

For the competition we are divided into three panels. I am with David Lawrason and Nick Hamilton. We are briefed on the scoring system (out of 100). 467 wines from 111 wineries have been entered in 14 categories. There are two price bands: $11–$15.99 and $16–$30. Our first flight is 12 Chardonnays in the lower price category, followed by 10 Cabernet Sauvignon under $16 and 10 Red Blends under $30.

We break for lunch outdoors and Chris Coletta dares John Szabo to strip down and run into the pool. John takes off his shirt, shoes and socks and pants and runs into the water in his underpants, much to the amusement of the group. Lunch is dried meat and chicken and mashed potatoes. After lunch, 11 Pinot Noirs under $30, 9 Cabernet Sauvignon under $16, 5 Syrah (the best flight of the day) and a flight of Other Reds: Petite Sirah, Carignan, Cabernet Franc and three Malbec. All day we gave two gold medals.

Pisco sours at Top Kitchen

Back at the hotel I take a steam bath in the spa and then sleep for a couple of hours before the group goes to dinner at a cooking school called Top Kitchen. We begin with the obligatory pisco sour before sitting down on high stools around the kitchen's marble counter. The owners instruct us in the preparation of classic Chilean country dishes punctuated with the service of various wines. We begin with county bread and pebre dip, a spicy salsa, served with Veranda Oda Chardonnay 2007. A glass of chilled cherimoya juice arrives. Then scallop ceviche and empanadas de horno with Veranda Oda Pinot Noir 2007. Small bowls of a sweet mash of corn and basil with Undurraga T. H. Pinot Noir 2008 and Santa Carolina Neblus 2007 (a Syrah blend), then crab stew with Maycas del Limari Syrah Reserva Especial 2008 (the wine of the night). The main dish is beef and chicken kebabs and potato first boiled and then oiled and covered with rosemary, then baked in tin foil, and boiled corn, with Santa Carolina Dry Farming Carignan 2008. By this time I'm stuffed and pass on dessert – Chirimoya and meringue. Back to the hotel by 11 pm.

Tuesday, January 12: Deborah's birthday – will try to phone her by Skype. After breakfast we drive to the Hacienda Santa Martina Nature and Golf Club for the second day's tasting. In the morning session our panel tasted 10 Sauvignon Blancs, 11 Cabernet Sauvignon (1 gold medal), 13 Carmenere, and 9 Red blends under $16.

Lunch is a succession of salads and an overcooked filet steak (a.k.a hockey puck) with pomme dauphinoise. Then back to work for the afternoon session of 10 Red blends, 11 Carmeneres over $16 (2 golds), and 12 Syrahs over $16 (3 golds).

Lamb bake at Patagonian restaurant

Then back to the hotel, where Tony Gismondi and I are interviewed by a woman from La Cave magazine about Chilean wines. Speeak for half an hour to Deborah courtesy of Skype to wish her happy birthday. She brings me up to date with news of Pinot the Wonder Dog (who got into a fight with another Wheaten on Sunday, apparently). Tonight we dine at Meson de la Patagonia Restaurant, a forty-minute drive from the hotel through rush hour traffic. The restaurant is a series of open-air huts around a central covered courtyard. In the middle is a fire pit and whole carcasses of lamb are being baked. The chef cuts the cooked meat with a machete and piles it into a bin. We start with a glass of Cono Sur Brut (Charmat process) and then a French sommelier introduces us to a selection of nine Carmeneres lined up geographically south to north. We help ourselves, using the spittoons to spit and dump. The wines are:

  • Odfjell Carmenere 2004
  • Undurraga Founder's Collection Carmenere 2007
  • Santa Rita Peheun Carmenere 2007
  • Montes Purple Angel Carmenere 2006
  • Casa Silva Microterroir Carmenere 2006
  • Conch y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere 2006
  • Ventisquero Grey Carmenere 2007
  • Pildres Carmenere 2007
  • Perez Cruz Carmenere Reserva Limited Edition 2008

The tasting is followed by the obligatory pisco sour (this time made with honey) and as we sit down the actor arrives, this time in the guise of a Patagonian peasant who has just cooked our meal, enjoining us to enjoy the food he has prepared and the accompanying wines (the bottles of Carmenere are now on the table).

Patagonian peasant performance art

The first course is a huge plate of crab salad. Then a plate of lamb arrives, each piece the size of Mike Tyson's fist, accompanied by over-salted lamb ribs and baked potatoes. The sommelier pours a bottle of Tamaya Pink Goat 2008, a deeply coloured rosé with off-dry strawberry flavour. Then a bottle of Santa Ema Amplus 1 2007, a blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. For dessert, a platter of ice creams, fresh berries, crème caramel and sweet cakes. We return to the hotel at midnight.

Wednesday, January 13: The final day of judging at the Hacienda Santa Martina. Today we decide the Trophy wines from all the gold medal winners in 14 categories and The Best Wine of Show. But first our panel has to taste 12 Chardonnays under $30 and 6 Other Whites under $15. Then the tables are arranged in a horseshoe shape for all ten judges to vote on the best wines in each category, listing them in order of preference. The numbers are added up; the lowest number gets the Trophy. We then taste through 6 Pinot Noir, 6 Merlot, 2 Carmenere, 2 Cabrrnet Sauvignon, 7 Sauvignon Blanc. We break for lunch (salad and ravioli and a beer) and then return to taste 7 Chardonnay, 2 Blended Whites, 2 Other Whites, 5 Rosé, 8 Syrah, 2 Blended Red, 2 Other Reds and Best of Show. The Best Value Trophy for red and white are calculated from our previous scores.

Back to the hotel. In the evening a vertical tasting of Icon wines of Chile with six wine makers. Maria Luz Marin from Casa Marin presented the vintages based on "Expression of Terroir" from Lo Abarca (40 hectares divided in to 333 blocks with different exposures, altitudes and soils).

  • Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2005: pale straw; ripe guava, grassy note; ripe and full on the palate, passionfruit, lime with lively acidity and a warm alcoholic finish (91)
  • Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2007: pale straw, lime tint, grassy, green bean, rich and ripe elderberry flavour, full on the palate with fresh acidity (90)
  • Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009: very pale, grassy, green bean, full-bodied, fresh and lively with a grapefruit flavour (90)

Claudia Gomez, winemaker at Garces Silva Amayna.

  • Garces Silva Amayna Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2003: deep straw, yellow plum, well integrated oak; creamy, spicy, peach and grapefruit flavours; full on the palate, lychee note; toasty finish; great balance and length (93)
  • Garces Silva Amayna Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2005: straw, broader flavours with more evident oak, with a lychee note toasty finish (92)
  • Garces Silva Amayna Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2007: rich, full on the palate with flavours of passion fruit, creamy mouth feel. Good length (91)

Winemaker Pascal Marty from Cousiño Macul.

  • Cousiño Macul Lota 2004 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot): dense ruby; cedar, richly extracted blackcurrant and plum flavours, Dry finish, well integrated oak (89)
  • Cousiño Macul Lota 2005: more elegant, well balanced, firm structure, creamy oak flavour (90)
  • Cousiño Macul Lota 2006: dense purple-ruby; tight, closed but the fruit concentration is there, spicy oak notes. A stunning wine in the making (92)

Winemaker Cecilia Torres from Santa Rita.

  • Santa Rita Casa Real 1995 (Cabernet Sauvignon from Puente Alto Vineyard): dense ruby staining the glass; cedar, blackcurrant; licorice, dry, blackcurrant, savoury taste (89)
  • Santa Rita Casa Real 1997: marginally corked
  • Santa Rita Casa Real 2005: dense ruby; creamy oak, blackcurrant, cedar; sweet and savoury, firm finish (90)
  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor 2001: dense ruby; dried currants, cedar; elegant, dark chocolate, firm structure, warm alcoholic finish (89)
  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor 2003: dense ruby, vanilla oak, plum; dry, savoury elegant; good mouth feel (90)
  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor 2007: dense ruby; cedar, vanilla oak, currants; medium-bodied, well extracted fruit, mocha and curranty flavour (91)
  • Winemaker Aurelio Montes Jnr. Montes Alpha M 2003: dense ruby; cedar, blackcurrant, very Bordelais nose; richly extracted but very elegant and still tight with gripping tannins (91)
  • Montes Alpha M 2005: dense ruby; roasted note, vanilla, blackcurrant; fat, richly extracted fruit; firm structure, coffee bean, red berry flavours, ripe but evident tannins (90)
  • Montes Alpha M 2006: dense ruby; cedar, dark chocolate, red berry; dry, blackcurrant with a floral note and vanilla oak with firm tannins (90)

Winemaker Soledad Meneses Vinedo Chadwick.

  • Vinedo Chadwick 2004: deep ruby; animal note, lean, young vine flavour, some greenness, a little dilute (87)
  • Vinedo Chadwick 2005: deep ruby; cedar, red berry; Bordeaux style, medium-bodied, firmly structured (88)
  • Vinedo Chadwick 2006: dense ruby, fruitcake nose, cedar, vanilla oak, pencil lead; concentrated, rich extraction, well balanced, creamy fruit with ripe tannins. Lovely mouth feel (92)

Went upstairs in the hotel for pizza and beer. To bed by 11 pm. Watched the disturbing news of the Haiti earthquake.

Thursday, January 14: After breakfast, the judges are to present a seminar to an audience of winemakers, export managers and winery executives. The theme is "Navigating the Canadian Market." My topic is "Trading Up – Convincing Canadian consumers to explore and purchase premium Chilean wines at higher price points." We have each been given a phrase by Chris Coletta that we have to incorporate into our address. Mine is "strawberry cupcake," which was easy enough to work into a description of entry-level Pinot Noir. The others were more brutal and should not be uttered in polite company. But wine writers are nothing if not creative and each of us managed to work our phrase into the discourse.

The only mishap was during Rod Phillips' speech, in the middle of which an announcement came over the public address system urging the evacuation of the building. Turns out someone was smoking too near a fire alarm in one of the elevators. But within fifteen minutes we are back to finish the seminar and a lengthy Q & A session. Needles to say the majority of questions had to do with how to get listings at liquor boards.

Lunch in the hotel's Osaka restaurant – a string of sushi, raw fish and sashimi dishes, washed down with Miguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut Leyda Riesling 2008, Casa Marin Mirimar Riesling 2008, Tamaya Pink Goat 2008 and Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2007. After lunch Chris Coletta gathered us in the lounge to present each judge with a joke gift and a certificate. I got a teddy bear and a certificate reading "The Gentleman Taster Award." Needless to say the presentation was conducted in the spirit of irony.

Bought a tie at Brooks Brothers, since I had neglected to pack one. Tonight is the Gala Dinner and Closing Ceremony for the 7th Annual Wines of Chile Awards, held at Club de Golf La Dehesa in Lo Barnechea, a twenty-minute drive from the hotel.

De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal

We begin outdoors for drinks and fruit juices. I try Puerto Viejo Sauvignon Blanc 2008 and then Yali Carmenere Gran Reserva 2007. At table I'm seated next to René Merino, president of Wines of Chile and owner of Tamaya, and Marcelo Retamal, the winemaker for De Martino. Across from me is my old friend Hector Vergara, who owns the El Vino del Mondo wine stores and who used to be the sommelier at the Sutton Place in Toronto in the 1990s. Ran into Miguel Torres's son, Miguel Junior, who is now managing the family winery in Curico.

The event is MC'd by Hugo Salvestrini and the Chilean singer Nicole. The highlight is a parade of three female dancers, naked but for a g-string, whose bodies have been painted by different artists. For the dinner there are three buffets representing the cuisine of the south, centre and north of Chile. I choose the south - seafood and fish. The wines on the table are Leyda Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Errazuriz Aconcagua Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Bisquertt La Joya Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Casa Silva Dona Domingo Reserva Carmenere 2008, Viu Manent Carmenere Reserva 2008 and Luiz Felipe Edwards Family Reserve Syrah 2008. I also taste Maycas del Limari Chardonnay 2008 and Quintay Sauvignon Blanc 2009.

Jazz singer Mia Ossa

Mia Ossa, a jazz singer from Toronto who used to work for Lifford Wine Agency and married the Chilean winemaker Cristobal Ossa of Vina La Rosa, performs a couple of songs, and then the presentations begin. (Incidentally, we served Vina La Rosa Chardonnay and Merlot at our wedding in 1997.) Our Canadian judges are invited on stage to read out the winners Oscar style. I have been given the honour of presenting the Best of Show award – to San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Syrah 2007. We leave about 12:10 am, which means it is Sid Cross' birthday. Chris Coletta presents him with a cake on the bus on the way back to the hotel.

Friday, January 15: Pack up to leave the hotel. Today we visit Veramonte winery in Casablanca and then fly to Elqui. We start at Veramonte with a tour of the vineyards, then into the winery for a tasting of a range of Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, each introduced by the winemaker.

  • Casablanca Nimbus Sauvignon Blanc 2009: pale straw colour; grassy, tangerine, grapefruit; very crisp, lively, green bean flavour; more austere on the palate than the nose suggests. Moderate length, warm alcoholic finish (88)
  • Matetic EQ Coastal Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (organic): medium straw; passion fruit, orange, cut grass; lovely mouth feel, very crisp, elegant, good length. Mouth-watering finish (90)
  • Quintay Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (an association of nine growers): medium straw colour; grassy, green fig, full on the palate, broad green plum green fig flavours; soft but tart finish (88)
  • Casas del Bosque Pequenas Producciones Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (5% oak fermentation): straw; intense, grassy, asparagus, full on the palate, broad and masculine, dry and crisp, tart lime but brittle finish (88)
  • Kingston Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc 2009: pale straw; discreet, floral nose, grassy, green bean; white peach, minerally, crisply dry, green apple, bitter, touch of oxidation on the finish (87)
  • Veramonte "La Gloria" Special Reserve 2008: medium straw; grapefruit, grassy; dry, green apple, grapefruit; lovely mouth feel, crisp dry finish. Full-bodied, rhubarb flavour. (88)
  • Loma Larga Sauvignon Blanc 2009: medium straw; grassy, green apple; Sancerre style, well made, crisp, mouth-filling. Well made (90)

Then into the Pinot Noirs.

  • Morande Limited Edition Pinot Noir 2007: ruby; minerally, black cherry, pencil lead; dry, Burgundian style, austere but stylish (88)
  • Casablanca Nimbus Pinot Noir 2008: deep ruby; spicy, minty, raspberry; dry, good mid palate fruit; well integrated oak, touch of sweetness; ripe tannins. Alcoholic finish (88)
  • Loma Larga Pinot Noir 2008: deep ruby; minerally, vanilla oak, black raspberry; dry, full on the palate, chunky. (88)
  • Veramonte Ritual Pinot Noir 2008: deep ruby; floral, honeyed note, cedar, plum; full-bodied, warm alcoholic finish (87)
  • Kingston Alazan Pinot Noir 2008: deep ruby; intense, floral, black cherry, well extracted, black cherry fruit, peppery, spicy note. Oregon style. Warm alcoholic finish (87)
  • Casa del Bosque Perquenas Producciones Pinot Noir 2008: deep ruby; vanilla, minerally, raspberry; plummy flavour, no great length; firm finish, rhubarb note; hard finish (87)
  • Matetic EQ Pinot Noir 2007: deep ruby; high toned, cinnamon, minerally, raspberry; sweet fruit; firm structure, full-bodied (87)

We move into lunch I'm seated next to Patricio Fabia, a Chilean wine writer I met here many years ago with Joshua Greene. I ask him which he considers the best Pinot Noirs in Chile. He recommends Montescano in Los Dichas (Casablanca) and Undurraga T.H. (Leyda).

The lunch menu: grilled octopus in balsamic vinegar with a fresh green salad, served with Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009. Congrio (eel) in a tomato and fennel broth over squid ink rice, with Veramonte Ritual 2008. We are also given a glass of Veramonte Primus 2007, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carmenere and Merlot. A dessert of Casablanca fresh fruits. Leave after lunch and drive to Loma Largo's vineyard, where there is a small airstrip. Six of us – Rod Phillips, John Szabo, Bill Zacharkiw, David Lawrason, David Rose and I – take a Cessna Caravan C208 to Elqui, a flight of 90 minutes at 8,000 feet following the coast initially and then veering inland over mountains. We arrive at Huancara Vicuna airstrip, where we are met by Alfonso, our driver, who has driven up in the bus (6 hours) to tour us around.

The Cessna to Elqui

Elqui Valley vineyards

The owners of Vina Faleria, Aldo Olivia, and winemaker Giorgio Flessati greet us here. We tour one of their three vineyards. It looks like the southern Rhône with its large stones (a former river bed). Their other two vineyards are in La Serena, the largest, towards the coast and one which Giorgio claims is the highest in Chile at 2,000 meters is further east in the foothills of the Andes. At the winery, whose floors are made of old pisco barrels, we taste the range of wines of their two labels, Falernia and Mayu.

  • Falernia Pedro Ximenez 2009 (the only wine from this variety in Chile): pale straw with a green tint; minerally, peach pit; soft, dry, minerally white peach. Easy drinking with good freshness (87)
  • Mayu Pedro Ximenez 2009: pale straw with a lime tint; minerally, citrus peel, floral note; aromatic, lemony, crisp finish (88)
  • Mayu Torrontel 2009: perfumed, pear, Muscat-like; light, fresh, carnation, dry finish. A little dilute but well made with good balance with evident minerality (88)
  • Falernia Viognier 2009 (second crop): pale straw; minerally, peach skin; dry, lacks varietal character, rather leesy (86)
  • Falernia Chardonnay 2009: light straw minerally, apple; silky mouth feel, dry, apple peel flavour; clean with apple and pear flavours (87)
  • Mayu Sauvignon Blanc 2009: light straw, nettles, green bean; dry, chive and cut grass. Tart and acidic (86)
  • Falernia Sauvignon Blanc 2009: light straw; grassy, nettles, green pepper nose; austere, tart, minerally (87)
  • Mayu Carmenere Syrah Rosé 2009: deep pink; minerally, wild strawberry; mouth-filling, dry, minerally. Medium-bodied, a good food wine (88)
  • Mayu Syrah 2008: deep ruby-purple; smoky, meaty, blackberry; dry, elegant, savoury, blackberry; well balanced; medium-bodied, well balanced, good length (89)
  • Mayu Syrah Reserva 2007: dense purple-black; smoky, meaty, blackberry, iodine note; dry, spicy, rich, lovely mouth feel; concentrated, sweet and savoury with a blackcurrant and licorice; lovely balance (92)
  • Falernia Syrah Reserva 2007: dense purple-black; smoky, iodine, blackberry nose; dry, leaner than the Mayu but very Northern Rhône in style, elegant and lingering (90)
  • Falernia Carmenere/Syrah Reserva 2007: dense purple-black; earthy, dried raisins and plum bouquet; rich, full-bodied, sweet plum and date flavours, soft mouth feel. Amarone style (dried grapes) (90)
  • Falernia Carmenere Reserva 2007: dense purple-black; blackcurrant andred pepper nose; sweet plummy fruit; full-bodied and fleshy with a vanilla oak note and soft mouth-feel (88)

We also tasted three tank samples: Falernia Syrah 2008, Falernia Syrah Reserva 2009 and Falernia Carmenere Reserva 2009. Then into dinner, where we are joined by four British wine merchants from Manchester: Fiona Loveland, Karen Wilson, Mark Dixon and John Lumb – who are here to buy bulk wine. We start off with empanadas with cheese. Then we sit down to calugas of congrio and pil pil prawns, served with Falernia Pedro Ximenez 2009, which works very well, and Falernia Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009 (also a good match). With roast fillet of beef with rosemary potatoes and grilled vegetables, Falernia Syrah Reserva 2007. Dessert is Papaya filled with Lucuma mousse and fruit from Elqui Valley. Finish off with the company's pisco.

Rod Phillips at Domos

My dome's retractable roof

Then a long drive up the Elqui Valley to the town of Pisco Elqui, high in the hills – a mystical place; we are staying the night at Domos. This is a collection of seven canvas-covered geodesic domes set on a hillside. Your bed is on a wood platform up a narrow staircase above the circular living-room/kitchen area. There is a small washroom with a shower just large enough to turn around in and outside is a verandah area. You can unzip a panel at the top and look up at the night sky. It is so dark here and the air so clean that you can see an amazing number of stars. The sky seems to be encrusted with them. I sleep with the flap open and enjoyed the best night's sleep I've had for years.

In the morning, a breakfast of muesli and yoghurt, warm rolls, cheese and ham and green tea. The plan was to fly in the Cessna Santa Adriana in the Limari Valley (about 18 minutes by air) but fog makes the flight impossible, so we drive for about two hours to Vina Casa Tamaya. We arrive two hours behind schedule, having stopped for a brief look at the charming town of Pisco Elqui.

Downtown Pisco Elqui

Hazards of the road

At Tamaya we are driven up to the highest point in the vineyard to see the Elqui Valley vineyards stretched out in all directions. Rene Merino's family owns 4,000 hectares with 150 hectares planted to grapes, the rest to a variety of fruits as well as olive groves, avocados, papayas, figs, etc. As we sip on Tamaya Pink Goat Rosé 2008 and nibble on cheese, stuffed olives and nuts (we're famished), we experience the wind that blows all day from the ocean 18 kilometres away. This makes for an extraordinarily long growing season. Winemaker José Pablo Marin tells us that he harvests Sauvignon Blanc on the 1st of February and Carmenere on the 1st of June. The vineyards were planted in 1997, the second planting in the valley. Then we go to the winery for the tasting:

  • Tamaya Sauvignon Blanc 2009: pale straw; grassy, minerally, grapefruit rind; medium-bodied, fresh, crisp, grapefruit flavour. Clean, good length (88)
  • Tamaya Viognier Chardonnay 2008 (half barrel-fermented, French and American oak): straw; aromatic, peach, apple; spicy, minerally, dry; a little short (86)
  • Tamaya Sauvignon Blanc Winemaker's Selection 2008: pale straw; grassy, flat – possibly corked
  • Tamaya Sauvignon Blanc Winemaker's Selection 2007: pale straw; grassy, tropical fruit,passionfruit; well extracted fruit, minerally, crisp, good length (88)
  • Tamaya Winemaker's Selection Chardonnay 2008: straw; spicy oak, apple; spicy, orange and apple flavours; minerally; oak sitting on top of fruit. Bright acidic finish with oak ending (87)
  • Tamaya Sangiovese Merlot 2008: dark ruby; cherry, minerally, cedar; sweet black cherry, fruity but firm, dry finish. Sustains well on the palate (89)
  • Tamaya Carmenere Reserve Reserve: deep ruby; cinnamon, floral, blackberry; medium-bodied, floral, black fruit; well made, mocha note (88)
  • Tamaya Syrah Reserve 2008: deep ruby; inky, floral, blackberry; savoury, medium-bodied, ripe tannins; short finish, a touch green. Smoky finish (87)
  • Tamaya Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: deep ruby; cedar, blackcurrant; good ripe fruit with gripping tannins. Should age well for 4 – 5 years (89)
  • Tamaya Winemaker's Selection Single Vineyard 2008: deep ruby; floral, spicy, blackberry; lovely mouth-feel, full on the palate; firm finish (89)
  • Tamaya Winemaker's Selection, Syrah 2008: deep ruby; blackberry, herbal, iodine; dry, savoiury, blackberry; firm structure with a floral note (89)
  • Tamaya Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007: deep ruby-purple; gamey, dry, austere, green note, medium-bodied (86)
  • Tamaya Sweet Goat Muscat 2009: straw; perfumed, intense, raisiny; orange and honey flavours. Simple sweet wine (87)

By this time it is after 2:30 pm and we're really hungry. Mercifully, the next winery visit is five minutes away, beginning our tasting at the Hacienda Santa Cristina, a luxurious resort. Lunch has been set on a patio by the swimming pool. We refresh ourselves with Maycas del Limari Sauvignon Blanc Reserva Especial 2009. Winemaker Javier Villarroel explains that Maycas is an Inca word meaning "arable land." A series of dishes arrive – deep-fried eel, deep-fried goat's cheese, oysters baked with cheese, clams baked with cheese, then lamb chops and avocado and tomato salad. We try a glass of Maycas del Limari Chardonnay Reserva Especial 2008 and Maycas del Limari Syrah Reserva Especial 2008. After lunch, Javier drives us up to the vineyard in Quebrado Seca, where he shows us the layers of soil in a trench dug between the vines. He applies a chemical solution that detects the presence of calcium carbonate if it causes frothing. Then to the winery for more tasting.

  • Maycas del Limari Sauvignon Blanc 2009: pale straw, lime tint; grassy, minerally, green gooseberry; fresh, lively with a mineral strain, gooseberry (87)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc 2009: pale straw, lime tint; lemony, minerally, grassy; crisply dry, elegant, focused citrus flavours. Great length (90)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Chardonnay 2008: medium straw; minerally, apple barnyard note; fresh orange and apple flavours; great length (90)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2008: straw; apple, toasty oak, rich, spicy, apple and orange flavors backed by lively acidity and great minerality. Long nutty finish (91)
  • Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2007: straw; vanilla, apple, spicy note; caramel, buttery with green apple acidity with a thread of minerality. Lovely mouth feel, great length (92)
  • Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008: straw, very Burgundian nose; toasty, apple, good energy, sweet core of apple and toast, great balance with a long nutty finish (93)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Syrah 2008: dense purple-black. Stains the glass; blackberry, pepper, vanilla oak; mouth-filling, dry and savoury, blackberry and smoked meat flavour; plummy fruit; firm tannic finish (90)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Syrah 2007: dense purple-black, stains the glass; blackberry, vanilla oak, smoky floral and medicinal note; highly extracted, plummy; flavour seems to drop off (88)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial 2008: dense purple-black, stains the glass; blackberry, floral with a mineral note; full on the palate; not as balanced at the moment as the Reserva but should come into its own with a year or two in bottle (90+)
  • Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial 2009: dense purple-black, stains the glass; fresh blackberry, savoury, meaty note; mouth-filling, sweet and savoury flavours; firm structure with blackberry, dark chocolate (90)

Hacienda Juntas in Coquimbo

Claudia Sagner, Hacienda Juntas

Our next stop is Hacienda Juntas, where we will spend the night. The hacienda is an old country inn that has been in the family for 100 years. The proprietor, Claudia Sagner, meets us in Ovalle and guides us in for the last 35 minutes of the journey, past a huge dam which is a favourite of wind surfers. There are 18 rooms here with verandas running the length of the building. My room has a four-post bed and two other beds. It's an idyllic spot with a great view of the mountains, avocado groves and table grape vineyards.

A special BBQ has been prepared for us at dinner, featuring what our guide, Gail, calls "crucified lamb," as well as beef, chicken and chorizo sausages. The meat is piled on to metal plates that are kept hot on charcoal braziers at the table. A variety of salads arrive with baked potatoes. All of this is washed down with Lomo Larga Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Lomo Larga Chardonnay 2007, Lomo Larga Cabernet Franc 2007, Lomo Larga Syrah 2007, Lomo Larga Malbec 2007 and Tabali Carmenere 2007. We finish the night with Malpaso Pisco. I play a very bad game of table tennis with David Lawrason and an even worse game of snooker. Must have been the pisco.

Sunday, January 17: This is Election Day in Chile and all the shops and restaurants are closed and there is no alcohol to be had until midnight, even, it turns out, at our hotel in Santiago, the W. We fly in the Cessna for 95 minutes from El Tuqui to the Tobalaba airport, where we are met by Alfonso, who ferries us to the hotel. Our rooms are not ready so we have a sandwich by the pool and try to order a beer but to no avail. So we settle for lemonade. A tasting at the Hyatt Hotel at 7:30 pm of three family estates (first eight wines from Bio Bio). The head winemaker for the group is Montrealer Pascal Marchand, who used to be the winemaker at Domaine de la Vougeraie in Burgundy.

  • Augustinos Sauvignon Blanc Reserva Privada 2009: pale straw, grassy, gooseberry, floral note; crisp, good extract, lively in the mouth with great length. More New World style (90)
  • Gracia Chardonnay Reserva 2008: straw with a green tint; spicy, minerally, apple and oak; ripe fruit, apple and citrus flavours; full in the mouth, well integrated oak with a peachy, lemony flavour (89)
  • Porta El Carme Estate Chardonnay Wild Yeast 2008: straw, green tint; apple, citrus with a miberal note; ripe, peach, melon and tangerine flavour; soft mouth feel but good acidity to carry the flavour (90)
  • Augustinos Miraflores Chardonnay Reserva Privada 2008: straw; minerally, peach- melon; full in the mouth, soft mouth feel. Warm alcoholic finish (89)
  • Porta Winemaker Pinot Noir 2009 (tank sample): deep ruby; minty, raspberry; smoky, earthy, short finish with tannic bite (86)
  • Garcia Pinot Noir Reserva Lo Mejor Miraflores Los Pajaros Vineyard 2008: deep ruby; floral, raspberry; sweet, cherry-berry; sweetish; firm finish (87)
  • Garcia Pinot Noir Icon Mahuida Vineyard 2008: deep ruby; high toned, violets black cherry, firmly structured – TCA
  • Garcia Syrah Reserva Lo Mejor Los Cauquenes Vineyard 2007 (Cachapoal Valley): dense purple; meaty, blackberry and black olive; spicy, meaty, smoky, lively acidity (89)
  • Porta Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2009: dense purple-ruby; cedar, eucalyptus, black fruits; sweet black currant, juicy, clean with rip tannins and lively acidity; savoury finish (89)
  • Garcia Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2009 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-ruby; minty, blackcurrant, well extracted fruit but a green pepper note (88)
  • Agostinos Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva La Rosa Estate La Huella Vineyard 2007 (Aconcagua Valley): dense ruby-black; minerally, sweet blackcurrant with lively acidity, firm structured, not knit yet but will be terrific with a couple of years in bottle (90+)
  • Porta Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Santa Isabel Estate El Rio Sur Vineyard 2008 (Aconcagua Valley): dense purple-black; vanilla, spicy, blackcurrant, minty; bold blackcurrant flavour, lively acidity, ripe tannins; fruity by firm (90)
  • Garcia Caminante Alto Cachapoal Vineyard San Perdo Field 2006 (70% CS/23% Syrah/7% CF): dense purple-black; spicy, vanilla oak, blackcurrant, smoky; fresh crushed blackcurrants, dry finsh with a licorice note (91)
  • Agustinos Escorial Red Escorial Estate Vineyard 2006 (45% CS/35% CF/20% Carm) (Aconcagua Valley): dense purple-black; smoky, iodine, blackberry; mouth-filling, sweet black fruits, meaty, rich (91)
  • Porta Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Aconcagua Valley): dense purple black: blackcurrant, mint, cedar; sweet and savoury, plummy but acidic (88)

We break for dinner and taste the Veranda wines that Pascal Marchand is directly responsible for.

  • Veranda Sauvignon Blanc 2009: fruity and clean, beautifully balanced, tropical fruit and grapefruit flavours with minerality (91)
  • Veranda Chardonnay 2008: straw colour; spicy, green pineapple flavour; fresh and mouth-filling with lively acidity

At this point I give up writing notes to enjoy a dinner of octopus carpaccio and grilled Mero, which is described on the menu thus: "Grilled black jew fish (sic)."

Ignacio Recabarren

Monday, January 18: Up at 6:45 am to finish packing. My last day in Chile but three wineries to visit before heading to the airport for a midnight flight. Our first visit is Concha y Toro. Meet my old friend winemaker Ignacio Recabarren, who makes great wines for Concha y Toro. He leads us through his Sauvignons and Chardonnays, then hands over to Enrique Tirado Santelices (who has a identical twin brother, also a winemaker) for the Cabernets, then Ignacio returns for the Carmenere flight.

  • Concha y Toro Trio Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Casablanca/Rapel/Limari): pale straw; green bean; herbaceous, crisp and racy with good minerality. Great energy and length; mouth-watering (90)
  • Concha y Toro Trio Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (El Triangulo Vineyard, Casablanca): pale straw, lime tint; lemony, passion fruit, cut grass; bright, lively grapefruit and passion fruit flavours with great length and a lychee note on the finish (92)
  • Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay (Limari Valley): straw with a green tint; Burgundian nose, minerally, intense, smoky, citrus, oaky note; toasty, pineapple, citrus; lively acidity with a nutty finish (90)
  • Concha y Toro Amelia Chardonnay El Triangulo Vineyard 2008 (Casablanca Valley): straw; spicy, Burgundian nose, developing barnyard notes, minerally, citrus, pineapple; sweet, spicy tangerine, well integrated oak; long, warm alcoholic finish (91)
  • Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Syrah Quinta de Maipo Vineyard 2007 (Maipo):dense purple, stains the glass; vanilla oak, blackberry, plum, floral note; dry, leaner on the palate than the nose suggests, short finish with dusty tannins (86)
  • Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Maipo): dense ruby; cedar, black fruits; dry, savoury with balancing oak; bitter chocolate finish (88)
  • Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Vineyard 2007 (Maipo): dense ruby-black; cedar, vanilla oak, blackcurrant; sweet fruit with a lilac note that dries on the palate; firm structure, bitter chocolate finish (89)
  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Vineyard 2006 (4% Cabernet Franc) Maipo: dense purple; concentrated, blackcurrant, plummy, savoury, drying tannins; chunky mouth feel . Needs more time in bottle (89++)
  • Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2001 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-black, holding colour to the rim; cedar, vanilla, blackberry and plum with pencil lead bouquet; sweet and savoury fruit, plum, dry black licorice finish; firm structure (90)
  • Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2004 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-black, stains the glass; vanilla, cedar, dry curranty; great balance, elegant, ripe fruit; Bordeaux style (89)
  • Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2006 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-black, stains the glass; cedar, spicy, floral note; round, sweet fruit with lively acidity (89)
  • Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2007 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-black, stains the glass; floral, blackberry, elegant, beautifully balanced, great integration of oak (91)
  • Concha y Toro Carmin de Peumo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2003 (Rapel Valley): dense purple-black, stains the glass; rich, spicy fruitcake nose with pencil lead; lovely mouth feel, great structure, firm, muscular, ripe tannins, rich blackberry flavour with a tannic lift on the finish (92)
  • Concha y Toro Carmin de Peumo Carmenere Peumo Vineyard 2005 (Rapel Valley): Dense purple-black, stains the glass; dense purple-black; medicinal note, dry, firm (89)

The next stop is Santa Carolina, where Fernando Vargas, export director for North America, tours us around the historic buildings before the tasting.

  • Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009 (Leyda): pale straw; nettles, citrus, minerally; touch of sweetness in mid palate; grassy, guava flavour; minerally, short finish (86)
  • Santa Carolina Specialties Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (San Antonio Valley): very pale; cat's pee, grassy, grapefruit; tart, gooseberry, green plum, green apple; fresh, lively acidity. Good mouth-feel, minerally salty finish (89)
  • Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserva 2009 (Casablanca, Valley): light straw; minerally, apple, touch of oak; spicy, sweet pineapple with lively acidity. Reminiscent of Australian Chardonnay; nutty finish (87)
  • Santa Carolina Chardonnay 2009 (Limari): barrel sample – straw; buttery, toasty, pineapple; spicy, rich, creamy, pineapple and orange flavours; toasty, nutty finish (89)
  • Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2008 (Colchagua): dense purple-black; plum, currants, vanilla oak; fully extracted, coffee, dark chocolate; firm structure, ripe tannins. A little short but good value (87)
  • Santa Carolina Barrica Selection Carmenere 2008 (Rapel): dense purple-black: cedar, blackberry; sweet blackberry fruit, firm structure, bright and fruity with a dry finish (87)
  • Santa Carolina Barrica Selection Petit Verdot 2008 (Rapel): dense purple-black, stains the glass; creamy, blackberry, mineral note; mouth-filling, dry but tannic with a short bitter finish (86)
  • Santa Carolina Specialties Malbec 2008 (Cachapoal): dense purple-black; violets, blackberry; firm structure with evident tannins; closed, dry, tannic. Needs time (87++)
  • Santa Carolina Specialties Carignan 2008 (Cauquenes Valley): dense purple-black; black raspberry; elegant, fruity with lively acidity; firm structure, spicy fish (88)
  • Santa Carolina Carignan 2009 (barrel sample): dense rich fruit with good acidity. Very encouraging
  • Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Maipo): dense purple-black; blackcurrant, cedar, creamy curranty flavour, firm structure, dry, elegant, ripe tannins. Still youthful (90)
  • Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2007 (Rapel): dense purple-black; blackcurrant; floral note; minerally, blackberry flavour, dry and firm, well structured with good length (89)
  • Santa Carolina VSC 2007 (Maipo): 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 10% Petite Sirah; dense purple-black; vanilla oak, blackberry, currants; mocha, juicy fruit, firm structure, good length (90)
  • Santa Carolina Syrah 2009 (Aconcagua): barrel sample – intense, richly extracted, full in the mouth with sweet spicy blackcurrant. Augurs well for a great wine.

Lunch in the wine cellar: the first course is carpaccio of tilapia and tuna tartar with lime, followed by lamb ragout with sautéed mushrooms and potatoes. The wines: Santa Carolina Nimbus Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 and Syrah 2007.

Following lunch we drive for two hours to Errazuriz to see the new facility that will double the winery's capacity from 3.5 million litres to 7 million. We tour the new winery that is to open in March, doubling the capacity to 7 million litres. Winemaker Francisco Baettig takes us through a tasting of Aconcagua region wines.

  • Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Aconcagua Coast): pale straw; grassy, nettles, grapefruit rind; crisp, fresh, lively acidity with good minerality (87)
  • Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Aconcagua Coast): grassy, asparagus; grapefruit with a touch of bitterness. Alcoholic finish (86)
  • Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Casablanca Valley): medium straw colour; passion fruit, herbaceous; lively acidity, orange and gooseberry flavours; good length (89)
  • Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2009 (Aconcagua Coast): apple, citrus, minerally; crisp, fresh citrus acidity (87)
  • Arboleda Chardonnay 2009 (Casablanca Valley): straw; oaky, honeyed note, well extracted, apple, green pineapple flavours, lively acidity (88)
  • Errazuriz Pinot Noir 2009 (Aconcagua Coast): ruby; minerally, raspberry, tobacco leaf; good varietal character, well extracted fruit, firm structure with a fine spine of acidity; nicely balanced. A little hot on the finish (87)

Errazuriz introduced Syrah into Chile in 1994. It was grafted onto old Cabernet Sauvignon stock, producing the first wine in 1996.

  • Errazuriz Shiraz 2008 (Aconcagua Coast): dense ruby with a violet note; floral, black raspberry, pencil lead; fruity, dry with lively acidity; fresh (87)
  • Errazuriz Shiraz Max VI Vineyard 2008 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense ruby-purple; minerally, oaky note, blackberry; more substantial on the palate with more grip (88)
  • Errazuriz Shiraz Max V Vineyard 2008 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense purple; vanilla oak, blackberry, chocolate note; firm structure, minerally, supple tannins (88)
  • Errazuriz Max Reserva Shiraz 2008 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense purple; vanilla oak, blackcurrant; dry, firm drying tannins (88)
  • Arboleda Syrah 2008 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense purple; blackberry, medicinal note, minerally; mouth-filling, blackberry, pepper, iodine note; dry savoury finish with a fine spine of acidity (90)
  • Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense purple; pencil lead, vanilla oak, floral note; well extracted, sweet blackcurrant, with a firm structure; dry savoury finish (88)
  • Errazuriz The Blend 2006 (Valle de Aconcagua): 40% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Carmenere – deep ruby; tobacco, black cherry, earthy note; sweet curranty, cherry, firm structure; good mouth-feel, ripe but gripping tannins (88)
  • KAI Don Maximiano Estate 2007 (Valle de Aconcagua): Kai means "plant" in the indigenous language. 87% Carmenere, 7% Syrah, 7% Petit Verdot. Dense purple-ruby; cedar, blackcurrant, creamy note; lovely mouth-feel, well structured, ripe tannins, fresh and lively finish (89)
  • Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve Don Maximiano Estate 2007 (Valle de Aconcagua): 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Syrah. Dense purple-ruby; cedar, blackcurrant; beautifully balanced, elegant red berry flavours, soft tannins. A very polished wine (91)
  • Sena 2007 (Valle de Aconcagua): dense purple-ruby; tobacco leaf, vanilla oak, blackcurrant; richly extracted, sweet fruit, firm structure, plummy fruit. Elegant, great length (90)

The tasting lasts a long time and I'm getting concerned about catching my flight in Santiago which is about 90 minutes away by car. I'm seated next to Eduardo Chadwick at dinner, who is discussing whether he should maintain the term Shiraz for his Dom Maximiano Reserva, rather than Syrah. The wine is a big seller in the Ontario market. It will be interesting to see if the name is changed for the next vintage. Dinner is Empanaditas (filled with corn) and Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009 followed by crab stew with merquen biscuits, with Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc 2008. Main course: lamb loin with marinated vegetables, zucchini and goat cheese with Errazuriz La Cumbre 2006 – unfortunately corked, so KAI 2006 was substituted. Desert is lucuma mousse, but we have to rush it and forgo the accompanying wine (Errazuriz Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2007), as there is concern I will be late for my flight.

With all the security checks at the airport, I just make it. We take off at midnight and I just want to sleep. A glass of Roederer Brut and then I put the seat prone and am out for the next four hours.

Tuesday, January 19: Arrive at Miami Airport at 6:20 am for my Toronto flight at 10:20 am. Finish writing the diary in the lounge. Good to be home.




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