Majestic Leith Walk’s Manager, Lawrence Bowden, reports on his recent wine tasting trip to Chile as a guest of San Pedro Winery.
It takes no geniuses to fathom that Majestic staff are real wine enthusiasts. We sell it, talk about it, study it and from time to time we get to try some too. So when I was invited to Chile as a guest of San Pedro Winery I jumped at the chance. A week of great wine, local cuisine and sightseeing had been organised, with one stipulation – get to the airport on time! The only draw back being that navigation and punctuality are not the most delicately tuned skills that I possess, so this seemed like quite a challenge. Armed with a fifteen-year-old Ford Mondeo, a tank of diesel and road atlas, which was missing much of the M25, I departed on my mission.
I arrived in Santiago a short 50 hours after leaving Edinburgh via Heathrow and Madrid, which incidentally was the toughest part of the trip to negotiate. If you ever find yourself trying to get a connecting flight out of Madrid airport then don’t assume, as I did, that the number on the departure boards bears any correlation with the actual gate that the plane will be leaving from. I’d have been better off using the missing pages from my road atlas to find the plane. Luckily, my friend and Colleague from Majestic Wine Bangor, Kath, was on hand to guide me to the correct gate.
Mission accomplished. We touched down in Chile. Elated with my/our navigation skills we finally arrived at our hotel in Santiago and headed straight for the bar. Looking back, our first drinks where a real insight into the Chilean wine market. Just off the plane, drained and jet lagged my brain was in no real state to work out the local currency, so I decided that the best plan of action was to order two glasses of Champagne – without checking the price. At 3000 pesos per flute it turned out to be pretty cheap. In fact it’s a little over £3. “Wow – champers for 3 quid a glass!” I raved. “I can’t even get a small glass of warm white wine thrown at me by a sultry Aussie waitress in my local generic wine bar for 3 quid!”. The fizz that we’d been drinking didn’t touch the sides so we initially failed to spot the fraud that was under our noses. As a European, I assumed that if the Chileans were to falsely advertise their spurious sparkling wines as ‘Champagne’, then the French would be over quick-sharp with pitch forks, tractors and burning bails of hay to block all the ports and ruin thousands of family holidays, right? Well, clearly not. As it transpired, the Chileans advertise any old sparkling wine on their menus as ‘Champagne’ with blatant disregard for the Appellation Controllée guarantee of origin, safe in the knowledge that they are too far away to worry about France going on strike. With hindsight, 3000 pesos was a touch steep.
Our first port of call in Chile was a bustling downtown fish market in the centre of Santiago. Fishmongers around the outskirts surrounded the Victorian indoor market. In it’s centre, there where hundreds of tables, chairs, kitchens as well as menus attached to the arms of waiters all vying for our business. We sat at a table that looked like it might have the cleanest kitchen, but in all honesty the place was chaos – not the organised kind either – so in reality it was going to be difficult to tell which kitchen our food would appear from. We let our host from San Pedro take care of the ordering. I don’t speak Spanish but I could tell from our host’s embarrassment that they didn’t have any San Pedro wines on the list. Possibly, not the market San Pedro is aiming for I thought…if you’ll excuse the pun. We gorged on Razor Clams Parmesan, tender Calamari, shellfish empanadas and Abalone – a fleshy gastropod mollusc found along Chile’s extensive coast. We settled for a below standard Sauvignon Blanc, which advertised itself as being a Grand Reserva!? Considering the links between Chile and Spain – I wondered if this would stretch to wine labelling laws – and then quickly wondered who’d ever think that producing a cheap, oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc would be a good idea? I understand enough Spanish to recognise the words ‘Roble’ and ‘Barrique’ on the back label too. Damn. This wine was set to be a stinker! Thankfully, labelling laws in Chile are not nearly as stringent as in Spain and the cheap Sauvignon turned out to be nether oaked nor aged. Phew.
After lunch, we set out on a city tour of Santiago. The city is situated on a fault line that keeps architects’ ambitions in check and means that skyscrapers rarely obscure the Andes. This is useful if, like me, you continuously find yourself spinning around on your heels, wondering which direction the hotel is in relation to the restaurant you’ve just drunk dry. The snow-capped Andes run in a continuous spine down the east of the country and were visible throughout most of our stay. Simply remember to have them on the other side of you on your return journey and they’ll lead you right back to your hotel. Simple. I wonder if they’d be any use helping me to locate my car back at Heathrow?
The following day we travelled 3 hours south to stay at the private guesthouse of Vina San Pedro in the Central Valley sub region of Curico. A horseback tour of the vineyards revealed further differences between Chile and Europe. Firstly, all the grape varieties under the sun were grown in plots next to each other with no real regard for site selection. Secondly, the vast majority of the vines were planted on flat land which, would be much less common in the northern hemisphere. European vineyards tend to be carefully selected to suit the needs of a particular grape variety. Think of the Mosel, Loire, Rioja, Burgundy, Piedmonte, Alsace… all are planted with specific grape varieties that suit the soils and climate of that region. Most well known regions, with the exception of Bordeaux, also take advantage of slope and hillsides to aid drainage and concentrate the suns power to help produce better wine. How could two of San Pedro’s wines that I have enjoyed so much, Castillo de Molina Sauvignon Blanc and Castillo de Molina Shiraz, come from these vineyards?
It turned out that they didn’t. Although these Molina wines are made in the winery on this site, the vines that I had seen from horseback are reserved for branded supermarket wines such as 35 degree South. The grapes for the wine I have long enjoyed come from the Elqui Valley, some 10 hours to the north. The Elqui Valley is rocky; steep sided and cooled by altitude and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. These are the characteristics you need for quality wine production. The Elqui Valley is a new location on the world wine map, so new in fact it doesn’t even feature in many up-to-date wine textbooks. San Pedro certainly have their finger on the pulse though, as the area is responsible for producing multi-award winning herbaceous Castillo Molina Sauvignon Blanc with green pepper notes and hints of asparagus, lemon and fresh cut grass. The area is also turning out some elegant Syrah, characterised by their perfumed blackcurrant core and white pepper nuances – a far cry from some of the jammy and over concentrated Shiraz we often associate with the New World.
It’s worth noting that throughout my whole stay in Chile I didn’t taste anything that wasn’t Chilean. Not even so such as a sneaky glass of sherry or port…and I’ve already mentioned what passes as Champagne. In fact, wines from other countries weren’t listed in restaurants or available on supermarket shelves. At Majestic, we import wine from every corner of the globe, as our domestic vineyards just wouldn’t come close to quenching our thirst! But with Chile producing so much of their own, why bother to import anything else? In the UK, we can enjoy wine from all over the world without having to leave our own postcode. In fact, you can sit in your pants and socks and order it on-line, then a smiley wine enthusiast such as myself will deliver it direct to your door! I’m sure Chileans can enjoy the freedom of ordering wine in their underwear too, but they can forget about enjoying a mixed case of Old World Classics; they won’t be leisurely sipping at Bordeaux 2000’s whilst waiting for 2005’s to mature; unassuming Italian Pinot Grigio at parties will be a thing of the past because these wine just don’t exist in Chile. It’s not even possible to find any Argentinean Malbec, and that grows a mere hop-skip and jump over the Andes!
In short, the trip was fantastic, with too many wines and great plates of seafood to bore you with here. But the week made me realise two things. Firstly, Chile is quickly becoming a force to reckon with when it comes to producing quality every-day wines. They’re exploring new regions with great potential and it’s exciting to see what will emerge next. Secondly, it dawned on me how lucky we are to have a relatively small domestic production in the UK. It means our doors are open to all the great wine producing regions of the world. So next time you order your ‘French Favourites’ also look out for the Castillo de Molina Sauvignon Blanc 2009. It’s a touch less grassy than the 2008 with just a hint of passion fruit. Also, check out other wines from emerging Chilean zones such as Limari Valley. Concha y Toro produce a wonderful oaked Chardonnay with a soft vanilla core, topped with layers of cooked apple and ripe gala melon as well as an opaque and juicy Syrah as part of their Maycas range.
Enjoy the variety.