October 2010

Not surprisingly, we drink wine with every dinner, and if we happen to be home for lunch, that too. Often, probably most often, our reaction to a matching between the food and the wine will be “That’s good” or “That works” or “I’ll have a little more, please.”

Last night, however, was a zinger, a BINGO! moment that should resonate in the memory-file of food and wine pairing for years.

I made a mushroom risotto, and there’s not much food-wise that’s simpler than that. The mushrooms were crimini, shiitake and chanterelle — about one ounce of the latter since they were $30 a pound, thank you v. much — sauteed in butter until slightly browned. Minced leek likewise sauteed in butter with a bit of olive oil. Then the arborio rice. Half a cup of white wine, cooked down. And then the slow progress of adding warm chicken broth half a cup at a time, stirring, stirring, stirring until each portion of broth is completely absorbed. The whole thing took about an hour, with the stirring part about 30 minutes. A grating of Parmesan cheese goes on before serving.

A bottle of Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuissé 2007 had been standing quietly in the refrigerator in the kitchen for about nine months, offering me sly admonishment every time I opened the door to get some lettuce or mustard or cheese. Last night, it occurred to me that this wine, now three years old and possibly nicely mellow, might be terrific with the mushroom risotto. Normally, I would have wanted a lighter red, say a Dolcetto d’Alba or a Fleurie, but something told me to reach for the Pouilly-Fuissé.

The wine, 100 percent chardonnay made from grapes bought under long-term contracts, was a radiant medium straw-gold color with a faint greenish cast. It fermented and then aged in stainless steel and oak barrels for six to eight months, seeing no new oak. The wine is spicy, smoky, savory, with a decidedly mellow woodsy quality about it. Scents of roasted lemon with a scant hint of buttered toast are infused with a bit of bright pineapple and grapefruit, the floral influence of little waxy blossoms, and a limestone element of piercing intensity. That penetrating minerality finds expression in the mouth, too, along with acidity of bow-string tautness — making the wine feel almost fiercely animated — and lovely roasted lemon and lemon curd flavors; a strain of autumnal mossy earthiness lends bass notes to a beautifully balanced and integrated wine. This could go another three years, well-stored. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices on the internet range from about $20 to $28; look for the median.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York. A sample for review.

A little late on the Wine of the Week this week, sorry. You won’t be sorry, though, to pick up a bottle or case of La Vendimia 2009 from Rioja, a 50/50 blend of garnacha (grenache) and tempranillo grapes that’s as bright and clean and deeply berryish as you could ask for. The wine is produced by Palacios Remondo, whose owner, Alvaro Palacios, represents the fifth generation of his family in the business. The grapes for La Vendimia (“the harvest”) are grown in vineyards 1,800 feet up the Yerga mountain, among the highest places in Rioja. The wine ages five months in 80 percent French and 20 percent American oak barrels, none of them new, so the wood component gently lends shape and suppleness. Black cherries and plums, red and black currants are infused with notes of cloves and cocoa powder, orange pekoe tea and rose petals, with undertones of cedar and dried thyme. How tasty and charming is that! The texture, while soft and appealing, allows for the influence of slightly dense tannins to carry some weight and substance through the mouth to the spicy finish. We drank this last night with a delicious chicken and hominy stew that LL made. Not meant for cellaring, La Vendimia 2009 should be consumed by the end of 2012. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Very Good+. About $15, a Terrific Value.

Imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

We dined with friends at Bari in Memphis Friday night, and I took along a bottle of the Lucente 2007, a cabernet sauvignon-sangiovese-merlot blend from Tuscany. Bari is primarily a seafood restaurant — we also drank, from the wine list, the white Vietti Roero Arneis 2009 — but the kitchen turns out a fine steak too. A special that evening was a boneless rib-eye steak marinated in olive oil, garlic, various herbs and spices and moderately hot chilies, the effect of which I could feel slowly building toward the back of my palate.

The wine is a product of Luce delle Vite, a collaboration, launched in 1995, between the late Robert Mondavi and Vittorio Frescobaldi, of the prominent and ancient Tuscan wine family. The main wine is Luce, with Lucente as a less expensive second label. The blend in Lucente 2007 is 50 percent merlot, 35 percent sangiovese and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon. The wine ages 12 months in almost all French oak, 55 percent new barrels, and a bare 5 percent American oak. The first impression is of classic merlot and cabernet elements: cedar, tobacco and dried thyme; black currants and black cherry; dusty tannins and glittering graphite-like minerality. The wine is meaty and fleshy, inky and a little tarry, and at this point one feels a sense of sangiovese character, a bit of plum, a wash of dried spice and flowers, a touch of smoky black tea. Give the wine a few minutes and you perceive echoes of moss on granite, dried mushrooms, iodine; then the dense tannins really start to emerge. In others words, Lucente 2007 resembles a really well-made Napa Valley blend that possesses several degrees and shades of Tuscany. The alcohol content is 14.5 percent; just like Napa! Best from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18, but boy it squared off damned prettily and essentially with that medium-rare boneless ribeye. Excellent. About $30.

The next night was Pizza-and-Movie Night at our house (Tilda Swinton in the Italian film “I Am Love”), and desiring something simple, tasty and authentic to accompany my pizza — topped with roasted tomatoes, green pepper, roasted sweet chilies, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, pepper-cured bacon, mozzarella and Parmesan — I opened a bottle of Li Veli Orion 2008, a 100 percent primitivo wine from Salento, the heel of the Italian boot that forms the Apulian peninsula. This was precisely what the doctor — I have an honorary doctorate, thank you very much — ordered, a drinkable red wine, very spicy, quite succulent with black currant and blackberry flavors encompassed by smoke, a hint of tar-tinged violets, black pepper and shale-infused tannins. Depending to what you’re reading, this wine was made all in stainless steel (the press release) or spent six months in oak barrels (the winery’s web-site), but I don’t mind saying that in any case, this is a very enjoyable expression of the usually rustic primitivo grape that just happens to share DNA with zinfandel. Nothing deep here; just direct and tasty appeal. Very Good+. About $11, a Real Bargain.
Lucente 2007 is imported by Folio Fine Wines, Napa, Cal.; Li Veli Orion 2009 is imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal. These were samples for review.

Part of the success of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in Chile has been a decades-long process of finding the right place to grow the grapes. As happened in California through much of the 20th Century, the importance of finding the suitable micro-climate or terroir for particular grapes in Chile was relegated to the scientific principle of: “How ’bout plantin’ grapes over there?” “Uh, o.k., looks good to me.” The slow and meticulous process of searching for appropriate vineyard areas began in the 1980s and continues today, bringing a focus for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to cooler-climate regions like Casablanca and Leyda valleys, from which you could drop-kick a corkscrew to the Pacific Ocean. With one exception, all of these sauvignon blancs or chardonnay are from those two areas.

Viña Leyda was founded in 1997 in the Fernandez Valley (about 80 kilometers — 50 miles — southwest of Santiago), which the winery successfully had changed to the Leyda Valley and named an official D.O. in 2002. The Pacific Ocean lies just over a series of low hills, and when you walk up Viña Leyda’s sloping westward-facing vineyards to an elevation of about 180 meters (540 feet), you feel the freshening of the breeze and a bracing salty bite. The valley is increasingly a home for wineries or vineyard owners looking for prime sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir acreage, though syrah is beginning to be planted too. From no properties some 12 or 13 years ago, the Leyda Valley now holds about 2,000 hectares of vineyards planted by 20 producers. Viña Leyda owns 249 hectares, about 615 acres. The winery was acquired by Viña Tabali in 2007; the overarching entity is now Viñas Valles de Chile. Chief winemaker for Viña Leyda is Viviana Navarrete.

The Leyda Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2010 delivers a heady bouquet of lime, lemon and grapefruit in a pungent welter of gooseberry, dusty limestone, fennel and dried tarragon. The wine is terrifically bright and lively, keenly crisp and endowed with heaps of lime and tangerine flavors highlighted by sunny- leafy elements amid a tidy balance between lushness and spareness. It keeps you on edge for another sip and cries out for fresh oysters. Very Good+. About $9 to $11, a Great Bargain. How different is the Leyda Garuma Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010? It’s spicier than its cousin, rounder, a little lusher and clearly more high-toned and elegant yet vibrant with limestone, oyster-shell and penetrating gunflint qualities. Fruit tends toward gooseberry and yellow plums. This is an extremely attractive and beautifully balanced sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $14 to $16, representing Good Value.

The fresh, clean Leyda Classic Chardonnay 2010 offers simple, direct appeal in a well-made package. Scents of green apple, pineapple, grapefruit and jasmine are bolstered by prominent limestone-like minerality, while spicy pineapple and grapefruit flavors are couched in a smooth, moderately lush, chewy texture. Very Good. About $9 to $11. A wholly other creature is the light gold Leyda Lot 5 Chardonnay 2009, a bright, bold chardonnay that features notes of pineapple and grapefruit, spice cake, toasted hazelnuts, camellias and (after a few moments) almond brittle but no whit of anything tropical or buttery. It’s almost opulent in the mouth, rich and dense, yet finely balanced by crisp acidity and traceries of limestone and shale; 25 percent new oak lends a sheen of blond spice and subtle wood. Thoughtful winemaking. Excellent. About $25. Production was 500 cases, so mark this one Worth a Search.

The wines of Viña Leyda are imported to the U.S.A. by Winebow Inc. New York. Image of Viviana Navarrete from leyda.cl.

Veramonte has a complicated history into which I will delve more thoroughly when we touch upon red wines, particularly its “icon” pinot noir called Ritual. Suffice to say that Veramonte came early to Casablanca Valley, which lies northwest of Santiago close to the ocean. When I was in Chile in April 1999, the winery’s impressive Palladian facility was just a couple of years old; I was surprised when we pulled up on the afternoon of October 4 — two weeks ago! — to see the place looking rather shabby and badly in need of a coat of paint.

As at many wineries in Chile and Argentina (and the United States of America), a “Reserva” or “reserve” label indicates the least expensive line of wines, another indication that outside of the European Union the term, which should imply some prestigious limitation, is meaningless. On the other hand, it’s the quality of wine in the bottle that counts, right, and in their price range, the Veramonte Reserva wines are real stand-outs, though to be honest, I found the Veramonte Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Colchagua Valley, too dense, woody and tannic and generally too big for its britches. (See, however, last week’s Wine of the Week.) Veramonte’s winemaker is Cristian Aliaga.

The Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Casablanca, is pale straw-gold in color; lively aromas of grapefruit, damp limestone, tarragon and dried thyme, Key lime and tangerine burst from the glass, and whoa! wait a sec! is that a tinge of mango? The wine is tremendously vibrant, crisp with tingling acidity and a scintillating limestone-like mineral element, all of this balancing a texture that’s almost powdery in seductive softness. The bright finish brings in more spicy lime and grapefruit and a hint of shale. I challenge you not to slurp this up. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Value.

Veramonte wines are imported by Huneeus Vintners, Rutherfordm Cal. Image of Cristian Aliaga from veramonte.com.

My group visited Viñedos Terranoble’s El Algarrobo (the carob tree) estate in Casablanca on Tuesday, Oct. 5, an occasion notable not only for the wines we tasted but for our initiation into the traditional Chilean barbeque. During this al fresco lunch I discovered that in Chile (and Argentina, I later found out), a bit of salad and vegetables on the plate serves merely as an excuse for piling on the meat. The winery was founded in 1993; owner is general manager Juan Carlos Castro. Terranoble owns 4,750 acres of vineyards in Casablanca, Colchagua and, farther south, Maule Valley, where the wines are made. Unlike at many other wineries, the “Reserva” label is Terranoble’s second tier; the “Classic” label forms the base of the production pyramid. Chief winemaker is Ignacio Conca. I’ll discuss Terranoble’s red wines later, but here’s a mention of the very attractive Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, whose grapes derived from El Algarrobo. The vineyard was planted in 1998.

Made all in stainless steel, the Terranoble Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Casablanca, is a pale straw color; the aromas seem typical for the grape and the region: lime and lime peel, tangerine, grapefruit and its zest, dried thyme and tarragon, but there are touches of acacia, almond blossom and even a hint of toasted almond for added intrigue. The wine displays lovely weight and balance, feeling not just crisp and vibrant but rather welcoming in the mouth, with deft poise between soft roundness and taut acidity. Flavors are dominated by lemon and lime, but include shades of melon and mango. The finish is dry, herbal and chalky. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Absolutely delightful. Very Good+. About $13, another Great Value.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York


Viña Cousiño-Macul was founded in 1856 and is the only 19th Century winery in Chile still owned solely by the founding family. Once distant from Santiago, the estate today is surrounded by the city, though buffered by a 150-acre private park of magical dimensions, especially when toured at twilight. Though grapes are still grown at the family domain, most of the productive vineyards for Cousiño-Macul are in other provinces. Technical director for the winery is Pascal Marty.

The Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay 2009, Maipo Valley, is fermented 90 percent in stainless steel and 10 percent in new French oak barrels. While the color is pale — that is, a pale but intense gold — there’s nothing pale about the effects that follow. Fashioned rather in the out-going Californian mode, this is a bright, bold and ripe chardonnay that bursts with notes of baked pineapple and grapefruit and hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast. Quite tasty and appealing, the wine stays on the sensible side of flamboyance to set a classic tone of a lush, almost creamy texture balanced by chiming acidity and a strain of limestone-like minerality. Alcohol level is 13.7 percent. Very Good+. About $14, a Nice Bargain.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York.

It was a tough day at Valdivieso, despite the distraction of a superb view and a plethora of passed appetizers — including chopped bull’s testicles for the Anthony Bourdain types — and a nice lunch; loved the truly comforting quinoa pudding for dessert! But we tried 30 wines, and that was after a very long bus ride through Colchagua along little twisty dirt roads and over rickety plank “bridges” until the point that, within sight of the tasting pavilion, high on a hillside, the driver gave up and we walked the rest of the way. The whole enterprise gives new meaning to the word “remote.”

The winery traces its origin to Alberto Valdivieso, who founded a sparkling wine company in the Curico Valley in 1879; that’s where the wines and sparkling wines of Valdivieso are still made, though the winery has vineyards in Casablanca, Leyda, Colchagua (where we were), Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, Maule and Curico. Director of enology and winemaking for Valdivieso is New Zealander Brett Powell.

We’ll work our way through the multitude of Valdivieso’s red wines in the future, but for now, I’ll stick to sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, the subject of this post.

The Valdivieso Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda Valley, is attractive yet typical of its grape and region. That is, it features bright, cleansing acidity; pert and pungent elements of lime, grapefruit and limestone; some leafy touches of dried thyme and tarragon; and a crisp, tart texture balanced with a bit of soft lushness. Not compelling but quite nice to drink. Very Good+. About $15. The Valdivieso Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Leyda, on the other hand — aged six months in 500-liter barrels, 30 percent new — delivers a powerfully earthy, flint-laced wine that’s lovely enough that it stops short of being dramatic. This is deeply spicy and herbal, with tangerine-and-clove-tinged citrus flavors that feel packed into a texture of great presence and personality. A superior sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $20, and well worth the price.

The Valdivieso Wild-Fermented Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, also from Leyda Valley, rests one year in mixed oak barrels, that is, of various sizes and ages. I’ll say that while this bright, bold, exuberantly spicy, ripe, slightly tropical and creamy chardonnay is not my favorite style, there’s no denying the thought and craft that went into its making. At least you don’t feel the wood too much; that’s a blessing. Very Good+. About $20.

Imported by Laird & Co., Scobyville, N.J.
It turns out that Viña Ventisquero is even more remote than Valdivieso, and the landscape, in the high Apalta region of Rapel Valley, is even more spectacular, especially as the setting sun gilded the steep, vineyard-fledged hillsides. The winery is a project of Gonzalo Vial, who owns Agrosuper, a leading purveyor of fresh food in Chile. The winemaking facility is in Maipo, though like most producers in Chile, Ventisquero owns vineyards in many regions. Chief winemaker is Felipe Tosso, who left Concha y Toro in 2000. He works (on the top wines) with Australian consulting enologist John Duval, who made his last Penfolds Grange in 2002. Ventisquero means “glacier.”

These white wines are from Casablanca, far north of where we were tasting them.

The Ventisquero Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a shimmering pale straw color. The bouquet offers penetrating scents of lime and grapefruit, dried tarragon and a scintillating strain of clean earthiness and bright limestone. The wine is very dry, crisp, lively, chalky, with that pert, fresh, taut, damp grassy, bracing salt marsh thing, yet it lies blithely, smoothly on the tongue with its notes of lemon balm and lemon drop, pear and melon. A truly compelling sauvignon blanc, one of the best. The alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent. About $13, a Phenomenal Value.

Equally enticing is the Ventisquero Reserva Chardonnay 2009, a wine that displays Chablis-like minerality in the limestone/shale range, with a hint of pungent flint, and lovely tones of pineapple and grapefruit with a slight tropical bent. Thirty percent of the wine is fermented in stainless steel with the rest in French oak, approximately 10 percent new barrels; some of the wine — Tosso said, casually, “maybe 15 or 20 percent” — goes through malolactic fermentation. The result is impeccable balance between richness (almost creamy) without ostentation and spareness without aridity; in other words, this chardonnay is earthy and elegant, juicy yet crisply taut, and it just feels damned terrific in the mouth. Excellent, and another Great Value at about $13

The “Grey” label is next to the top-line for Ventisquero. The Single Block “Grey” Chardonnay 2009 is a fine example of the grape from a cool climate, making a wine that exudes confidence and elan and displays great presence and personality. This sees French oak, 50 percent new, and goes through 40 percent malolactic. Again, the limestone-infused Chablis style is indicated, though in the case of “Grey” the manner is hyper-intense and concentrated and fraught with electrifying acidity, though the wine is balanced by lovely ripe and spiced citrus and pear flavors and a modicum of slightly creamy lushness. Another Excellent rating. About $20. How can they sell it so cheaply?

Imported by Austral Wines, Atlanta, Georgia.

I was going to write that the last region from which I expected to receive wine-in-a-box would be Bierzo, but of course there are much more exotic places, Upper Volta being one, I will probably never get wine-in-a-box from Upper Volta, which, I’m humble enough to admit, I used to think was in Russia, until it occurred to me that what all those folk were singing about in those deep lugubrious voices were the Volga boatmen, not the Volta boatmen. Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn no other way, as Miss Simpson, my seventh grade teacher, told our class every single goddamn day.

Anyway, here it is, a three-liter box — the equivalent of four standard 750-milliliter bottles — of red wine made from the mencía grape, which grows nowhere but Bierzo, a rugged vineyard region sandwiched between Castilla y León and Galicia in Spain’s far northwest corner, right above the short border with Portugal. A decade ago, hardly anyone outside the area knew about it, but Bierzo has emerged as an interesting and actually desirable source of dark, spicy red wines, mainly centered on the mencía grape, which accounts for two-thirds of the vineyard area.

Now I was a constant disappointment to Miss Bridger, my solid geometry teacher in the 11th grade, and I’ll confess that the notion of four bottles of wine fitting into this three-dimensional, um, box-like thing boggles my mind. Fortunately a few glasses of the attractive wine mitigate the sense of bafflement. Who cares? The wine comes under the Val Montium label of Bodegas Adriá, and it’s made all in stainless steel. The design of the box is striking and quite graphically appealing.

The color of the Val Montium Mencía 2008 is dark ruby-purple; the bouquet is fresh and clean, warm and spicy, bursting with notes of black currants and dusty plums with hints of black pepper, wild berry and lavender. The warm, spicy quality continues in the mouth, accompanying tannins that are dense, chewy and rather velvety and that encompass juicy black fruit flavors in a dry setting that turns a bit austere and tarry on the finish. This wine is loads better than box wine I have tried from California; an idea of character asserts itself, an expression of a grape. Terrific with burgers, steaks, red-sauce pasta, braised meat dishes. Very Good+. About $30 for a three-liter box, which comes out to $7.50 a bottle. We kept the box on the kitchen counter for a week, and the wine stayed eminently fresh and drinkable. On the other hand, the plastic carrying handle broke under the slightest pressure; back to research and development on that factor! Worth a Search.

Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A sample for review.

Sauvignon gris is another name for the sauvignon rosé, a pink-skinned mutation of sauvignon blanc. Got that? Not much is planted, under either name, but in Chile sauvignon gris can be made into a delightful white wine, one of the best versions of which comes from the venerable institution of Cousiño-Macul.

Made all in stainless steel, the pale straw-gold Cousiño-Macul Sauvignon Gris 2009, from Maipo Valley, offers a delightful bouquet of roasted lemon, spiced peach and lemon balm with hints of acacia and verbena; give it a few minutes in the glass and notes of orange zest and tangerine emerge, along with a slightly waxy element. Spicy citrus and pear flavors with a trace of dried thyme dominate the mouth, ensconced in a lovely texture that’s almost cloud-like yet lithe and spare and jazzed by crisp, lively acidity. Really charming and great either as aperitif or with fresh ceviche or sushi. Alcohol content is 13.9 percent. Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Winebow Inc., New York. Tasted at the Cousiño-Macul estate on Oct. 5.

Yes, everyone knows that Catena Zapata, in Argentina’s Mendoza region, is best-known for its red wines, particularly made from malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes, but at the risk of seeming perverse, I want in this post to concentrate on the winery’s chardonnays. I promise that in a few days I will get back to Catena and its history and its red wines. This is, of course, the first in a series of posts that I’ll be working on in the next month or so about the wineries I visited, the wines I encountered and the people I met in Chile and Argentina between Oct. 3 and 12, early Spring south of the Equator.

Bodega Catena Zapata traces its origin to 1902, when Italian immigrant Nicola Catera, gifted with a vision the result of which even he could not have comprehended, planted malbec grapes in Mendoza. The winery is now run by Nicola’s grandson Nicolás and great-grand-daughter, Laura. Chief winemaker since July 2007 has been Alejandro Vigil, though a good word must be put in for young assistant winemaker Pablo Sánchez, who oversees white wine production.

The philosophy at Catena Zapata is to grow grapes in vineyards that push the limits of altitude (if not attitude). Grapes for the Catena label ($16-$22), Catena Alta ($35-$50) and Catena Zapata and Nicolas Catena Zapata ($120) derive from these Andean-foothills vineyards: Angelica, 2,850 feet; La Piramide, 3,100 feet; Domingo, 3,700 feet; Altamira, 3,870 feet; and Adrianna, 5,000 feet; these vineyards, especially Adrianna, are very high for chardonnay. Alcohol levels are kept relatively moderate, with 14.2 percent being the highest. The vineyards — referring to all the grapes here, not just chardonnay — go through the expensive process of four harvests, not to balance the same level of ripeness but to use different levels of ripeness to achieve complexity in the wines.

Catena Zapata’s American importer is Winebow. Images of Nicolás Catena and daughter Laura from catenawines.com.

Grapes for the Catena Chardonnay 2009, Mendoza, are from La Piramide, Domingo and Adrianna vineyards. The wine is 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged nine months in French oak barrels, 40 percent of which were new. The color is radiant medium straw-gold; the bouquet is bright, fresh, bold, spicy, moderately tropical in nature and a little sassy for a chardonnay. Flavors of pineapple and mango are borne up by notes of roasted and slightly caramelized pears and peaches, and if you take from that description that the wine is rich and concentrated, you would be correct, but that richness is leavened by a strain of profound limestone-like minerality and tongue-tingling acidity. The Catena Chardonnay 2009 is sleek and smooth, suave, sophisticated, obviously very well-made, yet I cannot go as high as an Excellent rating because my palate feels a bit too much oak on the finish, marring what would otherwise be an impeccable package. Drink now through 2012. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Very Good+. About $16, and whatever my caveats may be a Great Value.
The Adrianna Vineyard provides 80 percent of the grapes for the Catena Alta Chardonnay 2008, with the rest derived from the Domingo Vineyard. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged 12 to 16 months in French oak, of which 50 percent were new barrels. No caveats whatever attend my appreciation of this chardonnay; it’s spectacular, by which I don’t mean flamboyant or obtrusive, rather utterly confident, wealthy in dimension, generous in detail and nuance. The color is very pale straw with barely a shade of gold. Penetrating scents of limestone and shale-like minerality lend this chardonnay true Chablisesque purity and intensity; there are touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm (both in nose and mouth), a hint of tangerine and, after a few moments of swirling and sniffing, notes of green grapes, green plums, quince and ginger, the latter two elements also present in the flavor profile. The edgeless balance among scintillating acidity, the wine’s natural lively minerality and the subtlety and suppleness of the oak regimen create a wine that’s racy, stimulating and exciting, certainly among the four or five greatest chardonnay wines I have tasted this year. Drink now through 2015 or ’16, well-stored. 13.9 percent alcohol. Production was 3,000 cases. Exceptional. About $35, and worth every damned penny.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________ For lunch at the winery, chef Lucas Bustos-Garcia prepared a first course of Brie Crostini with quinoa, raisins and sweet corn salad, a tasty and very pretty way to start the meal. Served with this appetizer was the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006, a limited-production wine, about 300 cases, that would be worth every effort to beg, borrow or steal, if any exists out there in the world. (The wine does not appear on the Catena website, and the only reference I find on the Internet is Tom Cannavan’s wine-pages.com, see here.) At a bit more than four years after harvest, this chardonnay is superbly ripe and succulent but quite dry, even a little austere. The oak seems a tad obvious at first, but food and a few minutes in the glass smooth out that influence, leaving flavors of lemon balm, green plums and quince permeated by cloves and sandalwood and an intriguing dusty, leafy quality layered over limestone and salt marsh. (What do I mean? — something clean, bracing, organic, earthy, invigorating, yet smooth and sapid.) So savory was this chardonnay that I saved a few swallows to have with the next course, miniature sweet potato and butternut squash pies, in white ramekins, that concealed diced beef in a juicy broth (see accompanying image). As with the chardonnays from Catena mentioned above, the Catena Zapata Adrianna Chardonnay 2006 is suave, elegant and almost seamless. It could go another four or five years, if stored properly. Excellent, to be sure. Price? I dunno if it was even released. The wine certainly proves, if we needed more evidence, that high-altitude chardonnay can be both classic and individual, and that Adrianna is one of the world’s great vineyards. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Readers, it had been my intention to post to this blog every day during my wine journey in Chile and Argentina, but we know what toll road is paved with good intentions. In Chile, my group traveled immense distances by bus, raucously bleating out chorus after chorus of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” — actually that’s a lie; all we wanted to do was sleep — because wine regions and properties often lie miles (and miles and miles) from each other. In fact, we visited some of the most remote wineries and vineyards I have traveled to since I was in Western Australia 12 years ago. The result was that we would leave the hotel in Santiago early in the morning and not return until late at night, so we had little time to get any work done, much less to read The Ambassadors, which is my chosen travel novel this trip. In Argentina, matters are easier because many wineries are only 30 or 45 minutes outside the city of Mendoza.

Anyway, to compensate for my recent lack of contribution, and before settling down to serious consideration of the wines and issues presented by this trip, at least the part in Chile (I particularly have some thoughts about Chilean pinot noir, carmenere and sauvignon blanc), I offer a few notes and images to whet your appetites.

We have been eating tremendously well and incredibly abundantly on this trek, and much of the food is unusual or exotic to North American tastes and experience. Here, for example, you see a dish, encountered at our first lunch at a winery — Leyda in the Leyda Valley, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean — called chupa de locos, a thick, rich, creamy chowder of abalone and shrimp. This really warmed the cockles of our hearts on a chilly day, and it was great with the winery’s scintillating sauvignon blanc. It really helps that on this trip are two people who speak Spanish and English with equal facility and know seemingly everything there is to know about South American food, the television-web-cookbook personality Daisy Martinez and her assistant Carolina Penafiel.

Friends, here’s the first glimmer of Cuvee Fredric, a wine that I’m certain will be of superior quality when it reaches the American market. If I could, I’d tell you what variety this fledgling vine is, but unfortunately I don’t know, or perhaps I was not paying attention during that lesson. This is at Terra Noble in the cool Casablanca region. I’ll have to return in April to harvest the grapes from my vine, which I trust will be tenderly and professionally nurtured in my absence.

Yes, readers, in this image is displayed exactly what you think it is: a splayed lamb being roasted over a smoldering wood fire. This traditional barbecue was a part, I mean only a part, of our more-than-generous lunch under a vine-covered pergola at Terra Noble, and to inform you how strenuously Chileans believe in this tradition, we were treated to the same barbecue for dinner at Cousiño-Macul (now surrounded by the city of Santiago) that night. Such a meal includes not only the lamb but sausages and flank steak and chicken, along with (thank goodness) a multitude of salads and vegetables. Last night (Friday, Oct. 8), at Renacer in Mendoza, a similar cookout included goat and pork. The little appetizers typically passed before sitting down to a barbecue meal are enough to make a meal themselves: empanadas filled with meal or cheese or vegetables; pieces of steak; in Chile tiny bowls of various ceviches; miniature shepherd’s pies; dishes of sweetbreads and chopped bull’s testicles; and on and on. Then you sit down to eat. We had the same thing for lunch today at Alta Vista in Mendoza’s Lujon de Cujo region, just under the foothills of the Andes mountains. Every barbecue chef — and there are many who specialize only in this technique — has his own secrets about how to prepare his wares. Also wildly various are the styles of empanada crusts and the way they’re made and filled.

With its long coastline, Chile is abundant in seafood, and one of the prized delicacies is conger eel, a species that includes many of the largest eels, growing up to 10 feet in length. A winemaker said to me one night, “To me, conger eel is the best!” We had conger on several occasions, but the best was at a dinner at Veramonte, where chef Claudio Vidal of the restaurant Agua de Piedra conjured a dish of roasted conger eel with a dried fruit crust and saffron risotto, one of the best dishes we tasted in Chile.

It’s still early Spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and flowers are blossoming all over the place. California poppies abound, though in cooler areas they’re still fairly tightly furled — which is why the flower is called “golden thimble” in Chile — and in other warmer regions they’re wide open, tremulous in any breeze and a bright, broad allure for wandering insects.

We rushed through the airport in Santiago, partly my fault because I lost my immigration papers which you need not only to get INTO the country but also to get OUT, and stopped in a cafe for a quick lunch. Of course we had to order our last pisco sours, but Carolina guided us to a traditional Chilean sandwich, the chacarero, which, as you can see in the image to your appropriate disbelief, has shredded green beans in the sandwich. Yes! The rest consists of thin slices of beef loin, tomato, mayonnaise and chopped green chilies. Let me tell you that this simple and — O.K., to North American palates — unusual concoction made one of the best sandwiches I have eaten in my life. Even on white bread. Even in a crowded, bustling airport. Even with a powerfully alcoholic, industrially produced pisco sour for accompaniment. Thanks, Carolina!

Location matters in retail, real estate and winemaking, and perhaps in wine-tasting too. My group visited Veramonte in the cool Casablanca Valley, northwest of Santiago, yesterday afternoon — and it was pretty damned cool, I’ll say; I was glad that I brought gloves and a scarf –and we rode out and up into the vineyards, stopping at mid-rim of a wide shallow valley to taste the Veramonte Reserva Merlot 2009; “Reserva” is the winery’s basic level of wines, widely available in the United States. Yesterday was not only cool but cloudy and intermittently foggy; the wine was served at what seemed like true “cellar” temperature, bringing out the merlot’s minerality and clean acidity. In fact, I was impressed by the wine, which felt lively, intense and pure. It ages about eight months in French and American oak barrels, 20 percent new. Though previous vintage have contained smidgeons of cabernet, the ’09 is 100 percent merlot. Classic notes of black olive, cedar, bell pepper and tomato skin are permeated by intense and concentrated scents and flavors of black currants and black raspberries, the whole package inundated by a pert and penetrating graphite element edged with smoke and bitter chocolate. Drink with burgers, hearty pizzas and pasta dishes, steak and roast pork. Expert winemaking here to produce an inexpensive wine that feels a bit above its station. Very Good+. About $10 to $12, a Great Bargain.

Here, readers, is a picture of a Pisco Sour, which is not only the National Cocktail of Chile but probably the National Tree, the National Bird, the National Flower, the National Corner Grocery Store and every other National Thing that a country can commemorate. All it took was one of these and two glasses of a very nice Cousino Macul Riesling between 1:30 and 3 this afternoon to knock me on my weary butt. When the group returned to the hotel, I crawled into bed, because, guess what, there’s more eating and drinking to be done tonight. One manfully bellies up to the bar, as it were. The governments of Peru, where pisco originated, and Chile take the Pisco Sour seriously enough that its composition is officially legislated, and Peru has a Pisco Sour Day, the first Saturday of February.

Fortunately we were eating (and drinking, oh yes) at a terrific Peruvian seafood restaurant called La Mar, packed on a Sunday afternoon, where everything we ate was excellent, from the dried vegetable chips and savory dips with which we began to the traditional desserts — rice pudding, “three milks” cake and dulce de leche — with which we ended. Best, however, was a selection of the restaurant’s ceviches, the cleanest, freshest, brightest, most vibrant I have ever tasted. I could have eaten a whole meal of these alone.

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