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Archive for January, 2011

First one must declare one’s bias, or in this case, limitations, which happen to be the same thing when it comes to wine. My novio (Spanish for boyfriend) and I are wine lovers, not connoisseurs.  After 6 days of  wine tours and 14 wineries between Chile and Mendoza, it was very clear to us that there are wines made for wine lovers, and wine made for wine experts.

For example, at the much-lauded  Achaval-Ferrar in Mendoza, where a bottle of Malbec can cost you at least  $100, and where all vintages have received a minimum of 90 points from noted touts such as the Wine Spectator,  we could barely raise a “well that’s interesting”,  between the six of us around the tasting table.  Possibly interesting, but far from delicious.

There are certainly differing  (and firm) opinions on what goes into the making of a delicious wine.   How can the process of growing, harvesting and pressing grapes,  followed by fermenting, blending and aging grape juice require such a dizzying number of variations and combinations?

Are the vines older than the winery owner’s vintage Bugatti? Were they grown on the side of the hill facing the setting rather than the rising sun?  Does the water gently flow daily from artisanal wells or drip continually down each manicured row? Are the grape bunches individually culled by hand by the winemaker himself to ensure the concentration of fruit?

And of most importance, were the grapes hand-picked by virgins at the full of the moon but never when it falls on a Sunday:  those  small fingered damsels who placed their precious cargo in small baskets to protect the  round delicate fruit , cradled gently but firmly like a baby’s skull or a man’s …. Well… you get the picture.

Does it really matter if the juice is moved from stage to stage purely by gravity and not (horrors!) pumped through pipes from press to tank? If the stainless steel for the fermentation tanks is Italian or French? If the wine was aged in French oak from the forests found in the south of the Rhone vs. the north? Or if those oak trees were planted at the time of Louis XIV?  Does it make the wine more delicious if the barrels are softly serenaded by a classical pianist as they rest patiently three levels beneath the ground?

Perhaps not.   In fact, you begin to get the sense that many of these variations have little impact on the actual end product, at least not to the extent that a wine lover can detect. A wine expert may be able to discern and appreciate the nuances.  But it did feel like many of the points of difference were done for difference’s sake.  And so that  the wine tour guide has something special to say about the bodega. Not to mention so the wine consultants from California or France could be felt to deserve their hefty fees!

Wineries in both Chile and Argentina  are canvases upon which families with enormous wealth can play out their fantasies of creating the ultimate winery.  Architects have apparently been given blank cheques to build virtual temples to the making of wines.    Truly, the phrase “no expense has been spared” was said as often as  “we are proud of our wines”.

At gorgeous Emiliana, where the owners race Ferraris, and distribute fine German cars, you get a special edition bottle when you buy your new Porsche from them  (an expensive way to buy wine as Ben rightly pointed out!)   Salentein, the stunning winery owned by Dutch trading family  Pon, has soaring walls 3 stories down, adorned with large-scale original art work.  (This is also where the piano plays for the resting barrels)  At the striking Clos Aplata, brainchild of the grand-daughter of the founders of Grand Marnier, the casks of premium wines are laid out to form a church nave. Above them, a lighting grid echoes the celestial body, the Southern Cross. Her massive private wine cellar gleams with hundreds of bottles, gifts from wine makers around the world.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the wonderful architecture, the magnificent scenery and frankly the hyperbole surrounding the wine making process.  What does all of that have to do with making delicious wine?

We were actually told one thing that made a lot of sense to me:  if the winemaker does not have dirt on his or her shoes, he is missing the point. Everything important happens in the field, with the plants.  Anything done in the lab  or tank or barrel with the mixing of this and that is too late to make a difference. In the end, it really is farming.

Postscript:

We did consider shipping cases of our favourites finds back to Canada, until we discovered that as individuals, we would have to add to the cost of each bottle $10 shipping plus $ 10 handling plus the 110% LCBO markup. No thank you.

It made a $10 bottle of wine into a $40 bottle.

Agents of course can get better pricing, so we will try to source some of our favourites  through with our friend Shawnna at the Wine and Travel Company on our return.  Others are available at the LCBO, and because of their buying power, are very good value,  costing only 20% more on average than we paid at the winery.  Enjoy.

CASA MARIN 04PINOT NOIR LO ABARCA HILLS 2004

VINTAGES 67728 | 750 mL bottle Price: $ 59.95

We liked it so much that we are taking home at bottle in our luggage!

07SAUVIGNON BLANC CIPRESES VY(VINA CASA MARIN

Chile | Vina Casa Marin

VINTAGES 72678 | 750 mL | $ 23.20

Fabulous wine, very New Zealand in style ala Kim Crawford

Everything from Emiliana in Argentina is suitable for wine lovers, and apparently has won over a few critics for it’s excellent value.

EMILIANA ADOBE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2008

VINTAGES 169946 | 750 mL bottle Price: $ 13.95

EMILIANA NATURA CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2009

VINTAGES 61069 | 750 mL bottle Price: $ 15.95

EMILIANA NOVAS LIMITED SELECTION CARMENÈRE/CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2007 VINTAGES 66746 | 750 mL bottle Price: $ 14.95

EMILIANA NOVAS LIMITED SELECTION CHARDONNAY 2009

VINTAGES 4515 | 750 L bottle Price: $ 14.95

And any Torrontes (from Argentina) that you can find makes a wonderful apéritif or wine to go with fish and chicken dishes. Fresh, fruity with pineapple and rose petal aromas, it  had replaced the more expensive Albarino from Spain in my fridge.  Don’t look for our personal  favourite Alta Vista Premium ($13.95) however;  Ben and I have bought out the GTA!

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As any traveler knows well, it’s often the places that we discover on the way to somewhere else that become the real highlight of the trip. The focus of our 2011 January journey was really Buenos Aires.  Since we were going to be in South America anyway, we decided to take the long way round to our destination. Via Chile.

Chile runs like a thin ribbon down the side of the continent, stretching from brutal desert, through a fertile agricultural region, and then all the way down to the glaciers of Patagonia. The copper mines in the north have fueled the country’s economic resilience and prosperity. Indeed, if you travel to Chile with some expectation of a cheap “Mexican” style holiday of pesos and penury you would be disappointed. But my, it is money well spent. Indeed during our first week here, no less an authority than the Travel section of the New York Times declared the capital city of Santiago numero uno of the 41 places that you must see in 2011.  We agree.

I gather that not too long ago Santiago was considered too stiff and formal to be enjoyable for travelers.  (Perhaps attributable to the wave of German immigrants in the last century who, next to the Spanish, are the prominent cultural influence. Lots of micro breweries as well as wineries. )  You would not know it from the laughter, live music and general celebratory air at the side-walk restaurants and bars on Constitution Avenue in the bohemian neighbourhood of Bellavista.

Chileans are accustomed to taking a light meal called “onces” at around 5 pm daily, so dinner rarely starts before 9 in the evening.  There are really two faces of food in Chile: the cheap and heavy platos of meat or fried fish, served with plenty of bread and French fries.  The national snack is a hot dog, loaded down with sauerkraut, regrettable cheese sauce and lots of bright yellow American style mustard and ketchup.  A common habit of two of those a day, combined with the world’s largest per capita consumption of Coca Cola, makes obesity is a growing national concern.

More refined cuisine showcases the rich variety of seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables that the country produces. The locals will tell you that the best of everything is exported, and yes, the cherries we bought at the lively Central Market were not as sweet as the ones we get Loblaws. But at $1 per kilo, who can complain?

And when you are in the port city of Valparaiso, eating fresh razor clams, lightly steamed and served under a blanket of broiled Parmesan or at a vineyard,  biting into an apricot that you just plucked from the canopy above you, and the honeyed interior drips down your arm, that you realize that this country is blessed. And you are blessed to be here.

Chile was fortunate to escape unscathed from the financial debacle of the previous decade, due to conservative financial practices and like Canada, huge reserves of commodities that the world hungers for. A sure sign of prosperity, cranes are everywhere on the Santiago skyline.  As in other countries when times are good, migrant workers are tolerated to the extent that they do the work the locals don’t want to do. This time round, it’s the Peruvians. They are also valued for their impact on the food of the city:  most locals will admit that their own cuisine is pretty uninspired. The wave of Peruvian immigration has literally spiced up the food on the street and in the city’s best restaurants.

On the city’s streets you see one of the peculiarities of Chile’s urban scene:  well-behaved street dogs.  We were told that Chileans love puppies and like to have them around the house to cuddle and play with while they are cute and adorable.  But when they are grown, they are traded in for a new puppy, and let go in the country or on the street to fend alone.  So we did as the locals do, slipping them pieces of meat and cheese beneath the tables of our sidewalk café.  Most seemed well fed, certainly well socialized, and since the country has Catholic attitudes towards birth control that extend to animals, very productive.  But perhaps I was projecting my own feelings when I looked into their brown eyes and could see a sadness that even filet cannot fill.

Our alfresco meal was taken on Constitution Avenue, the destination of choice for wealthy Santiago residents who come down from their mountain mansions to walk on the wide side, just a little.  Just one short block over, college students, backpackers, artists, musicians and anyone who is just plain broke, parties loudly until dawn, drinking beer that costs one tenth of a beverage on Constitution. Rarely do the patrons of either street mingle, and the reasons are social as well as economic.  There is a growing middle class in Chile certainly, and it is the only country in South American to ever be declared “developed” rather than “developing”, which is an incredible achievement.

But the class system imported by the Spanish still lingers, and its impact will be felt for at least another generation. Families whose pedigreed fortunes extend back to the conquistadors own many of the impressive boutique wineries that we visited. For these wealthy few, no expense has been spared on creating the most leading edge, architecturally brilliant, organically pure, and energy-efficient wineries.  Frankly, it makes even our best efforts in Ontario look like amateur hour.  As our guide remarked,  “you know you are rich when you can put your name on a bottle” .  (Not to mention a slew of polo ponies.)

Chile and Santiago have easily become one our favorite destinations in the world:  by the second day, we declared that we had to come back.  It’s only a 10 hour direct flight south on Air Canada:  put your head back at midnight and arrive in the morning to a world of warm weather,  glorious scenery,  delicious market fresh food and very fine wine. Buenos Aires might be anti-climatic!

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