Friday, May 22, 2009

Good old-fashioned Chilean wine

We'll get to Chile in a moment, but I'm kicking off with New Zealand. I first visited the Land of the Long White Cloud in 1995 (I know because I came back from the trip with a rather useful blue zip-up bag and a polo shirt, now covered I various flecks of paint - both have the date on them). While there were several delicious wines, two weeks in this green and pleasant land surrounded by Nice people and their Nice wines left me gagging for something a little more Machiavellian and grungy - mature Châteauneuf du Pape, Aglianico del Vulture, Château Musar that sort of thing. It's become something of a test of just how much I like wines from particular regions. Stuff the copious notes I've scribbled in my W H Smith Reporter Notebook, when I get back to Blighty, do I want more of the same, or do I want the polar opposite?

When I returned from a fortnight in Chile last autumn, I found myself in two minds. If you'd offered me some Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir or Syrah from the cooler climates, I'd have said 'yes, por favor'. However, if it'd been a beefier red based on Cabernet, Carmenère or Merlot, I'd have been much less enthusiastic. It's not that Chile's Bordeaux-inspired reds are bad. Deep in colour, carefully made, finely oaked, rich and concentrated, it's hard to fault them. But it's just that I very seldom want to drink them - for me, they're a bit like the foyers of smart business hotels, impeccable but a little soulless. Forget refreshing and subtle, the typical Chilean Cabernet tends to be forceful and intense, and usually with that tell-tale whiff of blackcurrant pastilles not far from the surface.

But Chile CAN do more relaxed styles of Cabernet - I drank one of them last night. Importers Heritage Wine claim that the 1993 Santa Monica Cabernet Sauvignon Envejecido de Bodega (aged in the cellar) from Rancagua in the Rapel Valley is oldest Chilean wine in the world.

A quick look on reveals that this isn't so, but their assessment of the wine as 'a beautifully aged and incredibly smooth vintage' is closer to the truth. It's the sort of wine that some would call old-fashioned, weighing in at a relatively sedate 13% alcohol and aged in big old Chilean oak (Rauli) barrels and then in smaller, newer French ones. Rauli casks were once widely used in Chile, but if they weren't kept very clean, they imparted a rather dirty, wet-doggy flavour to the wines. They've now all but disappeared from most Chilean cellars, but here's proof that rauli wasn't totally a bad thing. This is gentle, charming wine (think Gran Reserva-style Bordeaux), slightly leathery with soft, cedary fruit flavours, mature, but certainly not past it. Indeed, it's holding up far better than all but a few clarets from 1993, and is a snip at £10.49 - less than a quid for each year it's been in bottle. For that price, you can buy several younger, richer and more boisterous Chilean reds, but I'm not sure whether at 16 years old they'll be as alluring as this good old-fashioned gem.

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