Category Archives: Wine

Tasting Fine Napa Valley Merlot

 

At a recent “Masters of Merlot” event at the COPIA Center in Napa, winemaker Chris Carpenter, referenced the film, “Sideways,” when he said, “Miles had a problem with his ex-wife, not Merlot.” Just as sales of men’s undershirts sharply declined when Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the film, “It Happened One Night,” Miles Raymond’s declaration of “not drinking any @&%#ing merlot”

Moderator Anthony Giglio, Chris Carpenter/LaJota, Cleo Pahlmeyer/Pahlmeyer, PJ Alviso/Duckhorn, Ted Edwards/Freemark Abbey

created a setback to one of the most esteemed grape varieties in the world.  Estimates place peak California merlot plantings at 60,000 acres and, after some recovery, it seems to have stabilized at 44,000 acres.

Ironically, “60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer’s 1991 segment, “The French Paradox” highlighted the health benefits of red wine and created a boom for all red varietals, including merlot.  

Carpenter also added that while “Sideways” turned the Carneros to pinot noir, what survived were the sweet spots for merlot in the Napa Valley.

It makes sense that the Napa Valley, birthplace of California’s Bordeaux-style blends, would produce the finest Merlot releases. While cabernet sauvignon is still dominant, pioneer Napa Valley wine makers like Dan Duckhorn fell in love right-bank Bordeaux wines where merlot is king.

Duckhorn Vineyards has been the source of fine merlot wines for over forty years.  Vice President of Winegrowing P.J. Alviso recalled several stories, including the acquisition of the legendary Three Palms Vineyard, on the Silverado Trail, south of Calistoga, which produced the 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley ($98), Wine Spectator magazine’s 2017 Wine of the Year.

Alviso characterized the Three Palms Vineyard as an amazingly self-regulating site that includes fifty acres of low-yield merlot vines. 

2015 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot

The current 2015 Three Palms Merlot ($98) release had slate and berry aromas with complex flavors balanced with earthy elements on the finish.  Duckhorn also produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($60) sourced from over fifty growing lots from numerous vintners.

Freemark Abbey is storied in California wine history because its vintage 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chardonnay were both included in the 1976 Paris Tasting.  Winemaker Ted Edwards shared that their first merlot release was the result of an abundant 1985 harvest.  Plans to sell off the excess changed after sampling the quality and they have released merlot as a single varietal wine since.

Freemark Abbey produces a Napa Valley Merlot ($30),aged sixteen months in French oak, with 11% added between cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. However, the 2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosche’ Vineyard ($60), with 99% merlot from the Rutherford district, expresses exceptional depth of flavor and aroma. It’s rich, concentrated flavors of black cherry combine with nuanced spice elements.

Known primarily for their Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red, President Cleo Pahlmeyer talked of her father Jayson’s switch from law to winemaking in pursuit of creating a “California Mouton,” referring to an iconic Bordeaux wine from Chateau Rothschild. She introduced the estate grown 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot, Napa Valley ($85), sourced from vineyards at 2,000 feet elevation on Atlas Peak, describing it as drinking like a cabernet sauvignon. 

In this impressive release, the aromas were timidly wild, structure was excellent and there was a slight perfume element to the flavors of black cherry and vanilla.  As is often the case, the rich mouthfeel is credited to a late rain that reduced net yield by thirty percent.

Mt. Brave and LaJota Vineyard Co. winemaker Chris Carpenter described the challenges of mountain vineyards in dealing with rocky

La Jota Vineyard Co. WS Keyes Vineyard Merlot Howell Mountain

soils, angles to the sun and tree lines.  He produced  250-300 cases of the 100% 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot, Mt. Veeder ($80) that had all the elements of an extraordinary wine with dark fruit and espresso flavors that lingered.

For LaJota, Carpenter delivers two fine merlot release from estate Howell Mountain vineyards in the town of Anqwin including the 2015 La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Merlot Howell Mountain ($150), awarded 96-points by Robert Parker, Jr.  Sourced from old gnarly vines in what was described as the “most highly prized merlot vineyard in the country,” the Keyes Vineyard release was one of the finest and most complex merlots that I have tasted from the color, bold flavors and mineral elements through the long finish.

The wine community has declared that merlot is back!  Those of us who were fortunate to taste new releases from these five top Napa Valley wineries realize that it never left.  I suggest that we selfishly make amends by drinking more merlot.

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The Road to Conceito’s Wines

 

For many, the thrill of the wine experience is the search, finding that great value or rare hidden gem that you read about somewhere.  During a recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Valley, I pursued such an opportunity and survived to tell my story.

For centuries, Portugal has been known for producing the finest port in the world, using native grapes like touriga nacional, touriga francesa and tinto roriz, called tempranillo in neighboring Spain and other countries. In recent years, they have used the same varietals to produce acclaimed red wines.  

In 2014, three Douro Valley red wines, the Dow Vintage Port 2011(#1), Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011(#3) and Quinta do Vale Meao Douro 2011(#4), dominated Wine Spectator magazine’s annual top wines list.

Most recently, critics have made note that quality white wines have emerged from the Douro.  One such release, the Conceito Douro

Hillside vineyards in the Douro Valley

Branca 2016 (white blend) and its story intrigued me and, although they were in the midst of the harvest, I reached out to winemaker Rita Marques Ferreira to arrange a visit.  

As with most wineries, Conceito’s small three person staff were in the throes of harvest, something that is time-consuming and must be undertaken within a precise window to maximize potential for greatness. 

Before leaving the hotel, I asked Lisa, the concierge for directions to the village of Villa Nova de Foz Coa-Cedovim.  She said that it was a beautiful ninety minute drive from our hotel in Peso da Régua.  An hour and a half to travel 43 miles should have been a clue.

What followed was a scenic, but harrowing drive up and over a mountain pass, via a long and winding road without many barriers.  At one point, we were behind a small truck carrying freshly harvested grapes.  For once, I didn’t mind the slow-moving truck.  It gave us some reprieve from being the only snail on the road.

Our GPS did a yeoman’s job of getting us to Cedovim. From there we were on our own, left to find Conceito with no commercial signage. We turned to the right and began to improvise.

In a few miles, we passed a small white building where a woman was observing a man on a fork lift dumping a tub of grapes through a de-stemmer. From her photos, I thought I recognized Rita, so we stopped and approached her.

Carla Costa Ferreira takes me on a tour

“We are very busy today, so you will meet with my mother, Carla,” she said.  “Besides, she speaks better English for you.”  I am always impressed how multi-lingual most Europeans are.

Unecessarily apologizing for the mess and her broken English, Carla Costa Ferreira, Conceito’s owner, gave us a tour of their small facility including the crush pad, large stainless steel fermentation tanks and the barrel rooms.

Afterwards, she led us to a small table with several bottles of their current releases to taste. I noticed a bottle of 2017 Conceito Douro Branca and inquired about the vintage 2016.  She left and soon returned, smiling.  “We have very little left, but I found a bottle,” she said.

The 2016 Douro Branca is a field blend of esgana cao, folgosado and verdelho, all native white varietals in the Douro. This wine was not a “fruit bomb”, dominated by one overpowering varietal, but a perfectly balanced blend with a subtle minerality and lush mouthfeel that lingered throughout a seemingly everlasting finish.  A truly pleasurable experience. Although it is priced at 20 euros in

Tasting the 2016 Conceito Douro white blend

Portugal, consumers in the states must pay $45 a bottle for the experience.

I asked Carla if she was aware that Wine Spectator had given the wine a 92-point rating in their national magazine.

“Yes, I am aware,” she said, “but I think they taste wines too early.  This wine will continue to improve for the next five to ten years.”

I believe her, but this wine was tasting very fine today.  Carla poured their top red blend, the 2015 Conceito Douro Tinta, another superbly balanced blend as well as their “Contrast” label red and white, designed as everyday wines at a lower price.  She said that the Contrast red was actually her favorite wine.

Conceito wines are authentic, created by a small team in a remote mountain village that does not seek notoriety of any kind.  Somehow, it still managed to find them.  


The Passion of Chateau le Puy

 

Jean Pierre Amoreau’s family has farmed grapes naturally on the same Bordeaux estate since 1610.  As far back as 1868, Barthelemy, Jean Pierre’s great-great grandfather questioned the need to use sulphur dioxide as an antioxidant and instead, founded the aging on lees method which is still used today to add richness and texture to the wine.  In 1924, the Chateau stopped using any chemicals and watched their vines continue to thrive.  In the mid-sixties, Chateau le Puy became one of the first Bordeaux estates to produce organic wines and in 1990 implemented biodynamic farming methods, something that has been adopted by many California producers.

After more than 400 years of winemaking, the passion is still evident in eighty-year old Jean Pierre, his wife Francois and son Pascual, as we met at Quince in San Francisco last week to taste ninety years of the best Chateau le Puy Emilien vintages and pair some current releases with a wonderful lunch prepared by Chef Michael Tusk.

After surveying the eighteen available vintages dating back to 1926, we began with the current release, the Chateau le Puy Emilien 2016  which expressed earth, red fruit and mushroom on both the nose and palate.  It had the structure of a much older wine.  “You will find that my younger wines taste old and my older vintages still taste young and vibrant,” said Jean Pierre, preparing us as we progressed through past decades of his flagship wine that consists dominantly of merlot with some cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and a hint of carmenere.  Since no new oak is used at Chateau le Puy, the Emilien is aged in used barrels and centenary foudres for 24 months.

Jean Pierre enjoys a nice bouquet and the earth and spice aromas of the Emilien 1989 were off the charts. The roundness and complex flavor profile was highlighted with balanced red fruit on the finish.

Jean Pierre Amoreau and son Pascual

As we ventured into the older vintages, Jean Pierre offered more sage advice, “Wine is like marriage.  If it is not good from the beginning, it will never be good.”  While the Emilien 1961 had qualities of baked red fruit aromas and flavors, I found a subtle floral quality throughout.

Three other vintages of the Emilien caught my fancy: the 1955, 1944 and 1926.  The 1955 had a light garnet, almost caramel-like color, smokey aromas and flavors with some lingering hints of orange. 

Due to WWII, the 1944 vintage was produced by Paule, Jean Pierre’s mother and is a superb wine with bright fruit on the palate.

The 1926 vintage was very special because, well, it’s a 1926. With a steely mineralogy on the nose, there were savory elements that were as integrated and balanced as one might imagine.

Lunch began with Tsar Nicoulai Cavier serve with smoked eel, brioche, brown butter hollandaise paired with a Marie-Cecile 2015, simply the finest pure semillon wine that I have ever tasted with incredible aromas of pear and complex, lush flavors that honor the palate.

The Chateau’s Barthelemy, described as an emotional wine, is produced from a single field-blended plot called “Les Rocs,” planted with 85 percent merlot and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon  Six vintages of the Barthelemy, ranging from 2001 to 2014, were paired with diverse dishes from Charcoal Grilled Maine Lobster, Duclair Duck Lasagna with fois gras sauce to something defined as Lamb in Diverse Preparation with freshly dug potato and black truffle. Pinching myself to determine if this

Chateau le Puy vintages: 1926-2015

extraordinary Monday afternoon was real, I enjoyed vibrant aromas, balanced flavors and a rich mouthfeel that supported and enhanced the exquisite cuisine.

For dessert, a chocolate soufflé, served in a small copper sauce pan, was paired with a Retour des Iles 2012, another Chateau le Puy wine with a fascinating story.  From each vintage, the family selects a few barrels to be boarded on a brigantine ship named “Tres Hombres,” and sets them out to sea for eight to ten months.  Apparently, the salty winds and swells of the ocean water provide a unique aging process.  

In describing the Retour, Jean-Michel Brouard from Terre de Vins said, “A unique experience which reveals very round wines with almost exotic aromas, and a symbol.  That of an estate in the same family since 1610, and at the forefront of modernity.” His quote aptly describes the family and the thought and energy that they give to each vintage.


Lesser Known Wines from Pouilly Fume

vineyards in Pouilly Fume

While cruising the Canal Lateral de Loire, we moored the boat near Sancerre and planned to do some wine tasting.  Wines from the Sancerre region and nearby Rue Pouilly Fuisse are exquisite and easily recognizable in the California marketplace. However, today we decided to travel east of the Loire River to explore some lesser known white wines from Pouilly Fume’.

The Pouilly Fume’ appellation has only 1,300 hectares under vine compared to 3,000 in Sancerre.  The region is small but has produced dry-farmed wines for four centuries.  The only grape planted in Pouilly Fume is Sauvignon Blanc, but the distinction in the wines comes from the terroir, more specifically the soil types:  limestone, marl, a lime rich blend of clay and silt, sand and flint.

Neighboring Pouilly sur Loire, a sub-region of Pouilly Fume’ produces its wines exclusively from the chasselas grape, named after a commune in the Saone et Loire region of Burgundy. A little known varietal with a global presence, chasselas vines grow in Portugal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile and other countries. Wherever it is grown, dry, full fruity wines are found.

Distressed vines with signs of esca

Exploring the Pouilly Fume and Pouilly sur Loire vineyards, we found that the soils types could change within a few meters.  Although the region is 270 feet above sea level, there was clear evidence of sea fossils in the stones. 

The autumn changes were visible and some vines looked more stressed than others.  We discovered that this was due to the esca disease, which affects the trunks of the vines, requiring the replacement of nearly ten percent of stock each year.

Recent mechanical harvest missed some grapes at the end of the rows which we plucked from the vine and sampled.  Tasted side by side, the differences and similarities between the Sauvignon Blanc and chasselas were as evident as they are in the glass. Distinctively, Sauvignon Blanc offers more tropical while the chasselas more stone fruit on the palate.

Eventually, we landed in the tiny community of Les Loges, population 78, where ten families have produced wines for generations.  It was there that we met one such heir, winemaker Clement Marchand, owner/winemaker of Domaine Marchand & Fils, whose family has been in the community since 1650.  Today, he makes his wines in the same cellar created by his grandfather, a damp stone chamber filled with stainless steel and fiberglass tanks where the juice of his recently harvested

Winemaker Clement Marchand

grapes were in a slight fermentation boil.  Later, the wines are aged for months in oak barrels.  

Marchand grows high environmental grapes, a method known in this county as biodynamic farming.  While explaining that balance is critical in his wines, he added that it’s all about the soil where limestone can add hints of citrus, flint a mineral element and stone fruit from the marl.

Marchand produces about 25,000 bottles per vintage, divided among his four releases, all of which we tasted.

The Pouilly sur Loire 2017, made to taste young, had clear hints of almond on the nose and a crisp, healthy acidity that would pair well with shellfish.

The Sauvignon Blanc in the Pouilly Fume’ 2017 (Les Kerots) was also fresh and crisp, but with more stone fruit flavors and a lingering finish.  This wine would enhance any seafood dish.

The Pouilly Fume’ 2016, from the local marl-based fossil soil named kimmeridgian, had much rounder texture and a more creamy mouthfeel than the first two, delivering nice stone fruit  flavors.  The “Kimmeridgian” was Marchand’s highest priced release at approximately $30.

Our last wine, the Pouilly Fume’ Prestige 2016 was complex, but not too heavy with nice texture and soft, tropical flavors that  lingered on the tongue.

I believe that environmental elements can effect the way the wines are perceived.  There I was, standing in an ancient

Marchand & Fils Winery in Pouilly Fume

cellar, tasting wines that date back centuries in an authentic, small and secluded French enclave, east of the Loire River.  Of course, they were all tasting great.

Marchand explained that it is hard for his wines to make it to US markets, dealing with limited production and competition of established wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from our soils.  Feeling fortunate to have discovered this region and acknowledging that we may not see them anytime soon, my travel mates and I purchased some bottles for the boat.  Pouilly Fume’ is a hidden gem worth exploring.


Somm 3 Celebrates California Wine’s Epic Story

The first documentary film, “Somm” chronicled the arduous regime of four young sommeliers, struggling to prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam.  “Somm 2” tells the story behind producing a bottle of wine, examining the challenges of each vintage through harvesting of the grapes to proper aging as it evolves.

Director Jason Wise’s latest release, “Somm 3,” that recently had its San Francisco premiere at the Clay Theater on Fillmore, chronicles the ongoing comparisons between old and new world wines that began on a May afternoon in 1976 with a blind tasting now commonly known as the Judgement of Paris.

The film begins its homage to history by bringing together three icons of the modern wine story to do some tastings of their own.  Wine critic and prolific author Jancis Robinson, master sommelier Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier, one of the organizers of the 1976 Paris Tasting, come together in the Clos du Val barrel room to share their favorite releases and memories of the past fifty years.

Jancis Robinson, Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier

Owner of the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop in Paris, Spurrier was immersed in the French wine scene and, after months of persuading skeptics to participate, he organized a blind tasting where the top French wine experts compared the best wines from their country with some new generation California wines.  The wines of the competition were as follows:

Chardonnay California: Chateau Montelena 1973, Chalone Vineyard 1974, Spring Mountain 1973, Freemark Abbey 1972, David Bruce 1973, Veedercrest 1973.

French Chardonnay:  Meursault Charmes 1973, Beaunne Clos des Mouches 1973, Batard-Montrachet 1973, Puligny-Montrachet

California Cabernet Sauvignon:  Stags Leap Cellars 1973, Ridge Monte Bello 1971, Mayacamas 1971, Clos Du Val 1972 (1st vintage)

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970, Freemark Abbey 1969

French Cabernet Sauvignon:  Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1970, Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Chateau Montrose 1970, Chateau Leoville-Las Cases 1971, 

The wine world was shocked when Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena 1973, from winemaker Mike Grgich, was named the top chardonnay with releases from Chalone and Spring Mountain placing third and fourth.

I have recently tasted impressive village and premier cru chardonnay from Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy, wines that command hundreds of dollars per bottle.  In 1976, the showing of our reasonably priced California releases in Paris turned the wine world upside down.

Also, on that day, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 scored slightly higher that the iconic Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion which brought instant credibility and California wines exploded onto the world market.

On May 24, 2006, exactly thirty years after the Judgment in Paris, a reprise tasting of the original ten red wines was held in California

Judging at the 1976 Paris Tasting

with both local and French experts.  After thirty years in the cellar, not only did Paul Draper’s Ridge Monte Bello Vineyard 1971 prevail, but the top five were all from California.

The prestigious Monte Bello Vineyard lies in the northern Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley and produces a sensational wine each vintage.  The latest Ridge Monte Bello 2015 ($215), a blend of cabernet sauvignon (77%), merlot (11%), petit verdot (7%)and cabernet Franc (5%) boast several ratings in the high nineties.

“Somm3” also provides the platform for today’s wine experts to gather for a new Judgement tasting.  Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, owner of Verve wines in New York and San Francisco assembled an esteemed panel to compare old world Burgundy wines with pinot noir from California and other regions throughout the world. Without giving the results away, California wines were competitive.  

I have recently visited and tasted red wines (pinot noir) from Saint Romain, Meursault and Volnay in Burgundy. I also live in Sonoma County, near the Russian River Valley and am familiar with wines from the top appellations in California and Oregon.  In a blind tasting, with no disrespect to the superb French wines, it would be difficult for my palate to stray far from home.

Dustin Wilson’s new Judgement tasting in New York

As someone who appreciates the mystique of wine, the Somm trilogy is, in many ways, an education series, designed to introduce the viewer to the complexities of the industry, from farming through mouthfeel. It reinforces the perspective of wine as an art form with each vintage beginning as a blank canvas.  


The Smith Brothers are still making wine on Spring Mountain

 

On the westside of the Napa Valley, high above St. Helena is  where the vineyards of the remote Spring Mountain appellation are located.  The Smith Brothers, Stuart and Charles, have been pioneers in the hillside appellation since the early seventies when they cleared the land and re-established vineyards that had been abandoned since the turn of the century.

Records show that ownership of the Smith-Madrone property was first granted to George Cook in 1885. During the 1890s, the

Stuart and Charles Smith

aphid phylloxera infected and destroyed the vineyards on Spring Mountain and, in 1905, they were abandoned and remained fallow for sixty-five years.

Strangely, Stuart Smith discovered his passion for wine while completing undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.  He soon completed a Master’s Degree at UC Davis and began the search for a place to pursue his craft.

Stuart has been called a leading voice for hillside vineyards, an accolade he downplays.  He claims that he was always looking for a higher altitude hillside site because he felt it produced the best grapes.  When the opportunity arose for Stuart and Charles to purchase old George Cook’s 200 acre property with overgrown vineyards, they jumped at it.

They were aware that there could be protests as they de-forested parts of the mountain to form the best vineyard sites.  While inspecting each vineyard location from his all-terrain vehicle, I found Stuart to be someone who cares deeply about the madrone forest and the soil, while using eco-friendly farming practices in his vineyards.

Charles Smith serves as the winemaker and storyteller at the winery.  I caught up with him as he was leading a small group of out-of-state tourists through their story and palate of wines.

The Smith Brothers like to keep it simple and consistent.  They produce about 3,000 cases per vintage of the same four wines,

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay

focused on creating the best in each from what Mother Nature gives them.

The tasting began with a dry-farmed estate release, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay ($34) that concurrently expressed complexity and accessibility.  Barrel-fermented for ten months in 80% new French oak, the flavors were layered and balanced, not overly crisp or creamy.

Riesling production is no longer associated with the Napa Valley, but there is a history.  Over the years, chardonnay has nearly dominated it out of existence.  However, the 2015 Smith-Madrone Estate Riesling ($32) is among the finest California releases that I have tasted.  While I agree in part with Charles’ assessment that their riesling is more full-bodied French style (Alsatian) than German, the  expressive minerality on the finish is reminiscent of those from Germany’s Mosel region along the Rhine River.  

The climate on Spring Mountain is warmer like Alsace, allowing the grapes to ripen earlier.  With the 2015 vintage, the result is a dry, crisp wine with citric and floral qualities and an exceptional mineral-laced finish.  They make less than 700 cases, but this wine is worth pursuing.

The drought in California was in full effect in 2014 when rainfall on Spring Mountain, at 1800-foot elevation, was less than half of normal.  As a result, the cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals, from volcanic soil, developed smaller clusters with more concentrated flavors.

The 2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon ($52), blended with small amounts of cabernet franc and merlot, has a rich mouthfeel

Smith-Madrone “Cook’s Flat” Reserve

with flavors that coalesced on the palate.  With nearly 2,000 cases produced, it is aged for 18 months in mostly new French oak and will certainly evolve for several years.  

A blend of the best blocks of cabernet sauvignon (58%), merlot (17%) and cabernet franc (25%), the “Cook’s Flat” Reserve is only produced when the highest standards can be achieved. 

As opposed to some overbearing fruity wines, the 2012 Smith-Madrone “Cook’s Flat” Reserve ($225) is a refined release with deeply balanced flavors, made, according to Charles Smith, in an “Old World” style. He credits the cabernet franc for adding depth and complexity to the wine.

Charles and Stuart in the early 1970s

The Smith Brothers have been doing what they do on Spring Mountain for forty-seven years.  As a result, they have gotten good at it.  Although the remote Spring Mountain vineyards are more difficult to access, an appointment to tour and taste at Smith-Madrone will prove to be a unique experience.


Chilean Pinot Noir

 

Aside from Burgundy in France, we, in California, enjoy the finest pinot noir in the world, sourced from five major appellations: Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, The Carneros, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley.  Without borders, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, north to south, would be a fitting sixth.

Although imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have challenged the myth that all quality pinot noir must be

Casabalnca Valley Vineyard

expensive, the consistently luscious and textural releases from northern Oregon to northern Santa Barbara keep us loyal with resolved acceptance of their price points.

Another challenger, south of the Equator, may be on the horizon.  Chile, geographically, is a long, thin strip of land along the South Pacific Ocean coast and, in the past decade, there are a growing number of vineyard plantings of pinot noir in the central and northern regions, that offer similar cool-climate growing conditions as those in California and Oregon.

Regions like the San Antonio and Casablanca Valleys, west of Santiago and the Elqui Valley, 250 miles to the north, have generated some excitement with pinot noir releases that are complex, fruit forward and affordable.  

San Antonio and Casablanca are relatively small areas where vineyards are blessed with rocky soils and direct exposure to the cooling forces of the ocean. By contrast, the Elqui Valley lies at the southern end of the Atacama Desert and while enjoying maritime influences, is hotter and, in recent years, been in a drought.

San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Elqui Valley

Known for producing pisco brandy and table grapes, the Elqui Valley vineyards are now focusing on certain varietals like the San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($17), an intense, fruit forward release that I recently tasted.

The color is lighter than most California pinots, but the bouquet was deep red fruit, earth and even had a forest-floor quality.  The flavors were acutely red fruit and earthy with clear, but balanced tannins.

I compared the 1865 with a 2014 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, at three times the price, and found it elegant, but more restrained than the Chilean wine.

Among many Casablanca Valley releases, the Casas del Bosque Pinot Noir Gran Reserva 2016 ($18) offered typical intense aromas of red fruit, but it was more medium-bodied with refined fruit, spice and earth flavors with soft tannins.

With deep mushroom and forest floor tones in the aromas, the 

Cuvelier Atanea Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($15) bursts on the palate with dark fruit and a myriad of earth and savory impressions.  I would pair this wine with lamb as well as salmon.

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From an organic winery in the San Antonio Valley, the 2015 Matetic “Coralillo” Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley ($18) is a very accessible, balanced wine that most palates will enjoy. In awarding this release 90-points, critic James Suckling described it as “fruity and fun” with ample, but forgiving tannins.

 

I have not yet tasted the 2017 Apaltagua Pinot Noir Reserva San Antonio Valley ($15), but the winery has a reputation for brighter

Apaltagua Reserva Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley

fruit driven flavors and descriptions of “roasted coffee bean notes,” along with the price, has me intrigued.

For the price, I found the Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($20)to be an intriguing and delightful wine with pleasant floral hints on the nose, an extraordinary rich mouthfeel and some cranberry fruit on the palate. In addition to the full structure and fresh fruit, James suckling, after awarding it 93-points, aptly described a

Ritual Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley

light chocolate and berry aftertaste.

Most of the Chilean pinot noir releases are expressive and ready to drink now.  As production continues to grow and availability in wine shops and outlets increases, the wines can become an accepted, reasonably-priced alternative for those choosing to explore the alluring “Heartbreak Grape”  outside of the grand California and Oregon releases.