Posts Filed Under crowd pleaser wines
Quick quiz for you: How many times can you listen to a winery’s PR guy mention Robert Parker scores before you want to shove wine barrel bungs into your ears to drown out all sound?
For me, the answer is “somewhere around 25 times,” which is about the amount I endured in the impressive underground barrel storage area of Errazuriz during my recent visit to Chile. I certainly don’t blame their PR for dousing me with the Robert Parker score hose during my visit – Errazuriz are clearly (and justifiably) proud of the accolades that their wines have received; they’ve been at the production of high-end, “icon” wines longer than just about anybody else in Chile, after all. But… what I had a difficult time with was the relentlessness with which that stream of scores was trained at my poor, unsuspecting ears.
God knows I don’t hate Parker, and I don’t hate wine scores (I find them very limiting, and rife for misuse, but don’t hate them). While I find Parker’s palate prefers wines that, to me, come off a bit on the brutish side (and quite a few of Errazuriz’s releases fall into that category), I’m sure plenty of people who like the higher-scoring Parker selections likely find my highly-rated selections on the tepid, shy side.
All further proof that you owe it to yourself to learn your own taste preferences before following the advice of critics too closely, I suppose.
Anyway… back to the cellar of PR pain…
I actually tried to derail said PR person by mentioning (when we were discussing Bordeaux wine prices versus those of Chile’s finest reds) that I’d interviewed Parker fairly recently. I figured what the hell, maybe telling him I’d had contact with Parker would at least change the context of the current discussion about Parker. Nope – that tactic had about the same effect as trying to stop a charging elephant with a grade-school-classroom-grade spitball. So I turned it into a learning opportunity, and the lesson was this:
Reciting a litany of wine scores isn’t really marketing!
It wasn’t helping the oppressive vibe any that day that the icon winery at Errazuriz is impressively imposing in its starkness, or that the barrel rooms have brick and calcareous rock that measures up to two and a half inches thick in some places – while good for withstanding Chile’s earthquakes, the whole thing came off as being a bit too overwhelming, and it all felt just a tad old school.
Quite a marked contrast to the experience I had just a few hours earlier when visiting Errazuriz’s western vineyard location, the gorgeous Chilhue Manzanar (“seagull’s place” in Mapudungun, the language of the region’s indigenous Mapuche people) 120 km northwest of Santiago, and mere 12 km from the Pacific ocean…
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Even though I’m a thoroughly-clueless heterosexual, it’s obvious even to me that Ignacio Casali – Viticulturist for Chile’s Viña Leyda – probably has had little trouble attracting the ladies. Ignacio possesses the kind of strong jaw and rugged, 5:00-shadow good looks that likely mean he has never had to struggle through hours of vivacious small-talk well-timed humor, and cajoling (the way that guys like me have) in an effort just to appear attractive when buying a girl a drink.
But before you eligible bachelorettes start emailing me for Ignacio’s number, you should know that if you ever do meet him it’s very unlikely that you’d be listening to Ignacio wax poetic about how your eyes resemble the nearby ocean (the Leyda Valley is located a mere 12 km east of the port area of San Antonio in central Chile). No, no, no – you are far, far more likely to hear him wax poetic about the far, far less sexy topics of rootstocks and vineyard clones from U.C. Davis.
You see, Ignacio is a wine geek, tried-and-true, and he’s clearly most at home in Leyda’s vineyards, talking about their experimental half-circle / fan-shaped plantings of vineyard rows (those look pretty odd, by the way), or providing details on which rootstocks are planted where (and why) on the property, or expounding the subtle differences of UC Davis grape variety clones and their soil suitability.
Still want that number, ladies?
To understand why there’s such a geeky focus on clones, vineyard management, and a sense of experimentation at Viña Leyda – and to really get to know the details behind some of their crazily-overachieving wines – you need to understand the lay of the Leyda Valley land, and educate yourself on some details about the Chilean wine market…
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Travel to the province of San Juan, in the Cuyo region of the Tulúm Valley in Argentina – past the shitty old cars routinely running red lights, past the modest houses that are little more than shacks with water tanks atop, past the dogs whose limps attest to how rough life here can get, past the motor bikes unsafely carrying four people simultaneously, past the more-bucolic-but-still-trash-laden parks with statuary odes to cycling (a favorite pastime in these parts) – and you will find, nestled among the starkly gorgeous landscape of the surrounding mountains…
Yes, seriously. A whale. A life-size reproduction of a whale, that is, constructed by artist Adrian Villar Rojas as a tribute to the site upon which it sits – now upwards of 800 meters above sea level, but which used to be a submerged seabed in ancient times. If that’s not odd enough for you, you’ll also find llamas and some miniature ostrich. Along with the main attractions of the spot: olive oil, and some pretty good wine being made from Syrah. Yes, Syrah. Yes, in Argentina.
The whale (you’re probably still thinking about the whale, right?) was commissioned by Ezequiel Eskenazi, the down-to-earth, animal-loving, olive-oil-producing owner of the site and the founder of XumeK. As Ezequiel puts it, he is, in some ways, just a guy trying to find an interesting way of spending some of his father’s money (a fortune made in the caning business during the the budding days of the Napa, CA wine industry):
“I don’t have a romantic story, but I always had a dream to build a vineyard.”…
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“It’s not really very safe.”
Hearing those words, from winemaker Marcelo Retamal in a barrel area that is little more than a small warehouse on the Isla De Maipo estate of De Martino, surrounded by support beams that have been twisted and broken like so many toothpicks, and overshadowed by a ceiling that looks as though parts of it could drop on top of our heads at any moment without warning… well, let’s just say I was hoping that whatever gods dole out the karma points were forgiving me for my initial reaction of “Well… f*cking DUH!”
In California, I’d have had to sign a 37-page waiver just to look at this building, and here we were traipsing about inside of it without even wearing hardhats. But this dark-haired, olive-skinned, brown-eyed winemaking guy had me totally at ease despite the less-than-secure surroundings. Marcelo carries an almost ego-less assurance in his laid-back manner, no doubt a side effect of his fifteen-year tenure at De Martino (one of the longest stretches in the modern history of a country where most winemaking staff turnover is closer to 15 months than it is to 15 years).
De Martino’s current barrel aging area is, of course, a victim of the February 27, 2010 8.8-magnitude earthquake that in other regions of this long, thin country, had squashed enormous stainless steel tanks of wine as if they were empty beer cans at a college fraternity party. Our visit trails the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan by only a few days, and the resilient Chileans feel a kinship to the Japanese quake victims that is mostly unspoken but still palpable whenever the topic of The Quake comes up (though it doesn’t take a shared disaster for one to feel the emotional impacts of the devastation near Tokyo: one report, which told of parents finding the bodies of a class of Ishinomaki kindergarteners huddled together after their school bus was engulfed in flames triggered by the recent earthquake’s resultant tsunami, had me privately shaken and withdrawn). Chileans are a forward-looking bunch, and are quick to talk about The Quake, a situation in almost polar opposition to the way that they seem to avoid direct talk about their political past, referencing it only in the abstract (Augusto Pinochet is never mentioned by name, sort of like how Hitler never ever comes up in conversations in Germany).
We’re not here to look at barrels or taste aging samples, though. We are here to look at Marcelo’s clay amphorae. The ones in which he (almost crazily) plans to ferment and age País (the grape of low-end boxed wines) from the cooler Itata region in the south, using carbonic maceration and adding as little sulfur as possible, burying them in the ground à la how they used to do things in the Jura in Spain…
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