Wine is Everything! A quick guide for wine explorers in Chile

Wine is everything, the sea,
The 20 league boots,
The magic carpet, the sun,
The seven tongued parrot.

Nicanor Parra

Chileans love wine and wine loves Chile. By the end of the nineteenth century when the Filoxera plague (wine louse) destroyed most of the world’s vineyards, Chilean crops remained untouched. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and other French stocks flourished not only in Chile’s central valleys but within a people’s identity. Thus grapes, technology, politics, conversation, economics, food, friends, celebration and poetry could all fit into a single glass of wine.

Photo by Alex Molina
Photo by Alex Molina

I was a little kid -- 3 or 4 years old -- when I first tasted wine. To my father’s astonishment, I drank his glass of red wine when he disappeared for a few seconds into the kitchen. It is one of my earliest memories, but one I often remember when choosing and tasting wine. Back then, Chileans had only a few vineyards and a handful of wines for the choosing, either red or white, from different grapes mashed into one powerful drink. Now it's a another story: wine is as diverse as the occasions it celebrates. Here’s a quick, out-of-the-earth guide for choosing wine.

Photo by Alex Molina
Photo by Alex Molina

Three kinds of wine: Varietals, Reserve, and Grand Reserve
Wines can be varietals, simple, everyday wines, with fruity flavors, usually on the cheaper side of the scale; reserve, containing a better selection of grapes and aged in wood; and grand reserve, la crème de la crème of wines, aged in special barracks (usually oak), with complex flavors and typically higher prices. Since there’s no use comparing varietals with reserve wines, or grand reserve with varietal wines, it is best to choose within a certain price range.

Price range
There’s a wine for every occasion. A varietal wine is excellent for a weekday dinner with a friend. Similarly, a grand reserve can become sublime for meeting a friend you haven’t seen in years. In Chile, you can divide wines into five groups according to their price tag: CP$2,000 or less, CP$2,000 to $5,000, CP$5,000 to $7,000, CP$7,000 to $12,000, and more than CP$12,000. First choose how much you want to spend on your bottle, then choose the best wine within that price range. Sometimes the varietal wine of a certain vineyard is more expensive than another’s grand reserve; indeed in Chile there’s no regulation for these denominations so it’s up to the vineyard how they label them and up to you to find the best.

The best wine
The best wine is a combination of chance and knowledge, exploration and certainties. Highly publicized wines are usually not the best choice, because they tend to be in the wrong price range. Plainly put, they’re overpriced. This means there is usually a better wine right beside it, at the same or lower cost.

Look at the label and the year when it was harvested. A bad wine turns worse with time, a good one gets better. An aged wine will be quite a disappointment if you think of giving a second chance to a brand, by upgrading from a mediocre varietal to the grand reserve. On the contrary, if you tried a vineyard’s varietal and loved it, its grand reserve will probably taste like heaven.

(Hence you can try cheap varietals and when the moment comes for the expensive grand reserve, you already know where to aim!)

In 1911, Ramón Perez Ayala, a Spanish writer and journalist, wrote about wine-tasting in his novel La Pata de la Raposa: ‘Touch, smell and taste, these not aesthetic senses but animal ones. One has to animalize oneself’. In other words, don’t be afraid to follow your intuition. Explore not only flavors, but what you feel. This feeling will soon become knowledge, helping you choose the best wine for the occasion.

Reds
In general terms, Cabernet Sauvignons are strong in flavor, rich and thick. Merlots are sweeter, Carménères are subtler, Pinots dryer. Syrahs are for lovers and Malbecs... well, they’re quite interesting. Red wines are usually a bit more expensive than whites, even though Chilean white wines have reached high levels of excellence in the last decade.

Photo by Alex Molina
Photo by Alex Molina

Whites
There’s white wine from German and Spanish stocks but in Chile, the French ones thrive the most. Sauvignon Blanc has a dry taste that goes wonderfully with spicy food. Chardonnay is friendlier and sweeter, for afternoons maybe. Others include Moscatel, Semillón and Riesling. White wines are getting better every year. Spring and summer are the best time for enjoying them... so don’t miss out!

Wine and food
Wine and food are happy doves together. Whether served with dinner, as a cooking ingredient, or to inspire the chef, wine is a kitchen’s unconditional friend. So beware of those who preach strict rules, such as white-fish or red-meat when it comes to accompanying dinner. Know thyself, your food and explore.

Suggestions
(Chilean Pesos aprox)

up to CP$2,000 (US$4.00)
Santa Emiliana Sauvignon blanc and others: CP$1,690
Santa Carolina Tres Estrellas Cabernet Sauvignon: CP$1,590
Carmen Insigne Sauvignon Blanc: CP$1,990
Urmeneta Sauvignon Blanc: CP$1,790

CP$2,000-5,000 (US$4.00-10.00)
Doña Dominga Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere: CP$2,990
Santa Helena Reserva Carmenere: CP$3,490
Santa Carolina Estrella de Oro Reserva: CP$4,540
Santa Carolina Gran Reserva Syrah: CP$4,990
Santa Helena Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (2009): CP$4,790
Casillero del Diablo Shiraz Rose: CP$3,690
Ventisquero Chardonnay: CP$3,890

CP$5,000-7,000 (US$10.00-14.00)
Casa Silva Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (2009): CP$6,890
Castillo de Molina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (2009): CP$5,690
Doña Dominga Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (2009): CP$5,990
Montes Reserva (2010): CP$5,090
Montgrass Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah: CP$5,890
Santa Digna Chardonnay Reserva: CP$5,290

CP$7,000-12,000 (US$14.00-24.00)
Santa Rita Medalla Gran Reserva (2008): CP$8,380
Caliterra Tributo Shiraz (2009): CP$7,990
Marquez de Casa Concha (2009): CP$10,990

CP$12,000 (US$24.00) and plus
Don’t spend this much!!!

On boxes
Boxed wine is when you choose quantity over quality. Most of them are potential headaches lurking on the liquor stores’ shelves, but there are exceptions:
Santa Helena (2 liters) CP$2,190
Clos de Pirque (2 liters) CP$2,490

September
September is our national month, which means lots of wine. This is not the best month, however, for drinking Chicha (unprocessed wine), since harvesting is around April and it will not be fresh. It is however a great month to explore drinks that combine wine and fruits.

Happy drinking!

wine and fruit recipes
Melon con vino:
Cut a hole in the melon big enough to scoop out the seeds. Mash some of the melon’s pulp, pour some sugar, ice and white wine. Mix everything and serve cold. Refill the melon whenever necessary.

Borgoña:
Chop some strawberries (about 500 grams or more), pour some sugar (4 table spoonfuls), a bit of white wine and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then pour more white wine (1.5 liters) and a shot of brandy (or another spirit you like). Serve cold. Explore with other berries and fruits.

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