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November 17, 2011

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'Thunder in a glass' from Chile

I once heard someone describe a good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon as thunder in a glass. The better examples offer an abundance of rich red-and-black fruit, chocolate, leather and spices that roar rather than whisper in the palate.

Well-made Chilean Cabs are somewhat of a hybrid combining attributes of both New and Old World Cabernets. They are also remarkably good values. This week I'm pleased to introduce fine Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wines available in Shanghai wine shops for less than 250 yuan (US$39.18).

Cabernet paradise

The total viniculture areas of Chile and Bordeaux are approximately equal in size but the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile is almost double that of Bordeaux. While many Bordeaux wine makers have planted more of the easier-to-grow, early-ripening Merlot variety, Chilean wine makers continue to prioritize Cabernet Sauvignon.

As I said in a previous column I'm a big fan of the Carmenere grape because this almost-extinct Bordeaux variety has found a new home in Chile making wines of unique and distinctive character; but despite my proclivity for diversity the most important red variety in Chile in terms of quantity and quality is unquestionably Cabernet Sauvignon.

The problem historically for Chilean Cabernet Sauvignons has been excessively high yields that lead to insipid fruity wines of little character and depth. This problem still exists today but increasingly the better producers are limiting yield and investing in new equipment and top wine-making talent.

In fact, many wine makers say Chile is the ideal place to make quality Cabernet Sauvignon. It features abundant sunshine, long ripening season, irrigated mountain spring water, well-drained stone, gravel and clay soils and cool breezes from both the Andes Mountains and the Pacific that act as natural air-conditioners. Bordeaux can only dream of such predictable and beneficial conditions.

New talent & approach

Prestigious Chilean producers have benefited from a list of the Old World's most famous wine makers and consultants. People like my friend Michael Rolland, Christian le Sommer, the former wine maker at Chateau Latour, and Bruno Prats, formerly with Chateau Cos d'Estournel, are just a few Old World Cabernet Sauvignon masters to bequeath their experience and expertise to Chilean wineries. As a result, many of Chile's talented young wine makers are incorporating concepts and techniques used in Bordeaux to make wines that still retain New World exuberance but increasingly also exhibit Old World elegance and balance.

Some wine makers while learning from the Old World are also breaking traditional rules with delicious results. One example is the highly aromatic and textured Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blends that have a style all to themselves. The structure and freshness of these wines is all Cabernet Sauvignon while the spicy ripeness and lusciousness comes from the Syrah variety.

Affordable quality

While they certainly don't boast the lofty marquis image of the great left bank Bordeaux wines, Chile's best Cabernet Sauvignon single variety and blended wines have gained international recognition and prestigious awards. Most of these top Cabs have some or all of their fruit sourced from high altitude rocky vineyards in the Maipo Valley. Wines like Don Maximiamo, Don Melchor, Almaviva, Vinedo Chadwick, Casa Real and Sena are among the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines in the world.

In 2004 at a well-known Cabernet Sauvignon blind tasting in Berlin, Sena topped some of Europe's best wine including Chateaux Lafite, Margaux and Mouton as well as the Italian icon Sassicaia. Unfortunately these top Chilean wines are quite pricy.

Fortunately for consumers there are plenty of high-quality yet affordable Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Look for wines from producers known for consistently good Cabs like Montes Alpha, Concha y Toro, Vina Aquitania, Casa Lapostolle, La Joya, Santa Rita, Carmen, Miguel Torres and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. All these producers make delicious Cabernet Sauvignons under 250 yuan retail that have some of the best quality-to-price ratios for reds in China.

Bold flavors

When young good Chilean Cabs typically offer aromas and flavors of dark berries, red fruit, plums and figs, and as they mature intriguing notes of chocolate, coffee, tobacco and leather often appear. Some Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the Maipo Valley may also have intriguing sensations of eucalyptus and mint. The robust flavors and concentration of these wines make them ideal partners to boldly flavored meat dishes. If you have the good fortune to visit Chile you may well enjoy a local Cab with a traditional meat dish like barbecue steaks, lamb or goat, beef stew or a personal favorite, the blood sausage referred to as prietas.

In Shanghai, I recommend pairing a good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with hearty meat dishes since the power of the wine will not be overwhelmed by the strong meat flavors.

The ripeness of the fruit in many Chilean Cabs makes them suitable for the classic Shanghai dish hongshao rou (red-braised pork) with a somewhat sweet sauce. The ripe fruit in the wines provides sensations of sweetness on the palate that dance harmoniously with the sweetness of the sauce.

The fattiness of this dish also begs for tannins to cleanse the palate and facilitate digestion. Another excellent match for Chilean Cabs is Cantonese-style roasted goose or pigeon as the spices used to dry-marinate the birds are mirrored by similarly aromatic qualities in the wine, while the tannins assuage the oils on the palate.

Tormenta Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009
Region: Valle Central, Chile
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Aging method/Potential: 12 months in oak/nice now & can be cellared another 7-10 years
Serving & food pairing: Allow 30 minutes for breathing & serve 16-18°C; nice with flavorful meats like smoked cold meats and game birds as well as Korean- and Chinese-style BBQ beef and lamb.
Price/Importer: 166 yuan/Torres

delicious organic wine with lovely bright ruby red color, lively nose of dark fruits, leather and liquorice and plenty of black berry, plum and red fruit flavors with silky tannins and a rich, smooth finish.

Bolero Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah, 2007
Region: Central Valley, Chile
Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Aging method/Potential: 18 months in oak barrels/drink now but will keep for another 10 years
Serving & food pairing: Allow 30-40 minutes for breathing & serve 16-18°C; this rich wine is suitable for a wide range of meat dishes but especially good with roasted and grill lamb.
Price/Importer: 236 yuan/Altavis
Body: Dry/Sweet:

the Cabernet and Syrah varieties exhibit good typicity in this rich wine; the wine has a deep red-purple color, abundant aromas of roses, cherries and figs and plenty of ripe black and red flavors balanced by firm tannins in a nice long finish.

Casa La Joy Gran Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010
Region: Lihueimo, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Aging method/Potential: 12 months in oak barrels/quite approachable a young wine & can be cellared for another 5-7 years
Serving & food pairing: allow 30+ minutes breathing and serve 16°C; enjoy with grilled or roasted meats including Cantonese-style roasted meats
Price/Importer: 180 yuan/Links
Body: Dry/Sweet:

with typical Cabernet Sauvignon strength balanced by Merlot softness, this wine has a dark purple-red color, ripe red berries and plum aromas and plenty of black fruit, chocolate and vanilla flavors and a soft palate-coating tannin finish.

Vina Chocalan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2009
Region: Chile
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Aging method/Potential: ready now but can be cellared for another 7+ years
Serving & food pairing: Allow 45 minutes for breathing & serve 16-18°C; pair with robust meat stews and richly sauced Chinese meat stews as well as Shanghai-style Braised Pork Belly.
Price/Importer: 248 yuan/Fortunetree

archetypical Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with dark ruby-red color, intense red fruit nose with menthol notes and concentrated blackberry, blueberry and plum flavors with spicy and smoky notes and a silky tannic finish.


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