February 13, 2012

Two Wines From Errazuriz (Chile)

Yeast. It's everywhere. It floats around, looking for sugars to eat and makes every surface grubby. Like children.

This "ambient yeast" may have helped us invent baking thousands of years ago by invading an Egyptian bowl of warm water and ground grains, but it can be a real challenge for winemakers.

In order to reliably convert the sugars in their crushed grapes (the "must") to alcohol and CO2, winemakers select specific varieties of yeast, usually a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, according to the climate, wine-making style, and the kind of grape they are using.

The problem with relying on ambient yeasts to do this important job is that there are so many strains floating around. The winemaker can't be sure that the ones that take over the fermentation will be hardy enough to survive the build-up of their own output as they convert all the sugars. Or they might add unpredictable flavours to the wine. Brettanomyces is notorious in the wine industry for leaving an animal, "barnyard" scent.

The benefits of using ambient yeasts, however, also come from their unpredictability; they can add complexity to a finished wine. It is interesting, then, to see a large winemaker like Errazuriz take a gamble* on ambient yeasts and release a Wild Ferment Chardonnay.

This comes from the Casablanca Valley (see map below) where the ocean-influenced climate slows the build-up of heat with morning fog, and cooler night temperatures encourage complexity in the balance of acids and sugars.

And it's such a good Chardonnay. It has a little toasted oak influence but it is gentle and rounded by the malolactic fermentation. There is a classic, lemony backbone all the way through with some lovely, delicate flavours developed by the ambient yeasts. Restrained and complex, this one unfolds leisurely over a long finish.

At only $22 here in BC, it's a great way to experience a risky and rewarding style of wine-making.

*Okay, we know they aren't just throwing the doors open and risking their entire production on whatever floats in, but it makes a better story.

Carménère also makes a great story. Originally one of the six Bordeaux varieties, Carménère has found unique expression in Chile, especially in the Aconcagua valley in the warmer north.

Surrounded by ocean, mountains and desert, Chile escaped the Phylloxera plague that devastated vineyards across Europe in the 19th Century. As a result, some of the Carménère vines growing there now are among the oldest in the world.

Imagine how frustrating it must be for a winemaker to try making one kind of wine only to have it come out tasting like something completely different. This is exactly what happened, because for a long time Carménère vines in Chile were mistaken for Merlot, which didn't help it build much of a reputation.

Of course that reputation is being put right these days by bottle after bottle of high-value Chilean Carménère that arrives in our stores, and this effort by Errazuriz is a perfect example.

The Aconcagua valley stretches from near the coast to much further in-land, following the Aconcagua river. While not coming from pre-Phylloxera vines (the vines were planted in 1992), this Single Vineyard Carménère is a great opportunity to try the pure expression of a small terroir at a very affordable price.

It really delivers that expression: black fruit, pepper, tar and tobacco, with a rich, full mouth-feel, a well-balanced backbone of tannins and acids and a velvety, flavourful finish. While we drank it, the initial fruity nose coalesced into secondary complex aromas that had us scrambling for descriptions. It held together beautifully over an hour or more, never faltering for a moment.

At $23 here in BC, this is really a great example of Chilean Carménère.

Map of Valle de Casablanca and Valle de Aconcagua, Chile.

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