|December 08, 2004|
|Chilean winery reports news on many fronts|
Andrés Ilabaca, one of the chief winemakers at Chile's Santa Rita winery, was in Ottawa recently, and I talked to him before a superb winemaker's dinner at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
I started by asking him what was new at Santa Rita since we last talked a year ago. He seemed a bit taken aback, and I thought maybe nothing had happened, but then out came a list of innovations on all fronts.
They include: planting another 250 hectares of vines to complete their present property; building a new six-million-litre winery in the Rapel Valley wine region; sourcing grapes from the small, up-and-coming Leyda Valley wine region; planting new clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz from France and South Africa; planting more vines per hectare; and rigorously controlling irrigation.
These might sound a bit uninteresting, but it's work like this that produces changes in the wines we buy. For example, most quality Chilean Sauvignon Blancs come from the Casablanca Valley, close to the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean cools the area and makes it ideal for varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, which develop concentrated flavours and intense acidity when they ripen slowly.
Adding the Leyda Valley to the mix takes the wine to another level, because it's only eight kilometres from the ocean, compared to Casablanca's 24 kilometres. Santa Rita is blending Sauvignon Blancs from both regions and the results are stunning.
As for planting vines more densely, when vines have to compete more for nutrients in the soil, they have lower vigour, which means less foliage. Less foliage blocking the sun from the grapes means that less pruning is needed.
Then there's better soil drainage and tightly controlled irrigation that limits water to certain periods in the vine's growth cycle. They result in bunches of grapes that weigh less, but have more concentrated flavours. What's more, the tannins ripen sooner, and the grapes can be picked earlier.
The result: rich, fruity wines with fresh flavours, rather than flavours of jammy, cooked fruit.
One area where Santa Rita has not yet moved is in screwcaps. Andrés thinks they're good for wines made for early drinking. He's tasted many screwcap-sealed New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Australian Chardonnays and likes their lively, fruity character. But he's clearly not sure about screwcaps for all wines. Santa Rita's experience with corks seems better than most, and Andrés says they have only a two or three per cent failure rate.
Cork issues aside, Santa Rita seems to be flourishing, even though Chilean wines generally haven't performed as well as they might, given the value they offer. Santa Rita exports 1.3 million cases a year to 65 countries. Canada, which takes 135,000 cases, is their third-largest market (after the U.S. and Ireland). They also sell 60 million litres on the Chilean market, most in boxes for $2 or less a litre.
Four easily obtainable Santa Rita wines today. Look for Santa Rita premium wines (Casa Real, Triple C, Cabernet-Merlot, and Floresta Sauvignon Blanc) in early 2005 Vintages releases.
SANTA RITA RESERVA SAUVIGNON BLANC 2004 The grapes are hardly off the vines, and here's the wine with beautiful fresh acidity and luscious green fruit (gooseberry, passion fruit) flavours. Excellent value and a perfect match for raw oysters or a goat cheese dish. Alcohol 13.5 per cent; $12.45 a bottle. LCBO No. 275677.
SANTA RITA RESERVA CHARDONNAY 2003 Well-made Chardonnay that has good fruit up front with more complex notes of citrus and mineral. It's medium-bodied with a little warmth and goes well with herbed chicken dishes. Alcohol 13.5 per cent; $12.45 a bottle. LCBO No. 348359.
SANTA RITA "120" MERLOT 2003 Quite intense, spicy fruit aromas (mainly plum) that lead to rich spicy, peppery plum flavours. Medium weight with enough acidity to make this friendly to food like well-herbed grilled lamb. Alcohol 13.5 per cent; $9.95 a bottle. LCBO No. 286179.
SANTA RITA RESERVA CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2002 This is a full-fruit Cabernet, with delicious flavours of raspberry and black cherry, with notes of spice and pepper. Medium-bodied with a lush texture, light tannins and a long finish. Very well-priced and a great match with aged cheddar cheese. Alcohol 13.5 per cent; $12.95 a bottle. LCBO No. 253872.
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