Gentle Chileans

Posted on Jun 11, 2014 by Tara Q. Thomas

“This is what I always loved about Chilean cabernet sauvignon,” said Josh Greene, W&S’s editor. “It was the only place in the world where cabernet sauvignon could be delicate.”

Joshua Greene (center) with Tara Q. Thomas (left)
Joshua Greene (center) with Tara Q. Thomas (left)

Greene made this remark over a glass of 1998 Don Melchor from Concha y Toro’s Puente Alto Vineyard, at a dinner he hosted with Patricio Tapia, the magazine’s critic for South American wines, and Marcelo Papa, the chief winemaker at Puente Alto. Papa joined the winemaking team at Concha y Toro in 1998, at the start of a great run:  Concha y Toro has made the W&S Top 100 Wineries list every year since 1997.  (Only Penfolds in Australia has made the list more often, with 23 appearances.) With Papa and Tapia in NY—plus Ruth van Waerebeek, the chef-in-residence at Concha y Toro—it seemed like a terrific excuse to Greene to put on a dinner.

“It’s something about the soil and climate of the Andes,” Greene continued. “Alejandro Hernandez first turned me on to it in the 1980s. He was a professor at the Catholic University of Santiago and made his own wine at Portal del Alto. He had these huge old raulí tanks. Before the wine went into them, it was red-fruited, almost strawberry like, fresh, with a tannin structure that was open but accessible…They were delicate, beautiful wines. And then he’d put them into those old wooden tanks…”

Mandy Oser of Ardesia
Mandy Oser of Ardesia

Mandy Oser, who runs Ardesia in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, had noticed a certain delicacy, and what she called “a very particular flavor character,” in the Chilean sauvignon blancs we’d started the dinner with, and asked Papa what he attributed it to.

Marcelo Papa (left) speaking with Joseph DeLissio of the River Café
Marcelo Papa (left) speaking with Joseph DeLissio of the River Café

He replied that in part it was the climate—“Casa-cool, not New Zealand cool,” he said, referring to Casablanca’s Pacific-cooled vineyards. “When you think of climate, you automatically think of temperature. But today, after many years of making wine, I think of light. When you get more sun, you get more fruit. If there’s less sun, you get more austerity or green stuff.”

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It was an interesting way to think about sauvignon blanc. We’d had a plump, fruit-filled Craggy Range 2012 Martinborough Te Muna Road Sauvignon from New Zealand, where the sun is strong and abundant; an austere, smoky Thomas Labaille 2012 Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnes from France’s cloudy Loire, and the CyT 2012 Leyda Marqués de Casa Concha Sauvignon Blanc, equal parts citrus fruit and saline minerality, from the Pacific-cooled coast of Chile. Of the three, the Chilean was the most gentle, the most balanced between sun-bright fruit and austere earth.

Chef Ruth van Waerebeek (center) with Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro (left) and Joseph DeLissio of the River Café (right)
Chef Ruth van Waerebeek (center) with Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro (left) and Joseph DeLissio of the River Café (right)

Where the “gentle” factor really came into play was with the food. The sauvignon blancs came out with a lobster ceviche that van Waerebeek described as “quite traditional, but with pink grapefruit and pomelo so that the wines and the dish would speak to each other.” Speak they did—the Craggy Range with what suddenly seemed like a loud, brash New Zealand accent; the Sancerre with elegant French disdain. The conversation with the Chilean sauvignon and the dish was the most jovial, the dish drawing out the plumper side of the wine, the wine allowing all the details of the dish to shine.

And while there was no doubt that the 2008 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande from Pauillac in Bordeaux was a very fine wine, it went from aristocratic to austere when it met a forkful of Chilean spring lamb, which had been stewed with red wine, tomatoes and sweet spices and brightened by a sauce of cilantro-laced goat milk yogurt. Chef van Waerebeek had clearly designed the dish for the 2010 Don Melchor, which had the structure to stand up to the meat but a gentleness that echoed the long-cooked flavors and sweet spice.

Patricio Tapia (center) speaking with Howard Goldberg of the New York Times and his wife, Bea Goldberg
Patricio Tapia (center) speaking with Howard Goldberg of the New York Times and his wife, Bea Goldberg

But back to the 1998 Melchor. “This is so Chilean,” Tapia said, a huge grin on his face. Tapia, just off a ridiculously circuitous 36-hour flight from Hong Kong, looked, for the first time that evening, relaxed, content to simply swirl his glass and take in the smell of home. 

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