Camarones de orilla, Hacienda Santa Cristina, Limarí Valley, Chile
Text and photos ©Tom Hyland
During a recent visit to Chile, I commented to my friend Hector, a native Chilean, that I thought his country has the finest seafood in the world. His comment was that France has better oysters, but otherwise he agreed with me.
I don’t care for oysters, sorry to say, but as far as just about every other type of seafood, Chile rates number one on my list. You may find a better abalone in Monterey or better clams from the Gulf of Napoli, but overall, no one – not even New Zealand - beats Chile. (A delightful woman I recently met from Hong Kong votes for her land, so maybe I’ll have to head there soon to see if I’ll change my mind – but for now, it’s Chile.)
Now it’s one thing for my Chilean friend to stick up for his homeland, but in this instance, he had a great reason to do so. He explained to me that Chile is the beneficiary of the Humboldt Current, which comes up the Pacific from Antarctica. This is a very cold current, meaning the fish that do reside in waters off the shore are hearty, meaty creatures.
A great example is mero, which I tried this for the first time three years ago at a winery restaurant in the Casablanca Valley. My host, Pablo Morandé, asked me if I had ever tasted it and when I told him I had not, he explained to me that this was the real Chilean seabass. He noted that many restaurants in Santiago and other cities in Chile serve seabass that was caught just off the coast; this is good, but not great seafood. Mero, however, resides more than 10 miles off the coast in colder, deeper waters and is much meatier. He was absolutely right, as this was an incredibly rich, full-flavored, tender piece of fish that melted in my mouth like butter. You don’t see Mero on many menus in America, but if you do, go for it, or else pay a visit to Chile for this remarkable dish. (By the way, any reports you may have heard about Chilean seabass – and some of that in America is actually from Alaska – does not refer to mero. This is not on any endangered list, nor is it being overfished).
Mero served atop a sushi roll stuffed with paella at Pablo Morandé winery restaurant, Casablanca Valley, Chile
On my trip in April, there were two great seafood meals I enjoyed. One was in the northern part of the country in the Limarí Valley, where I enjoyed a special type of shrimp known as camarones de orilla. These are river shrimp and are caught in the shallow rivers of the area and are often served at meals the same day. If you drive the main highway out of La Serena, you will see vendors waving these shrimp at cars passing by, selling the seafood they have just caught. We didn’t have time to stop and buy any from a local, but we did enjoy them – steamed – at a Hacienda Santa Cristina, a wonderful restaurant in the area.
Also at the outstanding Tanino restaurant located at the Casas del Bosque winery, my friend and I sampled two wonderful seafood dishes. He went for grilled mero with spaghetti, sauteed in arugula pesto and toasted almonds, while I opted for cannelloni stuffed with Chilean abalone and shrimp with a sauce of Chardonnay and Grana Padano cheese (like many Chilean restaurants, there is a major Italian influence in the cooking here at Tanino). Both were first-rate and great examples of the quality and flavor of Chilean seafood as well as the creativity of Chilean cuisine. I highly recommend Tanino when you visit the Casablanca Valley; this area has some of the finest restaurants in the country and this is one of the very best.
Cannelloni stuffed with Chilean abalone and shrimp with a sauce of Chardonnay and Grana Padano cheese, Tanino Restaurant, Casas del Bosque Winery, Casablanca Valley
As for the wines to accompany the various seafoods of Chile, my preferred choice is Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. For years, this was a category that was rather mundane (the use of plant material was the big drawback), but with the introduction of clones from France and California over the past ten years, the Sauvignon Blancs of Chile have become something of a revelation. Now that the vintners are seeking out cool climates such as Casablanca and Leyda Valleys for the variety, the wines display more complex aromatics along with lively acidity and the structure to age for as much as 3-5 years from the finest vintages.
Take the 2008 Sauvignon Blancs from Carmen or the Santa Rita Reserve, both from Casablanca Valley. Both wines offer beautiful spearmint and melon fruit with subtle grassy notes and have very good acidity. The 2008 Medalla Real bottling from Santa Rita is from Leyda, where the estate vineyards are only five miles from the ocean. This has more intensity in the nose (notes of pear and green pepper highlight the aromas) and slightly higher levels of acidity. Other very good to excellent examples from Casablanca include the 2008 Viña Casas del Bosque and the 2008 Morandé Reserva. What makes these wines even more attractive are the prices; all these wines can be found for $16 or less.
There are two special Chilean Sauvignon Blancs I want to mention as well, as these are among the very best I’ve had from the country. First is the Maycas Sauvignon Blanc from the Limarí Valley, which I tasted for the first time on my recent trip when I enjoyed the river shrimp I mentioned earlier. Maycas is a realtively new project of Concha y Toro and based merely on this one wine (there are also bottlings of Maycas Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, all from Limarí), I’d say this is a great project. I tasted the 2007 that day and was blown away by the wine’s aromatics and intensity. From the first smell and sip, you realize you’re dealing with a serious Sauvignon Blanc; the wine offers deeply concentrated aromas of fennel, asparagus and green pepper along with ripe melon and grapefruit- it’s an amazing set of perfumes. Medium-full, the wine has great depth of fruit and striking acidity.
Maycas Sauvignon Blanc
2007 was a great year and sadly that wine is now all but gone from retail shelves. But I am pleased to report that the new 2008 is virtually the equal of the 2007. It’s less herbaceous in character, but with more fruit notes in the aroma and it’s slightly less powerful on the palate, but in terms of complexity, flavor and ability to age (3-5 years), it’s right there with the 2007. These two wines are great evidence that the Maycas Sauvignon Blancs are among the very best Chile has to offer. (Retail price in America is $23, a bit higher than the previously mentioned bottlings, but the Maycas Sauvignon Blanc is worth every penny.)
One other estate I want to focus on regarding Sauvignon Blanc is Casa Marin, owned by Maria Luz Marin, a dynamic woman who has spent many years working with other wines estates in Chile before establishing her own. Her estate is in the San Antonio Valley, a small sub-zone of Leyda; located extremely close to the ocean – one of Marin’s vineyards, Cipresses, is less than two miles from the Pacific; this is a razor’s edge climate.
Laurel and Cipresses Vineyard Sauvignon Blancs of Casa Marin
Some thought Marin was a bit crazy to try and plant vineyards so close to the coast, but she has proven these doubters wrong. She is producing lovely bottlings of Pinot Noir, Syrah (espcially elegant and supple), Riesling and Gewurztraminer, but her best wines year in and year out continue to be her two single vineyard offerings of Sauvignon Blanc, Cipresses and Laurel. The former, as it is from a vineyard closer to the sea, has more herbal, bell pepper and gooseberry notes, while the Laurel is a bit more tame, if you will, with flavors of lime and grapefruit to accompany the peppery notes. The 2008s are out now and they are outstanding wines with vibrant acidity and the structure to age for 3-5 years. These are priced higher than most examples of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc – around $30-$35 a bottle – but they are outstanding examples of how great this country’s white wines have become!
P.S. One other note on the Maycas and that has to do with the labels, which are some of the most creative I’ve ever seen. Maycas is a word from the language of the Quecha people meaning “ariable lands”; the Quecha were the foundation of the Inca Empire, one of South America’s most powerful civilizations. Along with having a beautiful font design, the label is a recreation of a calendar used by the Quecha in which a 10-day week known as a Junka was used as a measure of time. The label features drawings of turquoise counting stones that mark the length of time from grape harvest to final bottling. Neat concept!