Sunday, September 26, 2010

Syrah - Chile's Latest Success Story

The Chilean wine industry has a lot of positives going for it these days, even if most of us don't hear much about it. I've stated before that the people who market these wines - both in Chile and in America and other countries - need to do a better job letting consumers know what classy wines are emerging from the country's wine regions these days.

Thankfully, the vintners are doing the necessary work, as they finding the best sites that are well suited to particular varieties. The days of Chile being most associated with $8-$10 Central Valley wines are long gone, as the producers have learned to realize the beauty of their climate when working with a variety of wine grapes. I think most of us are familiar with the gorgeous Cabernets - especially those from the Maipo Valley- that run anywhere from $18-$60 (or even slightly higher), but over the past decade, the country's wine industry has developed into a complex one, capable of producing beautifully crafted wines from Carmenere, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

These last two are of course, cool climate varieties and while Pinot Noir is still largely a work in progress throughout Chile, there have been dazzling bottlings of Sauvignon Blancs from cool zones such as Casablanca Valley, Leyda and San Antonio Valleys near the ocean as well as Limarí and a few select sites in Colchagua. A few of the finest bottlings from producers such as Casa Marin, Garces-Silva (Amayna), Maycas del Limarí, Matetic (EQ) and Leyda Vineyards have made Chile into one of the world's finest Sauvignon Blanc territories.

Now Syrah is starting to become an important variety in Chile as well. I recently tasted two bottlings that are proof that this country can do more than produce ripe, forward reds; these wines also display excellent complexity as well as beautiful structure. I am referring to the 2008 Maycas del Limarí and the 2008 Casa Marin "Miramar Vineyard."

The Maycas wines are a relatively new project from Concha y Toro, Chile's largest winery. They have committed to the Limarí valley, located very close to the Pacific Ocean, quite a ways north of Santiago. The winery is working with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and each variety is displaying the acidity you would expect in a cool climate. This acidity is the focal point for me, as it not only cleanses the palate (especially beneficial with the tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon), it also preserves the freshness and brightness of the fruit and helps achieve an overall harmony.

To date, the Sauvignon Blanc from Maycas has been my favorite; this wine in the two vintages I have tasted to date (2007 and 2008) has the vibrancy and concentration of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc; I would rate this as one of the three or four best examples of this variety in all of Chile. I am also quite pleased with the Maycas Cabernet Sauvignon, which comes off quite a bit different than the wonderful bottlings from the Maipo Valley. The Maycas cool climate Cab has lively acidity and bright fruit and while not as soft and as approachable as its Maipo counterparts, it has impeccable balance.

The Syrah is again defined largely by its acidity. The sunshine is plentiful in Chile, so Syrah is not a difficult grape to ripen in most regions of the country. This has lead to some pretty lush, unctious versions that are pleasing upon first taste, but often don't drink well afterwards. That's not a problem with the Maycas wine; my notes for the current 2008 bottling focus on the cassis, black plum and anise flavors along with its ideal ripeness and acidity as well as its nicely integrated oak. This is approachable now, but it really needs a bit of time to settle down- try it in 3-5 years. (At $22 retail, this is a fine value.)

Maria Luz Marin, Casa Marin, San Antonio Valley
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At Casa Marin, Maria Luz Marin was one of the first producers to work with grapes from the tiny sub-zone of the San Antonio Valley, part of the Leyda Valley appellation. Marin's estate is very close to the Pacific Ocean, with the vineyards located anywhere from two to four miles from the coast, meaning very cool temperatures, which in turn, provide proper acidity and structure to the wines.

To date, Marin has earned much of her acclaim for her two briiliant single vineyard releases of Sauvignon Blanc: Cipresses and Laurel (I recently tasted the newly released 2009 Laurel, which is a rich and as complex as any bottling she has made to date). Now her Syrah from the Miramar Vineyard has reached new heights as well, not only for her but for the Chilean wine industry.

The 2008 has dried cherry fruit and a nice earthiness throughout; this is definitely more in a Rhone-style. Medium-full with a generous mid-palate and beautiful texture, the wine has very good acidity and round, gentle tannins. Overall, the wine is impeccably balanced with outstanding complexity. This is an outstanding wine and a reminder that Chile can produce elegant, seductive reds - it's not all about power and ripeness. (Look for this wine to drink well for 5-7 years; the price is $50.)

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