Poetry in a Bottle

BY ROBERT CALVERT

He liked to write using green ink, an odd choice for a dedicated Communist like Neruda. Why not use colors traditionally associated with his comrades on the Left—black or blood red? No, he was a poet and a romantic. His ideas flowed best in sustainable green, which was for him the color of hope and desire.

Wine lover that he was, perhaps he should have written in garnet or purple.

Pablo Neruda was and is Chile’s bestknown poet. He died in 1973, and his reputation only has grown since his demise—especially after the release in 1994 of Il Postino, an enchanting Italian film in which a slightly fictionalized Pablo figured prominently.

Although wine drinking was not a theme of the film, Neruda was indeed an oenophile, a poet who wrote that he loved “the light of a bottle of intelligent wine upon a table when people are talking. …”

The climate and soil of Neruda’s native land are ideal for growing wine. Spanish colonists brought vines to Chile as early as the 16th century, though it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that winemakers imported the French varietals that predominate today. Over the centuries Chile has produced lots of good wine for everyday drinking. Since the 1980s, when winemakers began adopting modern technology and seeking counsel from foreign (primarily French) enologists, Chilean wine has become better and better. In addition to lots of tasty, inexpensive wine for quotidian use, Chile now produces many world-class offerings.

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Concha y Toro and Santa Rita probably are the best known of Chile’s many wine enterprises. Chances are you have enjoyed one or more of the moderately priced wines they make for the everyday-drinking market. These large, well-established firms have the resources to invest in winemaking technology and to develop luxurious new brands, which they have done.

Concha y Toro

Concha y Toro (conchaytoro.com) was founded in 1873 by Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro and his wife, Emiliana Subercaseaux. Don Melchor imported grape varietals from Bordeaux to plant his vineyards. Concha y Toro now has holdings in several of Chile’s major wine regions—Maipo, Maule, Navidad, Colchagua, Curicó and Casablanca. The firm has become the largest producer of Latin American wines.

Don Melchor (donmelchor.com) is Concha y Toro’s top-of-the-line wine, grown since the late 1980s in the Puente Alto Vineyard along the Maipo River at the foot of the Andes in the Upper Maipo Valley.

During a recent tasting lunch, Don Melchor winemaker Enrique Tirado explained that the expansive Puente Alto property is divided into more than 100 miniparcels that are tended and harvested separately based on the characteristics of their soils and microclimates. The parcels are grouped into seven large blocks. Six of the blocks are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon; the seventh is planted to Cabernet Franc. Don Melchor includes wine from the six Cabernet blocks, with “each contributing unique qualities.” In some years, the blend also may include a Cabernet Franc component from block seven. Tirado and his team taste the wine from each parcel and then develop their blend for the vintage. Tirado says that his goal is to produce a distinctive wine that “expresses its origin.”

A blend of 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Cabernet Franc, the Don Melchor 2010 ($125) tarried 15 months in French oak barrels on its way to the bottle. It is a deep ruby-red color, slightly translucent around the edges, with a seductive bouquet of blueberries and vanilla. Its lush flavor melds essences of currants, cherries and blueberries with dark chocolate, licorice and vanilla. Tannin is evident but not assertive. This is a soft and generous wine that cannot fail to please.

Santa Rita

Santa Rita (www.santarita.com), founded in the Maipo Valley in 1880, was among the first Chilean wineries to plant European grape varieties. Santa Rita is the second largest vineyard landowner in the country. It has properties in Maipo, Casablanca, Rapel, Apalta, Leyda and Limarí.

Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($85) is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from 40-year-old vines on Santa Rita’s Alto Jauhel estate in the Maipo Valley. Aged in French oak barrels for 16 months before bottling, it is dark in color, with a bouquet of brooding cherries, herbs, eucalyptus and oak. Its flavor is rich and fruity—full of cherries, plums, currants and blackberries with a raspberry highlight. It is opulent and melodious.

The Carménère grape is not well known or appreciated in its native France, where it is used for blending. In Chile, it seems to have been confused with Merlot for a long time. Once Chilean growers realized that the Carménère in their vineyards was in fact not Merlot, they began working out how to cultivate it effectively and bring out its distinctive characteristics. They have been successful. Carménère flourishes in its new home and now is described by some as Chile’s “signature grape.”

The Santa Rita Pehuén Carménère 2007 ($70) is 95 percent Carménère and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Apalta Valley. It is opaque in the glass—even when held directly in front of a candle. Its bouquet has an attractive herbaceous quality. The flavor is herbaceous, too, with elements of green leaves, pepper and black tea providing context to its dark fruit. This is a tasty wine that pairs well with steak. It could be good with stuffed cabbages as well.

Grown in the Maipo Valley, Santa Rita Triple C 2008 ($40) is a blend of 55 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Carménère. The three varietals were vinified separately and stored in barrels of French oak for 17 months before they were blended and bottled. A rich garnet color, the Triple C offers up a forceful bouquet of herbs, pepper and minerals. In the mouth, flavors of currants and blueberries predominate, augmented by violets, bitter chocolate, tea, green leaves and mincemeat pie. There is a certain eloquent rusticity to this wine—a sense of dark soil and robust, sturdy flavors. It cries out to be paired with hearty beef dishes.

In Conclusion

Pablo Neruda summed things up very well: “Wine, smooth as a golden sword, soft as lascivious velvet, wine, spiral-seashelled and full of wonder, amorous, marine; never has one goblet contained you, one song, one man, you are choral, gregarious, at the least, you must be shared.”

Let us share.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert at RBCalvert@att.net.