A journey through the realm of glory

Wednesday, 07 March 2018 10:46

Six Nations Wine Challenge held every year in the city of Sydney is the place to be for the best wines of the New World that compete against each other for trophies and medals. The following pages tell the story of a humble aromatic wine from Itata that crossed the Pacific Ocean to play all or nothing.

I was really tense, even a bit sweaty. The label too snug against my bottle. I felt the pressure of representing Chile at the Six Nations Wine Challenge, and having a face-off with some of the best wines of the New World. To make things worse, I’m scared of flying. Maybe I’m not used to it. It was only recently that Chile started valuing my attributes and sending me to other markets. Truth be said, having a humble Muscatel from Itata cross the Pacific was one big adventure. To my dismay, just before leaving I learned that a courier had mistakenly shipped a US wine to Austria instead of Australia because the label on the box read AUS.

Measuring my worth against other aromatic whites from the New World seemed an impossible deed. I do not question the expertise and skills of the judges, but would they be able to understand my humble, sweet and even rustic character? Would I be able to compete against the overwhelming freshness of Canadian Viognier? Or the depth of New Zealand Gewürztraminer? Or the new generation of American Pinot Gris? I had my doubts, but there was no turning back. I was already on board.

THE ARRIVAL

My arrival in Sydney was uneventful. The flight was quite pleasant and I even had the chance to see a breathtaking sunset over Antarctica. What a big contrast with the wild landscape of Itata, where grapevines become exhausted during the summer months. My travel docs were in order. I’m in, I thought. And I felt lucky when I learned that some of the contestants were deported because they were lacking some goddamned paper. Upon landing I learned that the great Michael Fridjhon –one of South Africa’s big names– had suffered an accident and could not travel. I was really sorry for him. His long experience with those old Chenin Blancs from Swartland that highlight the flavors and rusticity of the variety could have favored me during jury deliberations.

Then I was rushed to a warehouse. A team composed of some of Australia’s best sommeliers took me out of the box and assigned me number 21. I am not at all superstitious but, just in case, I did some math. 2+1=3. 3 is the number of artists, creativity, communication, the affirmation of life and the power of adaptation. What a great number, I thought. I was totally relieved and optimistic.

In the darkness of the warehouse, and among a thousand other bottles, I could not resist to engage in some juicy gossip. For example, I heard that Eduardo Brethauer, the jury representing Chile, had allegedly arrived a few days earlier. Nobody knew exactly where he was, but rumor had it that he was preparing himself physically and mentally to rise to the challenge of tasting 600 wines in just 3 days. Then I heard that none of this was true and that he was just having fun at some of Sydney’s best eateries and strolling along the coastal stretch that links the famous Coogee and Bondi beaches. What a sacrifice! I knew he was a big advocate of Itata wines –not in vain he himself chose me for the trip– but I kind of missed his visit. I needed some shoulder patting before judgment day. I only saw him a few days later. He apologized saying that the competition rules forbid juries from visiting the wines before tasting them.

THE COMPETITION

T he big day finally arrived. I was very nervous. I was awaiting my turn side by side with some true stars like Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut 2009, Spy Valley Envoy Riesling 2011, Astrolabe Awatere Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Stellenrust 51 Chenin Blanc 2015. But I remained undaunted. I decided I had to prove my worth so I started flexing some muscles and stretching up to look as tall as possible. So much so that the bottle almost cracked. My strength was once again put to the test when I heard the judges’ comments about some of the categories. They were really delighted with the quality of the Chardonnays assessed, perhaps the longest and most exciting lineups in the competition. “Bad omen”, I thought to myself. Looks like Chard is back in the charts. Gone are the days where consumers preferred the most atypical whites under the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) slogan.

Something similar happened with the Sauvignon Blanc round. Although these wines lack the sublime elegance of Chardonnay, the sample was very solid yet totally predictable. The smile in Bob Campbell’s face, Master of Wine from New Zealand, confirmed some of my fears. This judge is very picky about wine freshness and depth. Will I measure up? How can I show my other attributes? I shouted as loud as I could, but nobody seemed to hear me. The great Australian journalist Huon Hooke even seemed to make fun at me. Whitehaven Gewürztraminer 2016 was standing next to me and explained in its kiwi accent that Mr Huon only spoke after a long Syrah session, proudly showing the anthocyanins and tannins of what must have been the event’s most consistent flight.

And the comments continued: great reviews for Riesling and Pinot Noir, and some surprises like the Other Reds category. Nobody seemed to expect much from such a dissimilar class that included varieties like Grenache, Touriga Nacional and Nero D’Avola.“A very nice sample”, sentenced California-based judge Patrick Comiskey, author of “American Rhône”. White and Bordeaux blends were not so lucky. The latter category is always difficult to taste. Having 60 wines on the table, all of them with live and fiery tannins, is quite a challenge. No wonder many critics in the New World are against Bordeaux and increasingly embrace Mediterranean varieties.

D-DAY

My time has finally come. Without spilling one single drop, the dexterous sommelier poured me in the five jury counters. Many wines turned up their noses in disdain, especially a Kiwi called Johanneshof Gewürztraminer 2015, who bragged about its pristine flowers and crystalline minerality. Christopher Waters, the Canadian judge, sniffed me not once, but twice. He took me to his mouth and swirled me around. Then he spit me out furiously. He uttered no sound at all but wrote something down in his evaluation sheet. I stretched my neck, trying to make out what he had written but could not get a thing. Maybe I should take some English lessons when I get back home. I could only see a number but could not figure whether it started with an 8 or a 3.

Eduardo Brethauer, in whom I had placed all my hopes, smelled me discreetly and took the glass to his mouth. He slowly savored each one of my molecules. Then he spit me out into a communal aluminum bucket. He seemed to toss a smile, but maybe it was just his usual irony. We all know him, after all. I only felt reassured when, after tasting all the other contestants, he came back to me. Just like that. I had a new chance and simply could not blow it. I held my breath for a moment and then expelled all my floral, citrus and spicy aromas. I hope it was enough.

THE VERDICT

R oss Anderson, the new president of the Six Nations Wine Challenge, opened a few beers to refresh the judges’ throats after three strenuous days of tasting. “How cheap”, I thought. Why don’t they uncork a Muscatel? Mr Anderson announced the list of winning countries. Once again New Zealand beat the rest by far. What an incredible consistency. Its wines are more and more like the All Blacks, simply unstoppable! For many of us, the country was synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc. But this year it even reaped some awards with its ever-fresh Syrahs, Pinot Noirs and sparklers.

“This year again competition was tough. Truly, no other wine competition is quite like this one. Year after year, wine categories show continuous improvement. Shiraz was one of the dominant classes, closely followed by Sparklers and other red varieties,” I heard Chairman Huon Hooke say.

Comments about me? Not a single one. I felt devastated. I had to wait for over a month until individual results were disclosed during a very elegant and massive award ceremony held at the Four Seasons Sydney. The Wine of Show and White Wine of Show awards went to the Australian Zanadu Reserve Chardonnay 2015, while the Red Wine of Show went to the New Zealand Elephant Hill Reserve Syrah 2014. Unfortunately, Chile performed disappointingly, showing that we still have tremendous weaknesses in those categories where we should be strongest, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, the two engines that pull our export train.

Our Carmenères did quite well this year. They did not get the best wine award, but they did win the category. A bloody Kiwi Merlot took the number 1 spot by just a few hundredths of a point. Red blends also rose to the occasion, obtaining various medals in different metals. But, oh surprise, aromatic wines stood the test without anyone having the least expectation. And how did I do? you may be wondering. Well, I won G O L D! How’ bout that? Yes, a peasant wine like me, from the depths of Itata straight on to the big markets of Australia and Asia. An attendee who looked like a 19th century lord had examined my label in detail. I took a deep breath and shouted at the top of my lungs:Hooray for Itata...Hooray for Chile, you sucker!