Tastings in London and Ireland: A Contrast of Flavors
After a few days in London and Dublin, our magazine’s journalist Eduardo Brethauer returned with mixed feelings. He believes Chile produces the type of wines European consumers want, but unfortunately it has been unable or simply does not know how to convey their attributes. He does not understand that the exuberant fruit is not reflected in the promotional campaigns.
London looks just the same as the last time I was here. Despite the attacks on the Underground, the ambiance remains calm. Surely, the security systems are operating, but nobody seems to notice them. I do not feel observed. Unlike the Americans, the British are not willing to give up their freedom for a tightened security so easily. The job of the police officers and guards is respectful, not invasive. “Except when they shoot you,” someone points out. The truth is that freedom permeates every aspect of life. From the great racial diversity living in the same city to the enormous cultural and commodity offer. Here, wines from the four corners of the world coexist, trying to win a place on the shelves. Freedom of choice is a right, and in London the possibilities are endless. In this sense, London must be one of the capitals offering the greatest freedom in the world. If you can afford to pay for it, of course.
Out of the numerous gastronomic possibilities, we opt for a trendy restaurant on High Street. TAS Restaurant is completely packed. The only table available is right next to the kitchen. The menu is quite varied. We order Patlican Biber Kizartma (Fried aubergine, red & green peppers served with tomato sauce and fresh yogurt) and Humus Kavurma (Lamb meat, pine kernels, paprika with humus), and a bottle of Champagne Bouche Père et Fils Cuvée Réservée Brut. “Cheers”, I say. Turkish cuisine is deliciously full of subtleties, just like the questions from a fellow wine writer. “So, what’s new?” he asks. “New terroirs, new varieties, new blends…” He stares at me and asks the same question again. We then decide to order the entrees. Kuzu Tandir (Finely oven cooked lamb served with herbs) and Pirasali Kofte (Minced lamb kebab on skewers and served on pan fried leek). Anything to drink? Wine, of course. The wine list features 14 whites, including one Turkish bottling from the Nevsehir winery, and 13 reds. The only Chilean wine is a Veramonte Merlot from the Maipo Valley. We opt for a Côtes du Rhône Gentilhomme from Ogier, a Pinot Noir that maintained its dignity when paired with the spicy sauces and the chatting. “Wines of Chile reopened its London office, they caught the attention of the trade, wine writers began writing about your wines again; now, I presume, comes the new phase of the campaign,” he says. “Are you having more Pirasali?” I ask. “Where is your wine industry really aiming at? Is your offer any different from that of Australia or South Africa? “What’s your next move?,” he bombards me. Check, please. Tomorrow is Wines of Chile’s Annual Trade Tasting, and we need to get up early.
In Latin American countries, Tuesday 13th is bad luck day. Fortunately, we are thousands of miles away. Most Chilean wineries have already set up their stands. Almost one hundred wineries have responded to Wines of Chile’s call. Some of them have placed a notice on their counters that reads “Seeking for representation”. The rest are behind the counter with their importers, pouring glass after glass as they explain the attributes of their product portfolio. I decide to go on a reconnaissance tour. Everything seems in order. I give out some complimentary magazines. The rest of the issues stay by the entrance, together with Decanter, Drink Business and Harpers. “It’s right out of the vat. The quality remains unchanged, but this year it features less malolactic so as to allow the contents to gain in freshness,” I tell Adolfo Hurtado. “Is that a metaphor?,” inquires the manager of Cono Sur.
The trade representatives begin to swarm. Michael Cox looks pleased. The representative of Wines of Chile in the United Kingdom explains that all the figures are on the rise. “We need to show the trade that Chile is a bit different, a bit special… We need to escape the unidimensional approach to be able to communicate that the Chilean wine offer is both varied and exciting,” he says.
Many characters amble through the hall. Some are familiar faces, like Oz Clark or Jancis Robinson, but most are anonymous individuals who stop by the different stands to taste the wines. The scene is complicated. Most vintners can’t decide whether to go to extremes to please them and put up with their grimaces when a reserve is excessively woody or the tannins are still a bit hard, or to give them a short yet emotional ceremony before getting ready for the next visitor. Despite the fierce competition, there is absolute comradeship between the representatives from the different wineries, some of which are taking their first steps in the British market. Others are on the lookout for new representatives, either dissatisfied with the results or because their agent has dumped them for another… winery. Many importers work with only one Chilean bodega, so there is always a long line waiting for a chance to topple them. The relationship between the wineries and their importers is like that of every married couple. At times, the goals coincide and each one takes on different tasks in efforts to grow and consolidate together. But on occasion such relationship can become turbulent. Mistrust, jealousy, frustration. There are good importers who adjust to the infrastructure and targets of the bottlings they represent, but there are others that expect the best of retributions for the least effort. If there is no bottle turnout, they simply leave with somebody else.
I need a coffee. A very strong one. At the end of the hall we do not only find snacks; there are also several tables to hold meetings. Many are empty, which is a bad omen. There’s something about Valdivieso’s winemaker that calls my attention. He seems to have undergone a makeover, but no, he had an accident and is wearing a collar. I run into Cristián Sotomayor, export manager of the winery, and ask him whatever happened to their winemaker. “I believe Brett has done a great job at the winery and does not deserve such treatment,” I joke. Mr Sotomayor nods in agreement. At Valdivieso, the picture is quite clear. Fed up with the tyranny of the retailers, they removed all their wines from the shelves. The unilateral increase of the margins together with a constant promotional policy made the relationship impossible. “Just enter the numbers in the calculator,” says Mr Sotomayor. Following in the footsteps of other wineries like TerraMater, Valdivieso will focus on the on trade exclusively, and the prospects are very auspicious.
The tasting event is also an opportunity to become familiar with the wineries’ latest releases: jewels that have just hit the market, or vat and barrel samples awaiting some feedback before locking themselves up inside a bottle. The time has come to put the camera away and raise the glasses. Covering everything is impossible, therefore we need to concentrate on curious bottlings or grand premieres. Many wineries make the mistake of pressing the wine writers. They put their entire varietal, reserve and premium range on the table, that is, all their arsenal. To quote an enologist with vast experience in this type of events, the idea is to attack with one type of wine only. In other words, a spearhead that later on will allow us to gain ground in the critic’s palate. “Jancis, how are you? I’d like to show you one single wine, something really special with which we plan to develop a whole new line. I’m very interested in what you have to say.” That’s it. That’s enough. Personally, I set my sights on one goal: to take a tour through all the Syrahs from cold valleys. Matetic EQ 2004, Falernia Alta Tierra 2004 and… a barrel sample from Casa Marín… The latter is one of the best-kept secrets of the tasting, so I beg you not to comment it with anyone. These are three Syrahs that share the marine breeze but in different styles. “It’s incredible. In Chile we find extraordinary Syrahs in Aconcagua, Maipo, Colchagua… Also in recent times in San Antonio, Limarí and Elqui,” I tell wine writer Christine Austin, who only nods with an accomplice smile. “I love the variety’s versatility; in Chile its future looks simply spectacular,” I comment enthusiastically. Honestly. I’m impressed at the consistency it has achieved in our country. If only the Aussies had not made it their own…
I haven’t eaten a thing and feel a bit dizzy. I run into Peter Richards. “So, when is your book on Chilean wines due?,” I ask him abruptly. The wine writer smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
My goal of only concentrating on cold climate Syrahs fails, and I end up tasting several new lines. I’m not hard to convince. I decide to examine the offer of Geo Wines.
After losing its participation in Casa Rivas, the biodynamic clan under the leadership of Álvaro Espinoza not only retains the accounts of VOE, Leyda and Pargua; it has also developed proprietary brands like Rayún, Cucao and Chono.
This is a good chance for me to taste the wines from a bodega hitherto not in my records: Doña Javiera. Thanks to the advisory services of Felipe de Solminihac and Eduardo Silva, the reds of this Maipo winery are destined for foreign markets exclusively. I greet Patrick Valette and end up tasting the wines from the wineries he provides his services to: TerraMater’s Unusual line, Bouchon’s reds, Morandé’s new brand Vistamar… “Patrick, how many Chilean wineries are in your client portfolio?,” I ask him. The advisor must still be counting them.
The wineries have already packed their materials. The faces look tired but satisfied. Some winemakers taste the wines made by their colleagues. Incredible as it may sound, in London, thousands of miles away from their wineries, the wines seem much closer together. The invitations for the evening’s celebration are delivered. Winemaker Felipe Tosso gives me one of those allocated to Ventisquero. The dinner party will begin in a couple of hours. Most of the vintners have been accommodated a few blocks away, but that is not my case. By the time I arrive, dinner is already over. I ask for a cold Austral beer and sit down to see how the representatives from the different Chilean wineries dance to the Latin beat of a London DJ. Friendship and joy, sheer surrealism. I am then introduced to the agents of Tarapacá in the United Kingdom. Their names: Joy and Felicity. I just can’t believe it. Chilean wines are becoming more and more amusing. Why then can’t we convey this same joy, mystic and nice spirit during tasting events?, I think as I leave for Dublin.
After a long story of conflicts, deprivation and unbelievable migration rates, today Ireland is Europe’s new shining star. After sinking to the lowest possible point as an eminently fishing and agricultural society, it placed all its tokens on the technological, pharmaceutical and tourist industries, in a move that has resulted in impressive growth rates. Nevertheless, and despite the difficulties, the Irish have never lost their passion for life. The streets of Dublin feature the same two-story brick constructions we find in London, but unlike the British capital, each door has been painted in a different color, radiating an extroverted personality that contrasts with the sometimes somber London tone. Somehow stubborn and with a proverbial drinking capacity, it is hard to understand how Dubliners accepted the law forbidding smoking in all public areas. The measure caused drink consumption in pubs and restaurants to drop by almost 10%, but today people are gradually returning to their usual pub stools. Smoke-free, and with wine consumption figures on a sustained rise, Ireland has become one of our most faithful markets, hence the need to protect it, especially now that its inhabitants are undergoing a colorful sophistication process.
Unlike our assignment in London, our Dublin tasting is focalized. The invitation is restricted only to those wineries seeking an importer in Ireland. The verdict: 13 wineries in one of the Stillorgan Hotel’s meeting rooms; 12, after the defection of Indómita Wines, which apparently experienced some difficulty with its wines. With the debut of Jean Smullen as director of Wines of Chile in Ireland, the tasting begins slowly and, unfortunately, ends up in much the same way. Wines of Chile had already warned its associates. “Do not expect too much; Dublin is not like London,” but nobody seemed to take the warning too seriously.
On the same avenue, a few blocks away from the Chileans, the Coonawarra producers are holding their own tasting at the St. Helen’s Radisson Hotel. I get there when everybody was already at the table. “I’m sorry, but we weren’t expecting you,” says John Mc Donell, the representative of Wine Australia. “But don’t worry,” he adds as he ushers me to a long counter across from some twenty labels: Rymill, Hollick, Wynns, Majella, Penley, Balnaves, Petaluma, Highbank. The lineup ranges from discrete Rieslings to strong and sweet Cabernet Sauvignons. It seems like a déjà vu. I strike a conversation with the owner of Hollick, and his words sound surprisingly familiar, just like those I hear in Chile. “We want to show the fruit and the unique characteristics of the Coonawarra terroir. We are focusing on the production of very fruity and balanced quality wines,” he explains. “I understand that 2001 was one of the hottest years in recent history. How do you achieve that balance and freshness in your reds?,” I ask maliciously. “People have got a totally wrong idea. The higher temperatures occur in January, but the rest of the summer is rather temperate. Our fruit ripens slowly, developing a multitude of aromas while retaining a rich acidity,” he explains. No, this can’t be true. I seem to have heard this somewhere else. I taste a Winns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 once again. The wine appears alive, complex and interesting. Unlike their Chilean peers, the Aussies are less shy on tartaric. Less shy in every respect, actually.
Back to reality. In the Chilean tasting there have been two more casualties. Château Los Boldos and Falernia are no longer there.
I sit down and think about the gigantic contrast between both tasting events. At the Chilean one, visitors spit the wine. At the Australian one, they swallow it and talk about it. This reminds of the movie “Four weddings and a funeral”, except that in this case I’m lacking three weddings. “The Australians sure know how to do things,” comments a winemaker. “Their tasting is a very festive, informal and nice luncheon party. They create a relaxed atmosphere where you can really get to know and deepen your relationship with the trade fellows. On this other side we look like nerds, all stuck up, waiting for somebody to approach our table,” he adds.
Another winemaker comes up to me to comment how surprised he is that Jean Smullen shows no interest in trying the Chilean wines. “If she’s going to be our representative in Ireland, it seems only natural that she should take this opportunity to learn more about Chilean wines, especially considering that the place is deserted,” he says. Tension begins to build up, but nothing happens. Winemakers take things easy and taste their colleagues’ wines. Ricardo Letelier makes a brief balance of the event. He counts some thirty visitors. Not bad. We will study this further. Wines of Chile’s general manager admits some aspects still deserve attention, like boosting the industry’s image with mega posters or some other device. It is also a question of better informing the Chilean wineries that before coming to these tastings, they need to do some work, scheduling meetings with potential importers and probing the Irish market and its many opportunities.
Jean Smullen invites us to the hottest wine bar in Dublin, an upscale restaurant with a beefed up wine list. The Chilean delegation sits at two tables on the first floor next to a fireplace and the exit door. We are by ourselves, so we can talk freely. Another dining room and the restrooms are located in the basement. There the atmosphere is absolutely festive. The place is packed full. Next to the table of the Coonawarra producers, a parade of pretty and elegant Irish girls takes place. Everything is laughter, toasting… and an endless procession of the Chileans to the facilities. This time, Australia is several steps under us, but, of course, this is the place to be.
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