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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

In search of Terroir: Chile's Vina Undurraga

Terroir is a uniquely French concept, meaning the combination of soil, altitude, aspect, rainfall and just about eveything which makes the local climate suitable or otherwise for growing vines. Indeed, the whole French system of wine classification is based on the concept of terroir - Pauillac and the Côte d'Or are places, not grape varieties.

The New World, by contrast, tends to focus as much, if not more, on grape variety and for that reason, one tends to speak of Aussie Shiraz or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. However, it was only a matter of time before more forward-thinking winemakers from the New World began to look more closely at the area where the grapes are grown and start to delineate growing areas more precisely, identifying those which produce better wines.

Such a man is Rafael Urrejola, chief winemaker of Chile's Vina Undurraga; the winery was founded in 1885 but has only recently started to focus on the concept of terroir under Rafael's leadership with his "Terroir Hunter" project.

Rafael presented his wines at the newly-established St John's Chop House on Northampton Street in central Cambridge and the event was organised by Cambridge Wine Merchants.

With just one exception, all the wines Rafael presented were from his Terroir Hunter series and what became clear over the tasting is that there are indeed distinct characteristics discernible in the wines from the different terroirs - or micro-terroirs, as each wine was from an area of fewer than 5 hectares. To put it crudely, the wines from Leyda tend to have more fruit on the nose, but are more delicate on the palate, whilst the Casablanca wines are somewhat muted on the nose but richer and stronger on the palate.

Chile is a long, thin strip of a country snaking down the western side of South America - not much over 100 miles wide, its geography is complex, but in simple terms it has the Andes to the west, the Antarctic to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the east (with its cooling breezes) and finally the Atacama desert to the north. Add into this differing soil types washed down the valleys of the Andes, and a lower-lying coastal mountain range giving some shelter from the cooling sea breezes and the variety of terroirs and micro-terroirs is immense.

All the wines were relatively young, mostly from 2008, and all were in screw-cap bottles and were poured without decanting; as a result, many developed significantly in the glass and first impressions needed revisiting after a few minutes airing and swirling.

We started with the Brut Royal, a sparkling wine fermented in tank, rather than using the traditional (and more expensive) Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. It was fruity, refreshing and well-balanced.

Next up was a trio of Sauvignon Blancs from Casablanca, Leyda and Abarca respectively. The first was the most typically "Chilean" of the three, with lots of zesty, ripe tropical fruit, whilst the Leyda Sauvignon had a very herbaceous nose and the Abarca tasted as if it had been barrel fermented, having a muted nose but a generous, minerally mouth-feel on the palate. Rafael explained that the style of the wine is due not to barrel fermentation, but to the effect of cooling breezes from the Pacific, so the grapes ripen more slowly and do not achieve quite the same level of ripeness as they would in warmer climates.

The last of the whites was an oaked Chardonnay from Limari - initially, this was very oaky tasting of buttered crumpets and mixed spice matched with good acidity, but after opening up it became a much more balanced and complex wine. The "Burgundian" section of the tasting continued with two Pinot Noirs which, again, highlighted the differences between Leyda and Casablanca; the first having a typical Pinot nose with cherries and a distinct vegetal or farmyard note, whilst the second was fuller, with more complexity on the palate.

Finally, there were two Syrahs - one from Limari and the other from Maipo. Both wines had lots of fruit, hints of spicy white pepper and a very smooth texture, and again the Limari, being from a cooler climate, was lighter with more red fruit on the nose. By contrast the Maipo was richer and fuller with black fruits; it was for me, the most enjoyable wine of the evening and has even earned a nod from Oz Clarke.

The Wines (all available from Cambridge Wine Merchants)

Undurraga Brut Royal NV (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca 2008 (£10.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Leyda 2007 (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Abarca 2008 (£10.99)
2008 Decanter International Trophy Winner
TH Chardonnay Limari 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Leyda 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Casablanca 2008 (£13.99)
TH Syrah Limari 2007 (£12.99)
TH Syrah Maipo 2006 (£9.99)
Best 250 wines by Oz Clarke

Undurraga - http://www.undurraga.cl/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
St John's Chop House - http://www.chophouses.co.uk/StJohnsChopHouse/index.html

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