Chile Day One: Sol de Sol

This is our first week back after ten days in South America and while I did my best to document the visit real-time on Facebook/Twitter, I hope that the blog will provide a more deliberate forum to share my experience abroad. In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I am a hopeless, old-world snob. Honestly, heading into the trip I was thinking “I can’t wait to see South America, but what the hell am I going to drink for ten days.” By the time we left Newark I was completely resigned to drinking Pisco Sours but thankfully my snobbish preconceptions were promptly contradicted on our first night in Santiago (although, for the record, there was no shortage of Pisco Sours).

We landed early in the morning on Monday, September 20th and had no winery visits on the agenda. Even without setting foot in a vineyard, this may have been the day most instrumental in changing my perception of Chilean wine. That night we had dinner in downtown Santiago with Felipe de Solminihac of Sol de Sol.

Sol de Sol is located in the Malleco Valley, about as far south as grapes will grow in Chile. With its latitude below that of New Zealand, no one had attempted to plant grapes in such a cool climate and no appellation existed for the wines. After carefully studying the growing season, Felipe decided that the area would be perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The average temperature was about the same as Burgundy, the Willamette Valley and New Zealand, Felipe explained. The advantage that Chile enjoyed over these classic regions was lack of rain during the harvest. As any Burgundy lover can attest, wet summers have washed out the hopes of many Cote d’Or vignerons in previous decades.

In 2002 Felipe brought a bottle of his new Chardonnay to Chile’s agriculture minister, hoping to secure it an appellation. With over 95% of the country’s output sold on the export market it is imperative that producers be able to put a sanctioned growing area on the label, regardless of how unknown it might be. As the story goes, the government official loved it and added the Malleco Valley to the list of Chile’s appellations.

We were all eager to taste the wines after such an intriguing introduction. Unfortunately, the first sample poured was a rosé of Cabernet sourced from a completely different area, much further north. I barely took a tasting note and, looking back at it now, it’s not suitable for this blog anyway.

The fireworks began when the 2009 Chardonnay was poured. Fermented exclusively in French Oak, only 5% of which is new, the nose quickly transported me to Burgundy. Subtle oak spice mixed with tart green apples and pears. The finish was mineral driven and reminiscent of Puligny-Montrachet. Its rich mouthfeel and refreshing acidity revealed its food-friendly nature.

The Pinot Noir came next and was equally impressive.  While it was decidedly more new worldly, its complexities taunted us as if to say “I told you there was great wine in Chile.” Murmurs of “forest floor,” “mushrooms” and “bacon fat” could be heard around the table. Bright red cherries and beautiful acidity spoke to its cool climate upbringing.

Sol de Sol only began to scratch the surface of what was to come but provided the perfect entree into the diversity of Chile. Generalizations, whether they be about climate, winemaking style or vineyard practices are nearly impossible in a country that spans over 2500 miles along the Pacific. Sol de Sol’s Chardonnay ripens so slowly that they harvest it a full two months before their countrymen closer to the equator. This certainly complicates the question of when the Chileans harvest. The answer, as we would come to find, depends on where you are.

– Will Sugerman

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