Santa Rita—among Chile’s most beatified producers—has stuffed my stocking with an quartet of wines that should make the naughtiest holiday party a little bit nicer.
And ideally, the other way around.
Chile’s history of wine production dates to the 16th century when colonists under the Spanish crown of Castile introduced European grape varieties to the fertile plains between the Patagonian ice fields and the the Atacama Desert and found a viticultural paradise superior to anything Europe could offer. Topping the wish list of every vine is a consistent and benevolent climate and Chile—where natural borders combine with sunny summers and cool winters, where a mosaic of well-drained soils are easily irrigated from Andean melt water, where the relatively isolation of its coordinates have allowed it to remain phylloxera-free, even while the rest of the world was ravaged by the vine-killing root louse—has it to spare.
What Chile lacked for most of its viticultural history is fairly basic: A cohesive marketing plan. During the Spanish rule, Chileans were required to import most of their wine from Spain, and at several points, the Spanish monarchy, enraged at the continued proliferation of excellent local wines despite the mandate, ordered Chilean vines uprooted—an order that the people ignored as heartily. Wineries continued to flourish, and when the industry was damaged by a 1641 edict banning the import of Chilean wine into Spain, the people shrugged, continued to drink it themselves and distilled the surplus into Pisco.
Another break with the motherland has been the relative scarcity of Spanish varietals in Chile; in the early days, plantings were predominately ‘the black grape’ known as Pais and a Madeira-like dessert wine made from Muscatel. By the mid-1800s, Bordeaux, with her elegant châteaux and muscular wines, was seen as a business model by wealthy chilenos, who believed that the je ne sais quoi of Bordeaux’s aura could be transplanted along with the Cabernet, Merlot—and noteably, Carménère—rootstocks. What grew up instead, along with the self-rooting vines, was an entirely new aura—one that blends tradition with aristocracy with a certain untouchable Latino sabor—and produces wines as unique and succulent as any in the world.
I Want My Maipo
Santa Rita joined the procession in 1880 when Domingo Fernandez set up shop in the Maipo Valley. The winery grew over the next century, focusing on Bordeaux grapes and expanding its landholdings into all the top Chilean appellations, including Casablanca, Parel, Apalta, Lyda and Limari. Purchased in 1980 by Ricardo Claro, Santa Rita was named 2008’s ‘Winery of the Year’ by Wine & Spirits Magazine, honored not only for its consistently top-flight portfolio, but for the range of superlatives at every price point.
Indeed, Chile has been lauded for the affordability of its wine selection; relatively inexpensive land and labor has allowed many wineries to produce strikingly delicious wines for prices low enough to raise eyebrows, first in suspicion, then in delight. Los Vascos—Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild’s venture into Colchagua—has routinely released Bordeaux-quality blends for under ten dollars a bottle. This may be as big a bane as it is a blessing—the price-bar for Chilean wine is set so low that most Americans sniff at the idea of paying a high two-figures for an exuberant Chilean wine of a quality that may outstrip a like-priced Bordeaux (where fifty or sixty dollars a bottle is about entry-level for a decent taste of the appellation).
Of the bottles that showed up in my wish list this year, one (Pehuén Carménère, 2007) retails for around seventy dollars and one (Triple C, 2010) for forty. The whites, a Chardonnay and a very Graves-tasting Sauvignon Blanc, are around $18 a bottle. These are, to a glass, superb examples of the ‘ultra-premium’ wines that Chile is capable of producing—a category that Santa Rita tends to dominate.
Each represents a niche in the upscale Chilean market: Carménère taken to the next level; a pampered a Bordeaux blend from the Big Three of Chile’s ‘C’-word varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Carménère; a mineral-laden Sauvignon Blanc styled after whites from the gravelly Left Bank of the Garonne; and finally, a Burgundian Chardonnay that undergoes a bâtonnage regimen similar to the ones used by top houses in order to encourage reductive (as opposed to oxidative) reactions in the barrel.
And, trust me on this, boys and girls: Whether you’re naughty or nice, there’s not a poutable potable among them.
Classy and grassy, the wine’s nose is filled with multiple layers of fresh hay, grapefruit, cool stones and a touch of mint. Almond notes that are typical of white Bordeaux are restrained, but appear more pronounced in the foreground of the palate and again on the finish, accompanied by grapefruit pith, pear, green apple and a core of mineral.
Santa Rita Medalla Real Chardonnay, 2012
An aroma of lemon butter and creamy apple compote intermingles with light fresh flowers; the flavor foundation is a blazing spine of acid, and on it, green apple, citrus, and subdued oak spice to finish.
Tightly controlled yields—two tons per acre—add to the concentration of flavors.
Brooding black ink in the glass, scents rise reminiscent of eucalyptus and dusty blackberry with a bit of black pepper; the fruit held a bit in check, still sheathed in a tight tannic package, but opens slowly in the glass, showing bitter chocolate, more black fruit, tobacco leaf and some sweet vanilla. Wine finishes long with puckery wood sensations and bright, elevating acidity.
The wine, though advertising three varieties, in fact contains only trace levels of Carménère; it’s primarily Cabernet Franc with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Santa Rita Pehuén, 2007
A bouquet of subtle, elegant, almost subterranean power; peppery spice flashes across ripe blueberry core and buds with complexity when the glass is allowed an hour to open and aerate. The wine is still wound a little tight; fruit—from vineyards planted in 1938—remains somewhat masked by oak, likely a result of the malo stage in pure French oak followed by 18 months en barrique—this may require a couple more years to settle in, but doesn’t hide the superb concentration of flavors and dimensions to rival some of the top estates in Bordeaux. The palate actually grows in intensity, finishing with a impression of brightness, richness and precision.