Mission in Chile

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They were making wine – of a sort – in South America a good many years before Shakespeare was born. In the early 1500s, Spanish Franciscan missionaries planted grapes in parts of North and South America, largely for use in making sacramental and table wine. The grapes had come from Spain and for reasons too obvious to explain, they were known locally as Mission. Until recently though, nobody was sure exactly what they were. Only in 2006 did researchers in Madrid discover that the DNA of the Mission is identical to that of a largely forgotten Spanish grape called the Listan Prieto which was popular during the sixteenth century. And here’s an interesting thing, this grape is also known in Spain as Palomino, the primary white grape used to make Sherry, giving a bit of weight to the notion that the early missionaries might also have made fortified wine.

The skills of vine-growing and wine-making travelled with them through Peru into Chile and eventually into Argentina. Their wine was almost certainly pretty rough by today’s standards and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that wines of quality began to appear, as a result of new plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenere.

La Rinconada vineyard, source of Las Condes wines.La Rinconada vineyard, source of Las Condes wines.

Chile and Argentina make more wine than any other countries in South America and in terms of volume they’re both among the top ten wine producers in the world. Most Chilean wines come from the Central Valley, or Valle Central if you prefer a bit of local colour. With cool, rainy winters and warm summers, the valley has high daytime temperatures moderated by cool nights. It’s ideal for growing a wide variety of grapes.

Las Condes wines come from the distinguished Garces Silva family, which has been involved in wine production for three generations. The wines are exceptional bargains and I had to go back to check that the prices were right. This is the kind of money you’d have paid a couple of years ago, because wines of this quality would normally be around the Bt. 595 mark. So if you can, try them before the price goes up. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Las Condes is a popular and trendy neighbourhood of Santiago, Chile’s capital city.

Las Condes Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (white), Chile (Bt. 399 @ Friendship)

This is a very pale gold with hints of green, giving a clue to its youthfulness. It has a delicate floral aroma of sweet, ripe gooseberries with a hint of grassiness and dry herbs. You might think you can pick up the smell of pineapples, but actually, they’re gooseberries. Definitely gooseberries. Even the dogs agreed.

The wine has a gorgeously soft mouth-feel with loads of fruit well forward (gooseberries, surprisingly), but there are hints of passion fruit and a faint taste of apples. I thought I could pick up a suggestion of mandarin oranges too. When you get complex flavours coming through like this, it’s a sign of a well-made wine. It’s a medium-bodied easy drinker, well-balanced and fairly dry with a dash of very mild acidity. There’s a lingering citrus-like fruity finish which incidentally is another feature of a well-made wine.

At only 12% alcohol content, this fresh young Sauvignon is a terrific drink on its own, but it would pair well with fish, light chicken dishes, goat cheese or even Japanese sushi.

Las Condes Carmenere 2012 (red), Chile (Bt. 399 @ Friendship)

Three hundred years ago, the French Carménère grape was widely planted in Bordeaux but these days it’s almost impossible to find in France. In Chile, however, it grows profusely and has become Chile’s national grape. Most of the Spanish-speaking Chileans usually pronounce the name as “kahr-min-YEHR” but others prefer “KAHR-min-air-ray”. Up to you, as they say in these parts. In any case, I don’t suppose the wine sales ladies in the supermarket are remotely interested in the finer points of Spanish pronunciation.

This wine has a lovely sweet, jammy aroma of black fruits with a suggestion of dried herbs and spices (cinnamon, I’d guess) in the background. It’s a rich ruby-red with flecks of purple and has a very gentle, almost silky mouth-feel. With loads of fruit up-front and a pleasing earthy dryness to the taste, there are subtle hints of sweetness and spices. It’s medium-bodied and tastes vaguely similar to a Merlot, but with a more velvety texture.

The tannins are soft and supple and there’s a lingering dry, peppery finish. At just 12.5% alcohol content it’s a very attractive easy, relaxing drinker. It’s a bit like settling into an old and comfortable leather sofa.

Las Condes Merlot 2012 (red), Chile (Bt. 399 @ Friendship)

This is a bright ruby-red wine which looks very inviting. Swirl it around in the glass and those rather satisfying “legs” will appear. This, of course is why you need a large wine glass so that you can fill it about one third full, thus allowing space for the essential swirling to release the aromas. Red fruit, cherries and strawberries will greet you when you stick your nose into the glass. You’ll probably pick up vanilla and plums in the background, with possibly a hint of dry herbs. By the way, this is yet another reason for a large wine glass – big enough to get your nose inside. You see, a few dainty sniffs from somewhere above the glass is just not enough. Get your snout right in there and go for it like a bloodhound.

The fruit is well-forward and the wine has an attractive, smooth mouth-feel. It’s completely dry, fairly light-bodied and well-balanced. You’ll notice the very soft tannins and the satisfying long dry finish with its hints of citrus.

Drink this on its own if you want, because it’s only about 12% alcohol content. However, it would make a good partner for red meats or rich mushroom dishes. This is a splendid wine which I shall buy again, but if it’s all gone when I get back to the shop, I’ll know who to blame.