In Vino Veritas? The Truth About Wine in Three Tastings

In vino veritas — in wine there is truth — this is one of the touchstones of the wine enthusiast world. I like the sound of this, but I admit to being a bit confused by two recent wine tastings that I organized where the wines easily fooled us (or perhaps we just fooled ourselves), but a third tasting helped put things right.

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Mary Thomas asked if I would be willing to speak at a wine tasting that she donated (along with autographed copies of Wine Wars) to the local  YWCA fund-raising auction. Yes, of course — and I knew at once what I wanted to do. A flight of red wines made by three University of Puget Sound alumni (Tom Hedges of Hedges Family Estate, Chuck Reininger of Helix and Reininger Cellars and Michael Corliss of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars), but first a blind tasting of white wines that figure prominently in Wine Wars.

If you’ve read Wine Wars you know that I end each flight of chapters with a wine tasting designed to explore the themes raised in the book. Three Sauvignon Blancs make up the first flight and thus inspired I put together a tasting of Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) Sauvignon Blanc from California, Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc from Napa Valley and Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

After tasting the three wines blind in the order given above I asked the tasters to (1) name the grape variety, (2) guess the country or region of origin for each wines, (3) guess the prices and (4) choose their favorite wine from among the three. I am not a big fan of blind tastings, but this one is fun to do in a group. I thought the auction group would enjoy it (and they did).

But first I decided to try out the blind tasting on my “lab rats” — the students enrolled in my university “Idea of Wine” course. Their tasting featured the same blind first flight followed by a different set of reds — a vertical of three Phelps Creek “Le Petit” Pinot Noirs from three years with very different weather. My hypothesis was that students would have more trouble guessing the grape, terroirs and prices of the blind flight than would the more experienced wine drinkers in the auction group.

Things did not go according to plan.  After tasting the three white wines the college students were very confused and guessed all the grape varieties they could think of, but not Sauvignon Blanc. For me the signature taste of the Cloudy Bay is a giveaway — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc — but tasted in the context of the Fume Blanc and Two Buck Chuck wines, which are so very different, nothing seemed to make sense.  The common thread that connected the three wines was difficult for these wine novices to detect.

Interestingly, the experienced auction tasters did no better than the lab rat students in this regard. This really did surprise me and I think it was the confusing context that caused the trouble. Tasting the Mondavi Fume or the Cloudy Bay by itself might yield a good guess of type of wine or place of origin, but stringing the three wines together apparently distorted the view a bit too much.

One place where there was a significant difference between the groups was when it came to guessing the prices. The experienced auction group did much worse! How is that possible? Well, the big difference was the Two Buck Chuck. No frugal college student would offer to pay more than $12 for it in the blind tasting, but at least one member of the auction group was willing to pay $25 or more!

Why were seemingly rational people willing to pay so much for such a modest wine? Well, the quality of the Two Buck Chuck must be part of the answer. Wine drinkers of a certain age (and I include myself in this category) remember when cheap wines were really foul and Two Buck Chuck and its bargain priced siblings changed all that.  The quality may not be high (only a couple of people in the two groups picked it as their favorite of the three), but it does reach a commercial standard that actually shocked one experienced drinker who had not previously tasted a $2.49 wine.

But the real answer is again probably context. The students are used to me presenting them with wines that are just outside a student budget — wines that cost say $10 to $30. They guessed at the low end of that range, which made sense given their expectations. The auction group’s higher guess also reflected context. Who would expect to attend a charity auction tasting and be served such a simple inexpensive wine? Impossible! So it must cost a lot, the logic probably went, and I just can’t taste the difference! If true, this is a classic case of using price (or expected price) as a proxy for perceived quality.

Which was the favorite wine? The auction group was pretty much divided between the Mondavi Fume and Cloudy Bay. The students were divided, too, but Cloudy Bay received most of the votes. That Marlborough style is so distinctive — like nothing they ever had before — and in a blind tasting context it stood out to them.

What conclusion can we draw from these two tastings?  Our perception of wine is sometimes less about truth and more about  context and expectations than we might want to think. That’s not the conclusion I thought I would find when I set up this tiny experiment. Fortunately a third tasting helped balance the scale.

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The nice people at Wines of Chile sent us three Cabernet Sauvignons, which we decided to use for a small scale student tasting. Sue and I were joined by Bruce Titcomb, Eben Corliss and Ali Hoover. Ali’s attendance was based upon her study abroad experience in Chile and a paper she wrote about its wines. Bruce and Eben are enthusiastic students of geology and business respectively with a special personal connection — their parents also took classes from me back in the day.  It promised to be an interesting tasting. We began with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (from Chile this time) and then got to work on the Cabs we were sent. Here is the list.

  • Montes Classic Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Colchagua Valley 85% Cabernet + 15% Merlot 14% abv. Typical price: around $10.
  • Santa Carolina Colchagua Estate Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (from Miraflores in Andes Foothills) 13.5% abv. Around $12.
  • Undurraga T. H. (Terroir Hunter) Alto Maipo Calbernet Sauvignon 2009 (from Picque in Andes Foothills) 14% abv. Around $20.

We sampled the three Cabs by themselves, with food (savory empanadas) and then with chocolate truffles. The wines were very different from each other and each had its moment in the spotlight. On first tasting, the Montes (the least expensive of the group) was simple, enjoyable, and fun. When Ali tasted the Santa Carolina her eyes lit up — this was Chilean wine as she knew it from her time there, she said — a reminder of her temporary South American home. The Undurraga T.H. lived up to its “Terroir Hunter” name — it was much more precise and focused.

Returning to the wines to pair then with food the Montes was a puzzle — Blake noted a strong caramel aroma when the wine had time to air out a bit.  The Santa Carolina seemed to be the best match for the empanadas just as the T.H. was the favorite on its own. Then we broke out the dark chocolate truffles and tried again. This time it was the Montes that stood out — that caramel aroma really worked with the chocolate and made a hard to beat combination.

Which wine was best? Well the T.H. was probably my personal favorite but the answer depended on how you drank it (alone, with savory food, with chocolate) and what you were searching for (for Ali that memory of her time in Chile was pretty special).

So what did we learn from our three tastings. Well, I don’t really want to argue against the idea of in vino veritas, but I do think our impressions of wine are context-sensitive — perhaps more so than we really want to admit.

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Blake, Eben and Ali at the Chilean Cabernet tasting.

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Thanks to Emily Denton of The Thomas Collective for providing  the Chilean wines for this tasting. Thanks to Blake, Eben and Ali for their help with the Chilean Cab tasting. Photos by contributing editor Sue Veseth.

Can Chile Break Out of the “Value Wine” Trap?

First of all let me say that I have nothing against wines that are good values. We all struggle to find wines that pass the “is it worth it?” test and Chile has for a long time been a reliable source of wines that answer this question in the affirmative.

But it is in Chile’s interest to be seen as more than just a good value supplier. So I was very interested when Wines of Chile asked me to participate in a blogger tasting stressing Chile’s terroir. I think that an emphasis on distinctive terroir is just what Chile (and Argentina and South Africa) needs to attract wine enthusiast consumers and clearly differentiate themselves from the bulk wine pack.

The Terroir Two-Step

Establishing a reputation for terroir requires two things. First, you have to actually have terroir, which is to say wines that really are reflections of particular and distinctive winegrowing regions or sites. And, second, you need to be able to communicate this to consumers. Absent the first factor it’s just marketing. Absent the second it’s an exercise in futility from a wine economics standpoint.

Wines of Chile provided us with a dozen wines (see list below) — three each Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon — and the opportunity to participate in an interactive video conference with Chilean winemakers hosted from Santiago by Fred Dexheimer (click here to view the video). I found the video conference to be very helpful and informative — the best yet! — both in terms of matching faces to wines and especially in unlocking details of the particular vineyard sites through Dexheimer’s probing questions.

Listening to the winemakers talk, it dawned on me that the rapid improvement in Chilean wines over the last decade derives from two sources. Improved winemaking is the first factor and the one that gets the most credit in discussions, but increased attention to matching particular varieties of wine grapes to particular sites is the under-rated other. This may be especially true for Carmenere, which was planted very widely back when it was mistaken for Merlot but that now is receiving more specific attention.

Taste the Terroir?

I organized two extended tastings to see if we could (1) detect the differences in terroir by tasting the wines and (2) find a terroir story in the wine marketing materials, especially the labels.

Sue and I were joined by Pierre, Cynthia, Patrick and Grant to taste the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir and by Ron and Mary for the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was especially interested in what university students Patrick (who wrote a paper on Chilean wine) and Grant (who studied abroad in Burgundy) would say about the wines. Here’s what we learned

The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir tasting was very interesting. The wines were well chosen both to highlight differences — differences between the Chilean wines and those from other countries and differences among the wines themselves. Our reference point for New World Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough and these wines avoided the “me-too” trap, presenting styles somewhere between New Zealand and France. Our reference point for Pinot Noir here in the Pacific Northwest is Oregon and the Chilean wines were very much darker and riper — so much so that Patrick wondered if he would recognize them as Pinot in a blind tasting.

All six of the wines at the first tasting came from cool climate sites, where altitude or ocean influences (or both) affected growing conditions. We could easily detect differences between the wines, but I will honestly say that we struggled to connect them to the variations in terroir. Some of the wines helped us a bit by providing detailed information about the viticulture on the labels, but some focused more on the winemaking rather than the terroir.  This was a very successful tasting in terms of quality of the wines themselves, but it left some questions unanswered.

The Mythbuster Test

The story was much the same for the Carmenere and Cabernet tasting. We enjoyed the wines a great deal, especially with food (tasty pampeana  empanadas), and some  wines were even better on the next day.  Each flight presented real differences in aroma, flavor and style, showing the diversity of Chilean wines at these price points.

Once again, however, we had mixed results in searching for the terroir connection. Some of the wine labels made a point to provide specific information about vineyard site and growing conditions, so the link between terroir and what was in the glass was quite clear. Other wines didn’t highlight terroir as much as history or winemaking techniques. A couple of the labels were printed in type so small or light that it was nearly impossible to know the marketing message (this particularly annoyed Sue, who is an inveterate label-reader). My trusty magnifying glass got a good workout trying to read the details.

Confirmed. Plausible. Busted. These are the available options on the Discovery Channel’s hit show Mythbusters. I think our tasting panel was a bit divided in reaching a verdict about Chilean terroir. At least two tasters came to a “Busted” conclusion. They just couldn’t find the link they were looking for between the wines and their terroir and their advice to Chile is “don’t give up your ‘good value’ market position.” Most of the rest of us believed that it was “Plausible” that the distinct differences between the wines was due to different terroirs, but the connection was not strong enough or clearly enough explained to arrive at a “Confirmed” conclusion.

If the terroir story is important (and I think it is if Chile is going to upgrade its market position), then the wineries need to do a better job making the connection. I think Wines of Chile has provided a very good foundation, but the individual wine brands should take better advantage of the opportunity to promote the terroir factor. The labels of the San Pedro 1865 Sauvignon Blanc and the Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere get high marks for their terroir message, although the Carmen’s tiny type was difficult to read.

The Los Vascos “Le Dix” didn’t even try to tell a terroir story — the focus was all about selecting the very best lots and blending them. But it was a terrific wine — Ron’s favorite, I think — which suggests that while terroir is important, it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only distinguishing characteristic.

Can “terroir wines” help elevate Chile’s international wine reputation? It’s a plausible proposition, but like most initiatives the key will be execution, especially coordination between Wines of Chile and key producers to provide wine enthusiasts with a clear and consistent message.

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Vina Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Casablanca Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $12.99

 San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Leyda Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $19.00

 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $25.00

 Emiliana Novas Pinot Noir 2010 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $19.00

 Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $32.00

 Morandé Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $17.99

 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2010 Cachapoal Valley

100% Carmenere / SRP: $22

 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2010 Apalta- Colchagua Valley

95% Carmenere 5% Carignan / SRP: $14.99

 Koyle Royale Carmenere 2009 Colchagua Valley

85% Carmenere 8% Petit Verdot 7% Malbec / SRP: $25.99

 Ventisquero Grey Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Maipo Valley

94% Cabernet Sauvignon 6% Petit Verdot / SRP: $29.00

 Maquis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Colchagua Valley

100% Cabernet Sauvignon / SRP: $19.00

Los Vascos Le Dix Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Colchagua Valley

85% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Carmenere 5% Syrah / SRP: $64.99

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The photo shows (clockwise from top left) Grant and Patrick, Cynthia and Pierre, Mike’s magnifying glass and Mary and Ron. Thanks to Sue for the photos. Thanks to Wines of Chile for the wines and supporting material. Thanks to my research assistants for their feedback on the wines and marketing strategies.

Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

Can Carmenere be for Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina — a game-changing wine that opens up new markets and upgrade perceptions in old ones? That’s the question I asked at the end of my last post.

An Unlikely Curse

Chile has earned a reputation for good value Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; this good reputation is ironically an anchor holding the industry back as it attempts to move upmarket. It will be quite a struggle to get consumers to pay more for established varieties of Chilean wines in the UK and US. New markets and new wine varieties may be the key to future success.

This is where Carmenere comes in. Carmenere is a variety that once produced famous wines in Bordeaux. But when vines were replanted after phylloxera, Carmenere was phased out because of its succeptability to a disease called coulure, which reduces yields. It thrived in phylloxera-free Chile, where it was mistaken for Merlot, an error only corrected in 1994. It is still unclear how many of Chile’s Merlot vines are really Carmenere.

Carmenere is a niche product here in the United States. If you take varietal Carmenere and blends together they account for about 0.2 percent of Nielsen- measured U.S. off-premises wine sales. Concha y Toro is the leading brand followed by Santa Rita and Root 1. By comparison, Chile has about a 2.7% overall share of the measured U.S. market by dollar value, so Carmenere is still quite small, but not insignificant. Total sales of all Chilean Carmenere and blends are less than the dollar value of revenues from Concha y Toro’s 1.5 liter Cabernet Sauvignon alone.

The first Chilean Carmenere that I remember seeing here in the U.S. was a line of wines called Oops, playing up the Merlot-Carmenere mix up. Here’s a nice Chilean Merlot … oops! It’s really something else! I remember trying a bottle and while the label was memorable it didn’t do much to establish Carmenere or Chile in my mind as a quality wine segment.

Carmenere Comes to Britain

Fast forward to 2010. Wines of Chile launched a big campaign in the key UK market called  Carmenere: made for Curry.  It was apparently quite successful, winning the prize for “generic promotion campaigns” at the International Wine Challenge Awards. The idea was to link Chilean Carmenere with Indian food (generically called “curry” in the UK), which is Britain’s most popular ethnic food category, and hope that Chicken Tikka Masala would do for Carmenere what Argentinean steak has done for Malbec.

But a big Carmenere tasting report in the July 2011 issue of Decanter raises some doubts about the quality of the wines, which is obviously a key factor in the strategy. Chilean Carmenere is a “work in progress” according to one of the panelists. Others suggested that Carmenere’s best bet is in blends (especially with Syrah), not as a varietal wine. None of the 132 wines tasted earned Decanter’s top 5-star rating and only 6 received 4 stars. Eight-six wines were “recommended” and 35 were named “good value” (Chilean good value — of course!).

[By comparison, a June 2010 Decanter tasting of 255 Argentinean Malbecs produced four 5-star, twenty-one 4-star and 131 three-star "recommended" ratings.]

Interestingly, the panel suggested that the “overt, oaky, alcoholic, heavy-bottle wines” were made to appeal to the U.S. and South American markets and lacked the balance they’d need to find favor in the U.K. The tone of the review was not as dark as I am probably painting it here, but the conclusion was clear: there was nothing revealed in those 132 bottles that would fundamentally alter Chile’s reputation.

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

The Curry and Carmenere campaign was so successful in the UK that Wines of Chile brought it to the U.S. earlier this fall and we were invited to participate in a blogger tasting. Sue and I asked two of my “Idea of Wine” students, Marina Balleria and Mike Knape, to join us.  Marina and Mike both studied abroad in Chile and brought local wine knowledge to the table as well as excellent critical thinking (and tasting) skills.

 We concluded that Curry and Carmenere is not a ridiculous idea (Mike reported a “perfect” bite with one of the wines and an onion empanada with a curry sauce), but not all the matches were equally successful. In any case, curry doesn’t have the same significance here in the U.S. that is does in the U.K. Even if Carmenere hit a home run with curry that wouldn’t automatically open up a very large U.S. wine market segment.

We found the alcohol and oak that the Decanter tasters noted, but Marina suggested that oak is part of what she expects from Chilean red wine, so this was a positive feature for her — a defining style. One of the bottles was heavy indeed — 1084 grams according to our scale, the heaviest bottle I’ve encountered since I started keeping track.  Not exactly in keeping with the “Chile is good for you” environmental theme. Most of the wines were more interesting when re-tasted the next day.
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 So what did we decide about the critical question — is Carmenere the special one that will lead Chile into the next phase of its wine market evolution? Not yet — I think that’s the answer. We didn’t find the distinctive style and consistent quality that we were looking for although there were some we really liked (and — sorry! — thought were good values).
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Project Carmenere is still under construction. When will it be finished? This is hard to say. Malbec wasn’t built in a day, although the Malbec boom, when it came, developed very quickly. Carmenere’s story may be the same — or maybe the time has passed when hot new red varieties can make wine drinkers swoon.
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Either way I think it will be tough for Chile to achieve its 2020 goals but I think they need to try. Carmenere may be Chile’s best bet and I look forward to tracking its progress.

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Here are the wines we tasted for the Curry and Carmenere event. Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate and thanks to Mike and Marina (see photos above) for their insights.

Blogger Tasting Wine List

1- Emiliana Natura Carmenere 2010 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

2- Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $22

3- Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

4- Montes Alpha Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 90% Carmenere, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon SRP: $24.00

5- Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 / Apalta Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

6- Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 / Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

7- Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2009 / Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $20.00

8- Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon / Carmenere 2007 / Maipo Valley 40% Cab. Sauv., 37% Carmenere, 13% Cab. Franc, 10% Syrah SRP: $13.00

Reimagining Chile’s Wine Identity

What do you think of when you think of Italian wine? Many people think first of Italy — the place, the art, the people, the culture and the food (OK, especially the food). The romantic idea of Italy sells Italian wine. Brand Italy is stronger, it is said, than any Italian wine brand and Italian winemakers have profited from this fact.

Changing Places

The relationship between country and wine image is reversed for Chile, or at least that’s the theory I found in a recent report called the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020.  The wines of Chile are the nation’s ambassadors to the rest of the world, the report asserts. The wines of Chile have a more distinct image than Chile itself (although of course the two are related) and so when people think of Chile they think first of its wines.

I am not sure that I completely agree with this idea — “Chile” conjures up many images and associations for me — but I am willing to consider it for the sake of argument. Certainly how we think about the wines of Chile has some impact on our attitudes towards this country more generally. Chile’s wine identity, as important as it is to people in the wine industry, may have an even broader significance in terms of international investment, export sales, tourism and so forth.

Good and Good Value

So what is Chile’s wine identity? Well, for most of the last 50 years Chilean wine has been synonymous with “good value for the money.” As I wrote in a previous post, Chile has been trapped in a vicious cycle of rising expectations that has made it difficult for them to increase price even as the quality of their wines has continued to improve.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, I know that it is better to be known for good value than for bad value, but in today’s very competitive global market it is also good to have products that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for. The average FOB export price of Chilean wine hovers around USD 2 per liter or less than USD 20 per case. The appreciation of the Chilean peso in 2010 combined with the difficulty of raising the USD price has really put the squeeze on Chilean wine producers.

Chile is the most trade dependent of the top wine producing countries, according to the Wines of Chile report, exporting nearly 70 percent of their production.  Wine accounts for over 2.5% of Chile’s total export earnings. So enhancing the image of Chilean wine abroad by moving it upmarket is important.

There are several ways to define a country’s wine identity and this video illustrates the current theme, Wines of Chile: The Natural Choice. As you can see the theme connects the dots of factors contributing to Chile’s complex terroir and stresses the fact that that its phylloxera-free vines grow on their own rootstocks — a  nice “natural” connection.

But broad messages like this have their limitations since by definition they cannot thoroughly take into account detailed factors that may be important to understanding and promoting the wine.  The New Zealand wine tagline is “Pure Discovery,” for example, and here in Washington the motto is “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” None of these tag lines is especially stirring or sharply defining, although the key words — Natural, Pure, Perfect — have obvious appeal.

Is Carmenere the New Malbec?

Another way to think about wine identity is in terms of grape varieties, although this has limitations, too. If you think Burgundy  you think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example. And Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon. There is much more to the wine from these regions than type of grape, of course, but the iconic varieties are straightforward identifiers that confused New World consumers can easily understand.

Wine in Chile is really about three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere. Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc together account for more than two-thirds of all wine grape plantings in Chile. These wines can be very good, but it must be said that they are cursed with that “good value” label that will be hard to shake no matter how many Wine Spectator Top 100 awards they receive.

Carmenere represents only 7 percent of vineyard plantings now, but it is seen by many as the breakthrough wine of the future, a uniquely Chilean wine that has the potential to do for Chile what Malbec has done for Argentina. The Wines of Chile report has high hopes for Carmenere both as an export product and as a tool to redefine Chile’s wine identity. But it warns against cutting corners to capture low price sales. Carmenere needs to be a premium brand if it is to serve its useful symbolic function.

Blogger Wine Tasting

Which brings us to Syrah and Pinot Noir — not grape varieties that you usually associate with Chile. They were the focus of a recent tasting organized by Wines of Chile that brought together, if that is the right phrase, a virtual group of U.S. wine bloggers including members of The Wine Economist staff. The idea was to use new media to get out the message about Chilean wine’s new directions and to help establish its wine identity among younger tech-savvy consumers. We were sent wines to sample, literature to read and provided with online access to Chilean winemakers for interactive Q&A.

Are wines like these the way forward for Chile? Syrah and Pinot Noir are high value bottled wine exports (FOB prices of $4.66 and $4.08 per liter respectively in 2009 compared with $3.37 for Cab Sauv and $2.79 for Sauv Blanc) and so they may be useful tools in this task of getting consumers to rethink the wines of Chile and what they might be willing to pay for them.

(Math note: Chile receives only about $2 per liter on average for its wine exports because lower priced bulk wine sales drag the average down while higher priced bottled wine exports try to hold it up.)

I asked the winemakers to comment on the potential for these wines on the international markets. How can Chilean Pinot Noir differentiate itself from New World Pinots from Oregon and New Zealand? And how can Chilean Syrah succeed in the U.S., where Syrah sales are slumping?

Wine Economist volunteer tasting staff: Scott, Janice, Kevin and Jeni

Their responses were not very enlightening, but I blame the online environment for that, with the group of winemakers in a boardroom in Chile trying to answer questions submitted from thousands of miles away by faceless bloggers. Anyone who has been on a conference call knows the problem. But, like conference calls, this internet session facilitated a great deal of interaction even if it wasn’t completely satisfying and so the pluses outweigh the minuses. I’ll just need to follow up, that’s all.

Tasting Notes? From the Wine Economist?

No one comes to The Wine Economist to read tasting notes, but I thought you might be interested in the team’s reactions to the wines. On the whole we liked the Pinots a bit better than the Syrahs — we just found more complexity in the glass and more to talk about. That said, I noticed that when everyone was given the opportunity to take home a partial bottle, it was the Syrahs that disappeared. Interesting.

The Syrahs were better with food, which in our case included tasty empanadas purchased from Pampeana Empanadas here in Tacoma and bruschetta with Fontina and  Huerto Azul Myrtleberry Chutney with Merken, a Chilean product that was provided by Wines of Chile along with the wines and is available from puro-gourmet.com.

I was especially interested in how college students Jeni and Kevin reacted to the tasting since young consumers are a key wine marketing target and new media initiatives like this are often organized with them in mind. Jeni said that she had never purchased a bottle of wine from Chile — her image of Chilean wine was pretty much a blank canvas —  but that the tasting put Chile on the wine map for her and she was more likely to try these wines in the future. Jeni’s image of Chilean wine changed from invisible to positive — a good sign.

Kevin had tasted Chilean Pinots before — he comes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and is friends with many winemaker families. In Oregon, the aim is to be Burgundian, he said, and he was surprised by a couple of these Chilean Pinots. They weren’t exactly what he was expecting, which made him want to taste more to try to understand the Casablanca Valley terroir and the winemaker styles a bit better. Another good sign

Overall I would say it was a successful tasting that answered some questions and raised many more. The question of the future of Chile’s wine identity remains to be answered, however, so I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post.

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Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate in the blogger tasting and to Amber Gallaty of the thomas collective for making the arrangements. Special thanks to Sue Veseth, Janice Brevik, Scott Hogman, Jeni Oppenheimer and Kevin Chambers for their insights on the wines and the virtual tasting process. The photos are by Sue and Scott.

Here are the wines featured in the April 2011 blogger tasting

Biodynamic Wine in Chile: More Questions than Answers

Regular readers of The Wine Economist know that I get a lot of insights from my students and former students.  Marina Balleria, one of my current students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to write an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website.

Her article is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader social issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that? You can read her article, which I’ve titled “Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?” by scrolling to the bottom of this post.

Marina’s essay raises a number of important questions about the nature of Chile’s economic development. I’d like to use this post to address two different but related issues.

Good and Cheap: A Vicious Cycle?

The first concerns Chile’s continuing difficulty breaking out of the bargain basement of the world wine market. Chile has long been know as a country where “Prices are very low and quality is very high — the ideal arrangement from everyone’s point of view except the Chilean farmer,” according to Hugh Johnson writing 40 years ago in an early edition of his book, Wine. I think he might say the same thing about Chilean wine today.

Chile has long been cursed with a reputation for bargain wines and pressures to keep export prices low have continued and intensified even as the average quality has soared even higher. A good deal, as Johnson noted …  for everyone else! No wonder Chileans are willing to try new things, as Marina notes in her essay, since old things seem part of an endless cycle.

Organic and biodynamic wines are a rather natural thing to try. Having escaped the curse of phylloxeria, Chile can grow wine grapes on their own rootstocks. Combine this with chemical free viticultural techniques and gentle cellar practices and there is an opportunity for a nearly unique product in the world of wine.  You can’t blame the Chileans for thinking that perhaps this is a way to escape the bargain basement trap!

The question is, are wine consumers willing to pay more for these wines? Or will they see them as just Chilean wines — very good, but no need to pay a premium for them? That’s the first big question.

Biodynamics: Voo-Doo Viticulture?

Marina’s essay also raises questions about biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics is one of the most controversial topics in wine these days and you can see why people would be skeptical that it is only a gimmick. We live in an age of science and technology and the processes of biodynamic viticulture have a medieval feel — more like alchemy than rocket science. And the results are qualitative, which is inconvenient in a quantitative age. Voo-doo viticulture? You be the judge.

And yet I know a number of very hard-headed wine makers who have embraced biodynamics, some openly and others on the sly. Caution is warranted because consumer reaction to biodynamics is still unclear. Many wine enthusiasts still don’t know what it is and some seem to have it backwards — associatiing biodynamics with GMO vines — Franken-wines!

Not Mr. Know-It-All

I admit that I am cautious about embracing biodynamics, but I try to have an open mind. It is easy to believe that we know everything there is to know about growing grapes and making wine. After all, how difficult can it be?

We have centuries of experience and tons of scientific research. If biodynamics really worked, doesn’t it make sense that we would know it by now, have irrefutable proof and everyone would be doing it? If it isn’t a proven process by now it must be hokem.

And then I remember malolactic fermentation.

Winemakers observed the process of malolactic fermentation for centuries without understanding it.  The actual scientific process is a relatively recent discovery. Before Emile Peynaud figured it out back in the 1950s and 60s, malo was kind of a voo-doo dance in the wine barrel. “Malolatic fermentation happens in the wine in the spring by sympathy with the sap rising in the vines” — that was the pre-Peynaud view according to Benjamin Lewin’s book, Wine Myths & Realities. It took several decades to tease out out what was really going on in the post-alcoholic fermentation juice and I think winemakers are still experimenting to discover the when, where, how and why of controlling it.

Just Sayin’

So I’m just saying that if it took so long to really understand malolactic fermentation, maybe it will take a little longer to figure out what’s happening (or not happening) with biodynamics (and why)  and I’m not in a hurry to make up my mind. Wine is a big world and it can probably accommodate many different religions and beliefs. Even voo doo is welcome here (or should be), if that’s what it turns out to be.

In the meantime, I can appreciate why the Chileans might even resort to voo doo to break out of their good-but-cheap-wine cycle. And I hope it works for them!

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Here is Marina’s article:

“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”

Editor’s Note: Marina Balleria, one of my students at the University of Puget Sound, studied in Chile in Fall 2010 and, knowing of her interest in wine and society, I invited her to craft an essay for publication on The Wine Economist website, which you will find below.

The essay is inspired by a visit to a biodynamic winery, but Marina uses it as a springboard to comment on broader issues. Use a wineglass as a lens to view society? Where could she get an idea like that?

Marina is studying in Morocco now — I wonder what stories wine will reveal to her there? Thanks, Marina, for this contribution to The Wine Economist.

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“Biodynamic Wine in Chile: Who Benefits?”

As you drive through the Casablanca Valley, nestled in between Santiago and the coast of Chile, you could be in Northern California. The valley is an irrigated green underneath hills of sparse shrubs and cactus. You pass a vineyard, an olive oil plant, another vineyard, and then “Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic Wine”.

The phrase “biodynamic wine” is usually met with blank stares in Chile. Perusing the supermarket aisles or the shelves of the botillerias, where most Chileans buy their wine, biodynamic is absent from the labels. In fact, most of the more conscientious wine options such as “fair-trade” and “organic” are not available to the average Chilean wine customer.

The only Chilean outside of the wine industry that I encountered who knew about the topic was Carolina Cabezas, a fiercely opinionated nurse who turned her country home into a biodynamic farm. She deemed it a heretic sect of biodynamism because wine is a poison to the body and the unholy combination is nothing but a fad. When I asked American citizen and long-time Chilean resident Glenn Aldrich, he succinctly encapsulated the Chilean business model in a single phrase: “I don’t know a thing about it, but I know that Chileans always like to do what is new and different especially if it has good marketing.”

THE BIODYNAMIC SENSATION THAT IS SWEEPING THE NATIONS

Biodynamic wine does have that. This viticulture first made a stir because of its unconventional farming practices based on the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy and of Waldorf School-fame. These include lunar calendars that decide harvest dates, “preparations” concocted of red deer bladders and yarrow and homeopathic treatments used for pest control and dispensed according to the zodiac calendar. All this is meant to create farms that are self-sustaining yet interconnected systems.

Outside of the biodynamic community, these practices are met with skepticism, as scientific proof is shoddy at best. According to a six-year study from Washington State University, biodynamic and organic grapes differed in no substantial way for any of the “physical, chemical and biological parameters tested”, upending claims to the contrary. However, biodynamic wines are being given excellent scores by testers and some recognize it as a way to preserve terroir. What it seems to come down to is that wine growers willing to meticulously grow grapes according to the lunar calendar tend to be equally detail-oriented in other aspects of wine production, resulting in finely, if bizarrely, crafted wines. In any case, biodynamic wine has received premium billing in many wine shops across the globe. Back in Chile, the wine producers have taken notice.

A GUIDED TOUR

As you take the tour in Emiliana’s Casablanca winery all of the hallmarks of biodynamic farming are carefully on display.

The tour guide gives you the standard lines about a concern for the environment and points with pride to the portable chicken coop, used for pest control. He glosses over the grittier parts of biodynamic farming, calling it “the next level of organic” and Steiner is only briefly mentioned. He does affirm that it is “actually a science” and contends that the only proof necessary is in the bottle. We pass by the deer bladders hanging out to dry and duck into the cellar where the preparations absorb the cosmic energies. Apparently, it is common for guests to burst into laughter during this portion of the tour.

Next is the social responsibility component—the community garden in which the rows belong to different workers, allowing the workers to harvest their own biodynamic food and sell the chickens’ eggs. Emiliana also produces olive oil and honey so the workers have employment year round. It is later revealed after gentle probing that this plan benefits about 35 workers out of the 200 or so that are employed during harvest season. The harvesters are not higher paid than at neighboring vineyards. Emiliana is a higher coveted employer however, because as with organic farming, it provides a pesticide-free workplace.

BIG BACKING, BIG EXIT

“This isn’t something we are allowed to say, but we wouldn’t exist without Concha y Toro,” our tour guide tells us after we ease into our chairs for the wine tasting.

Concha y Toro, one of the biggest producers of wine in Latin America put out a wide array of wines, some occupy the bottom shelves of Chilean liquor stores and others come with hundred-dollar price tags. Names include Casillero del Diablo, Amelia and Don Melchor. Emiliana, named for the wife of the founder, is the brand used for their sustainable lines. Emiliana went organic in 1986 and biodynamic in 1997, going through the costly certification processes for both. They proudly announce that they have the distinction of being one of the first in Latin America to do so, a testament to the not-so-friendly rivalry between Southern Cone wine producers. Concha y Toro can quietly put up the capital for ventures such as Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic wine but the both try to avoid association. Emiliana is made with eyes for the international market as 90% of its products are sold abroad with some lines produced exclusively for export. This is not uncommon for fine wines.

According to my tour guide, the grand exodus of wine from Chile is because of a lack of an endemic Chilean wine culture. Basically, there is not a sufficient domestic demand to keep luxury brand wines in the country.

I beg to differ. Here, wine is a requisite at any meal and the bottle is invariably Chilean. However, cheap wine is decent wine and incomes are limited. It is budgeting that keeps the Chileans from buying more expensive wine, not cultural disregard. Likewise, for the producers there is more to be gained by selling abroad. It is simple economics.

IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS

Taken as a whole, the Chilean wine industry demonstrates a larger truth of the Chilean economy.  The country’s economy is largely export-based, with a current account balance of $4.2 billion (29th in the world). Many of these exports are commodities, with the top five highest-valued export commodities being copper, fruit, fish products, paper and pulp, chemicals and, of course, wine. Winemaking is not only lucrative but can become more so as Chile’s finer wines are established, making it a sustainable industry with growth potential. To try realize this goal, Chileans are adhering to the maxim that Glen Aldrich laid out: do what is new, different and marketable.

The resulting marketing campaigns, however, depicts a Chile far removed from reality and sometimes downright contradictory. One only has to look at the certified biodynamic winery that is by definition a self-sustaining system but is employed to ship the bottles, which are not found in the home country. This is true across exported commodities. The majority of the copper of Chile is extracted by multinationals and little of the revenue goes back to the country. Only fruit deemed not fit for export is sold in Chilean supermarkets. The more left-leaning Chileans are constantly bemoaning the theft of their natural resources by evil corporations, or worse, the United States. On the other side, it is seen as a boon for the Chilean economy, which is growing at a much faster pace than

Herein lies a debate familiar to most International Political Economy students: does this time of export-driven growth create irreversible dependency on other countries and represent little more than exploitation? Or, does is this introduction into the global market economy that allows them to grow in ways that would be impossible otherwise and is only a stage in its development? I, like any indecisive student, choose option C: it depends. If Chile invests this income in the right way with education, technology and research, it could be a benefit to all. If not, the more pessimistic option could become true.

Biodynamic wine provides a test case of how Chile is pursuing its growth, with an eye for the tastes of the outside markets and little regard for what happens at home. Whether this development model is successful, sustainable and spreads throughout the social strata remains to be seen. A good indicator to watch may be what kinds of wine are served with dinner.

Sources:

The tour of Emiliana Organic and Biodynamic winery in the Casablanca Valley took place on December 27th, 2010. More information can be found at: http://www.emiliana.cl/

Interviews were conducted informally by yours truly.

Scientific research about biodynamic wine vs. organic comes to me by way of The Skeptical Inquier’s article titled “Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle” by Douglass Smith and Jesús Barquin, originally published December/November 2007. It can be accessed at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/biodynamics_in_the_wine_bottle/.

The citation for the journal article is as follows:

Moulton, G.A., and J. King. 2005. Growing wine grapes in maritime western Washington. Washington State University Extension Bulletin. WSU-NWREC, 16650 S.R. 536. Available at: http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/eb2001/eb2001.pdf

Statistics on Chile’s economy are from the CIA World Fact Book, accessed January 18, 2011.

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