Last night I embarked on my maiden solo tasting mission, unaccompanied by my usual partner in wine (my lovely husband). No, he wasn’t watching Liverpool (narrowly) beat Sunderland, but had his nose in his WSET Level 3 Manual, revising for his exam next Monday. Unfortunately, he was laid low with gastroenteritis when I sat my exam in December, so is having to catch up now. I tried to persuade him that an evening tasting Chilean wine would be perfect revision, but he nobly put duty before pleasure.
The evening was organised by Portland Wine, presented by Johnny Bingham of Casa Silva and held at Earle restaurant in Hale. Johnny was a great host, clearly passionate about Chilean wine, and declared his intent to show what Chile can do, promising that Chile it can deliver more than boring Sauvignon Blanc.
He demonstrated this by serving the first wine of the evening: Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2012. This certainly wasn’t boring: it’s a French-style, very restrained example, with stone fruit, citrus and a hint of kiwi fruit. With this, we ate little bites of haddock and prawn, which complemented the wine really well.
While we were enjoying the Sauvignon Blanc, Johnny gave us a brief history of Casa Silva. Its story began in 1892 when Emile Bouchon (great name for a winemaker!) fled the phylloxera plague in St Emilion and headed for Chile to make wine there. On arrival in Santiago his pioneering instincts led him further south to Colchagua, which he believed provides the perfect conditions for grape-growing. As Johnny says “it’s all about the fruit”.
We moved on to the Viognier Reserva 2012. This was intensely floral on the nose; my first impression was of fabric conditioner, but in a good way. It has flavours of apricot and pistachio and a lovely creamy mouthfeel. Johnny gave us an interesting overview of how the winemakers have experimented with the viognier, ageing higher percentages of the wine in oak, before settling on 10%, plus trying out malolactic fermentation, which they abandoned because it interfered with the freshness of the fruit. I found it very reassuring to learn that even the mighty winemakers don’t always know in advance what will work best, but need to try different things and learn from their mistakes. Johnny recommended serving this wine with scallops, emphasising the importance of compatibility of textures, rather than focussing solely on the flavours. I found this thought-provoking, as I usually just think about what will taste good together, rather than thinking about how they will feel.
We then moved onto the reds, starting with the Family Cabernet/Carmenère 2013. This was 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Carmenère, so the predominant flavours were the typical Cab black fruits, but with some mysterious smoky notes provided by the Carmenère. Johnny quoted (or misquoted?) Jancis Robinson MW with the line “anyone who likes Cabernet Sauvignon likes their pleasure with a little pain (eg camping) .” I know what he means, and I really hate camping. This blend provided an intriguing introduction to the grape, as we were shortly going to taste some 100% examples.
Before we did that, we tasted the Cool Coast Pinot Noir 2011. This is Casa Silva’s first ever Pinot Noir vintage and has spent 12 months in oak. It was bursting with sweet, vibrant red fruit, tempered with an earthy quality. Johnny described it as a “tightly packed spring”. I’m a big fan of Pinot, and I really enjoyed this one.
Next, we tasted two examples of pure Carmenère alongside each other: the Reserva and the Gran Terroir Los Lingues. I absolutely loved the Reserva; it had flavours of blueberry and vanilla, with hints of spicy pepper and mocha: a winning combination. While I was raving about the Reserva, the couple sitting next to me had moved onto the Gran Terroir and were both convinced that it was better. I disagreed, but did get briefly confused and nearly gave into peer pressure. The Gran Terroir was indeed excellent, very herbaceous, in a style that Johnny described as “good green”, ie herby, but without astringency or bitterness. I’m sticking to my guns: I preferred the Reserva, but that’s why tasting wine in a group is so interesting, you can all have your own opinion and nobody’s wrong.
We moved onto the Microterroir Carmenère 2007. This had a powerful blend of fruit and spice. To quote Johnny again, it was like “a nugget of pure Carmenère placed in your mouth”. It had a lively purple rim suggesting youth, but tasted more mature. As Johnny says “we’re not ageing, just oxidising”.
The last red was the Altura 2005, which is a blend of Carmenère (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (35%) and Petit Verdot (15%). This was like a mature Bordeaux-style blend, the sort you might have tasted in 1841. My tasting notes for this read “leather unique to furniture restorers” – I think that I’ll attribute those words to Johnny, rather than taking credit for them. Another interesting fact I learnt last night: Carmenère was originally from Bordeaux, but is now rarely planted in France, having emigrated to Chile so successfully. This ties in with Mr Cork’s exodus from phylloxera-infested Bordeaux to the brave new world of Colchagua. (I really must read more of “Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World” by Christy Campbell. It’s a fascinating book and the more I learn about wine, the more I discover about the huge impact that phylloxera has had.)
Wine number 9 (!) was the “dangerously drinkable” Late Harvest Semillon/Gewürztraminer. This was served with a dangerously delicious chocolate brownie topped with a raspberry. Because the Colchagua Valley is so dry, the grapes aren’t affected by botrytis, so the wine has pure fruit flavours of lychee and mango. Johnny stressed that it’s not just for dessert, but could be drunk for breakfast on Saturday with foie gras (I like his style!) or with blue cheese.
As I think you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening tasting the wines of Casa Silva. Any qualms I had about going it alone quickly disappeared, because everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic and just wants to talk about the wine. Johnny was an extremely entertaining but informative host. I will be left with the vision of him walking around a vineyard shouting at the grapes to ask “are you ready to come on this journey?”. He certainly proved that Chile can deliver way more than boring Sauvignon Blanc.
Thanks as always to Paula for organising a wonderful evening. I’m looking forward to joining you next week for sherry and tapas!