Syrah shines in Chile

(by peter in Chile)

After three long days of tasting, deliberations and negotiations, white smoke has finally emerged from the Annual Wines of Chile Awards 2012.

Syrah and Riesling were unquestionably the headlining acts – the latter a very pleasant surprise, given it is only an emerging variety in Chile. In fact, we judges were so impressed by the diversity and quality on show within these categories that we felt we couldn’t just award one ‘Best in Category’ prize.

In the Riesling category we awarded two top gongs to contrasting styles: the Casa Marin Miramar Riesling 2009 from Lo Abarca in San Antonio and Concha y Toro’s Terrunyo Riesling 2011 from Casablanca. In addition to this, a sweet Riesling picked up Best in Category: Late Harvest, making it three top gongs for this variety.

Syrah’s growing status as one of Chile’s strongest suits was underlined by the decision to allocate three Best in Category awards, across three different price points and divergent styles. At the more affordable end was the Mayu Syrah Reserva 2009 from Elqui, while the priciest was the Cono Sur 20 Barrels Limited Edition Syrah 2009 from Limarí.

The cosy Syrah ménage à trois was completed by the Tamaya Winemaker’s Selection Syrah 2010 from Limarí, which also carried off the coveted Best Wine in Show award.

The prizes were handed out at a glitzy awards ceremony in upmarket Santiago suburb of Chicureo. In between performing, Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela gamely helped dole out prizes to a series of delighted recipients.

Exactly 600 wines were entered in the competition, from nearly 100 wineries. An international panel of judges, split into three teams of three, made an initial assessment of the wines, and then came together to re-judge the top-scoring wines. My fellow judges, in alphabetical order (and together with the country in which they reside), were:

  • Marcelo Copello – Brazil
  • Anthony Gismondi – Canada
  • Bengt-Göran Kronstam – Sweden
  • Debra Meiburg MW – Hong Kong
  • Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW – Singapore
  • Bill St John – United States
  • Patricio Tapia – Chile
  • Mai Tjemsland MW – Norway

While unanimity was not one of this group’s strong points, the judging was extremely rigorous and all the winners can be justifiably proud of a hard-won achievement. In all, we gave out 46 gold medals, 120 silver medals and 243 bronzes.

Further notable results included:

  • Best in Category: Sparkling being awarded to a baby-pink fizz made by Miguel Torres from 100% País (Mission) grapes – a variety that has long been ignored and neglected in Chile, but which is now undergoing a revival
  • A bumper crop for Limarí-based Tamaya, whose owner René Merino picked up three Best in Category awards as well as Wine of the Show
  • Top gongs for Carignan, Cabernet Franc, a rosé Pinot Noir and a red blend featuring Malbec, Cabernet and Syrah
  • No Best in Category for Merlot – by far the weakest range on show
  • The sprightly Castillo de Molina Sauvignon Blanc from Elqui winning both Best in Category for Sauvignon Blanc and Best Value White
  • The Elqui, Limarí and San Antonio regions all featured heavily in the top gongs

Chile continues to make remarkable progress in its wines. It was exciting to see many new styles on the table, boosting the overall diversity and also starting to inject some real interest and drinkability into the category.

At the same time, it was also interesting to note the progress being made in more traditional regions and varieties. Flights of Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo and Colchagua, for example, tended to show notably less extraction, work, alcohol and oak than has been the norm in recent years. Blending was generally thoughtful and well realised.

While there is still room for improvement – more grace, scent, drinkability and personality all round – these results are to be encouraged.

There is still much to be done with Pinot Noir to move away from the chunky, somewhat brutish styles that have come to characterise Chile. This is partly a vine age and vine health issue, something that is finally being remedied now, but it will take time. That said, there were some decent Pinots on show full of savoury, grippy charm.

Before the tasting results were announced, a seminar took place during which all the judges gave a presentation on their market on the subject: ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Premium Chilean Wine’. I’ll be reporting on this in due course as some fascinating insights were offered on key markets like Brazil, Hong Kong/China, Singapore/Japan, USA and Canada.

In the meantime, congratulations to all the winners, and kudos to Wines of Chile for putting together an impeccable competition.