I had a few winemakers come through the office the week before last, on their way to pour their wines at Wine Spectator's 2011 Grand Tour, which stopped in Chicago, Las Vegas and Boston this year.
Adolfo Hurtado, winemaker at Chile's Viña Cono Sur has made a strong commitment to organic grapegrowing in Chile, and he now has 850-plus acres of vines under organic practices, second in the country only to Viñedos Emiliana (the sister company of Concha y Toro, which owns Cono Sur). Cono Sur is currently exporting 120,000 cases to the United States, and most of that is superb values such as their 20 Barrels line ($20 to $25) and Visión line ($15).
Even though he was making the rounds through the U.S., Hurtado was still in the midst of harvest back home. The 2011 season has run very late in Chile, similar to 2010's, due to a rainy, cold spring that got things off to a late start.
"We're at least two weeks-and in some places three weeks-behind," said Hurtado, noting that late harvests have been more of a trend lately. "We're seeing a shift in all the season though-everything is starting later and ending later than usual. So, when we say we are 14 days later than normal, it's becoming harder to say what 'normal' really is."
The 2011 crop is ripening nicely though, according to Hurtado, at alcohols that are a full degree lower than in the past.
"We're seeing Sauvignon Blanc for instance ripe at 11 or 11.5 [potential degrees of alcohol] as opposed to 12 or 12.5. On one hand, we have some doubt when we see that because we compare it to past history that was higher, but on the other hand, the ripeness is there, so we're confident in the quality. We like the aromas and the freshness we're seeing in the wines."
Water, or lack thereof, is becoming an issue for Chilean wineries though, who typically store winter rainfall in reservoirs for irrigation during the typically dry growing season. The last two winters have been drier than usual though, putting a strain on reserves.
"If we don't get a wet winter this season, there are going to be some problems," said Hurtado.
Due to the drought, the 2011 crop is averaging reduction in yields of about 20 percent. Following the industry's 125-million liter wine loss from the earthquake of 2009 and the smaller crop of 2010, there's now some price pressure on grapes in the industry. With the peso at unusual lows versus the dollar, the squeeze is on for Chilean producers who still have to fight for shelf space in the U.S. market—Concha y Toro recently announced increased sales in the U.S. but reduced profits (reported via M. Shanken News Daily, a free, daily industry news e-mail which you can sign up for).
Neil Patterson, winemaker at South Africa's L'Ormarins estate, also stopped by last week.
Patterson, just 31, started at Rupert & Rothschild before moving to L'Ormarins in 2003, starting as a self-proclaimed "cellar rat" before moving up to his current position as cellar master.
While the winery initially positioned itself at the high end with its individual, small-production Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings under the Anthonij Rupert label (at around $80 each retail), it's been working on a value-priced brand which it is now set to unveil in the U.S. market. The Protea line, featuring varietal bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, all retailing for under $20, is set to debut in the U.S. market.
"We have four estates growing fruit and we had been selling off what we weren't using for the Anthonij Rupert wines. But there was real good quality there and as more plantings have come on line, we now have the volume we need to produce a really good value line that overdelivers," said Patterson.
The Protea line totals 45,000 cases to start but it has room to grow.
Patterson is also unveiling a middle-tier line labeled Cape of Good Hope, for site-specific whites and reds, that should retail for about half the price of the top-end Anthonij Rupert line. The wines will be sourced from individual vineyards and then bottled with the specific grower's name on the label.
"For example, we found some growers up in Citrusdal (a wine district well north of Stellenbosch), which has really, really cool nights, so the acids in the grapes are very fresh," said Patterson. "They have Sémillon and Chenin Blanc there that had been going to the local co-op. But the funny thing is they were being penalized because their acidities were too high for what the co-op wanted. So now we're going to work with them and bottle their wines on their own."
While the Anthonij Rupert line has helped set a qualitative bar for South African wine, the new lines—both in terms of volume and breadth—will be welcome additions to a growing field of diverse South African offerings in the U.S.
As usual, formal reviews of the new wines based on blind tastings will appear in the near future.
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