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Chile Brings It [To the Table]: Shaking Off Its Bargain Image, Chile is Winning New Admirers On-Premise

Posted on  | April 1, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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The American table is a many-splendored thing. We love ethnic cuisine, but comfort food hits the spot, too. Fine dining is a form of entertainment for many; casual dining is a way of life for even more. Grilling is king for some, vegetarian rules for others. It’s a moving target, with perhaps the only constant being that we like to eat well—and drink well. And Chile—anchored by value and fueled by quality and diversity—is increasingly becoming part of the American dining picture.

One important aspect of America’s evolving wine and food scene is that wine choices are no longer led, leashlike, by the cuisine. In hindsight, French wines gained their foothold—and lofty reputation—here largely thanks to haute cuisine. And Italian vino for years was the expected default for Italian restaurants. The scene today is more eclectic and less regimented, which is a positive thing for restaurants and diners alike.

Conversations with wine directors at numerous restaurants contacted for this article revealed no revolution—as in restaurants suddenly devoting entire chunks of their wine list to Chile, or sommeliers claiming Carmenère is the new Malbec. Rather, the progress of Chile at the table is a case of positive incremental steps, by the glass and the bottle, cutting across multiple types of venues as wine pros tap into a deep and broad pool of varietal and blended wines. In short, Chile’s rising on-premise profile is happening naturally, based on merit, not hype.

Versatility and Value

Rodrigo Davila, beverage director for the Texas de Brazil group of restaurants, has rotated a variety of Chilean wines on his lists. The reds pair well with the beef-heavy Churrascaria fare, but the whites also are especially versatile. He sees Sauvignon Blanc emerging as a signature Chilean white—crisp with acidity, but not as aggressively sharp as New Zealand—ideal for seafood and salads. With a plethora of brands and varieties that can be listed at modest price points, Chilean wines have proven to be a rather popular target of server recommendations. A special feature page on the list devoted to Santa Rita was so successful that they kept it going for a full year, and staged six Santa Rita dinners in 2011.  

At The Palm in Atlanta, Willy Cellucci doubles as the GM and national director of wine. He is a huge fan of Terrapura Chardonnay, which they go through cases pouring by the glass. “It’s light and balanced, and doesn’t hit you with heavy oak,” he says. “It’s a very flexible, enjoyable wine—and a terrific value.” He observes that as Americans have come to be more knowledgeable about wine in general, they are “very open” to Chile, and by-the-glass is a particularly good place for the wines. “California has surrendered a reasonable price by the glass from recognized appellations,” he says. “Australia has lived up to its reputation as consistent and meeting expectation, but in Chilean wine, there is a chance to be really outstanding at the price point. It’s a region on the come. It’s exciting.”

One theme came up frequently when talking to beverage professionals who need to balance the bottom line with issues of taste and variety: Chile has shifted upward from the days when calling it a bargain was considered a compliment. Marian Jansen op de Haar, whose consulting firm Vines 57 works with Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, believes that the new “value” prospect for Chilean wines is seen in wines like Viña Koyle Cabernet Sauvignon, whose intensity and long finish help it overdeliver compared to other Cabernets that retail in the teens. Similarly, Harry Joannides, GM at Bar Six in Manhattan, has been pouring the De Martino “Legado” Syrah by the glass for five months straight. “The wine tastes more expensive than it is,” he declares. “It is rich, ripe, smooth. But not over the top. And it matches well with a lot of our food.”

Roots of Quality

In the real-world context of restaurant dining most of what happens before the wine gets uncorked is out of sight and out of mind, but the quality message-in-the-bottle is not lost on sommeliers. David Lombardo, wine and beverage director for at the Benchmarc group in NYC, summarizes his take on Chile succinctly: “The wines are a fantastic blend of old world highlights with new world accessibility. Still a great value through and through. One of my favorite aspects is the diversity of the land enabling so many different classic grapes to thrive and shine.”

Fred Dexheimer, a Master Sommelier and consultant who has traveled to Chile often, credits several factors that he sees coming to fruition right now. “This next generation of winemakers is very precise,” says Dexheimer. “Many are from the Northern hemisphere and work two harvests, so they have broad experience.” He adds that technology in Chile is state-of-the-art, not only in production facilities but also in the vineyard, where infrared scanners have helped growers match varieties to soil types. Some Chilean regions have become well known in the trade, such as Casablanca for Sauvignon Blanc, he notes, priming forward-thinking wine pros for the latest buzz—such as the Bio Bio Valley for Pinot Noir.

With an increasing number of labels reaching the U.S., not to mention new blends, single-vineyard and reserve-level wines, a restaurant wine buyer’s Chilean options are greater than ever. Yet Dexheimer sees two vital common threads, both of which pack extra appeal for on-premise. One is “purity of fruit,” across wine types and regions—which is something Americans seek out, especially in New World wines. Another is the emergence of a “middle tier” of wines that can be listed from $40 to $60 and stand out from their comparably priced peers from other countries.

When contacted for this article, San Diego-based Cohn Restaurant Group Wine Director Maurice DiMarino, he was just preparing to do a seminar for the staff at Island Prime. Some of the Chilean reds they have featured by the glass at Island Prime include Veramonte “Primus,” Concha y Toro “Marques de Casa Concha” and Novas Carmenère/Cabernet. By the bottle they have had success with Clos Apalta, Antiyal, Coyam, Peñalolén and Domus Aurea. He says they have done well with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, too. When presenting Chile as such, DiMarino covers regions and varieties, even history and organic farming. This being a business, though he also discusses food compatibility; the bottom line for a server is to be able to efficiently communicate the quality-in-the-glass message. Interestingly, he discovered that at Island Prime, a steak house, Chilean wines sell better when listed within the category of Cabernet/Bordeaux blends, rather than as “unique red blends” or South American wines. By contrast, at the more casual, attached C-Level bistro, the opposite is true.

Of course, it takes a wine list of a certain size to be able to experiment with which section Chile works best in. Many small-restaurant wine buyers are faced with a well-stocked stream of prime quality/price-ratio Chilean candidates, from which they pick a choice few, and then happily promote. In Evanston, IL, at The Stained Glass, the only Chilean red is Axel 2008, a Colchagua Cabernet made by Viña La Playa. Buyer Al Cirillo likes it because it excels among his Cabs under $50. Also, he explained, “I’m not too hip on too much oak. This one is just right, and it goes great with lamb and bigger meats.”

Essentially, the progress of Chile on-premise is being fueled by similar successes, often one or two listings at a time. With few restaurants featuring extensive South American lists, and with a wide selection of both established and up-and-coming brands, there is a surprisingly eclectic feel to Chilean wine’s rising on-premise profile. Some restaurants will develop a rotation of go-to wines; others will pump a couple of favorites. Carlo Momo, founder and owner of the Terramomo restaurant group in New Jersey, has long been a Chile aficionado, in part because his father is Chilean. He is proud to say his family helped launch Montes wines in Central Jersey two decades ago. Since Montes has gained familiarity, he now leans toward more boutique brands, including Casablanca-based Kingston Family wines and Maipo-based Tres Palacios. “The staff really gets behind the wines,” he notes.

Overall, it is safe to say that Chilean wines are succeeding on-premise best in situations where they have a chance to stand out as distinctive, new and interesting. No one expects an entire Chilean section on a list. What they do expect, and receive, is quality in the glass—which often comes with the added bonus of being comparably easy on the wallet.

Goes With Home-Cooking, Too

While the situation on-premise often boils down to a choice selection of Chilean wines, based on a particular restaurant’s needs, goals and menu/list opportunities, it’s important to keep in mind the characteristics that have made them more appealing to restaurants in the first place. Balance. Purity of fruit. Varietal correctness. Food compatibility. Bang for the buck. These qualities are exactly what Americans are looking for to have with dinner at home tonight. And in a store, shoppers usually have a chance to browse and choose from a couple fistfuls of Chilean options, not just a select few.

At Suburban Wines & Spirits in Yorktown Heights, NY, Michael Koehler, the store’s buyer for both Spain and South America, is frequently asked to suggest wines that are likely going to be uncorked within days if not hours. Regarding Carmenère, he is quick to remind customers that, despite this grape’s relative novelty and South American origin, Carmenère should not be thought of as the Chilean Malbec. In fact, Koehler says, most people scouting for Chilean red wine usually already like Cabernet Sauvignon. In that case, he says, “It doesn’t take much effort to put a Carmenère into their hands. It’s different and fun, but has the weight of a Cab and makes a better comparison than Malbec.”

Chilean wines are established enough that some brands—Montes, Concha y Toro, MontGras, Los Vascos, Root: 1, Santa Rita and Casa Lapostolle, et al—make fine wines and have good consumer recognition. What excites Koehler, however, is the expanding range of small, high-quality producers delivering excellent quality at varied price points. Among Carmenères, he likes Emiliana’s Natura label under $10, Chono (organic) in the low teens and Maquis, “a knockout” for closer to $20. He also raves about Aresti Cabernet, Quintay and Tabali Syrahs, and Leyda Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. He thinks the “sweet spot” for value from Chile these days is $10-$15 per bottle retail.

Given that the bulk of Chilean wines that get listed at restaurants are under $50, it seems that the profusion of high-quality, affordable wines from Chile is something both on- and off-premise wine professionals can confidently get behind. 


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