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Patagonian Wine Cruise

What do you do when a shipment of 36 cases of premium wines shows up late at the dock in small-town Punta Arenas hours after an adventure cruise ship in remote Patagonia has weighed anchor with 20 wine writers and almost 50 winemakers on board?

If you’re the people who run Wines of Chile, you go to Plan B, although there is no Plan B.  So you invent one.  You hire two drivers and two four-wheel-drive vehicles to navigate mostly unpaved roads for 14 hours uninterrupted to arrive at a solitary naval communications outpost at the head of a glacier-dotted fjord where three inflatable Zodiacs from the ship-en-route pick them up in time for some rejiggered tasting sessions and, oh yes, the farewell dinner.

To me, this story, which I observed earlier this week first hand as one of the journalists on board, illustrates the nature of the Chilean wine industry itself: tenacious and determined, imaginative and resourceful and, above all, very skillful at whatever they set their minds to.

The almost four-day trip aboard the Via Australis served two purposes.  First, it was an intensive immersion in Chilean wines, with six tastings of almost 100 bottles while living day-to-day with the people who made them.  Second, it gave us the opportunity to experience close up one geographic backdrop of Chile among the glaciers, penguins and seals of the Strait of Magellan and its mountainous bays.

Here are some first thoughts:

Chile is developing some very interesting red blends, mostly from traditional Bordeaux varieties, especially Carmenere and Cabs.  Noted bottles were from Montes, Estampa and Errazuriz.

Additionally, there are very good red varietals and blends from what they refer to as “Mediterranean” grapes, several of them from old vines.  Noted bottles were from Undurraga, Morande, Casa Silva and Gillmore.

The cool-climate whites, especially an array of Sauvignon Blancs, are stunning in their quality and diversity.  Noted bottles were from Leyda, Santa Rita, Montes, Casa Silva, Koyle and Apaltagua.

Cabs are still the bread-and-butter of Chilean reds.  Noted bottles were from Aresti, Miguel Torres, Intriga, Undurraga, Apaltagua and Concha y Toro.

Chilean Pinot Noirs are still a work-in-progress, as they are in most countries whose name does not begin with an “F.”  But I did enjoy the ones from Unurragua, Garces Silva and Montes.

Additionally I liked very much the Pais from San Pedro and the Ventisquero Syrah/Merlot blend.

There is a danger in any country branding itself for its diversity – where’s the focus? – but at the same time there is no denying that Chile has quite a few tasty options for those who don’t mind a little exploring in the vineyards lying hundreds of miles north of the chill of Patagonia.

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