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Tasting notes from Chile

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on Chile, North to South.


I warmed to owner Horacio Vicente (right) immediately as he greeted me at his modest winery, rather tucked away from the main tourist routes of the Aconcagua, but doing a roaring trade at their popular 'cellar door' wine shop. "The cellar door is our main sales channel for the local market," he tells me. "It saves us fighting with everyone else for a space in the supermarkets."

This pragmatic attitude set the tone for my visit, and indeed seems to inform the whole operation. Not that Horatio's ambition for the estate is in any way lacking: indeed he is one of the most single-minded, thoughtful and focused wine producers in Chile. Horatio's father started the farm as a grape grower in 1974, meaning there is genuine old vine material here. Having moved into bulk wine production in 1992, it was not until Horatio took over running the company that they finally established their own bottled wine label in 2000.

Today they farm 120 hectares sustainably, with synthetic herbicides and pesticides used only as a last resort. But some plots are fully organic certified, where the conditions are right. Horatio and his young winemaker Juan José Olea know every inch of their estate, which has plantings on both the valley floor and up into the hillsides.

Horatio explains that the valley floor is planted on sandy and alluvial soils, whilst the hillsides here are very friable, fractured rock. On the hill there is never any need to acidify the wines unlike the wines from the valley floor. The Valley floor gives softer tannins and earthier flavours; the hillside firmer tannins but more fruit-driven flavours.

San Esteban's 'In Situ' label is the one that comes to the UK and is a beautifully conceived wine brand. Horatio's pragmatic approach to his consumer-driven business also shows him to be single minded and fearless: "We are switching from using 70% French and 30% American oak for our Carmenère to a 50/50 balance," he tells me. Speaking to a wine journalist, this is tantamount to confessing a crime - the mood for serious wines worldwide is so firmly against American, and for French, oak. "I know it is not a very cool think to say," laughs Horatio, "but there is so much snobbery about French oak and the fact is American suits Carmenère - and when you actually test it, consumers love it."

white wines

San Esteban is imported into the UK by Delibo Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

In Situ Winemaker's Selection Chardonnay 2009
2,000 cases only, fermented and aged in French oak, the top white. Nice cashew and almond notes, with some apple and riper, more melony fruit. 87/100. £7.99, Oxford Wine Co.

In Situ Late-Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2008
Rather oxidised character, with some Sherried qualities to the fruit. Palate is brighter, with a more lemony freshness, but this is not showing well and I doubt if it is a representative bottle (tasted way up in the vineyards so no second bottle available).

red wines

In Situ Estate Bottled Reserva Syrah Rosé 2009
Made from 100% organic grapes, as a bleed-off from the high-end Syrah, around 5% was fermented in French oak. Big, rich, red fruit nose, with lots of summer pudding fruits. The palate has good weight, though there's a slightly tart, bitter lemon note set against 5.6g/l of residual sugar that just give a touch sweet/sour. 86/100. Not yet in UK, but would be £5.99.

In Situ Estate Bottled Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
50% of wine in older oak barrels. Nice tobacco and gentle herbal aromas, with a plumy, sweet, quite gamy edge beneath. A touch of mint. On the palate there is a fruit sweetness here, with just a little cloying hint, but then the acidity freshens it. 86/100. £5.99.

In Situ Signature Wines Syrah Cabernet 2008
Organic farmed, but the vineyard in conversion, so not certified. Some new oak in this blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lots of attractive, meaty, pepper and spice aromas, with lots of mulberry fruit. Mouth-filling and rich, with bold, dense black fruit, the Cabernet adds a grippy, robust finish. 87/100. £6.99.

In Situ Winemaker's Selection Syrah 2008
Sweet, rich black berry fruit. Nice and bold, but maintains a cool, only very lightly earthy and leafy character. The palate has thick, black plum and cherry, with really quite a fleshy palate weight and rounded, svelte tannins. Good balance here, and a lot of wine for the money 89/100. £7.99.

In Situ Winemaker's Selection Carmenère 2008
10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Try to pick just after the vegetative, green period for Carmenère, but before it becomes over-ripe. Quite a dusty, earthy aroma, with a meaty edge, and solid black fruit. On the palate Really nice extraction - not overdone, but has grip. 87/100. £8.99.

In Situ Gran Reserva Carmenère 2008
More new oak in this line. Five percent each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Big, dusty, cassis and blueberry nose, with lots of coffee and spice, and a hint of rich mocha. The palate has real fruit sweetness, with a mid-palate weight and good intensity, the sweet, smooth tannins and nice black cherry skin bite. 89/100. £9.99.

In Situ Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
5% each of Carmenère and Cabernet Franc. Very elegant, very soft berry fruit. Some smokiness and a certain schisty, gravelly quality. The palate has delightful fruit, a rich, sweet, rounded silky texture and sweet fruit. The palate has lovely length and elegance. 89/100 £9.99.

In Situ Laguna del Inca 2008
40% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Carmenère. Big, quite plush nose, with a richness and cedary, polished wood quality. There is a depth of something earthy and smoky, the fruit on the palate is savoury and lithe, with sinewy tannins and a nicely poised, elegant, quite classic finish. 91/100. £14.99.

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