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U.S. expert talks Chilean wine: export prospects and what to try in 2012

Under the alias “James the Wine Guy,” San Francisco-based wine writer, public speaker, videographer and “wine evangelical” James Meléndez produces his own digital wine reviews, in which he shares his infectious passion and formidable knowledge on all things enological.

Photo by Erik Anestad/Flickr.

Photo by Erik Anestad/Flickr.

Wines of Chile interviewed the industry expert to get his views on Chilean wine, what he’ll be drinking in 2012, and what the prospects are for Chilean exporters to the world’s biggest wine market – the United States.

Meléndez on Chilean wine

Meléndez describes the Chilean wine story as one of a Bordeaux tradition, infused with a hint of the Rhône valley, anchored in a diverse yet unique environment and being led in exciting new directions by “visionary” wine makers.

“Chile has a great wine growing climate and great micro-climates that produce extremely high quality wines,” he said. “It’s a narrow country, but a very long one, and when you think about it, there is more terrior variety there than anywhere else in the world – from desert through to Mediterranean environments.”

But despite the huge diversity of premium wines already offered, Meléndez is adamant that the best of Chilean wine is yet to be discovered in his country.

“Chile can stand up to any other wine producing region in the world,” he said, “and I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what people should be tasting from Chile.”

What to try in 2012

Chilean reds have already made a name for themselves around the world, but for Meléndez the white wine from this Andean country is every bit as competitive.

“Sauvignon Blanc is really prime for picking,” he said. “It’s just an amazing grape varietal unto itself, but when it comes from Chile, it can hold up to any Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world.”

On the red wine front, Meléndez was particularly enthusiastic about Chilean Carmenere – an ancient European grape variety thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chile, where it had been unknowingly preserved for over 150 years.

“I think the Carmenere story is vastly interesting and still not totally understood by the American drinking public,” he said.

Just as the story of Carmenere plays a part in its seduction, Meléndez said he’s keen on Chile’s independent vineyards as a source for innovation within the industry.

“The Maipo Valley’s Haras de Pirque vineyard, which is horseshoe-shaped and also a thoroughbred farm, is very, very cool,” Meléndez said. “They have innovative wines and those are the kinds of storied wines that I think the U.S. public really appreciates.”

And while some purists have yet to come around to it, Meléndez was enthusiastic about blended wine, a technique which he says demonstrates “finesse and confidence” of local winemakers.

“Chile is coming up with some amazing quality blends that are on par with anything that you might find in France or in California.”

“I’ve been tasting a lot of high-quality and unique [Chilean blend] wines, and I think that what you’re getting is great quality that you might have to pay double or triple for from another region in the world.”

Some of the blends that Meléndez suggests are the Syrah-Carbenet Sauvignons of Chono San Lorenzo, blends from the Terra Mater and De Martino wineries, and the Clos Apalta wine from Casa Lapostolle, a wine that he describes as “just a stellar, stunning, white wine.”

U.S. export prospects

The California-based wine guru believes that Chile, with its unique flavors, has great potential to expand its white wine market in the U.S.

“Around 90 percent of Chilean wines in United States are reds,” Meléndez said. “You might find a Chardonnay or a few well-known labels, but there’s an opportunity to try some of the beautiful, not grassy but citrusy, almost white-pitted fruit flavor notes that come from Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.”

His second piece of advice: don’t cut back on wine promotion.

“Wines of Chile has worked extremely hard to promote Chilean wine just about everyplace that I’ve been to in the world, be it in Austria, Spain, England, Italy or Hong Kong,” said Meléndez.

But with a constant flood of new wines into the U.S. marketplace, he says, it’s important that consumers don’t get distracted by other offerings. Meléndez cites the example of Australian Shiraz, which, after gaining popularity in the U.S., cut back on marketing and subsequently lost out on hard-won gains.

“There is still an opportunity to introduce Chilean wines [to the U.S. market] and to re-introduce them and reinvigorate the drinking public to enjoy them. Tasting is believing, so if more wines are presented for tasting then I think that more people are going to seek them out.”

Photo by Erik Anestad/Flickr.

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