Friday, October 18, 2013

Matetic Vineyards: Chilean Cool Climate Syrah & More

While sipping iced tea at Crema Cafe in Harvard Square, I flipped through the latest issue of Decanter (October 2013), which was devoted to the wines of South America. Later that evening, I had dinner plans at Park Restaurant to meet a representative of Matetic Vineyards, a Chilean winery. Within the pages of Decanter, I found multiple references to Matetic, including raves for three of their wines, two Syrahs and a Pinot Noir. There was even a rave for the hotel at their winery. I was even more excited then for dinner, to get to taste through some of the wines of Matetic.

Arturo Larrain, pictured above, is the General Manager of Matetic Vineyards and was my host for dinner, sharing the story of the winery and tasting me through eight of their wines. He was personable and knowledgeable, and it was quite an enjoyable evening with plenty of tasty and impressive wines.

The history of the winery extends back over 100 years, to 1892, when the Matetic family immigrated to Chile from Croatia, settling in the region of Patagonia. You probably didn't know, and neither did I, that Chile contains one of the largest Croatian communities outside of Europe. Escaping from war, oppression and disease, Croatians started arriving in Chile around 1864, as Chile offered them land in the sparsely populated Patagonia area. In Patagonia, the Matetic family got involved in agriculture and eventually moved north, to the San Antonio Valley where they settled in the Rosario Valley, a subdivision of San Antonio.

They entered the timber business, planted organic blueberries and raised cows, lambs and sheep. In fact, currently, they are one of the largest producers of lamb in Chile. They also make a special sheep's milk cheese called Rosario. Wanting to continue diversifying, Jorge Matetic and his brother Cristian, the third generation in Chile, decided to plant a vineyard, and in 1999, planted their first vines, mainly Syrah. As they had no experience with wine making, they hired three consultants from California to assist them, including Alan York (of Benzinger Vineyards), Ann Kraemer (a Napa viticulturalist), and Ken Barnards (of Ancien Vineyards).

The winery now owns about 120 hectares of vineyards, all which are certified organic and Biodynamic. Alan York is also a Biodynamics consultant and he helped the Matetics move in that direction. Their vineyards grow nine different grapes, including Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah. They produced the first cool-climate Syrah in Chile, and with their success, other wineries began producing their own cool-climate Syrahs too. Now, many consider Syrah to be the signature grape of the San Antonio Valley. In 2004, the Matetics constructed a state of the art winery, and their chief winemaker is Julio Bastias.

When I visited Chile two years ago, many winemakers commented that Chile was still in the process of learning which grapes grew best in various locations. And Arturo echoed their sentiments, that Chile is still immersed in that process, though making some forward strides,such as realizing how well Syrah grows in the San Antonio Valley.

With their cool climate, including large diurnal to nocturnal temperature swings, their wines always have good acidity. In general, they produce wines to be paired with food, a more European outlook. About 60% of their production is exported, to around 30 countries, with the U.S. and China being their two largest markets. In the U.S., the wines are imported by Quintessential Wines and have been distributed for about a year in Massachusetts by Classic Wine Imports. Interestingly in China, Matetic needs to sell their wines, primarily reds, in only Bordeaux-style bottles as the Chinese dislike wines in Burgundy-style bottles. Just a strange quirk.

Matetic produces two different lines, Corralillo and EQ. "Corralillo," which means "corral," is also the name of a century old wine cellar and winery, located in the Rosario valley, which once produced wine from Mission grapes. The label has a stylized horse, which reflects some of the ancient art found in nearby caves. Corralillo wines are intended to be younger wines, easy to drink, with plenty of fruit expression. "EQ" stands for equilibrium, wines where they seek a balanced harmony of vineyard, climate, and winemaking. On the label, there is a Mapuche symbol for balance. EQ wines are intended to possess more depth, complexity, and weight as well as reflect terroir.

For the tasting, we had four pairs of wines, a Corralillo and EQ of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Overall, my favorites were the Syrahs with the Pinot Noirs taking second place. All of the wines are reasonably priced, pair well with food, and are indicative of the potential of Chilean wines.

The 2012 Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc is from a vineyard in the San Antonio Valley, located about 12 miles from the Pacific ocean. It was fermented in stainless steel and sat on the lees,without stirring, for 4-5 months. It is fresh, clean and crisp with flavors of grapefruit and citrus, lacking any grassy notes. The 2012 EQ Sauvignon Blanc (about $16), is from a vineyard in the Casablanca Valley, located about five miles from the ocean. The vineyard yields about 30% less than the San Antonio vineyard, and is also a much cooler area. It too sits on the lees, but they are stirred during the ageing period. This creates a more complex and richer wine, with grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors as well as some herbal notes and minerality. For the amount of complexity, I think this is a good buy. These wines pair well with seafood, including oysters, ceviche and raw fish.

The 2009 Corralillo Chardonnay ($20), from Casablanca Valley, was 70% fermented in French oak, 10-15% new, and then spent ten months in the barrel. Matetic only uses French oak for their wines. It is crisp and dry, with prominent fruit flavors of lemon, pear and green apple. Simple and pleasant. The
2009 EQ Chardonnay ($25), from San Antonia Valley, comes from two vineyard blocks, one on a hillside facing North and the other facing South. It is barrel fermented, about 25-30% new, undergoes longer barrel ageing, and about 50% malolactic fermentation. This wine had a richer mouth feel with flavors of honey, peach, green apple and pineapple. The oak presence is noticeable but muted, and in subsequent vintages, they will be using less oak and less malolactic, seeking to rely more on the fruit. This wine would pair well with richer foods, such as salmon, tuna, bacalao, or a creamy pasta sauce.

Curiously, though Chile possesses a lengthy coastline, and the opportunity to catch plenty of seafood, many Chileans do not eat much seafood because it is too expensive. Instead, they eat far more chicken, beef and lamb. While in Chile, I enjoyed some delicious Patagonian lamb, though one of my favorite dishes was a Crabmeat & Cheese Pie (pictured above). That would have went very well with the EQ Chardonnay.

Onto the red wines....

The 2010 Corralillo Pinot Noir ($20-$22), from the San Antonio Valley, comes from 6 blocks in the vineyard and each block is fermented separately, in open top tanks. Wild yeasts are used, and once blended, the wine ages for 10-11 months in the barrel, about 15% new. With a deep purplish-red color, this is a more fruit forward Pinot, with plenty of red and black cherry tastes, complemented by a mild spicy backbone. It lacks any off-putting green/vegetal notes, which I have previously encountered in some other Chilean Pinots. At this price point, it delivers well.

The 2009 EQ Pinot Noir comes from the same region but a different vineyard, which has a lower yield. It spends about 12 months in the barrel, 30% new, and also possesses a dark purplish-red color. It possesses greater concentration and complexity, with deep red and black fruit flavors, including cherry, raspberry and ripe plum, and more prominent spicy notes accompanied by a mild earthiness. It is well balanced with a lengthy, satisfying finish and is an excellent example of how well Chile can make Pinot Noir in the right region. Highly recommended.

Matetic's main fame comes from Syrah and based on my tasting, it is well deserved. Though it should be noted that Syrah, for some strange reason, can be a tough sell in the U.S. Australian Shiraz has sold well in the U.S., but California producers have often had difficulty selling their Syrah wines. So, Matetic choosing Syrah as their signature grape is in someways a courageous decision. However, if that is the grape which does best in their vineyards, then that is what they should grow. Personally, I enjoy Syrah wines and don't see why others wouldn't enjoy them too.

The 2009 Corralillo Syrah ($25), produced from a low yielding vineyard, spent about 12 months in the barrel, 35% new. Dark in color, this is a deep and spicy wine, with juicy black fruit flavors, restrained tannins, and some floral notes. There is more elegance than power to this wine and it went great with the steak I had for dinner. It is a wine made for meat, from beef to lamb.

The 2008 EQ Syrah ($40), which had been opened earlier that morning, and generally should be decanted for at least two hours, is a blend of mostly Syrah, with a littlebit of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It also spent 12 months in the barrel, 55% new, and had an alchohol content of 14.5%, though this was a hot vintage and it is usually 14%. Arturo also suggested that the wine should be cooled down a bit in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before drinking. This is a bigger and more complex Syrah than the Corralillo, with lots of spice and flavors of ripe plum, figs and violets. Beneath these prominent flavors, there are also hints of others, intriguing tastes that enhance the melange. Despite its power, it still retains elegance and restrained tannins, accompanied by a very lengthy finish. This wine also went great with my steak. Highly recommended. Get over your aversion to Syrah and explore the wonderful wines that this grape can produce.

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