With the application of a little creative mojo and email grovelling, I went to the XV Feria Vinos de Chile at the Plaza San Francisco hotel in downtown Santiago this evening. (Quick deets: Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 2 6:30-10:30)
The hotel looks like this:
But the even itself takes place in a tent outside the hotel. This is not because they don't trust you inside the hotel, it's because the space is not really big enough inside the hotel to house this event, which is quite giant and also, who doesn't like walking around in a giant white tent a on carpeted concrete for several hours, only to have to go into the hotel to find a restroom later? Ahem.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty. But not gritty. Because though wine can be cloudy (though this is a defect), it should never, ever be gritty.
So. If you want to know about Chilean wines, you should definitely check out Wines of Chile because first of all, they have a map that shows you where all the wine is produced in Chile, and it's not all in the central region (near Santiago) and towards the coast, though these are certainly the wines that your average consumer has the most familliarity with. They also have people all over the country dedicated to bringing you the latest news on great harvests, innovative production, and other wine news. Also the website is pretty, and hey, did you see a new Chilean products store opened in New York?
If you want to read the (as is generally the case, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) description of a well-attended brush-your-shoulders-with-oenophiles event held in a tent outside a hotel in downtown Santiago, you should read here.
The event costs non "club de lectores" from El Mercurio 13,900 CLP, which is about 25 dollars (members of this club get a 25% discount). For that sum, you're given a tasting glass which may be filled and refilled, and poured out, and rinsed with Puyehue spring water again and again. With around 50 local and foreign vineyards to choose from, and each vineyard tasting a number of wines (as many as eight or ten), it's not a bad way to learn your way around the wine varieties, picking out notes you like, and learning which ones to avoid.
In the middle of the first salon, they had this handy table set up to explain the various notes you might find in each wine, with samples of each smell. I found this incredibly clever, and was happy to see that they used the actual item in question (peaches, for example), and not something synthetic to represent the smell. People were actually sniffing the carafes at some point, though not when I snapped this shot.
The sommeliers and enologists and other assorted wine experts were endlessly patient, explaining note after note, wine after wine and telling me which wines I would like. I admit to spending extra time at Cono Sur because a) they have a bicycle on some of their wine labels and do bike tours of the vineyards and b) their wines run a broad range of prices, including ones for less than US $5 that you can find at the supermarket.
When this gent started asking me what temperature I like to drink my pinot noir at, I admitted ignorance (and had never feigned otherwise) I later ran into a wine expert friend of mine, and she explained that in Chile it's drunk cool, whereas in the U.S. it tends to be drunk at room temperature. Here I was assured that this would be one of the best pinot noirs I would try all night.
And do you know? He was right.
I had a very elaborate system of frownie faces and words like bitter, astringent, sour and ashy in a little book which I would whip out on occasion to record the (in my opinion) sinkers, and the corresponding smiley faces with words like strong, true, clear and fruity next to the (in my opinion) winners.
The point for a rank amateur like myself to going to an event like this was several fold. First, I wanted to find out about enoturismo, or wine tourism in Chile, because I know it's an incipient industry and I want to know about its more top, middle and lower echelons (if these exist). Second, I wanted to get a better feel for how a neophyte would be treated at such an event, before I recommend to others that they go. I have been to several vendimias (wine harvest festivals), but these are generally cheaper (5,000 pesos or so), and have a different, more accessible vibe. The sense that you got here was that people really know their wine, know what they like, which parts of the vineyard have more or less of this or that element in the soil and how this affects wine quality, could compare a variety of wine from one year to the next, and pronounce one more sweet or one more dry. But how would I be treated as a person who willingly admitted to being not a wine expert?
The answer was, fabulously well.
However, wine notwithstanding (and I managed to taste a really wide variety, and could even taste the pepperyness of a sauvingon blanc from Santa Ema, but that may have just been the power of suggestion), there were several recurring complaints that wooshed through the crowd. The food came late, there were not enough waiters. They carried their food up high over their heads so only the very tall could access it, as they tried to get into other parts of the room. The champagne was corked at a specific time, and then there were no flutes to be had. The food itself was odd. Tiny sandwiches, plates of creamy risotto served with small forks, then spoons. Raw oysters with what appeared to be lemon sorbet on top. Ceviche in small cups (this was our group's favorite), and gyozas, or maybe they were empanadas. Later, pasta was plated, one with tomato and meat sauce, one with shrimp and avocado, and the overcooked gnocchi that I hungrily downed was drowning in a creamy cheesy sauce. After everyone's hunger was sated, solidifying plates of risotto appeared at every turn.
The moral of the story is, if you've got the cash to lay down, and a free night between Thurs and Fri, arrive early, but not hungry. Pace yourself and you will get a chance to try tons of your favorites, but not many very elite wines. Oh, and wear comfortable shoes. Even carpeted sidewalk is just sidewalk afterall. Though I suppose you could always sit down on the side of the fountain and take a rest.
Brought to you by Nikon (camera), Rockford (boots), more than two dozen sips of wine and the nice people at the feria who opened a velvet rope for me like I was at an old fashioned movie theater on the way in. And now ends the first installation of Bearshapedsphere pretends she's posh for a second and then remembers she's not.