James Meléndez – otherwise known as “James the Wine Guy” – describes himself as a “storehouse of knowledge on both sides of the pouring table.” And with a three-year stint as wine marketing manager at a retail chain in the United States, plus an infectious passion for his Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs, it’s hard to argue with him.
This is Chile contacted the San Francisco-based wine writer, public speaker, videographer and “evangelical” to hear his thoughts on the state of the Chilean wine industry and what wines he’ll be sipping in 2012.
Meléndez on Chilean Wine
“One thing about Chilean wines that amazes me is that in just one generation, quality has so vastly improved,” Meléndez said.
“It’s such an amazing product that it’s not just a Tuesday or a Wednesday wine – that is, a wine of lesser quality or a less expensive wine – Chile is a seven-day-a-week wine-producing nation. And I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what people should be tasting from Chile.”
Meléndez describes Chile’s wine tradition as an “homage” to famed French Bordeaux style, mixed with a Rhône influence and infused with visionary wine makers and a unique environment – resulting in a product that “can stand up to any other wine producing region in the world.”
“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 terroir variety there than anywhere else in the world – from desert through to Mediterranean environments.”
And, according to Meléndez, in addition to having great variety, Chilean wine is generally a sure bet.
“Sometimes people are looking for what is the – quote unquote – new trend, but I think that the important thing is dependably well-made wines year after year, vintage on vintage… and Chile is representative of that.”
Brands and varieties to try in 2012
Carmenere: Meléndez was particularly enthusiastic about this ancient European grape variety, which was thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in Chile, where it had been preserved for over 150 years by accident – farmers thought that they were cultivating Bordeaux Merlot.
“I think the Carmenere story is vastly interesting and still not totally understood by the American drinking public,” he said.
Meléndez describes the horseshoe-shaped vineyard and thoroughbred farm of Maipo Valley’s Haras de Pirque as “very, very cool.”
“They have innovative wines and those are the kinds of storied wines that I think the U.S. public really appreciates,” he said, noting that the varietal has bright prospects for growth in the future, as it’s difficult to find in the United States outside of the big markets of California, Chicago and New York.
White wine: “Around 90 percent of Chilean wines in United States are reds – you might find a Chardonnay or a few well-known labels, but there is an opportunity to try some of the just beautiful – not grassy but citrusy – almost white-pitted fruit flavor notes that come from Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.”
“Sauvignon Blanc is really prime for picking, 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.”
Meléndez recommends the Viu Manent winery of the Colchagua Valley as a starting point for exploring Chilean white wine.
Blends: “I think a lot of people may not be willing to say this, but blends are one of those amazing categories that show the finesse and confidence of wine-making capability,” Meléndez said.
“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.”
“There are opportunities for Carmenere and Sauvignon Blancs; Chile is coming up with some amazing quality blends that are on par with anything that you might find in France or in California.”
Some of the blends that Meléndez suggests are the Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignons of the Chono San Lorenzo winery, the blends from the Terra Mater and De Martino wineries, and the Clos Apalta wine from the Casa Lapostolle winery, a wine that he describes as “just a stellar, stunning, white wine.”