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MOIRA'S GLASS ACT: Feelin' Chile?

For too long, I let bias get in the way of the love I recently found for Chile's wines. Its combination of very-ripeness and complexity is exciting, especially in anticipation of harvest and Thanksgiving.
South America's long, skinny country has a range of latitudes, offering an array of wine styles. Aymura's Carménère from the northern, hot Elqui Valley shows off full, ripe fruit.

It's long, scorching hot at one end, freezing cold at the other and everything in between. It's skinny, a manageable breadth of land protected by mountains to the east, ocean to the west and desert to the north. It's new enough to have learned from the best and old enough to now be established.

All things considered, Chile has much to offer the Nova Scotia wine lover.

For too long, I let bias get in the way of the love I recently found for Chile's wines. Row upon row of cheap bottles of Concha y Toro had given me the impression that the country had little but industrial (read: boring) vino on offer.

I was quite mistaken. The range of the country's latitudes — and therefore temperatures — means a wide array of grapes can grow well in Chile. Delicate Chardonnay? Yup. Chewy Cabernet Sauvignon? You bet — check out my last column for an example. Decent, affordable Pinot Noir? Yes, there is such a thing, and it's found in Chile.

Grapes are almost ridiculously easy to grow in Chile. The country's most important geographic features are the Andes, the mountain range from which cool air drops into vineyards, and the Pacific Ocean, which also contributes cool coastal breezes to onshore plantings. Both these influences reduce vineyard temperatures, which slows down ripening, giving grapes complex aromas and flavours.

But Chile, overall, is quite warm, with very dry summers. This means that, although it takes some time (a good thing, remember), grapes get ripe. That is what I notice first about Chile's wines: the initial sniff from a glass is one of very ripe fruit.

The combination of very-ripeness and complexity is an exciting place to start learning about Chilean wine, especially in anticipation of harvest and Thanksgiving and the pre-emptive palate overwhelm. (What quirky pickle will you be punctuating your table with?)

Chile's modern wine industry got off on the right foot with the arrival in the 1850s of French and German emigrants who brought vines from the Old World and instilled a tradition of quality winemaking. As of the 1960s, Chile was making the best wine outside of Europe, with California being the only other non-European region to compete in quality.

The South American country is one of the few wine regions in the world where the devastating phylloxera louse did not wipe out vineyards. This means that, while the rest of the wine world was replanting its vineyards after the 1880s infestations, Chile, protected by its blessed mountains, ocean and desert, continued to grow what are now some of the oldest vines in the world.

Given the high quality of its wines, why is Chile so inexpensive? The answer is relatively simple: vineyards are large and therefore mechanized, and what human labour is needed comes cheap — not necessarily a good thing, but that's another column.

And, as I said earlier, grapes are easy to grow. There is little struggle for farmers to have to finance.

Grapes like dryness, because dry soil forces roots deep, giving them longevity, and forces the plant to invest all its energy into fewer, higher quality grapes. Less humidity also means less mould and mildew, which means farmers use fewer fungicides, cutting labour and environmental costs. (Many Chilean vineyards are organic, and most do not bother with certification.)

But Chile's lack of precipitation can be extreme. Early grape farmers built complex networks of irrigation trenches from the Andes to funnel melted snow into their vineyards. Many of these are still in use today, although climate change has made this irrigation system less predictable, and the desire for greater control has led many farmers to invest in drip irrigation systems.

Last weekend, I attended a Grand Tasting at the NSLC's Wine Festival, and picked out a few Chilean wines to add to the Thanksgiving menu and share with you.

Escudo Rojo's 2013 Blend shows off Chile's French roots with this Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carménère. Very food friendly and excellent value at $23, this full-bodied, dry-and-dirty red wine is an example of Chile's potential for quality and value.

I am always curious about Carménère. The grape disguised itself as Merlot in Chilean vineyards until 1994, when it was discovered that the thousands of acres of "Merlot" plantings were the more ancient grape. Montes' 2014 Limited Selection Carménère has a funky nose and a fruity mouth, with just enough tannin to make you take it seriously. I love this wine and its personality.

(If that Carménère is too dry for you, pick up a bottle of luscious Aymura 2014 Carménère for $17 at Bishop's Cellar. Same funk, same fruit, a bit softer going down.)

For something totally different, grab a bottle of Casa Silva's 2015 1912 Old Vines Sauvignon Gris for $17. Soft and floral aromas give way to classic Sauvignon Blanc-ish acidity and herby flavours. This off-beat white is the bottle to bring to the wine geek in your life.

Foodie, penny-pincher or wine connoisseur, Chile's got it going on.